British Motoring TV

Colin Hubbard, formerly of the late, lamented Speedmonkey motoring website, writes his first article on DriveWrite: Once upon a time there was a small television programme called Top Gear. A popular, sensible show that concentrated on reviewing cars and even covered motorsport featuring such classic presenters as Tony Mason, Sue Baker, Tiff Needell, Jason Dawe, Chris Goffey, Willian Woollard, Quentin Wilson, the list goes on.

In 1988 they signed a little known journalist called Jeremy Clarkson who turned out to be extremely popular due to his charismatic nature and cut-throat views, putting seemingly good cars down for simplicities such as a poor ashtray mechanism. He was a kind of likable rogue who said out loud the things we only thought and massively increased Top Gears viewing figures. Top Gear turned overnight into an entertainment programme rather than something we merely watched.

In 1999 Jeremy left Top Gear and the viewing figures sizzled down before finally turning out the lights in 2001. In 2002 ‘new’ Top Gear was launched featuring again Mr Denim and old buddy Andy Willman along with new signings Richard Hammond and James May. This time with an all new format the cars took a bit of a background and instead focused on the trio of presenters’ personalities. Yes it was blokey fun but highly entertaining.

Clarkson was the mastermind of the operation and grew the programme into a bit of a monster with spiralling viewing figures prompting spin off Top Gears in other countries and even live shows featuring the 3 presenters. Almost everybody (well most people as Jeremy is a love or hate character) loved and could enjoy Top Gear from your Nan right down to young children. It was a genuinely fun-to-watch programme which you could view over and again without getting bored.

Sadly in 2015 after some personal problems an alcohol-fuelled Clarkson struck a colleague in the much publicised ‘fracas’, which is totally unacceptable behaviour and the BBC had no choice but to let him go. This was the right thing to do but deeply saddened many people, including me. This huge loss to British television got me thinking about what we actually have right now and do you know what, we are pretty lucky as there is a plethora of great British car television shows on at the moment. Below are my three favourites along with another biggie which sadly isn’t:

Wheeler Dealers

Launched in 2003 this is the original do ’em up and sell ’em on car programme. The concept is to find a charismatic car and űber-mechanic Edd China fixes it up before handing it over to professional car dealer Mike Brewer to sell on, hopefully for a profit. The draw of the program is not such the cars that feature (even though they have featured most icons from an Integrale to a Mercedes Cosworth) but the way you are shown how they are brought back to life.

Edd has become a great inspiration to home mechanics and step by step shows how to solve problems and not always by buying new parts but by ingenious inside knowledge fixes. Often serious problems are fixed with a new seal or just a screw. Some people can’t get their head around the concept and complain that the workshop time is not taken into account in the profits but the notion is that they are home mechanics buying, fixing and selling the cars as a hobby.

Some of the early episodes are hilarious with ‘rattle can’ paint jobs and sometimes they seriously go in the wrong direction and end up losing money but the workshop fixes are still there and worth viewing. To date they have covered 149 cars and I hope they cover another 149 as it is another show that can be watched over and over.

Car SOS

Just like D.I.Y SOS but with cars, the team of master mechanic Fuzz Townshend and presenter Tim Shaw take tired, broken-down cars under secrecy from owners who have been dealt a poor hand in life and restore to them to their former if not better glory. The programme is a little more about the story than Wheeler Dealers but still features plenty of workshop action and attention to details make it watchable. Tim can act a bit of a clown – a loveable clown – but Fuzz is an old school mechanic and is entertaining to watch as he works his magic over the disaster ridden death traps.

When the car is complete (usually within the last few hours before the reveal!) it is handed to the owners as a complete surprise, the car they held onto knowing they could never fix up but with emotional ties meant they couldn’t sell it, is now this shiny perfect work of art in front of them. The reveal is a bit of a tear jerker as it is such a special thing they do and a great programme to watch.

For the Love of Cars

The most recent motoring programme comes with a fresh new concept. The plan is to find a highly iconic classic car and carry out a full ground up bolt on bolt restoration of said car until it literally is better than when it left the factory. Then it gets sold at auction usually for a record profit. The brains behind the operation is designer and restoration expert Ant Anstead and his trusty sidekick is the brilliant Philip Glenister who shot to fame through Life on Mars.

As a day job, softly spoken Ant builds and commissions one off cars for wealthy clients but here we get to see his skills on some more mainstream cars such as a Mini and Ford Escort. The guys source the most impressive specification cars they can find often hidden away in people’s barns and garages which all seem to be fit for the crushing machine, but with the most appropriate choice of materials and specification are rebuilt to wonderful creations which are then sold at auction.w4

While Ant is covered in oil, Philip is out having fun meeting like minded owners discussing the history of the featured car and sourcing some of the hard to find parts required. The workshop time for each car runs into many hundreds of hours as behind the scenes there is a full-on team doing the work which again isn’t about that but the finished product and the pride in making it the best it can possibly be, hence the title ‘For the Love Of Cars’.

