Blog : The problem with cars on telly

James Ruppert

Das Auto

If you didn’t enjoy Das Auto on BBC2 last weekend, I’m sorry.

I may have been in it. The BBC may have extensively used my books, archive pictures and quotes, but ultimately it had nothing to do with me. That’s because documentaries about cars get made by people who know absolutely nothing about them. And that’s the problem with cars on telly.

I was contacted late last year by various production companies working for the BBC. Presumably they Googled British Car Industry and Germany Car Industry and came up with two books wot I wrote which apparently coincided with their aim of making a programme about the British, the Germans and their cars.

Initially, I resisted their advances. TV production companies do this all the time, pump you for information that they won’t pay for. The BBC were no different but eventually the Director and Assistant Producer came to my house. What I could not quite believe was just how clueless they were about cars and the history of the industry. That’s understandable they make TV programmes and I don’t know how to do that.

Not surprisingly then that they took copious notes as I spoke and, of course, my books. I also told them which models they should be concentrating on and who to talk to. These included Richard Bremner, Keith and, of course, AROnline. I even set up a garage location for them to do filming.

Clearly what they needed was a full-time consultant who knew about cars. However, this is not how TV works. Dominic Sandbrook was the presenter and he’s a historian. So what he said, went. He was a nice chap, said he liked my books and found them funny, but clearly he had an agenda and that is what you saw on telly.

Even though I mentioned the Japanese, Richard probably did too and many other matters, in order to squeeze it into an hour our comments would end up on the cutting room floor. Also, being telly, viewers are not credited with much in the way of sustained attention, hence the ‘70s sitcom segments. TV is first and foremost entertainment medium.

If you want to understand the British car industry then you only have to read Keith’s incredible site. Oh, you’re here already, of course. There’s also my books on the subject too. In all honest, you are probably better off reading decent source material then You Tubing the adverts and news stories from the period. There, make your own TV programmes.

So the problem with cars on telly is no one cares enough to get things right, or at least pay the people who know the stuff that they don’t to advise them properly. The BBC should be utterly ashamed of itself.

Keith Adams


  1. All sound reasons why I never help these people. They do not care a jot for the facts, only pandering to the producer’s agenda. A pox on them all.

  2. If Dominic Sandbrook is a historian – I presume he is an academic – then I am surprised he did not consult with academic publications such as Roy A Church’s excellent book titled ‘The Rise and Decline of the British Motor Industry. New Studies in Economic and Social History’. This provides some useful comparisons with the motor industries in other countries in Europe and also America, and is based on published academic research.

    I, too, would be very reluctant to give my time to ‘these people’ (should I ever be approached), based on how they will cherry pick through the information supplied in order to fuel their specific conclusion, which has already been determined.

  3. As a long-time journalist and motoring journalist I can attest to the sad fact that most TV and media companies know little to nothing about the subjects they cover – it’s readership numbers or a boost in viewers they seek, because that sells adverts. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

  4. Thanks for sharing this.
    Must be really cringeworthy seeing yourself embodied within a travesty of a story

  5. I’d already glanced at some of Dominic Sandbrooks efforts in the Daily **il so knew what to expect. It seems he did not disappoint. He can be just as ill informed and trite on a whole range of subjects. If he is indeed an academic, he’s either determined to talk down to us proles, or there has been some serious grade inflation in degrees and doctorates.
    Without wanting to rain on anyones parade I could not help noticing the LTI taxi in the Mall or wondering what proportion of the vehicles were made by UK owned companies.

  6. All media has gone to the dogs recently, i remember watching Channel 4’s Skint programme years ago,it showed people in abject poverty living hand to mouth and not even moaning, the latest offering,presumably by some production company that thinks sensationalist “reality” TV sells, shows feckless disgusting slobs that have never worked ever with beer and flatscreen tellies.

    We get fed this crap every day. Sooner read a book or go on ARO!

