Twenty-Two Minutes of Fame

Making a performance out of buying a used car.

Image: Discovery Communications

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.

The good(?) old days. Image:

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.

Direct to your door. Image:

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

23 thoughts on “Twenty-Two Minutes of Fame”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. I have no opinion on today’s topic. I got rid of my TV ages ago and quite frankly it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. I highly recommend it.

    1. Freerk
      I’ve never owned one.
      My parents’ one went on fire, and such was the quality of social conditioning in Ireland in 1979, they declined to replace it.

      In the first week in my current house, 8 years ago, I detached two satellite dishes (one took out a gutter on the way down) and it took a year to get on to the roof, and detach the aerial cables (also cut the land-line, but, never mind: I wasn’t using that either).

      Description of “goldfish in a bowel”, and “filling a vacuum”, could not better capture my utter antipathy to this medium.

  2. Good morning Andrew and thanks for the review. Like Freerk, I haven’t seen the programme, but you highlight one of many irritations of modern television, the endless repetition of basic information, which seems to assume the viewer is suffering from attention deficit disorder. Commercial television is dreadful in this regard, giving us a ‘reminder’ after every ad break. As you say, the time would be more productively filled with additional information.

    More generally, I find little to interest or entertain me in automotive related television programmes, probably because it is aimed primarily at an audience with little or no specialist knowledge of the subject matter. A DTW television channel would be fun though!

    1. I think the repetition is because it’s assumed that people are doing something else while watching, just like with those interminable superhero movies that have no discernible story line. You only occasionally pay attention, so information needs to be basic and often repeated.

      Because people only occasionally pay attention, information needs to be repeated often. This is because I think it’s assumed that people are doing something else while watching.

      Let’s go to commercials.

      Of course, since it’s probably assumed people are doing something else while watching, information needs to be repeated often. It also needs to be basic, since people are only occasionally paying attention.


  3. Morning Andrew – I must admit to having seen this programme a couple of times (quite by accident) and your review is spot on. And yes, a DTW TV channel would be far superior to anything currently on the box, without really having to try very hard….

    I liked your subtle little test of how much attention we’re all paying this morning – please can I claim the prize for spotting the deliberate mistake: the road through Glencoe is the A82, and not the A9?

    1. Good morning John. Well spotted, and now corrected. The author has been duly reprimanded.

  4. As a retiree, I do spend a lot of time channel-hopping, and would watch this program if I was desperate (it is preferable to ads for Funeral Plans, which dominate daytime TV commercial slots)
    Paul Cowland is a credible car-guy, thanks to other TV shows he does. Helen Stanley, on the other hand, is associated with an extremely poor car show.
    My impression is that folk who know nothing about cars can make amazingly random choices when choosing one, and this show caters to that kind of audience.

    1. Ah yes, those funeral plan ads featuring weirdly young and apparently healthy people, and the “lovely”(!) Debbie McGee, warning us about the “average cost of a funeral being around£4k these days.” I would have assumed that “the millionaire Paul Daniels” as Caroline Aherne (a.k.a. spoof chat show host Mrs Merton) hilariously described him when interviewing McGee, would have left her not having to worry about such matters.

  5. Andrew: thanks for taking the minutes out from your time on earth to watch this. It´s part of the low-cost content genre of buy-something/sell-something consumer television. Scripts don´t matter, it´s formats that count.
    Buying a used car is a scary business since the risks are high. It can be miserable if you´re at the low-end with gravelly hard-standing and open-air display of cars with one more MOT left in them (if that). The last time I did that was in the Midlands in the 00s and it didn´t provide much fun. I sat in a lot of nasty cars parked in nasty places. Eventually I picked up a 1989 Citroen XM with a poorly painted nose-cone and 3 inoperative windows plus sundy electrical faults for 750 quid. That was from a private buyer.
    It´s never been easier to get yourself broadcast. You need a camera and a You Tube account and a modicum of editing skills. Just remember to cut the shots every 15 seconds. I wonder if you could get a local conspirator to help with the technical stuff. “Miles Better” – a weekly You Tube show about overlooked second hand cars.

    1. How about “And miles to go before I sleep”, the repeated last line of Robert Frost’s lovely if sad poem, ‘Stopping by woods on a Snowy Evening’. That would nicely capture the existential angst involved in buying a used car (and life in general).

