Friday, 15 March 2013

15/03/13 - TV Car Shows

Today’s car enthusiast is very well catered for when it comes to televisual stimulus. Back in the eighties, you pretty much had to make do with Top Gear and the odd five-minute segment on Tomorrow’s World. And it wasn’t Top Gear as we know it today, but a rather more sensible half-hour motoring magazine show that, over the years, featured the likes of Noel Edmonds, Angela Rippon, Chris Goffey (the father of Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey, fact fans), Tiff Needell, Tony Mason, Vicki Butler-Henderson and, from 1988, Jeremy Clarkson.
…and without further ado, before I get ahead of myself with Top Gear minutiae, here’s a JuicyPips guide to steer you through the quagmire of modern car television, so you know what’s worth watching and what’s not. You see, these days you don’t need to be an avid car enthusiast to enjoy TV shows about cars; if you are, there’s plenty to enjoy, but if not, there’s an increasing reality TV angle that’ll make much of what follows of interest to you. Perhaps. Maybe.

Top Gear
As I was saying, Clarkson joined the Top Gear line-up in ’88. Before then (it had been running since 1977), it was rather a dry and sober affair. Jeremy spiced it up a little, making it more of an overtly humorous and critical proposition; before this time, it was pretty much taboo for a TV show to criticise a car. If they were mean about a new model, the manufacturer wouldn’t give them any more to test. Top Gear challenged this petulance, and everybody since has followed suit.
At the turn of the century, however, Top Gear’s viewing figures had seriously dwindled. The show was cancelled in 2001, and relaunched in ’02 as the new one-hour format; the principle difference was a shift in audience targeting – it went from being a car show to being an entertainment show that happened to be about cars. The idea was Clarkson’s concept that he pitched to the BBC: let the show have a new home at Dunsfold Aerodrome, and incorporate a bit of theatre to increase the audience.
Fans of the show may be surprised to learn that back in 2002, it wasn’t presented by the now-ubiquitous trio of Clarkson, Hammond and May – it was originally Clarkson, Hammond and Jason Dawe… but only for a year. (Look it up on YouTube, it’s weird.) And many of the staples that we know and love were there from the start – The Stig, the cool wall, the power laps, the star in a reasonably-priced car…
Top Gear is now one of the biggest cash cows that the BBC has, being licensed to countless other countries and generating a huge amount of revenue from live shows, DVD & magazine sales, merchandising and so on. All of this means that the show’s budget gets ever-bigger, and the content is all the more spectacular. So if you only watch one car show on TV, watch Top Gear. It’s the best one.

Fifth Gear
Hmm. Tricky one, this. You see, in isolation, it’s not a bad show. But if you watch an episode of Fifth Gear after an episode of Top Gear, it’s in another league. Plus, the name of the show used to make sense when it launched on Channel 5 back in 2002 (confusingly, it was a continuation of the original Top Gear, using its presenters [Vicki Butler-Henderson, Tiff Needell, Quentin Willson], launched to rival the new Top Gear), but how many interesting new cars only have five gears these days…? It was supposed to tie in to the Channel 5 name, of course – but now it’s on Discovery. So… yeah.
Fifth Gear is a thorny one. It’s got a lot better recently, with parts of it starting to approach the kind of impressive cinematography that Top Gear can afford. It’s worth watching. However, I do tend to watch quite a bit of it on fast forward, to be honest. Jonny Smith is good, his segments are always entertaining. But I really have a problem with Jason Plato; as a BTCC fan, I’ve watched him season after season pissing and moaning about how it’s all so unfair and everyone’s out to get him, all the while deliberately crashing into people to smash them off the track and get them out of the way – he comes across as a fundamentally unlikeable and unpleasant person. Vicki Butler-Henderson? I want to like her, and she’s a great driver, but the overblown breathiness of her presenting style can be annoying. She’s like Sharon on EastEnders. Seriously, stop panting all the time, it’s distracting. Calm down.
Tiff Needell? Love him. Man’s a legend. But (sorry Tiff), he can sometimes be quite dull on Fifth Gear. The driving segments are superb, the track stuff is ace, but the features where he’s going into far too much detail to make the obvious point that new premium tyres are better than part-worn budget ones are unnecessary.
So, watch it, but don’t get your hopes up.

Pimp My Ride
An old-ish one, this, originally running from 2004-7 (although repeats are frequent).
The premise is simple: somebody owns a shit car. Xzibit, who hosts the show, knocks on their door and tells them that they’ve been selected by Pimp My Ride to have their ride, er, pimped. They leap about and whoop like crazy. Xzibit drives the car down to West Coast Customs (or, in later series, Galpin Auto Services), who spend an absurd amount of money turning the car into a one-off custom. Usually some kind of unexpected feature that’s unique to the owner’s lifestyle or hobbies is incorporated – a pool table, a skate ramp, a mixing desk etc. They generally cram the interior with speakers and TVs too.
It’s quite entertaining, but it revolves around one central flaw: these people have shit cars because they can’t afford better ones, and can’t afford to fix/maintain them properly. So if you take their car that’s worth $100 and spend $25,000 on it, what do you think’s going to happen? They’re obviously going to immediately sell it.
This was thrown into sharp focus when MTV tried Pimp My Ride UK, presented by the ineffably cretinous Tim Westwood. Every car that was built on the show turned up on eBay soon afterwards. (In the case of the Nissan Sunny they pimped, it appeared on eBay as a shell because someone had seen the show, knew that the car contained about £10k-worth of stereo equipment, and broke in and robbed it all.)
But conceptual issues aside, it’s quite an entertaining show, well worth watching. Just be aware that it’s all entirely ridiculous.

