From the shed to the spotlight: Autocar meets Edd China

Autocar meets TV mechanic Edd China

China’s spanner skills earned him a spot on television’s most watched car show

We get to know the madcap mechanic as he embarks on life after Wheeler Dealers and find out why Hollywood’s loss is ice cream vans’ gain

Heard the one about the star television presenter from the most-watched car show on the planet running into a bit of strife with his production team and finding himself suddenly sidelined from proceedings? Any ideas what he did next? 

Don’t worry, your eyes won’t be the only ones jumping from these words to the photos and trying to make sense of them. You see, Wheeler Dealers, co-hosted by Edd China and Mike Brewer for 13 seasons from 2003, reputedly has 350 million viewers, or a smidge more than the car show on the BBC you are thinking about, thanks in large part to its popularity in the US. 

If you know China – or think you know him from his television appearances – you won’t need any clarification around the strife he ran into, because it’s well documented and because, at just under 200cm tall, he’s the definition of a gentle giant (albeit one with a far more complex character than those two trite words suggest). More on that later. 

If you don’t know China, suffice to say this was not the result of a dispute over cooked meats, but rather a difference of opinion on how the show should progress. The format was well established and simple, with Brewer the cheeky-chappie car dealer who brought in wrecks that China, the in-house mechanical ace, then patched up prior to sale. It was mind-bogglingly successful, growing from a group of mates filming in a damp shed in the UK to a global phenomenon based in Huntingdon Beach, California, in the shadows of Hollywood. If your jaw has dropped at that, imagine how low China’s was hanging when he slid by longtime talk-show host Jay Leno’s for a personal tour of his cars, or when Sammy Hagar, former lead singer of global rock superstars Van Halen, introduced himself as a fan. 

At the time of the split, the show’s producers contended that China left “to pursue other projects”. He says, wry smile inch-perfect, he didn’t have any other projects, and that he left because they wanted to reduce the screen time and gravitas given to covering his mechanical exploits. Brewer, meanwhile, mixed polite public announcements with being caught off-guard saying some very ungenerous things about China’s ego and ability. Today, China shrugs the shrug of a man who’s more into actions than words – “Mike and I had an on-screen chemistry that worked; I loved it while it lasted and I wish him well” – while Brewer and sidekick Ant Anstead continue to soak up the Hollywood rays. 

“Do you know what? It was like living a dream out there,” reflects China. “It was brilliant, but never real – and it never felt like it was going to be forever. We found this amazing place to live right on the beach; we could watch whales swimming by, for goodness sake. We’d go for breakfast in the morning, ice cream in the evening, long drives into the scenery. Don’t get me wrong, my wife Imogen and I loved it. It was special. But it was a bit… well, fake. You could lap it up and enjoy it – and, trust me, we did – but you couldn’t live like that forever. Not if you wanted to keep your sanity and sense of perspective.” 

So what do you do next when you’ve relocated your life to Hollywood to front a blockbuster television show, only to be told it has all come to a crashing end just weeks before you had planned to start filming again? “I don’t need sympathy, and we had a ball, but everyone on the show worked so hard,” China says. “We filmed episode after episode, day after long day, no holidays. Aside from organising to get everything we’d moved out there back to England, it was nice to be free again – to explore the possibilities that are out there. I’ve rarely had plans; I prefer to bounce between the opportunities that come up.” 

If that all sounds a bit like it’s from the book of excuses for former television stars, it’s worth dwelling on China’s backstory. It’s fair to say that, before his televisual break, he lived and loved his life by following his whims. That dates right back to spending every waking moment playing Lego as a kid (but never following the instructions), to living in a big red bus as a student, to carving out the career that led to his job in front of the cameras by designing and engineering drivable sofas, bathrooms, offices, sheds and even a giant shopping trolley. Freedom means more to him than most, for reasons perhaps deeper than most.


“My father was a bona fide genius,” he says. “I’m not being boastful, but he was part of the team that sent the first British satellite into space. He was clever beyond belief, resourceful, the whole lot. But he struggled to reconcile that into the real world. One day, he went out on a railway line and killed himself. I was a small child, and although I was protected from the truth for a while, that was every bit as hard as you can imagine. But that has always given me a sense of perspective and a sense of going out there and enjoying everything that I do. Sometimes plans change and you’ve just got to roll with it.” 

