“Reality television” is a huge oxymoron. Unless it’s a pure documentary (like Cops or The First 48), most reality TV shows have as many scriptwriters as any fictional TV show. That goes for car TV shows as well. True, there are many of them (especially on Motor Trend’s network) that are totally legitimate. They go into the nuts and bolts (literally) of car repairs and restorations and truly love talking about automobiles. Top Gear may have some over the top moments but it also presents a lot of real car stuff to leave fans entertained and informed. The issue is that networks will push producers to create a lot more drama for these shows and that leads to many becoming more fictional than real.
Some shows can overcome these issues and still be very entertaining. Others can be inundated by all this manufactured drama and that makes them terrible. Even the best reality TV car shows can be enjoyed even when the viewer knows they’re pretty fake. Often, it’s the drama of the various people at a show and how they get along. Other times, the situations presented are blatantly staged from the types of jobs they have to sudden “emergencies.” Some shows just present information terribly when it comes to cars and can even be prone to real-life legal issues. Even when a show is enjoyable, that doesn’t forgive it being packed with misrepresentation and outright lies. Here are 20 of the least trustworthy car shows presented on TV to showcase how “reality” doesn’t mean it’s actually true.
20 Vegas Rat Rods
Like so many shows on the list, the first season of this series was pretty authentic. It centers around Steve Darnell and his crew in Las Vegas building cars from scratch using scrap metal. The fact that many of the cast and crew are from Canada should be a red flag on things from the start. Any welder worth his salt knows there’s no way you can walk through a shop like this sans protective mask; no female employee would be wearing skirts with their hair let down. The second season moves from the cars themselves to clearly scripted drama with the employees while the jobs are brushed over. It also looks like some of these “scrap” materials are pretty new. It may be a hit show yet don’t expect it to present a realistic view of what welding is like.
From the beginning, this show pushes a lack of trust. The concept is that a random person has their car supposedly towed away. It’s by Chip Foose who then has his team overhaul the classic car (financed by their relatives) into a top-notch machine. In the early seasons, these “hauls” were real. As the show went on though, it became more obvious how contrived they were and that the “victim” was clearly in on it. The repairs are obviously scripted with “emergencies” popping up before a “miracle save.” Not helping the show is Foose himself coming off very self-absorbed and distracting from the real work done on the cars. It’s another case where the presentation’s obviously staged situations overpower the real car work.
18 American Hot Rod
Boyd Coddington may be a well-regarded name in the hot rod world. Yet even the best can make mistakes and a huge one was Boyd agreeing to this show. A blatant knock-off of other “garage shows,” it lacked the chemistry that made those series a success. Boyd himself barely checked into this shop and it looked as if his entire staff were openly fighting to never work together. Boyd himself comes off as a total jerk to everyone, like firing a staffer for a simple mistake. The jobs themselves had some good stuff but were drowned out by the bad staff and overall terrible morale. The series ended when Coddington passed away in 2008 and it’s sad his legacy is marred by such a terrible show.
17 Fastest Car
On the face of it, this Netflix series has a terrific concept. Each episode focuses on whether a “sleeper” car, once modified, can beat a top-line speedster in a drag race. Sadly, this concept is swiftly undermined as some of these “sleepers” are clearly already fast cars that barely need modification. On the flip side, a few of the “supercars” aren’t exactly known as mega-fast models (like a McLaren MP4-12c). Not helping are the hosts pushing the dubious idea that anyone who owns a “supercar” is an arrogant jerk who deserves to be beaten by the noble “sleeper” owner. The races are good and some of the modifications can be fun, yet this series can also present a poor representation of car culture.
16 Diesel Brothers
This Utah-based show has Heavy D and Diesel Dave (not actually brothers) putting together massive diesel trucks. On the show, the duo come off as passionate guys who love working on rigs and tricking them out. However, the series has been hit by accusations of using illegal labor and cheap parts for several of their jobs. They blatantly recreated a fire that had occurred when the cameras weren’t running just to provide a dramatic moment. There’s also how they boast of their love of America yet constantly use foreign parts. Even some of the builds are clearly edited to look much easier than they should be and the pair getting help from sponsors. The duo love their celebrity but the reality is that their show is pretty contrived.
