Car S.O.S. : Reality television with a heart.

Last week I was in Atlanta on a training weekend. Early Monday morning I found myself home in Vancouver tired but relieved to be back in my own home, with my kettle and a litre of milk. As I waited for my first cup of tea to brew I decided to turn on my computer. I hate doing this, especially so early in the morning, but I wanted to see if I had any urgent emails pending. You know, things like The Ellen Show asking me for an interview or a surprise lottery win. Alas neither of those messages appeared in my inbox. However, I did see a note saying that a new episode of Car S.O.S had been uploaded onto YouTube and this episode featured a Lancia Delta Integrale! I finished making my tea and sat down to watch it, jet lag be damned!

Car S.O.S. as the title implies is a reality television show based around saving old cars in desperate need of repair from the scrapheap. There is a mouthy car parts expert called Tim Shaw, who is a radio and television presenter. His partner in crime is the car restorer, Fuzz Townshend. The show is a 45-minute programme that airs on the National Geographic Channel. The viewer get to go on the journey with them as they restore people's cars over a three-week period. The car's owners have no idea their pride and joys are being taken away to be restored. At the end, they are surprised by their friends and family and we get to watch their reactions.

The format is the same every week and you would think it would get dull rather quickly. Like all good entertainment, the joy is in knowing what to expect. The cars are stripped by Fuzz and his garage helpers who occasionally appear on screen, while Tim inflicts himself on Britain's car parts suppliers. Every job is a "challenge" and yet the parts are sourced and in some cases built using 3D printers. In the end, the cars are finished just in time and returned in a surprising fashion to their owners. The cynical side of my personality knows the show is staged to a degree. How many people are really working on each car? Do they really only have three weeks? How much would each restoration cost each owner if they were doing it themselves? Then I ask myself about how valuable the cars are when restored? Are they fitted with alarms? I mean imagine having your car robbed a week after getting it back.

After watching numerous episodes and seeing an Astra GTE loving saved along with a BMW 2002 Turbo returned to showroom specification, I realized that this shows enduring appeal is really all about the owners themselves. These are not rich people with storage space and a war chest of money in reserve. They are normal folk like you and me. As the show has evolved over the six years or so it has been on the air, many of the cars are owned by sick or dying people. People who will never be able to save their cars themselves. Seeing their surprise and joy at the end of each episode is the one part that is certainly not staged. As a car fanatic myself, I relate deeply to what they are feeling. I know the pain of seeing a classic car sitting in storage. I know the desire to drive it again and I share that dogged determination to fix it one day.

So, as I began watching this particular episode, I knew what to expect. The Lancia would be rusted to within an inch of its life. The interior, which was fragile when new would be dirty and in pieces. The engine, although powerful would need attention due to its tight packaging and complex turbo design. I was correct on all counts. Smirking and mentally congratulating myself on my expert knowledge I continued to watch. The owner of this particular Lancia was gravely ill and his 12-year-old daughter had written to Car S.O.S. She wanted to give her father a surprise and lift his spirits. Again, nothing to surprising given the premise of the show. It was odd though, the owner, a guy called Garry wasn't featured at all which was strange. Still, the Lancia restoration was fascinating to watch. I learnt about removing car insulation with dry ice! After a short piece about removing cat poo from the car seats, the show took a surprising turn. Garry, the owner had died.

Oh sh*t! I thought to myself. Things got very tragic very quickly. The car was still in bits. You see Tim phoning the guys father and through sobs and tears he asks that they finish restoring the Lancia. I am crying at this point. The family come to see the work in progress and everyone is holding back tears. I'm avoiding thinking about the fact that Garry will never see his car again. He died thinking it was rotting in the garden under a tarp. This yellow Lancia has now become his legacy and I can't decide of that is a good thing or not.

The handover is planned for the following week and a car meet up is planned. Dozens of Lancia owners turn up with their cars. Owners of previous cars restored on the show come to pay their respect too. Garry's family arrive and we all wait for the reveal. As the car drives up the driveway you can see the peoples' solemn faces. This isn't a reveal at all, it is a wake. To see a car driven without its owner is like a dog without his master. It will always be incomplete, looking for someone it will never find.

As the episode ends, I look at my watch. It is 3am in the morning. I don't feel tired. I feel sad and relieved. I was able to share in Atlanta with a room of around 1,000 people about my book and my journey with the Beast, my father's E30 M3. It was something that kept me fighting for my own life. I know the circumstances are not the same but I would argue my emotional bond to the vehicle is.

I am grateful to Tim and Fuzz and everyone on the Car S.O.S. team for saving this car. It is a true classic and to see it back to factory condition is a testament to them. The gift they gave Garry's family is worth so much more though. His legacy, his memory is now carried by it. Reality TV can be vapid when done wrong. Car S.O.S. does it right. It brings a humanity to classic car restoration and offers owners and cars a new lease of life...most of the time. Most of all, it offers kindness in a time when I would assert it is missing in the world.

Fair play lads, fair play.



You can watch Car S.O.S. on the National Geographic Channel and it is repeated on Channel 4 and More4.

Car S.O.S. logo is taken from the show's Facebook page.

The Lancia Delta Integrale image is sourced from Evo Car Magazine at