Car Culture: Petrol TV Shows

A weekly look at what sucks in our world of cars, plus some good bits

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A 1937 Talbot-Lago designed by the great stylists Figoni et Falaschi

Back in the day as a stressed out BBC executive producer going nowhere, I sat around a table with colleagues and endless cups of coffee at the annual get-together of head producers to discuss new programme ideas. I had three: a history of Scottish painters from 1800 to contemporary times, and two proposals for automobile shows. I was less critical of what cars were doing to the planet back then than now, my interest propelled by my Sicilian father who left me with an eye for good design from his days as an engineer for Alfa Romeo, a racing company once more famous and respected than Ferrari.

One proposal was for a car mechanic programme in which a classic car was remastered for the modern age, and the other was a series on the great automotive stylists, some of them talented artists in their own right. I had in mind the European greats, Bugatti, Pinin Farina, Giugiaro, and the incomparable bodywork designers Figoni and Falaschi. The car ideas were nixed immediately. Top Gear was riding high. It made BBC a mountain of money. Why create potential competition? All other car programmes were blocked.

Top Gear is like Rowling’s turgid Harry Snotter, you will never be free of it. When I junked the BBC and went to work in Los Angeles, there it was again, Top Gear reruns daily on BBC America, a commercial channel where the BBC profits from television advertising disallowed by their Charter in the the UK. However, once the stranglehold of Top Gear was broken by a single punch from the testosterone filled belligerence of Jeremy Clarkson the gates were open for all sorts of car shows to get a chance at broadcasting fame. 

Switch on your television set today and there’s a plethora of car programmes to watch, from basic mechanics for the man in his shed, to car renovations shows, and mega-auctions of super cars. In the US an entire channel is devoted to gearheads and caraholics. (Prescriptive text is desperate to alter caraholics to Catholics.) There is even a weekly show on horrible car crashes. They are recorded by the latest ‘must have’ car gadget, the remote dash top camera. A lot of recorded incidents are from Russia. You are left wondering if anybody there knows how to drive.

Top Gear is still on telly, in repeats of repeats of repeats, and in its new form exactly the same as the old, an ersatz copy. It has never grown up. Three ordinary geezers with uncompromising local accents (‘ordinary’, as in, a few million pounds in the bank), laugh and joke in a pub-like atmosphere doing infantile things with cars and their safety while exchanging puerile banter. “A’hm outa me cumfert zone”, says Paddy McGuinness, as he sails up an Amazon river, looking worried in case the camera crew behind him are not paying attention to his mock anxiety. Yes, that’s where I’ll be driving my Smart car next week, up an Amazon river.

Car makers are the most prolific of advertisers, spending millions a year on commercials. Any old car show activates the flow of loot from all aspects of car manufacturing, maintenance and insurance. Now that car sales are decimated by the pandemic, ‘Dieselgate’, and people switching to electric vehicles, revenue from car advertising is drying up. Television companies are in dire trouble. But car shows plow on.

The Clarkson, May, Hammond Top Gear used a magazine format. It had two good things going for it, three if you count no one had to wear a suit or tie. It provided thumb sucking Sunday night light entertainment for couch petrolheads and their deferential girlfriends, and it had superb film photography.

The outstanding photography was the one element that raised Top Gear above Fifth Gear, the ITV version. But the show really only lasted 25 minutes, not the hour it was broadcast. After the halfway mark it fell to pieces. We got caravan crashing, inane football games smashing up small cars like fairground dodgems, and dropping cars from a great height. The show actually ended once Clarkson had judged a celebrity’s character by the car they drove, and gave them a shot at racing around an old airfield near Clarkson’s home, so he could race home in time for tea.

The original black and white earliest Top Gear was a strict, old school rota, thirty-minute show where middle-aged hacks described what the car looked like, how it differed from the last model, showed you its engine, and drove it a little before handing the keys back to the car company and the next tester, They returned to their life as an automotive freeloader moving between spurious car comparison tests in Tuscany and glitzy car shows in Paris. Clarkson was singularly responsible for shaking up the genre. Clarkson broke the mould as a newbie when he compared a boring Vauxhall saloon with a fridge and told viewers not to buy the model.

What car presenters knew about cars and car styling back in the day, and how they affect society, was handed to them by the car company in a carefully composed, all good press release, memorised, spoken to camera, and edited by the programme producer. To explain a new car was junk or a menace safety-wise, was an end to a comfortable career.

Automobile writers aspired to become television car show hosts one day. One managed it, Chris Harris, now part of the new Top Gear, proving its takes about 300 car hacks at least ten years of hard graft in all weathers for just one to get a gig on a car programme.

What Top Gear did not have, still does not have, and ninety percent car shows do not have, is a Scottish presenter, but we shall lay that little bit of colonial oddity aside for today. I want to point out what is not obvious to men who watch those programmes, the absence of female presenters and mechanics. This is an outrageous situation. Forty percent of cars are driven by women. There are female racing car drivers. What’s the problem, chaps? Can’t get away from the image of the female form draped over a bonnet? Open any car magazine and it’s all scruffy men with receding hairlines and beards writing about men making cars, men racing cars and men owning expensive cars.

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The all-female designed Ford Ghia Focus, so good they didn’t make it

For the absence of women in car programmes, I lay blame at the big feet of right-wing Clarkson and his thuggish executive producer Andy Wilman. “We advertised for a third presenter as a woman but none were good enough. So that’s that”, Clarkson said, without his usual ironic pause before speaking the last line. Women  in Top Gear are restricted to the ‘dolly birds’ ushered to the front of the audience in the studio, or some celebrity who drives a plastic Whizz electric car around London.