15 Unique Whips
When the auto shop featured on a show ends up going broke, that’s a sure sign it shouldn’t be trusted. Airing on the Speed Channel back in 2005, the series focused on Unique Autosports who did custom jobs for celebrities. It boasted some big-name stars such as 50 Cent, LeBron James and more. While that helped viewers tune in, the show put too much focus on the celebrities and their fancy cars than the real ins and outs of the jobs. Also, Will Castro spent too much time mugging for the cameras. The shop went broke in 2011 with Castro moving onto another business. It showed once more that fancy customs don’t make for a trustworthy car show.
14 Trick My Truck
Running five seasons on CMT, this series focused on the “Chrome Shop Mafia” as they went about remaking trucks for “worthy drivers.” From the start, the show presents the whole thing as a surprise visit when the truck owners know far in advance they’ve been selected. The truck makeovers do look good as they integrate the owners’ personal lives to make the trucks look better. Yet the show brushes over the actual mechanical work with one producer admitting “It’s just too boring to show.” That undermines a lot of the show’s appeal to gearheads and makes a viewer question how well these restorations are actually done. While the Mafia are actually good mechanics and did some nice jobs, the show weakened how much work was put into it.
13 Street Customs/Inside West Coast Customs
Ryan Friedlinghaus gained a rather unsavory reputation over the years by both co-workers and viewers. Thus, it’s no surprise his two major TV shows can be attacked. It began with Pimp My Ride where Friedlinghaus made his mark with his wild custom jobs. He then got his own spin-off show where he continued to do custom rides for major celebrities. Just as with Pimp, the problem was that the remodels focused on the exterior and did little to help the car’s performance. The fact that the shop saw overturn in employees due to Ryan’s temper didn’t help. Neither did accusations by customers of bad work done on their cars. While some of his custom jobs look good, car fans shouldn’t trust this man with real expertise.
12 Fast N' Loud
It's been a massive hit series that turned Richard Rawlings into a millionaire. The early seasons of the show were genuine in Gas Monkey Garage having to flip cars to make a profit. As the show became a huge success, the idea of them “barely squeaking by” on every job has become less kosher. The show is also known for manipulative editing so jobs take faster or longer than they do in real life. It also presents a supposed small staff when there’s a huge crew viewers don’t see. To top it off, several of the situations and jobs are clearly scripted for further drama. The series may be one of the biggest car TV hits yet it’s often untrustworthy.
11 Misfit Garage
After being fired from Fast N' Loud, Tom Smith and Jordan Butler set up their own garage a few miles away for their own jobs. From the beginnings, the series pushes the idea that Richard Rawlings is a rival owner who constantly undermines these guys. This ignores how Rawlings happens to own the garage and the “rivalry” is completely manufactured. Just as obvious is how so many of their jobs (like creating a motorcycle for the new Jurassic World movie) are blatant set-ups and how much of it is scripted. Some fans even wonder if the “firing” of Smith and Butler was staged to set up this spin-off. It may be a hit show but don’t be fooled into thinking this series is truly authentic.
10 Street Outlaws
An entire show based on illegal street racing is a risky proposition. This popular series has been accused of glorifying something that’s been known to cause quite a few awful accidents in real life. Racers have been threatened with losing their licenses just by appearing on the show. While it’s questionable how many of the races themselves are faked, the show clearly does some editing to enhance the drama. The fact it’s on the air at all just showcases that the police don’t have as huge a problem with the producers as they proclaim. The biggest problem is that it makes these races look less dangerous than they truly are when this entire exercise should be avoided by drivers.
9 Caffeine and Octane
The Caffeine and Octane auto meet is a major event for car buffs. The Atlanta-based monthly events gather car fans from around the nation to check out the models and maybe pull a few buys and swaps off. One would think a TV show based on the event would be terrific. One would be wrong. The TV show has altered the C&O meets by roping off certain sections and dictating what guests can see and hear. The hosts can be over the top and often incorrect in some of their presentations. Even Skip Smith will talk about a car only to be corrected on its make or model. The entire show is a very poor Top Gear knock-off that misses how fun these meets really are.
8 Graveyard Carz
The idea of this show wasn’t too bad. It was the typical makeover series of a garage led by the “Ghouls” tracking down long abandoned cars and restoring them. The issue is how narrow the focus was. The series openly stated, “it’s Mopar or no car.” That means they only focused on Mopar muscle cars made in the '60s and ‘70s. Focusing on just one type of car means the various issues of the show are highlighted. It’s obvious how the “comedy elements” are scripted as was the appearance of Phantasm writer/director Don Coscarelli. That’s not mentioning how increasingly unlikely it is that in ten seasons, people keep finding abandoned Mopars “at random.” A focus on muscle cars is good but this series became increasingly artificial.