China’s openness and self-assessment of his contradictions – many not apparent on television – only make him more endearing. He’s also open about the fact that live television and audiences terrify him. For instance, he once threw up in the flowerbeds on Channel 4 show The Big Breakfast before a broadcast, and he still refuses to present live at shows or awards ceremonies unless there’s someone else up there to be the centre of attention or a car or a prop to take the glare off him. “I can’t explain it, but it’s who I am,” says China. “I love creating things that people love to look at – not being the thing to look at.” 

Therein lies a glimpse of what makes China fascinating, whether you are mechanically minded or not, and why Penguin was motivated to commission him to write a book about his life, not just the television show. That book is why we’re talking now; it’s a lovely read that reflects the central pillar of his character, an enthusiasm for everything that interests him, plus an integrity and depth of knowledge that sets him apart. This is a bloke who knows his stuff, even if talking about it can sometimes leave you trying to follow six threads of conversation at once as he bounces from idea to idea, seemingly oblivious that you are struggling to keep up. Even if you only met him five minutes ago, you tend to get swept along on his tidal wave of ideas. 

“As a child I talked a lot, which a lot of children do, but the thing was that my mum did the opposite of what most parents do – she encouraged me,” he smiles. “I asked so many questions but she’d do everything to help me get the answers, or get me to a place where I could get the answers. Then, when I was old enough to start playing with real cars, she looked on as I turned the front of our house into a workshop. The neighbours would despair, but she knew it made me happy and she wanted me to have fun. If I wanted to live in a bus, that was fine [he converted a Leyland Atlantean rather than take up digs at university], just so long as she knew I was safe and happy. I kind of turned that attitude into the most amazing career – making a drivable sofa was pretty cool, Hollywood was off the scale…” 

For all that tempting old cars into action can require a bodger’s touch, there’s also a perfectionist streak within China that’s always bubbling beneath the surface. In terms of his television career, he admits that it could frustrate those around him. “I wasn’t trained and I wasn’t a natural presenter, it was just about me getting my point across truthfully and that wasn’t the job of one take,” he says. “In fact, I sometimes wonder if I’d be a better producer than presenter, because I would always want to do another take just to see if I could improve on something I felt could be better, even if others were happy.” 

It’s for exactly that reason that China hasn’t rushed back onto our screens. He is busy with other projects and not about to accept any old gig just to get his face in front of the cameras again. “One thing I learned is that making good television needs careful planning, the right people and proper budgets,” China says. “Wheeler Dealers was exceptional for all those reasons and I’ve got no intention of compromising. Funnily enough, I met [comedian] Steve Coogan the other day. He’s a huge car fan and was asking me to get on with making another show for him to watch. It was very kind, and I suggested he come over and we make something together. He just laughed: ‘Your show was my guilty pleasure – if I’m on it, then it’ll be ruined!’ Well, I can’t put any old nonsense out and wreck that kind of expectation, can I? Anyway, I am very busy without it, and very excited about whatever comes next.”

China’s magnum opus

Right now, China is busy chasing a Guinness World Record for – what else? – the world’s fastest electric ice cream van. Not only that, he’s looking to revolutionise the ice cream van market by developing tech so that the machinery to chill, make and dispense the ice cream can all be run off electricity, rather than diesel. 

“Who wants to eat an ice cream covered in diesel?” he laughs. “It’s nuts – that smell when you wait in line for your 99 is usually coming from a pretty inefficient diesel engine! It’s not going to change the world but, from a business point of view, who wouldn’t want to save all the money running a generator, and from an environmental point of view we’d all be much better off.” 

China also has ideas about developing aquatic cars, something that readers of his book will learn has been a lifelong fascination, and is also considering a refurb of the drivable sofa as it’s 21 years old soon. “I’ve been thinking about driving it across America,” he muses. 

He also remains a draw on the US car scene and takes a guest slot on the London to Brighton Mini and Veteran Car Runs each year.

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Source: Autocar

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