  7. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh”

    Sad but true !

    One of newspapers published an aerial shot of Longbridge during the last few weeks of the MG Rover demise, with an arrow and the words “unsold cars”.

    It was pointing at the employee car park……

  8. @John B:

    “One of newspapers published an aerial shot of Longbridge during the last few weeks of the MG Rover demise, with an arrow and the words “unsold cars”.

    It was pointing at the employee car park……”

    An absolute classic. If the situation at Longbridge had not been so critical at the time, I would have laughed.

  9. Thank you for the clarification. I know that there are many good journalists and authors out there who hate this kind of agenda driven journalism that has nothing to do with the truth – its a shame that you all get tarred with the same brush.

    As a management consultant I often get presented with data to support an argument and know full well that the key to the data is what questions were asked in the first place – you can get pretty much any answer you want if you ask the ‘right’ questions.

    Generally the BBC (which has a duty to be impartial) is getting worse in my view with very strong views that can best be summarised as Anti UK and are only truly relevant to a minority within the M25. Such a shame.

  10. Thanks for being so candid James – top guy!
    (just bought your book for my Dads birthday)

    Hope to see you on here a bit more often.

  11. @2 David 3500

    Agreed – Roy A Church book is excellent. The other two worth a read is Timothy R Whisler’s The British Motor Industry, 1945-94: A Case Study in Industrial Decline and Jonathan Wood’s Wheels of Misfortune. I referenced all three for my final year university economics essay, which was on the decline of the UK car industry.

  12. The point of the programme for any defiant british car fan of the period , was to emphasis the lost oportunities missed by our great marques , technology and innovation , then resulting in either death or foreign ownership , something neither the germans , french or japanese would never allow to happen ? it made good television on a sunday night , specific inaccuracies didn’t matter that was the point , surely ?

  13. The problem is Jonathan Meades – once you have sampled a decent half hour full of entertainment from the aforementioned, everything else is shite.

    How ever I know for a fact* the James Ruppert was paid in half pint jars of goats blood for his assistance (and happened to be fanned with ostrich feathers whilst being consulted too).

    Again never let the facts get in the way of a good story 🙂

  14. I wish you guys would stop mentioning all these blooming books I then have to go and buy/get/borrow. I’m still reading Brick by Brick!
    I can’t cope.

  15. The ‘British’ Broadcasting Corporation has been politicised for many years now and should be boycotted.
    I have mentioned this previously on the ARonline FB page (before the airing of Das Auto) and was badgered into retracting.
    I am simply tired of funding their anti-british propaganda.
    I am proud of the achievements of the British Motor Industry and will defend it at every opportunity.

  16. @14 I wonder how many students are current engaged in essays regarding the subsequent rise of the UK motor industry?

  17. Timothy Whisker is one of my heroes. His research is thorough and insightful. Apart from which, he is a closet enthusiast of British sports cars.

  18. I loved the “this car I am driving…” whilst trying to pretend to steer when the wheel would not turn far…as it was clearly on a trailer being towed. The cars movement – and fact a Morris Minor rode above Transit vans told all I need to know. If for effect you need to mislead then the rest of your information is not to be trusted.

  19. I’ve worked in corporate film / video production and Television all my life and to a degree I concur with James. I always found it best to get as much information and assistance from experts in the subject area you are working in and let them be involved as much as they can – or want to be (as long as they don’t try to take absolute control).

    Having said that, working with a true enthusiast is worth their weight in gold.

  20. Unfortunately I’ve been of the opinion that the BBC and it’s documentary makers in particular have a hidden agenda for some time. Certainly they appear to be run by tree-hugging eco-facists when anything to do with cars is concerned. Top Gear does more to discredit car enthusiasts than any other programme IMO; one of the reasons I gave up watching it years ago.

    Days Auto did nothing to make me believe otherwise. Putting an academic in charge of anything to do with the real world is like having King Herod on the board of Mothercare.

