Making a performance out of buying a used car.
Back in the day, buying a second-hand car used to involve quite a bit of exercise, trudging around from dealer to dealer trying to weigh up the alternatives on offer and, most importantly, to avoid being sold a pup. Recently, a number of online (only) dealers have sprung up, offering the time-poor and/ or the really-cannot-be-bothered the opportunity to peruse the available stock and purchase their chosen car from the comfort of their own sofa, as they might a pizza. The unseen and undriven car is then delivered to your door, with the promise of a swift ‘no-quibble’ refund if you disapprove of it for any reason. Efficient, certainly, but perhaps lacking somewhat in the all-essential thrill of the chase?
But what if you are lazy and/or time-poor, but also fame-hungry? A British television channel, Quest TV, has just the solution in a show called ‘Motor Pickers’. This is a pleasant enough thirty-minute(1) programme which also allows Joe (or Josephine) public to showcase their personality and acting talents to literally tens of viewers for their entertainment or derision.
A generic format by default, it will be familiar to those who watch what is amusingly referred to as ‘property porn’ on daytime TV. The plot goes as follows: the would-be buyer reveals an interest in a certain type of car with a particular budget in mind and seeks assistance from the show’s expert presenters. They are then shown and allowed to drive and comment upon three straightforward options that more-or-less fulfil the brief. Each car magically appears: there’s no flustered salesman hunting for misplaced keys, attending to flat batteries or shuffling most of the stock around to extract the chosen car from the dingy depths of the car-lot.
The show’s inevitable plot-twist is a fourth ‘Wild Car(d)’ option revealed at the end, to throw a potential curve ball into the mix(2). Add in a few pregnant pauses for dramatic effect, the ubiquitous three-minute break for advertisements followed by a recap for the hard-of-thinking, and there you have it, thirty minutes of blissfully anodyne and undemanding TV.
Once the potential buyer is introduced and a little background information gleaned as to their wants and needs, the show often segues to some stock footage with rather improbable and obscure connections to the task at hand. For example, the customer seeking a grand touring coupé reveals a yearning for a (recent-ish) Bentley Continental GT. We see an example of the model up-close; the grille, wheels and some natty upholstery stitching. Then the VT rolls, showing vintage Bentley Le Mans racers, followed swiftly by a 1950s Continental being driven on the Glencoe section of the A82 in Scotland. This is overdubbed with fascinating historical information, albeit with little connection to what is sought or on offer today.
Suddenly, we are back up to date, presented with facts and figures relating to the car in question; speed, fuel consumption, insurance grouping and, of course, the all-important bottom line. TV being primarily a visual medium, much is made of both customer and presenters’ facial expressions as the numbers are revealed. Cash prices, monthly payment options and depreciation figures elicit winces, raised eyebrows, smiles or apparent ambivalence. The talking briefly over, the customer heads out for their test drive with the presenters’ best wishes. One hopes they have a little longer to become acquainted with their potential new car than appears to be the case on TV: after a brief tête-à-tête between the presenters, a phone call to the customer is made, to ascertain their thoughts.
Presenters Paul Cowland and Helen Stanley have previously appeared in various car-themed TV programs. Both seem convivial and pragmatically friendly, although there is, inevitably, a manufactured rivalry to see whose choice of car wins the sale. Viewers so inclined can also enter into the gameplay by trying to anticipate the buyer’s ultimate choice of car. (There’s always a choice: the customer never walks away empty-handed, oddly enough.)
Light-hearted and upbeat, Motor Pickers appears successful enough to warrant the production of further series. A general entertainment show such as this has little incentive and no time to investigate the minutiae of who styled the car in question, the complexities of its engineering or different trim and equipment levels available. Nor, for that matter, where the cars are sourced, and there is most definitely no mention of the murky part-exchange conundrum. The set is a huge ‘car showroom’ somewhere in the Manchester environs, decorated with sundry vehicles that only appear briefly in sweeping widescreen camera angles.
Motor Pickers is all bish-bash-bosh, job done as, inherently, car shows are boring for a general audience. The BBC may have what is claimed to be ‘The World’s Biggest Car Show’ but, in reality, it’s just three blokes goofing around in scenes which happen to involve motor cars as, er, vehicles for their antics. Top Gear is widely syndicated, so the formula clearly has considerable appeal. For unbiased, thoughtful opinion on matters automotive, there’s always the Internet or, at least, the small, quiet corners of it far removed from all the shouting, such as this one.
Buying a car, any car, should be a positive and (at best) pleasurable experience, but it rarely turns out so. Foolishly, I still crave the anticipation of the heady adventure in prospect; the rush of excitement when you first see your potential new car up close and personal, the hope of cutting a great deal and receiving approving glances from your other half as the salesperson’s figures equate to a “Yes, that’ll do”(3). Should you be lucky enough to be buying brand new, specifications, options and colour choices can and should be endlessly scrutinised, a delightfully agonising masochistic pleasure in itself.
Then of course, the day of reckoning arrives, when you bid farewell to your former chariot of dreams and heap fawning praise onto the new. Some may see this as sycophantic anthropomorphism, some regard it as merely a transactional and transitory three-year affair. Others make this an event not to be repeated for many a year: make this one count, you’re in for the long haul.
The lack of depth and realism is not a criticism of Motor Pickers per se, but of so-called reality television in general. The fact remains that trying to glamorise such a humdrum everyday event (at least for salespeople and most of their customers) is difficult. My beef lies with the paucity of the information provided and the frequency of its repetition. As we’ve only just been introduced to the customer and vehicles involved, do we lack the capacity to remember this, like goldfish endlessly circling their bowl?
More likely, it’s that TV, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and repetition is the cheapest way to fill such space. That said, these ‘goldfish bowl’ moments could be better utilised to convey factual information regarding the car’s specification (and available alternatives) or subjective thoughts on styling beyond the trite catch-all of sporty looking.
All that said, I have to admit that, even as it stands, Motor Pickers remains a niche offering and it’s a forlorn hope that television would ever provide the depth of specialist coverage for the avid motoring enthusiast that is to be found, well, here for a start. Maybe our esteemed editor might be amenable to starting DTW’s own television channel? I’ve always rather fancied myself as a TV personality…
(1) Including ad-breaks, of course. In reality, the show lasts no more than 22 minutes.
(2) Not that ‘wild’ however: an SUV might be offered in place of the requested estate, or vise-versa.
(3) Apparently, this is Yorkshire-speak for “That’s bloody marvellous!” according to a current TV advertisement for a mobile phone company, so it must be true.