Automotive Legends Power History Channel’s “Cars That Built The World”

Other than Motor City, name a place where cars are valued for the full extent of their impact on society.

A wired network might not be a geographic destination, but the History Channel certainly fits that bill.

“” I mean, who doesn’t love the automobile? Of course, history does. It’s the perfect, no-pun intended vehicle to deliver the juicy, awe-inspiring facts our audiences really get into, ”said Mary Donahue, the channel’s senior vice president of development and programming.

On Sunday, History will preview a special two-night documentary titled “The cars that built the world.” It’s a living journey through creative engineering, intimidating acts of faith, fateful missteps and fierce rivalries behind global brands like Mercedes Benz, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, Toyota and Honda.

Instead of a star-studded cast, it’s populated with bright, ego-driven, and sometimes abrasive personalities whose trust in their own ideas has helped transform technology and change life as we know it.

From Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach to WO Bentley and Soichiro Honda – and, yes, Henry Ford, it is the human element that has fueled the rise of the auto industry across continents.

A review of the Wall Street Journal of the four-hour documentary gives it a boost: “It has traction, you might say, and the subject matter is such a normalized part of modern life that it’s thrilling to visit an era in the history of the automobile where almost every innovation was a revolution. “

After “The cars that built the world”, History will shift into high gear on May 31 to unfold “The Titans who built America “, a three-night event from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions. Scheduled over Memorial Day weekend, it focuses on the role captains of industry and thief barons played in helping the United States achieve victory in World War II and come out stronger than before.

Detroit looms large in these docuseries as the Arsenal of Democracy that has shifted its assembly lines from cars for the public to vehicles and materials for the military. Automotive icons Henry Ford and William Chrysler are two of the streamlined titans, as well as industrial tycoons like JP Morgan Jr., William Boeing, and Pierre DuPont.

Automatic shows in overdrive

Today, the landscape of television networks and streaming platforms is littered with automotive content. Shows like “Top Gear” from BBC America, “Top Gear America” ​​from the MotorTrend app and “The Grand Tour” from Amazon Prime combine four-wheeled adventures with jokes and comedy.

Restore piles of trash in dreamy rides and push the boundaries of custom extravagance series like Netflix’s “Car Masters: Rust to Riches” and History’s “Counting Cars”, a “Pawn Stars” spin-off featuring featuring the outrageous real-life team of Count’s Kustoms auto catering in Las Vegas.

Two upcoming shows will give the automotive genre a touch of celebrity. Discovery Channel recently signed off on “Hustle and Roll”, a new series from actor Jamie Foxx, who will be executive producer. It is described as a glimpse into the world of luxury car dealerships competing to sell million dollar vehicles.

And last week, another Discovery series, “Getaway Driver”, was revealed by Entertainment Weekly. Hosted by “Fast and Furious” franchise star Michelle Rodriguez, it will be a reality competition set in a large complex full of obstacles. Competitors will have to escape with a cash prize.

Kiichiro Toyoda (Ryan Knoll) reads letter from his father in History Channel's scene

What sets History’s auto-themed documentaries apart is their emphasis on the human element of the mechanics and lore of the industry – the larger-than-life entrepreneurs whose names still appear on them. companies they created.

As Donahue says, “The people who do these amazing things are often astonished at themselves.”

Detroit is familiar territory for historical productions. In 2017, the network made its debut “The Cars That Made America” a six-hour docusery that spanned from Ford Motel T to minivans and spotlighted the career arcs of Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, the Dodge brothers, General Motors founder William Durant, Lee Iacocca and John DeLorean .

One year later, History aired “Detroit: Comeback City” in 2018 an hour-long special about the rise and fall of Detroit against the backdrop of the Michigan Central Station route, from the bustling train station to a dilapidated building to its current redevelopment as a Ford hub Motor in Corktown.

A collaboration between Ford and the cable network, it featured appearances by famous Detroiters like Smokey Robinson and Alice Cooper and narration by a native of the Detroit subway, actor JK Simmons.

Shakespeare-style drama

“The Cars That Built the World” is the latest installment in a story concept that includes “The Food That Built America,” now in its second season. At this point, the format also has three more versions coming up: “The Machines That Built America”, “The Toys That Built America” and “The Engineering That Built the World”.

Donahue says the “That Built” concept works on two distinct levels. “It means ‘built’ in terms of innovation, imagination and engineering, and it’s ‘built’ in how they help build the evolving society. I know it’s probably a bit exhilarating. , but that’s the way we think about it, it’s twofold It’s practical engineering and innovation and a bigger picture. “

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Kevin Allgood, executive producer of The Cars That Built the World, says there is almost a Shakespearean quality to the stories it describes. There are complicated family ties between auto industry tycoons and intense rivalries between rivals like Bentley and Rolls-Royce and Toyota and Honda, to name just two.

Allgood finds it fascinating that these pioneers remain synonymous with their brands. “I don’t know how many industries have that where the first generation put their name on a company and they’re still the best companies.”

Henry Ford in a recreated scene from History's

It took about a year to make “The Cars That Built the World,” a period spanning initial conversations, months of research and writing, filming, and post-production work.

The two-night event uses a mix of archival footage and interviews with a range of experts: reporters from Road & Track, Jalopnik and Edmunds, history writers and teachers, and even the podcaster and car collector Adam Carolla.

There is also one element that differs from the Ken Burns documentary school: the reenactments.

The actors recreate key scenes from the life of the founders of the automotive company. Why reconstruct history? Allgood says it’s a good way to put real-life events into perspective.

“One thing we tend to do is take history for granted. You kind of think, especially for something technological, that once you’ve started, it’s ultimately like you’re on. a predetermined path. You just have to cut back on that path, and you’ll go from a horse and a buggy to a car, “he said.” And that’s not the way it is at all. walk.”

Sometimes the recreations highlight heartbreaking struggles and setbacks. For example, a re-enactment set in the 1930s shows WO Bentley and his brother arriving broke and disheartened at a meeting where they meet the secret buyer of their failing business.

“Gentlemen, let me introduce you to your new employer,” said one of the men present. The Bentleys watch in shock their mysterious boss, who turns out to be their bitter rival, Henry Royce.

“When you shoot a re-enactment, it’s a lot clearer to audiences that (success) wasn’t inevitable, that these people had to get there,” says Allgood.

According to Allgood, the most important recreations are those that look like a light bulb appearing above someone’s head in a cartoon. “We call them ‘aha’ moments. You see them get the idea that they are going to use to change the world.”

Such a moment helps explain a breakthrough in fuel delivery to non-reducers. “We’re so close, it’s maddening,” Wilhelm Maybach mutters in a recreation set in the 1890s. As he busies himself with the bow tie on his tuxedo and sees his wife spraying perfume, the wheels of his mind are spinning, and voila, the idea of ​​atomizing fuel with a spray nozzle carburetor was born.

For the network behind these documentaries, the aha moment continues to be that the story is anything but boring – if you find a way to bring it to life.

“You tell it through real human beings who accomplished so much instead of making it dry and dusty,” says Donahue, who likens the drama of those mega-docs to “a roller coaster ride.”

And the aha city in the car category is Detroit. Donahue says, “Without Motor City, we couldn’t make any of these wonderful documentaries. “

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]

“The cars that built the world”

9 p.m. Sun-Mon