  21. I would just like to put a point in support of the much maligned and under seige BBC after the Jimmy Savile fiasco and the platinum handshakes et cetera, there are no adverts during the programmes,just in between.

  22. Dominic Sandbrook has form where BL bashing is concerned. He wrote and presented a series on BBC in 2011 about the 70’s which had a large portion of BL bashing at its heart.

  23. David @26, at least they do try to show something intelligent from time to time and their coverage of events like The Olympics can’t be beaten. At least the BBC has never shown mindless junk like TOWIE, Celebrity Love Island or Celebrity Big Brother like its commercial rivals seem so keen on.

  24. It isn’t jut the telly people that get it wrong. The movies do as well. eg: The movie ‘Jackal’.

    In it the sharpshooter supposedly shoots a bullet into the right rear quarter of a Chrysler minivan, which drips fluid and the second bullet causes it to ignite and then explode.

    The only fluid in the quadrant is rear window wash fluid on some models, as the fuel tank is underneath and forward of the rear axle.

  25. I’m glad I’ve opted out of watching telly (something the TV Licensing people think is an act necessitating criminal investigation). Most media stories in which I’ve had knowledge of the subject have often contained lazy errors due to reporters or sub-eds not caring whether the facts, names, etc, are properly stated.

    The classic was when I was living in Cromwell Street (yes, that Cromwell Street) during the Fred West investigation. The local newspaper did a ‘front page special’ with a diagram of the street with Number 25 in the wrong place, and a map of England with Gloucester pinpointed, for the benefit presumably of those Gloucester readers who weren’t quite sure whereabouts in England Gloucester was located! Happily, they got prosecuted for the tone of their reportage, so they’ve reverted to their usual ‘bicycle stolen in London Road’ type stories.

    My condolences to Mr Ruppert for being taken for a ride.

  26. @19 Peter Harris

    Interesting question! The module I took was called “Trade and Technology in the Global Economy”. I honestly don’t know if this option still exists as I graduated some 12 years ago.

  27. It’s a relief to read James’ piece as I was surprised to see him on the programme considering the amount of nonsense in it. It was all how wonderful VW was but no mention of how VW’s pre-Golf range was aging and increasingly uncompetitive with the Beetle and 412 then K70. If I remember rightly they showed a K70 as a aspirational car. Yes, one nobody bought. The usual Allegro comments (yawn) and nothing on Ford, Vauxhall & Chrysler all of whom had serious problems in the period covered. And what was the Mercedes 600’s relevance in comparison to British everyday cars?

  28. I felt the presenter had an agenda and cherry-picked arguments to support it. Fair enough, but he could equally well have gone for a different approach. Why not: German cars are not as great as they are made out? Or why not: British car industry is quite strong. Or why not: foreign ownership of the British car industry is a good thing. You could easily have made a one-hour programme about any of these topics, but instead the angle was: the British car industry is synonymous with BL (not true) which was a perenially awful company (not true) that was bought by the Germans because it was so awful (not true). It was the last point that got my goat: if Rover was so unutterably crap, why would BMW, which is after all so wonderful, buy it?

  29. I thought the programme was fine and summed it up right.

    Top gear on Sunday had a major section devoted to the current British motor industry and it was very pro.

  30. The programme wasa trying to knock a square peg in a round hole by using the British car industry in a series of programmes about Germany. They could quite easily have used the French or Italian motor industries, both of which have had a lot of state funding in order to keep them afloat. However they chose the UK one as, thanks to the paltry amount injected into it by the last Labour government, it made better television.

    The programme should have been criticising politicians as much as motor industry executives & striking workers.

  31. I think that the comparison with Germany was totally valid rather than with France or Italy.The theme was the total reversal of fortunes. So at the end of ww2 we were 2nd in world and Germany relied on us to get their industry going. By the end we had very little left and they bought us out whilst they are dominating the world.
    The comparisons nothing like this with France or Italy.