Custom My Ride
This is the more sensible face of West Coast Customs. It removes the ‘OMG, I’m getting my car tarted up for free’ conceit, and instead focuses on the day-to-day work of a high-end California custom garage. (Custom My Ride is just what it’s called in the UK, due to WCC’s Pimp My Ride history – elsewhere it’s called ‘Street Customs’.)
It’s fairly typical of the modern reality-lifestyle format, in which the employees of the business in question are the central characters of the show, with their character traits caricaturised to make heroes and villains to a greater or lesser extent. The star of the show is self-made businessman Ryan Friedlinghaus, owner of WCC and thoroughly nice bloke. His nemesis is Ish, who works in the interiors workshop, who never does what he’s told. It’s a brilliant pantomime.
They have lots of celebrity clients too, so if you want to see someone throwing huge amounts of cash at a brand new car, this is the one for you. (Another speciality of WCC is to take a modern muscle car chassis and bolt a classic muscle car body to it, which is all kinds of awesome.)

Fast N’ Loud
A tremendously likeable show, Fast N’ Loud centres around Gas Monkey Garage in Dallas, Texas. Key protagonists are Richard Rawlings (owner) and Aaron Kaufmann (mechanic), and the premise of the show is that they buy knackered old classic cars, set themselves an arbitrary deadline to restore it which is always far too short (something of a theme of the genre, this), then sell it at auction and hope to make a profit. Their work is world-renowned so it’s good viewing from a geeky angle, and they’re both very amenable chaps which makes the show eminently watchable for the less car-obsessed. Unlike certain other car programmes that follow the formula…

Classic Car Rescue
…of which this is one. There are quite a lot of flaws with this show, the biggest of which is Bernie.
Bernie Fineman is one of the two presenters - an aggressive, arrogant, unpleasant cockney twat who comes across as thoroughly irritating company. The point of the show is for him and his business partner Mario to find a tired classic car, give it a full sympathetic restoration (again, to an unnecessarily tight deadline), then sell it for a profit. The way they set out to achieve this is basically to argue, bitch and bicker throughout the whole process, which makes for annoying viewing. The fact that they’re clearly not that great at what they do (I mean seriously, if you’re restoring an E-Type Jag, why would you fit a cheap aftermarket lift-up sunroof?!) adds to the general shitness. I watched every episode, but only because I knew my car friends would be talking about it. I was holding my head in my hands most of the time. It was crap.  

Desert Car Kings
This, on the other hand, is brilliant. It’s based in Desert Valley Auto Parts (DVAP) in Phoenix, Arizona, which is a spectacularly massive spares yard for classic American cars. The key characters are the rather Burt Reynolds-esque owner of DVAP, Ron McClure, and his son Jason who’s largely in charge. Again, the premise is to restore a knackered classic within an unfeasibly tight time-frame, then sell it for a profit. The different angle here is that they’ve got acres and acres of spares to comb through, which makes for proper car-porn viewing as they pick through the rusting hulks. Really geeky stuff, this.
Desert Car Kings is inexplicably not as popular as Fast N’ Loud, but it is arguably better.

Counting Cars
A new one, again on the same theme. There was a lot of promotional hoo-hah around the show’s launch, but having watched the first episode I thought it was a bit weak. It follows the projects of Count’s Kustoms in Las Vegas, where they build some pretty phenomenal cars, but they don’t really show anything of the build. It’s more a case of ‘here’s a dilapidated car’/‘here’s a strange, bearded man in a headscarf bossing people around’/‘here’s the finished car’.
Undecided about this one. Need to watch more. Your homework for next week is to watch this and report back.

Car S.O.S
Aw, this one’s lovely. Let’s say you own an old wreck that’s your pride and joy, but for reasons of financial woes, ill health, personal tragedy or whatever, your car has been sitting in your garage for years, slowly crumbling away because you don’t have the means to restore it. The Car S.O.S team, having received a tip-off from your relatives, swoop in without your knowledge, spirit the car away, then return it to you fully restored and ready to use. How nice is that?
One of the presenters is Fuzz Townshend, former drummer with Pop Will Eat Itself and Bentley Rhythm Ace, whose enthusiasm for old cars is sweetly infectious. (The other presenter, Tim Shaw is an annoying berk [in fact, having just Googled him, he’s a fairly unpleasant character], but he’s not that central to proceedings.) The whole thing has a jolly pleasant feel, with enthusiasts building cool cars for other enthusiasts, riding on a cheery undertone of philanthropy and sharing. So yes, well worth a watch.

I said at the start that I was going to tell you what was worth watching and what wasn’t, but we seem to have arrived at a point where basically everything is worth watching (apart from anything with Bernie in it). So that’s some helpful consumer advice: watch car telly stuff. Watch loads of it.
Or don’t, y’know, whatever.

Oh wait, I haven’t mentioned the upcoming Formula One season, or the British Touring Car Championship, or the myriad other motorsports to watch! Ah, we’re out of space… another time, maybe.

1 comment:

  1. Hillman Imp driver from School22 March 2013 at 17:29

    Wheeler dealers is my new favorite! Watch it if you haven't already! A bit of a gimp cheeky chappy buys a shit car. He gives it to another bloke who is awesome and fixes it and then the gimp sells it for far too much money to some other gimp. I am so inspiered I am thinking of doing it myself!