Fifth Gear employs an expert female racing driver and car enthusiast since it began, the resourceful and knowledgeable Vicky Butler-Henderson. (I prefer Fifth Gear because it is car criticism first, chat second.) Alas, the new Top Gear also doesn’t believe women exit.

Only when you turn to American car shows do you find one of the presenters is a female, probably married to the garage owner, and usually in a supernumerary role. A few years ago Ford handed the design of a complete sports car over to a team of women. What they produced broke a lot of standard design cues. Ford exhibited the concept wherever it could as a marketing tool … and then sold it in auction. At least today’s car makers are employing women in their design teams, but as far as I know, none have seen their exterior bodywork design concepts put into production.

I want to finish with one British car show that I enjoy and dislike at the same time. There’s no women in it either unless selling their car to the host. It’s called Wheeler Dealers. If you are not much interested in automobiles it is boredom on wheels.

There are only two presenters and neither look as if they have a home life never mind a partner. One presenter is the buyer-seller – the dealer: Mike Brewer buys an old car that is screaming out for repairs and upgrades but might turn a profit resold. The other is the mechanic – the wheeler: Edd China, a genius of an engineer, personable, talented, hard working, handsome in a six foot six sort of way – what cars can fit him?

Mike Brewer is a seriously annoying short-arsed cockney who pronounces ‘street’ as shtreet, talks to us as if selling a dodgy second-hand car, looks sweaty with clammy hands most of the time, and leaves Edd to do all the work, stripping out (shtrippin‘?) an engine to find one fault, sanding bad paintwork, and reconditioning an entire interior. Brewer has gone all American these days and has a new partner. Edd has brains, he stayed in Blighty. 

And no, I don’t watch the new Top Gear. I’d rather wash cars for a living.

GROUSEY’S FOOTWELL FINDS

My three best car shows

There are a few television orientated shows I’ll go out of my way to watch. Jay Leno’s Garage is top of the premier league; always informative. Leno knows the vehicles history, and keeps the show educational and humorous. Leno likes and collects European cars. The show is so good it won a Primetime Emmy Award for “Outstanding In Its Class” in 2016. Fifth Gear is the top rival motoring show to big budget Top Gear. It’s a lot more sensible, and has a focus on useful and newsworthy information. The team usually review more affordable cars than their counterpart. Overhaulin’. The producers got the punctuation right in the title. I can do without the kiddy’s prank stuff at the start where they take some poor guy’s beat up car without him knowing so they can surprise him with it rebuilt at the end, but the outcome is always superb, a car to lust after. The redesign is master-minded by the gifted Chip Foose. His team have one week to rebuild and refurbish the car to turn it into a custom masterpiece. Other shows are, to my mind, also-rans. Since I actually have a life, if I’ve nothing better to do, I admit I watch them.

Back to basics

Just when you thought the car industry has learned its lesson, the sneak thieves are back lobbying the government to reverse environmental policies. Thousands of unsold cars lying in fields has the car makers in a panic. How to get rid of them? The UK automotive industry is in confidential talks with the UK government over a possible £1.5 billion scrappage scheme or “market stimulus package” (ha ha!) that it insists should encourage the purchase of diesel and petrol cars on an equal footing with cleaner vehicles. The plans under consideration would take £2,500 off the price of a car and put a further 600,000 new vehicles on the road. Before you jump for joy at owning another unwanted diesel car hard to sell, that’s out taxes the government is squandering to have us pollute the atmosphere a few years longer.

Keep on truckin’

A lorry driver has been jailed for six months after making a dangerous U-turn on to the M6 motorway in Staffordshire at rush hour. Unbelievable, eh? CCTV footage shows the man heading the wrong way down a slip road to face oncoming traffic before turning around to join the flow of vehicles. Yes, a full 44 ton big rig. No one was injured but the driver was lucky not to be lynched.

Happy motoring – your five miles!

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2 Responses to Car Culture: Petrol TV Shows

  1. Matthew Vallance says:

    A bit dyspeptic this week are we Grousie?

    While I accept and agree with much of your criticism of Top Gear and most motoring shows on TV, you’re maybe a wee bit wrong.

    Chris Harris – the only real motoring journalist to have broken through. What about James May? Definitely a journalist and, for me, the only one of the Three Amigos on Top Gear worth bothering about. He has a fine individual body of work, away from TG.

    No females. I must admit to liking VBH, but, for me the girl is Sabine Schmitz, who occasioonally shows up on TG. I like her a lot.

    As for American shows, I love Fantom Works and Kindig It. I am not a great fan of outrageous customising, but, the “Copper Caddy” which featured on yesterday’s edition of Kindig It on D-Max was absolutely stunning. Similarly, yesterday on Fanton Works, Dick, the owner of FW, ahd the chance to build the Mustang he really wanted for a client and he turned-up a cracker.

    One programme I did enjoy, but is no longer shown, is the one about the Canadian Guild of Automotive Restorers – their building of the Bugatti Aerolithe was a wonderful programme.

    By the way, Edd China left Wheeler Dealers a couple of series ago.

    I quite like Car SOS, apart from that annoying prat Tim and his so-false parts blagging.

    I do like your idea about featuring the great automotive designers, by the way.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Hi Matthew, I’m not too out-of-sorts. 🙂

    ‘Car SOS’ does some good, a copy of an American series now defunct called ‘Pimp My Ride’. May was fired by ‘Autocar’ magazine, but my arithmetic stands, auto journalists who know about cars rarely get regular spots on automobile programmes. (You won’t find a Scottish accent anywhere.) I knew about German racing driver Sabine Schmitz but I regard her as a temporary import not a permanent fixture. As for ‘Top Gear’, it remains at an infantile level particularly in these environmentally fraught times. And try getting BBC Scotland to create a car culture show and they will refer you to … ‘Top Gear’.

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