    I think that they could have made the point that thanks to our engineering creativity we could have had world bearers but didn’t due to poor execution.

    They did make the point that industrial relations were vastly different and rubbish mansegment and unions were at fault.

    They made the point that the beetle was initially full of problems but was developed into something very reliable….they should have contrasted this to us.

    A point that they missed making was that by the early 1970s vw were in trouble and the beetle old and k70 etc not liked. But they came up with the golf in the end of course. So they didn’t always get right but as with the beetle they got it sorted! So in fact they missed making a point that would have further proved their point !

  32. @31 watching ‘live’ TV is dead, long live iplayer, netflix et al!

    I caught parts of this programme and whilst I cannot comment on the overall tone (as I feel there is no point watching in view of James’ comments), I was irritated by the intimation that British car manufacturing was inferior and incompetent.

    We have a strong car manufacturing base in the UK and the fact that the best car company in the world has invested millions in Cowley and Hams Hall is evidence that we can build great cars.

  33. In 1973 the vehicle with the most motorway breakdowns often involving serious engine damage was the VW beetle.70mph and the fan belt breaks you dont have long to turn it off.The belt was adjusted by shims in a split pulley which was a fiddle.A couple of friends survived going sideways into lampposts due to the primitive handling.I heard of one guy who went into the back of lorry and had several gallons of burning petrol dumped in his lap. The one I had didnt even get into top below 40.

  34. David @40, is it any wonder Volkswagen nearly went under in 1972 as the Beetle was such an elderly deathtrap. By 1972 most Germans could afford far more stylish and modern cars from Audi, BMW, Ford and Mercedes. While the Mini was getting on here, at least it had the engine in the right place, handled well, still had a big following and didn’t die at 70 mph.

  35. It’s the same with aviation too. Most presenters/”journalists can’t tell a Concorde from a Cessna.

    I find with a lot of these shows, the trick to to mute the
    volume, then enjoy the eye candy without some pratt waffling on.

  36. What we must always remember is that all these programmes, Das Auto, Top Gear, Masterchef, Apprentice, Dragons Den, etc etc.are first and foremost ENTERTAINMENT SHOWS nothing more nothing less, the producers don’t let a few facts spoil a good programme, so we as viewers must simply treat them with the contempt they deserve.

  37. glen@42 I did some work on minis and must say they were not much fun 2nd hand one friend had the floor welded for the first mot.The bypass hose was a barrell of laughs.Reading this site it sounds like the mini inflated Issigonis status beyond what was good for bl. I think his masterpiece was the morris minor.

  38. #45.The bypass hose was nothing to do with Issigonis but was an inherent feature of the A series BMC engine . The Mini may have had its defects, but it became the prototype for virtually every small car which has followed and was probably the most influential vehicle ever designed. I do have one ( 1965 1275cc Cooper S ) and the more I have worked on it the more respect I have gained for the ingenuity which enabled 4 adults to be carried in a very small car . What we now see as defects e.g. the gearbox in sump , were compromises which enabled the whole project to succeed . If it had not been for Issigonis, the mass market transport revolution might never have occurred and almost certainly would have taken a different, and perhaps not as practical , direction

  39. TBH the only way a program is ever going to be made that won’t be a load of BL bashing tripe will be to do it ourselves. certainly the people to write it are here, the knowledge is here, As for the camera/sound guys pretty sure there are some of those as well, can we find producers and directors?

    However I dounbt the result will be much differnt to BL failed because management was not very good and the unions did all they could in the 70’s to send it in the bin, and no one british who could have invested to save it was interested in anything beyond quick return banking

  40. One thing I can premeber was year ago there was a proper program made on this subjuct, the one think that did stick was this.. it may even have been the 70s when it was on

    British industry would ignore wear on machines used in its factories till it broke, and stopped the line.

