Wheeler Dealers is now 16 series and nearly 250 episodes old. It’s been running for the best part of 20 years, starting in relative obscurity before growing to a worldwide audience of 200 million. Effectively, though, all of it can be traced back to a snooker hall of all places, host and Wheeler Dealer in Chief Mike Brewer explains.
This being 2021, he’s speaking to us via Zoom, amidst a backdrop of books (mostly about cars), models and automotive memorabilia. Mike was running said snooker hall after being made redundant from a print business job, and it was here that he was approached by a local car dealer.
“He said he loves the way I speak to people, and took me to his car site, and within a week I’d sold 14 cars,” he says, adding, “I got a load of money at the end of that first week, and thought ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life’”. As we know now, it didn’t quite work out like that.
Mike was “buzzing along very happily for many years” like this when a phone call changed everything. On the line was someone from Channel 4, “who said she wanted to talk to me about cars and they were making this brand new car show that had never been tried before,” Mike recalls.
“I never even thought that TV was anywhere on my horizon, didn’t want it, didn’t want to write about cars…all I wanted to do was buy and sell cars”. Especially off-putting was the prospect of his work being detailed on-screen. He “didn’t want to show them how I did it,” and after six months of refusing, Mike was asked to screen test for a more conventional presenter role, and despite competition from established players like Quentin Wilson, he got the gig.
Deals on Wheels launched in 1998 to high ratings right off the bat, and suddenly this career path Mike hadn’t even considered presented multiple possible directions. “At the end of week three, I got head-hunted by Top Gear, so I went back to the bosses at Channel 4, and said you’ve put me in this position, what do I do?”
Keen to keep him on board, Channel 4 offered him an additional role on Driven. He appeared on the channels’ Top Gear rival alongside motoring journalist Jason Barlow and a then-unknown James May. “That [Driven] was a huge success. Not for James though - he got fired after the first year…they didn’t like him!”
By 2002, Driven was no more, and the BBC was busy completely reinventing Top Gear. Mike’s contract with Channel 4 had expired, and out of several offers, it was one from Discovery Channel that piqued his interest the most. At the time the channel’s programming revolved around things like “people hiking up Everest,” Mike says, but the execs were keen to do a car show and were offering a lot of creative control.
The idea was to expand upon a five-minute segment on Deals on Wheels which showed viewers how to buy, restore and sell a car for profit. It wasn’t originally going to be called Wheeler Dealers, though. “We wrote a show called Grand Autos: buy a car for a grand, fix them up and sell them. [We] changed its name to Wheeler Dealers only because my company was called Wheeler Dealer Limited…it was on the foot of the email, and Discovery Channel said ‘oh, we like that name!’”
Brewer was to be in charge of the buying and selling, with a mechanic drafted in to fix the cars up. That’s where Edd China came into the picture, forming a pairing that would go on to achieve enormous success. The early episodes could be pretty slapdash, though, and inevitably, mistakes were made.
“We’d be the first to admit we were making it up,” Mike says, and it doesn’t take him long to pin down an infamous early project. “People still remark on the early days when me and Edd did the Capri and Edd painted it with rattle cans in a shed on the hottest day of the year. I felt so sorry for him - as the spray came out of the can it was dry before it hit the panel. But Edd persisted, and it was awful.”
The problem was the rush to film everything in one day, but nowadays, that simply wouldn’t happen. “Now we’ve realised we can say ‘no, we’re going to do it properly’. Back then we didn’t have the power”. As time went on, it sounds as though Mike and Edd got a lot more say in how the programme was made (both became associate producers). That’s probably why Wheeler Dealers has avoided falling into the trap of those naff and sadly plentiful motoring shows that rely on manufactured drama and scripted arguments, even if the pressure to introduce such elements must have been strong.
It’s Wheeler Dealers’ sincerity that’s been key to its ascent, Mike reckons. “We’ve always kept the show honest, we’ve kept it real. It’s not fake in any way - I really do buy a car, we really do fix it up, I really do sell it.”