In the latest series they have started to take on other peoples projects and hand over the auction profits to the owners which has diluted the programme a little and from an entirely selfish notion I would prefer more workshop action. Overall still a quality show with a pair of charismatic presenters.

Fifth Gear

Launched as a continuation of Top Gear in 2002 with many of the previous presenters and, as the BBC refused to let channel 5 use the Top Gear title, then Fifth Gear was born. The programme has all the key ingredients to be highly successful in the form of race car driver and eye candy Vicki Butler-Henderson, race car ace come hoonigan Tiff Needell and trendy young bloke Jonny Smith but the program just doesn’t quite hit the spot. Yes there is plenty of track action featuring Tiff power sliding the latest super saloon until its tyres explode but it is a programme I would only watch if nothing else was on and never if it was a repeat.

There has been some great driving battles hen Jason Plato featured as both he and Tiff can handle a motor car with fine precision and powerslide for England but then next up there’s a serious review of Nissan Leaf. The most frustrating thing about Fifth Gear and one that can be avoided by recording it is that before the adverts you get 30 seconds of what’s coming up and then after the adverts a glimpse of what has already been featured. Ahhhhhh, if you only have 30 minutes of programme make it a 30 minute programme!

There is joviality which works in Top Gear but in Fifth Gear it is just childish as opposed to blokey; then Tiff’s smugness gets to me so I turn over. It is a shame as it could be so good but sadly for me it just isn’t.

The Future

The ‘fracas’ may have put an end to Top Gear as we know it with Hammond, May and Willman leaving but this may actually be a stroke of luck for British motoring TV. The BBC will not want to lose out all those millions of viewers so are beavering around to re-establish the show with a new line up, but in addition the ex Top Gear boys are supposedly in talks with other stations about an entirely new platform.

New Top Gear
For me the line up is extremely important and just one bad choice could screw it up and make it fall flat on its face like it did in 2001. The ideal line up for me would be Guy Martin, Ben Collins (ironically without the suit) and Philip Glenister. These are all likeable characters, true petrol heads who may be able to make Top Gear Great. Yes it won’t be the same, it can’t possibly be as Clarkson is unique, but they could make a brilliant car programme.

Guy brings with him Motorcycle fans plus he is an outright presenter himself with his Speed shows, oh, and he is a proper loveable nutcase. Ben has a long racing background, special forces training, stunt driving experience and is cool and collected. Plus he has history…..

Lastly, Philip’s gritty charm and character would make him the Kingpin, bring it all together and be the new front man of Top Gear. In the background it needs clever scripting, some comedy, lots of thought and lots of drama. I even had a notion that the likes of Peter Kaye and Steve Coogan could be seconded to help out with the initial scripting.

I really do hope the BBC don’t screw it up and try to make Top Gear a seriously factual and/or pick an inappropriate presenter. There is speculation along the lines of Dermot O’Dreary or Jodie Kidd becoming future presenters but as much of a petrolhead or long established presenter they may be they just don’t have the gritty charm required to fit in.

Last of the Summer Petrol

Sorry, I made this name up as nothing is certain at this time but thought quite fitting for the new show which brings back Clarkson’s new platform featuring his two best buddies under the directorship of Willman. With a bigger budget and without the mollycoddling of the BBC upper management the new show could be even bigger than Top Gear was, the formula of three blokey blokes having fun coincidentally featuring cars, bikes and lorries will be epic again.
From the off it will have the public’s backing and will sure-fire be the next big thing.

Bike Traders

There’s absolutely no rumours in this just my own idea for a show with huge potential, a kind of Wheeler Dealers featuring classic motorcycles instead of cars. We know that Hammond and May have a massive soft spot for bikes and the knowledge, tools and spanner skills to find old bikes in need of TLC, renovate and sell them on for hopefully a profit.

I know they can do it and with the success of Wheeler Dealers, Car SOS and For the Love of Cars being effectively renovation programmes then the market is missing a show featuring bikes and who better to present it? Clarkson’s sidekicks could finally flourish in their own spotlight without the shadow of the big man. I do hope they read this and take note.

With every cloud there is a silver lining and the fracas may have actually given us an extra British TV car show in addition to a rejuvenated Top Gear and trio of fine restoration programmes. And on that bombshell, thanks for reading.
Colin Hubbard