7 Counting Cars
This should be no surprise. After appearing as a car expert on Pawn Stars, Danny Koker got his own show where his garage handles all sorts of jobs. The series has been a hit yet attracts a lot of criticism. Coker will often make a lot of mistakes regarding a car’s history or even what make it is that viewers are ready to call him out on. It’s also clear how much of the drama is manufactured for the cameras. There have been issues of workers being fired under dubious circumstances and Coker’s outspoken views not helping. Also, reviews of the actual garage from real customers indicate it’s a total disaster as the cameras make it look far more effective than it really is. Coker may be entertaining yet he’s hardly the “expert” the show makes him out to be.
6 Pimp My Ride
This is a rather obvious choice. True, the cars of this long-running MTV show are pretty creative. Where else can one find a car designed like a pool table on wheels? However, it was obvious how the cars cared more about the exterior than the performance. Too much time was spent adding in flashy wheels, decorations, LED screens and wild paint jobs than making sure the engine ran well. TV Guide did an article detailing how several of the cars’ owners were facing issues such as how their insurance rates went through the roof thanks to these makeovers. There’s also how they couldn’t resell the cars because of their additions. The cars may have been fancy but the show just hurt the owners in the long run.
5 Desert Car Kings
The key issue with this show is the constant boasts it makes about restoring cars often found in Arizona. The McClure family and their workers hunt down the cars, often in rough shape, and set about to restore them quickly. The problem is that these are not restorations in giving the cars new parts and trying to make them as good (or better) as when they were manufactured. Instead, the Kings just put on a fresh paint job, a couple of decorations, maybe new wheels and that’s it. These are just fast fixes that do nothing to help a car’s longevity. That the show continues to boast these are restorations when they’re not undermines whatever good they try to present.
The newest show on the list, this series premiered on Velocity in 2018. It focuses on Justin Nicholas who’s described as a “visionary in his field” as his Illinois shop handles a variety of repairs and restorations. Nicholas does have a creative passion, but like too many shows of this type, it’s obvious how much is scripted for drama. Not helping is that some of the jobs have been criticized by viewers. One episode had them putting together a Mustang without understanding its horsepower or the interior specs and being surprised it wouldn’t start. It’s quite possible a home mechanic could do a better job with some of these cars. The show is just too clichéd as well as error-prone to put much trust into.
3 Texas Car Wars
It’s hard to get more untrustworthy than a real-life lawsuit. Airing just one season in 2012, this show focused on four auto body shops in Texas who competed at auctions and junkyards to find cars, restore them and turn them into profit-makers. Since the beginning, the episodes focused on the drama of the shops’ owners/mechanics to the constant clashes to who could get the best rides. The actual restorations were given little time so the series could look at situations of the shops. The low ratings led to it being axed after just one season. In 2014, several of the “employees” of the shops filed a lawsuit revealing they were merely actors who hadn’t been paid. That alone should prove how fake this show was.
2 American Chopper
At first, this show seemed to be a great program for fans of classic motorcycles. Paul Teutul and his son, Junior, manufactured classic California-style choppers in New York. The early seasons offered a nice culture clash of bike lovers and focus on the bikes. As the show went on, the bikes took a backseat to the drama of father and son. The image of one of their arguments has become a popular meme. Things grew to the point of Junior fired. The show became a competition series of father and son with their own crews restoring bikes and they reunited for a new series in 2018. Again, the focus became the dynamics between the duo and some contrived repair jobs rather than the choppers themselves.
1 Garage Rehab
Richard Rawlings’ latest series has him traveling to save garages around the country. Rawlings will invest as much as $100,000 into these garages to get them new equipment and remodel them. The show is the typical “remake” series that gives a good new shine to the stores but fails to tackle the internal issues of staff which are the real problem. It also turns out that Rawlings “investments” are more due to his promotional deals than really his own pocket. To be fair, the garages are still in business yet it’s obvious how much drama is manufactured (complete with too-short “deadlines” to enhance the pressure) and thus it’s harder to take it seriously. Helping out a struggling business is good but don’t believe Rawlings is the only savior these places have.
Sources: TVtropes.com, reddit.com, imdb.com