Mike’s early dabbling with the newly-created Wheeler Dealers Twitter and Facebook accounts gave him some idea of the huge deal the show had become. “The real ‘Bon Jovi moment’ was in 2014 when me and Edd were invited to SEMA in Las Vegas by Discovery channel to be hosts on stage. There were 10,000 people going bonkers for two guys that flip cars on TV. It was really weird - who’s behind me? Is Coldplay about to come on? No - it was Mike and Edd.”
Discovery bosses saw this and knew the show simply had to come to the USA. Two series set in the country followed before Edd decided to move on. Despite this potentially killing off the series for good, Mike says he respected his decision. “I have to admire him for that - he wanted to be his own man. We all supported him and said you’ve got to do what’s best for you. He didn’t want to be in that workshop.”
Discovery mooted new formats for Mike, but he didn’t want it to be the end of what he’d built with Edd. “I didn’t think Wheeler Dealers was dead, so I approached Ant [Anstead]”. As news of the shifting line-up broke, Edd released a video statement. He pinned the main reason for his departure on the show’s new production company Velocity reportedly wanting to reduce the amount of workshop time shown on screen.
“I haven’t spoken to him since, for no other reason other than what people made up. People made up that he was fired and Edd didn’t defend that. Or people made up that I’d treated him like shit or the network had treated him badly.
“He didn’t come out and say ‘no that didn’t happen’. He sort of fanned the flames, particularly when he found out the show was going to carry on”. Shots were fired from both sides via a series of (since deleted) tweets, showing just how much the pair’s relationship had deteriorated.
Mike soon found himself on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse on social media, which continues to this day. “Almost five years later I still get it. I probably block 30-40 people every day who will say something disgusting, rude, violent or just simply about the treatment of Edd. We wanted to keep our jobs, and I don’t think that’s bad. People wanted me to leave and just be unemployed and no car show.”
Initially reticent to take the job, Anstead joined from series 14 and worked hard to avoid simply being “the Clone of Edd,” Mike says. “He wanted to be himself, create his own space”. His Wheeler Dealers tenure turned out to be a relatively short one, though, with the incoming Series 17 seeing the introduction of a new full-time spannerer in the form of ex-McLaren Formula 1 mechanic Marc ‘Elvis’ Priestley, who previously appeared in Wheeler Dealers: Dream Car.
This time, the departure is much more amicable, and simply a question of location. Amidst demand from fans and Mike’s urge to be closer to family, Wheeler Dealers is coming back to the UK. Ant is staying in the US, although we can expect to see him making occasional appearances.
The new workshop in a former RAF building at Bicester Heritage is described by Mike as “a little bit smaller, a little bit more cosy, very British”. It’s already been fitted out with ramps, tools and everything else Marc needs to get going, while Mike started buying vehicles for the series a few months ago including some “‘flipping iconic cars - they’re just the perfect cars for Wheeler Dealers back home in the UK.”
Mike has a huge hit list of cars he’d still like to cover, ranging from the Ford Cortina to the Vauxhall Astra GTE. “The list is immensely long and I’m desperate to try and get these,” Mike says, but for a lot of them, prices are an issue. In his six-year absence from the UK, once affordable modern classics have seen their values launch into the stratosphere.
As for his own collection, Mike enthuses about his eclectic fleet which includes a 1964 Mini Cooper S (“my favourite car ever”), a 1959 MGA, a 1982 Porsche 911 SC and an electric Taycan 4S.
Mike hasn’t ever owned a car he’s ended up hating, he tells me, and struggles to think of any vehicle at all he actively dislikes. “I love them all. I understand them. Look at my bookshelves - they’re full of car history. I always manage my expectations about what’s in front of me.”
Just as we’re wrapping up and getting ready for an awkward Zoom call sign off, Mike blurts out: “I have got one!” A suspenseful pause later, I find out the only car Mike Brewer doesn’t like: “I can’t stand it: the PT Cruiser.”
Wheeler Dealers series 17 airs this autumn on Discovery