    German industry would monitor it’s machines and attend to any wear as soon as it became aparent, resulting in no stoppages due to broken equipment

  41. If they had focused on the rebirth of the German auto industry after the war and how the British public got over their post war anti German prejudice then it would of been all fine. The program instead wanted to have a narrative about how the German car industry sank BL (forgetting the other players in the UK car industry).

    As already pointed out an investigation into the collapse of the old British car industry needs to include the Japanese and their impact in the 1980’s with British car buyers discovering how solid and reliable they were. Buying a Honda meant you had a car that would start in the morning, get you to work and back without breaking down, not wear out in the same way and hold its value. Ironically what British motorcycle riders discovered in the 1970’s!

    If you are going to explore the collapse of the old British volume car industry there are another far more significant set of events that happened in the 1990’s. At the start of the 1990’s there was still a hardcore of middle income British car buyers who would only buy British (and honorary British in the form of Ford), that group almost entirely purchased their cars second hand. Up until the mid 1990’s we had a large vibrant used car market, with used cars people are less bothered about slow change in a vehicle model range. Considering how glacial BL/Rover Group were in providing new models that was to their benefit. Then in the 1990’s mass credit took off, all of a sudden those middle income car buyers who had only ever been able to afford second hand could go and buy a mid size family car on very agreeable finance terms. The manufacturers that really benefited from this were Renault, Peugeot/Citroen and Fiat. They were all producing stylish new family cars like the Megane, 306, ZX and Punto. These cars were on a shorter product cycle with a face lift or replacement model coming out every three years which fitted almost exactly the standard finance package. These middle income car buyers who had only considered used British cars could suddenly buy a brand new car every three years. If you went to Rover you got the same car that had been in production for years. All this had the secondary action of utterly destroying the used car market by the end of the 90’s! Why buy a second hand car when such good terms were being given on new or pre-registered cars?! The European manufacturers had also got their heads around common platforms so the handsome for the time new Megane was actually a Renault 19 under the skin. Compare that to the Rover 100 which was clearly a Metro to the car buying public.

    What is interesting is what is happening now, the Japanese manufacturers have almost moved into a semi premium segment. As shown by the excellent Top Gear British car manufacturing has gone through a bit of a renaissance. With the rot cut and dead weight cut out British car manufacturers are modern, flexible and efficient. French and Italian car makers are struggling with over production and poor quality. The bread and butter segment of the market has now gone over to the South Koreans with Hyundai and Kia really taking off in the last few years. I drive a Hyundai myself and very happy with the product for what I am paying. As for the Germans…well they sit where they have been for a long time, a slightly more expensive aspirational choice for the upper middle class.

  42. @Ford Prefect

    The Japanese manufacturers perfected the manufacturing line. Every employee was empowered to raise a ‘Kaizen’ item, eliminate waste and increase productivity. An item such as worn/breaking tools/machinery would be raised and rectified early.

    Every employee felt that their ideas were nurtured and felt part of the system, compared to the ‘command and control’ class-based friction of many western car company production lines of the mid-late 20th century.

    Kaizen, together with the Kanban ‘just in time’ manufacturing process, made Toyota’s assembly lines very efficient.

    A process much admired, so much so that a lot of modern software development companies use a variant of the kanban/kaizen process with ‘lean’ methodologies.

  43. The program was sickening to watch,everything was done to put the german car industry in it,s best light.when we were showing the british car industry we showed the allegro.The metro was put into production for peanuts and dispite what the program betrayed was built by robots.If german cars dont brake down why do they have their own brakedown service.

  44. Really enjoyed this programme But cant understand why the japanese wern”t mentioned at all in the whole program?From 1983 to 20005(MG/Rovers demise) Honda was keeping the british car making industry alive not the germans For it was Honda that stepped in after BL”s near collapse& was bought by BAe

  45. @53 — exactly, good point. The whole progamme was biased anyway by the glee with which the presenter announced that he, the supreme being, owned and drove a Golf. I was also annoyed by how much their “motoring expert” was that guy with the beard who was in fact a design critic. That’s a fine job, but to rely on him so much made me fume.

