Earlier this year Edd China, the co-host and mechanic on Wheeler Dealers, announced that he was leaving the show after thirteen seasons due to disagreements over the direction of the program. This was a big deal because Wheeler Dealers is currently the most popular automotive television show on the planet. It’s the highest-rated show on Velocity, and airs in 220 countries around the world. China is a large part of the reason for its success.
The premise of the show is that Mike Brewer, the other co-host, acquires a used car that has “issues,” and takes them to his mechanic, who fixes the cars up on a tight budget so that Brewer can re-sell the car at a profit. The show has just enough reality-show hijinks to satisfy their US network, Velocity, but the reason for the program’s massive worldwide appeal is that they show the process of making the repairs and restoring the car. China was fantastic at providing clear and concise explanations of what he was doing in an engaging, educational and entertaining way.
After twelve seasons produced by the show’s creators, Attaboy TV handed production of Wheeler Dealers over to Discovery Studios (Discovery Networks owns the show’s US home, Velocity). Season 13, which premiered in 2016, was not quite as slickly produced as the previous seasons, and there were signs that the repulslive reality-show elements that tarnish most of Discovery Studios’ other productions was creeping in.
This is where the controversy comes in. Last March Velocity announced that China had left Wheeler Dealers “to pursue other projects” and also announced his replacement, Ant Anstead (left, with Brewer), for the upcoming season. On the same day, China released a YouTube video with his side of the story, claiming that he was leaving because he disagreed with Velocity, who wanted to cut back the amount of time spent showing the process of fixing up the cars, and instead spend more time on Brewer’s acquisition and reselling adventures. He claimed that Velocity found producing the “fixes” to be too expensive and time-consuming. You can see his statement here…
Of course, this was throwing a match in the gasoline, and in no short order Brewer and his family had begun receiving death threats, China released another YouTube clip telling people to quit making death threats, and then Brewer made public statements disputing China’s claims about the producers of the show, and called China a “traitor.”
Normally, I wouldn’t care about this type of behind-the-scenes shenanigans, but I’ve been a huge fan of Wheeler Dealers for nearly ten years. I started watching it back when Velocity was called “HD Theater,” and found it to be intriguing, charming and the antithesis of most automotive programs produced by Discovery Networks. Until this controversy erupted I had no idea that the show was so popular.
Most of the automotive shows produced by Discovery are just reality-show garbage. They get a larger-than-life, generally obnoxious central figure, and surround him with goofball mechanics who can provide either drama or comic relief. Then they set artificial deadlines and ramp up the dramatic stress. The actual car repairs are given the short shrift, and many of these shows, like American Hot Rod, Fast and Loud, Misfit Garage and Fantomworks come across more like Honey Boo Boo with a monkey wrench than any kind of authoritative show about cars. They’re equal parts soap opera, professional wrestling, zany sitcom and disaster footage. They might be fun to watch, on a train-wreck level, but you aren’t going to learn anything.
However, Discovery Studios took over production of the show, which had largely relocated to California for parts of their most recent seasons, and the soul seemed to have been drained from Wheeler Dealers. With season thirteen the spark seemed to have gone from the program.
I didn’t write about the controversy as it was unravelling last spring because I wanted to give the new season a fair shot before passing judgement. We are three episodes into season 14, and I think it’s fair to comment now.
I miss Edd. That was a given. He was the heart and soul of the show, and having him gone is sort of like hearing the band, YES, without their lead singer, Jon Anderson. However, Ant Anstead is a capable replacement. He does not have the benefit of thirteen seasons of established onscreen likeablity that China had, but he is more than qualified as a mechanic, and is quite good at explaining what he’s doing in a simple and direct manner.
Mike is still Mike. He’s brash, mouthy and entertaining to watch in action. While his behavior earlier this year was less than admirable, it was entirely in character with the way he portrays himself on the show. He is, after all, a used-car salesman.
It seems like the producers have set out to prove China wrong, but they’re still missing the mark. It appears to me that more time is spent on Mike cutting deals, and less on Ant fixing the cars.I haven’t timed it with a stopwatch, so it might just be the editing that makes me feel that way.
The editing of the show is strange. There are so many quick cuts that you can’t get a clear look at the cars that they’re trying to show off. Music videos hold their shots longer than this show does this season. The pacing is choppy.
It’s like they took the hyperactive editors who work on the Grease Monkey Garage show and doubled the caffeine in their coffee before they turned them loose on what was a quiet and relaxing, measured British program.
Wheeler Dealers is still head and shoulders above any other car restoration show on Velocity. It’s just like they dropped a super-charged muscle car engine into a nice little family vehicle and can’t figure out why it doesn’t handle as well as it used to. Velocity does have one other show that is as well-produced as the original Wheeler Dealers, without the hyperactive editing and rushed pace, but Chasing Classic Cars is produced by Essex Television Group, which explains why it’s managed to avoid the typical Velocity production overdrive.
I miss the “Mutt and Jeff” quality that China brought to his interactions with Brewer (China is six-foot, seven-inches tall. Brewer is not). I miss the hilarity that ensued when Brewer would bring some teensy Eurpean car into the shop and China couldn’t fit into it. Mostly I miss the production values and cool-headed editing that Attaboy TV brought to the first twelve seasons of the show.
China has not yet announced his next major project. I believe he’s been working on commercials in the UK. He is a fascinating individual, who made his name building motorized sofas and chairs for shows like Father Ted before he was tapped for Wheeler Dealers, so I look forward to seeing what sort of thing he comes up with next. I will still watch Wheeler Dealers and hope that the production team quits trying to Americanize the show, and returns to its original pace and format. It’s not hitting on all cylindars, but it’s still a fun ride.