It doesn’t care for lurid skids, it doesn’t rely on forced drama and there aren’t any pyrotechnics. In today’s climate of shiny event television, a programme about two chaps buying, fixing and enjoying cars doesn’t seem like it would make much sense, but Wheeler Dealers is one of the biggest car shows in the world right now.
The premise of Wheeler Dealers hasn’t changed in its 17-year run. Its host Mike Brewer will buy a car in need of some work, and then return it to a workshop where a mechanically-gifted chum (formerly Edd China, now Ant Anstead) will fix it up before the car is moved on to a new owner and profits (or occasional losses) are totted up.
It may be a global smash based in America now, but its beginnings were humble. After finishing a show in 2001, Brewer was approached by Attaboy Productions to create a show called Grand Autos, in which he’d buy, do up and flip a car within a £1,000 budget. Brewer’s background as a car dealer would sort the buying and selling, but he needed someone to fix the cars. Enter stage left, master engineer Edd China.
Soon Grand Autos became Wheeler Dealers, with Brewer and company figuring out how to make it work: “We set about trying to work out how to restore a car on a tiny little channel that was owned by Discovery called Home and Leisure,”, says Brewer. “We were trying to work out what is the format to this car show? How do we make it work?”
In 2003 a Porsche 924 bought for £1,000 set the ball rolling. At least to start with, the fixes were simple things – polishing bodywork, doing a service, etc – but they resonated with people. It was a success. Something Brewer puts down not only to the obvious chemistry between him and China, but to its aspirational nature: it showed viewers they could buy, fix and then sell a car for profit.
Brewer also listened to his audience: “I created a website that the audience could communicate with me and very quickly they told me what they wanted. So I fulfilled their dreams and worked with the production company on making sure that I was doing cars that people asked [for].”
Its honesty attracted people, and the numbers reflected that. Around series four, Brewer recalls, it was time to move the show to the main Discovery Channel in the UK and Europe. The show’s popularity exploded, with Brewer sourcing cars from all over Europe and China fixing new issues, or familiar ones in new ways.
Eventually, demand came in from America – the European Wheeler Dealers was being shown on a channel called HD Theater and its audience wanted to see the boys tackle something American. Brewer went to the US, bought some cars and shipped them to the UK for China to work on. The small show from the Home and Leisure channel was now a truly international endeavour.
In 2015 the team moved to the US full time, setting up shop in California, and episode numbers grew from six each series to double figures. “Once we moved to America, the success just continued… Plus, during that season we stretched the ambition again, a little bit more in terms of the jobs that we were doing. You can only show rust being repaired so many times...”
But there was a problem. The increased demands of greater ambition, more shows and more… everything had an effect, says Brewer. “Unfortunately, my mechanic, Edd China, the demand on him in the workshop was ever greater, and Edd wanted to do less work. He didn't want to do more work, he wanted to phase down from five days a week, like most other people, he wanted to cut it down to four days and week and he was pushing for three days a week.”
China left the show to pursue other opportunities leaving Brewer, and Discovery, with a problem. Wheeler Dealers was reaching 200 million people by this point, and Brewer didn’t want to end it there. He pushed for Ant Anstead, who he’d worked with at live events, to take China’s place.
“We started Series 14 in 2017 with Ant and his first car was very ambitious. If Ant was going to be accepted, we needed to choose one of the most iconic cars ever and it was the number one asked for car in all the years I've been making the show: a Ford Escort RS Cosworth. Ant put a third spoiler [that the car was originally supposed to have] on the back. That really stamped Ant's appeal on the programme, right from that day.”
With Anstead on board, the show is going from strength to strength. The team is still buying, fixing and selling cars, and using a mix of modern and old technology to make the projects just so.
There’s no shouting or screaming, no arbitrary time limits and no unnecessary faff on Wheeler Dealers. It’s two talented people doing what they love. And it turns out that people like what they see.
Wheeler Dealers airs on Discovery at 21:00 on Mondays.
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