Wheeler Dealers: British TV Show Restores Cars for Fun and Profit

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 16, 2014

Are you a wheeler dealer? Do you like buying things on Craigslist or eBay, and bargaining with the owner for the best possible deal? I love it myself, and have wheedled down the price on dozens of cars, so it’s not surprising I immediately hit it off with the hosts of Wheeler Dealers, a British reality show launched in 2003 that’s found a home on Discovery’s Velocity Channel. Check for local airings here.

Mike Brewer makes a deal to buy the unloved Porsche 911. (Velocity Channel)I could get addicted. In each episode, Mike Brewer (the buyer) and Edd China (the mechanic) acquire a classic of some kind (frequently needing love), restore it to health in just two weeks using parts they beg, borrow and steal, and then sell it off at a profit. They’ve restored 100 cars, and the only one they ever lost money on was a VW van. Early shows had fixed restoration budgets, but now it varies with the car.

The Wheeler Dealers bought “the most unkempt, uncared-for, unloved 911” that Brewer had ever seen (a 993 model) for 12,000 pounds ($20,000), fixed the dodgy suspension (3,000 pounds for just that), solved an engine issue, polished the wheels, replaced lights and bad leather, and ended up with a total bill of 17,520 pounds ($29,000). The car went for 19,500 pounds ($32,668). Now if you add in China’s considerable labor costs, maybe they didn’t do so well but it makes for great TV. “It’s one of the most significant sports cars ever, the last of the air-cooled 911s, and we rescued it,” Brewer said.

Wheeler Dealers’ one hour of running time, in two segments, is filmed at a pace that really lets the viewer see what they did, and how they did it. The home or shade-tree mechanic is kept in mind, and it’s more than just entertaining. “We spend a lot of time talking about the mechanisms, how they work and how we fixed them,” China said. “It’s about the love of the cars, and we aim to impart our knowledge, maybe more than other shows.”

Edd China (left) and Brewer with an RX-7, one of 100 cars restored and sold on the show. (Velocity Channel)Brewer said that American buy-and-sell car shows tend to be “about the drama and excitement.” Indeed, they’re often very fast paced, usually half an hour, and one minute you’re looking at a car in an advanced stage of decrepitude and the next it’s fully restored. But restorations aren’t magic: Wheeler Dealers takes its time to tell the whole dirt-beneath-the fingernails story.

Some cars restored on the show may be unfamiliar to American viewers, but since 2011 they’ve made forays to the U.S., and have restored such icons as a 1968 Camaro and a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. “Car culture is a bigger deal in the U.S.,” Brewer said. “Collectors are prepared to lavish money and time on their cars. In Europe, collectors tend to stick with one brand, but in the U.S. muscle car lovers will buy any muscle cars. The range is wider.”

Some fun restoration projects include: Citroen 2 CV, Bentley Turbo R, Fiat 500, Maserati 3200 GT, a Darracq from 1903 and, yes, an Amphicar. If you’re unfamiliar with that one, it was a German-made amphibious car/boat that was briefly on the market from 1961 to 1965.  “That was a fun project,” said China. “It didn’t look as bad when we first bought it as it turned out to be. Finding parts for cars like that can be quite tricky, but they’re available if you look hard enough.”

The floating Amphicar, briefly sold in the U.S. in the early 60s, can be tricky to restore. (Velocity Channel)The Bentley, China said, was so well and fussily built that even removing its “boot” (trunk) was a big job. “Even taking off the rear-view mirror probably involves 250 screws,” he said.

It’s better to think internationally with classics. For instance, classic American cars of the 1950s and 60s are most valuable in Scandinavia. Brewer sold a Texas-sourced 1972 Stingray (last of the chrome bumper cars) to a Texan for $27,000. “He immediately got on the phone and sold it to a guy in Sweden for $50,000,” he said. “There are planeloads of Swedes coming to the U.S. to buy cars.” Brewer’s travels have also taken him to Dubai, where he laments the proliferation of to-die-for high-end supercars covered in dust and apparently abandoned.

I asked the pair which cars they’d most like to find, and Brewer had a few—a short-wheelbase Ferrari GTO (sometimes considered the world's best investment), a Series 1 Mini-Cooper S (winner of the Monte Carlo rally), and a GT 500 Shelby Mustang (“It looks like it’s going 200 mph stationary,” he said).
China would love to get his hands on a 1937 Cord Phaeton (“I love the art-deco styling”). He also loves early MGs and Jaguars.

“The hardest part is having to sell the cars at the end,” China said. “We spend a lot of time with them, then off they go.” Here's video about that forlorn Porsche 911, now restored to full glory:

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