  46. @Will M
    I am more than aware of small changes, and the toyota way of doing things as part of my job is involved with Kaizens and the CI team at work!

  47. I too wanted to put the boot in the telly when watching this programme. Why didn’t Mr Sandbrook note that many cars with German badges are made well anywhere but Germany. BMW/Mercedes are sold in the UK but assembled in South Africa & the USA. Volkswagen sells vehicles made in Argentina & Mexico. In my opinion the success of German vehicles is as much due to advertising as engineering.

  48. I rather enjoyed this programme. A bit superficial in parts, but they did only have an hour to do it. I thought as a programme for the masses it got the message over rather well and didnt seem to say anything that wasnt true! @56 – The programme talked at length about German companies operating abroad.

  49. I sympathise with James Ruppert, who was decent enough to present the prizes at the Norfolk Mini Owners Club show at Fakenham in 2006, the last year the sun shone….
    A few years back Keith put me in contact with a TV producer making a series called ‘Business Nightmares, with Evan Davis.
    The subject was the alleged underpricing of the Mini. He promised to meet me at the Mini show at Stanford Hall, but once there made no effort to contact me, even though film of the event did appear in the programme. The programme consisted of talking heads James Dyson, Richard Branson and others commenting on the individual cases, obviously having been briefed on their background. Of course motor manufacturing is completely different from vacuum cleaners, airlines and the music industry.
    I spoke to the TV producer several times but never actually met him. Incidentally, although he could drive, he did not actually own a car. I recieved no credit on the programme, but I did actually extract a form of payment. I remembered that back in August 1979 the BBC had shown a TV documentary simply called ‘Mini’ to mark 20 years of the car.
    I obtained from the BBC archives the said documentary on DVD.
    Fronted by Raymond Baxter with Gordon Wilkins, with an interview with Sir Alec Issigonis himself and produced by Brian Johnson (The Secret War, Classic British Cars), it remains an example of how to make TV documentaries. It treats its audience as intelligent and not requiring signposts to point the way forward.

  50. I know through an acquaintance, someone involved in a recent ‘documentary’ which detailed a paranormal phenomenon.

    While the person in question takes the subject very seriously, the documentary chose to follow a couple of badly judged subjects who claim to have experienced the phenomenon.

    The editorial direction was soon clear, the whole programme was a p***-take of the phenomenon, rather than an open minded scientific discussion.
    Stock footage of Nick Pope was included too, without his knowledge.

    I believe that most TV now appeals to a lowest common denominator, and subjects whether they be the UK car industry or paranormal phenomenon, the easiest and seemingly ‘most appealing’ default position is one of scoffing and editorial mockery.

  51. The fact is that the British car industry destroyed itself in the 1970s, no matter how much affection we feel for the cars it produced in that era,( and I for one do), Putting industrial relations in in context was the point, not bashing BL cars. Dominic Sandbrook is a decant historian with an interesting take on modern history and that seemed to be te point.

    I don’t get what you are getting so worked up about. I could understand it if the topc as the nonsense that currently masquerades as a motoring show, otherwise known as Top Gear,

  52. @60
    Actually the britishc ar indudustry had recoverd from the 70’s by the mid 80’s. By the early 90’s was enjoying somthing of a full recovery, or would have done if sharholders dividends had been placed lower on the list of priorities than product development

  53. I watched “Rover – The Long Goodbye” the other day, and started to get annoyed at the numerous, almost snide, inferences that Rover was overly fond of rebadging other people’s cars. Apparently, the rot set in with the advent of the V8, and by the time the first 200 arrived Rover already had a “long history” of badge engineering. They seemed to be attempting to brush the Rover Company of old with the tar of the CityRover, or something.

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