    2. I usually have to go a couple of hundred miles to buy a used car, since the model I want isn’t available any nearer…

  6. You’ve made the show sound interesting, Andrew – I’ll see if I can find it.

    I liked James May’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a car show; it was ‘Unpimp My Ride’, where cars are meticulously restored to their original condition. I’d enjoy that, if they threw in some model history, too.

    I haven’t watched TV in the traditional sense for many years – I watch the news and stuff I like on YouTube, and that’s it. A lot of the YouTube content is extremely professional (and indeed may be professionally produced).

    1. I can´t watch television.
      It is so cut up.
      They have so many edits.
      And little content.
      Producers use too much incidental music too.
      It´s like watching a police car´s flashing light.
      The presenters are hard to watch.
      They are so mannered.
      Example: A BBC promo dealt with the theme of data.
      The poor female presenter smiled too much.
      Inspired by acting style of rom-com female leads?
      All teeth and *unusual* emphases.
      Face way too much to the front too.

      I´m out of practice. No TV since 1997.

    2. Everything was said about television by Carter USM in 1992:

    3. David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about television. He pointed out that television at worst worsened the problem it sets out to mitigate. Spending time with the box reduces your chances of having a social life so you spend more time with the box and so on. There are some good programmes. They are just a small bit of wheat in a heap of chaff. Minding a good show is like searching for contact lens to suit a Barbie doll in an Olympic pool of minestrone soup having donned a face-mask with a visor darker than a welder´s face-shield (comparision copyright A. ff-C.)

  7. Good afternoon Andrew. You seem to have inadvertently started a “ one upmanship “ competition for those who don’t possess a television. What an achievement 😳
    I haven’t seen the programme but I then didn’t know about daytime advertisements for funerals either. I feel I am missing out somewhere…
    Thank you for enlightening me without making any reference to shut lines, DLO’s or trailing arms. Keep ‘em coming…

  8. Leonard Setright referred to TV as the “sewerage outfall in people’s living rooms.” That is good way to put it I thought. Lately a commentator reprised the idea when referring to a well known European swamp creature as a “pool of liquified sewerage”. Conclusion: Do not bring any of it into your home.

    1. Setright pronounced on his dislike of television on several occasions. He held newspapers in similar contempt :

      “The sewer which runs through your living room – I refer to your television set, and offer my apologies and congratulations if, like me, you do not have one…”

      CAR AOB August 1992

      “A dozen years ago I went for a fortnight’s holiday during which I saw no newspapers. On my return, I realised that the latest papers were in effect saying the same things as they had been saying two weeks earlier – the minor details might differ, but the broad message of worry, despair, envy malice, greed jealousy. The invocation of false gods and the invasion of privacy all remained much the same – and indeed the contents were not significantly different from what they might have been two years earlier. Thereafter I no longer took any newspaper, apart from the Listener, and I never bothered to listen to the news on the radio. Six months ago I stopped seeing television, too, and feel much better for it: the next time some self-appointed curator tries to busybody you into giving up smoking, offer to give up the gogglebox instead, as a more salutory abstinence.”

      CAR AOB January 1979

  9. Very briefly

    a) This appears to be a copy of a german format, i.e. Der Checker, PS Profis

    b) Who am I to disagree with Setright ?

  10. The dislike of television is nothing new, it reminds me of the Netherlands’ more or less national band from the ‘eighties, Doe Maar:

    Some of the lines inaccurately translate something like this:

    you’ve a button on the TV
    that can truly set you free
    push it and let’s go see
    what there is outside yeah!

  11. Thanks Andrew for another sideways looking piece (I mean that in a most complimentary way, you have a flair for finding different angles to come at the automotive pantheon).

    The endless repetition of baseline facts is indeed one of the most frustrating things about TV today, especially when I think of all the good material that will have ended up on the cutting room floor to make time for this. As always the DTW commentariat offer the explanation but I don’t have to like it.

    Equally – I don’t have to watch it either.

    Always good to hear an LJKS quote or two. I have given up buying papers except for the occasional Guardian. With apologies for political comment which I know to be out of place here the i was my Saturday go to for a while until the recent change of ownership to the Daily Mail group. Since the previous owner was Lebedev perhaps I should have given it up sooner!

    On the side topic of distances travelled to buy a car I’ll put up Sheffield to Exeter recently. We’ve also done Sheffield to Southampton. All because there was a particular model or specification that I ‘had’ to have…

    Thanks again Andrew

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