Other than the Motor City, name a place where cars are appreciated for the full scope of their impact on society.
A cable network may not be a geographic destination, yet the History Channel certainly fits that bill.
“”I mean, who doesn’t love the auto? Certainly, History does. It’s the perfect vehicle, no pun intended to deliver the juicy, wow facts that our audience really leans into,” says Mary Donahue, senior vice president of development and programming for the channel.
On Sunday, History will premiere a two-night documentary special titled “The Cars That Built the World.” It’s a lively journey through the creative engineering, intimidating leaps of faith, fateful missteps and ferocious rivalries behind global brands like Mercedes Benz, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, Toyota and Honda.
Instead of an all-star cast, it’s populated by the brilliant, ego-driven and sometimes abrasive figures whose confidence in their own ideas helped transform technology and change life as we know it.
From Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach to W.O. Bentley and Soichiro Honda — and, yes, Henry Ford, it’s the human element that fueled the rise of the auto industry across continents.
A Wall Street Journal review of the four-hour documentary gives it a thumbs-up: “It has traction, one might say, and the subject is such a normalized part of modern life that it’s exciting to visit a time in auto history when almost every innovation was a revolution.”
After “The Cars That Built the World,” History will shift gears on May 31 to roll out “The Titans That Built America,” a three-night event from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions. Timed to Memorial Day weekend, it focuses on the role played by captains of industry and robber barons in helping the United States achieve victory in World War II and emerge stronger than before.
Detroit looms large in this docuseries as the Arsenal of Democracy that shifted its assembly lines from cars for the public to vehicles and materials for the military. Auto icons Henry Ford and William Chrysler are two of the titans profiled, along with industrial magnates like J.P. Morgan Jr., William Boeing and Pierre DuPont.
Auto shows in overdrive
These days, the landscape of TV networks and streaming platforms is strewn with automotive content. Shows like BBC America’s “Top Gear, the MotorTrend app’s “Top Gear America” and Amazon Prime’s “The Grand Tour” combine four-wheeled adventures with banter and comedy.
Restoring junk heaps into dream rides and pushing the envelope of customized extravagance preoccupy series like Netflix’s “Car Masters: Rust to Riches” and History’s own “Counting Cars,” a “Pawn Stars” spinoff starring the outrageous real-life team from Count’s Kustoms auto restoration in Las Vegas.
Two upcoming shows will put a celebrity spin on the car genre. Discovery Channel recently gave the OK to “Hustle and Roll,” a new series from actor Jamie Foxx, who will be its executive producer. It’s described as a look into the world of luxury car dealers who compete to sell million-dollar vehicles.
And just 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 inside a large compound packed with obstacles. Contestants will be required to escape with prize money.
What sets History’s auto-themed documentaries apart is their emphasis on the human element of the mechanics and industry lore — the larger-than-life entrepreneurs whose names are still found on the companies they started.
As Donahue puts it, “The people who do these astonishing things are often astonishing themselves.”
Detroit is familiar territory for History productions. In 2017, the network debuted “The Cars That Made America,” a six-hour docuseries that stretched from the Ford Motel T to minivans and highlighted the career arcs of Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, the Dodge Brothers, General Motors founder William Durant, Lee Iacocca and John DeLorean.
A year later, History aired 2018’s “Detroit: Comeback City,” a one-hour special on the rise and fall of Detroit within the context of Michigan Central Station’s road from bustling train station to dilapidated building to its current redevelopment as a Ford Motor hub 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 metro Detroit native, actor J.K. Simmons.
“The Cars That Built the World” is the latest installment of a History concept that includes “The Food That Built America,” currently in its second season. At this point, the format also has three more versions ahead: “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 the way they help build the changing society. I know that’s probably a little heady, but that’s the way we think about it, that it’s twofold. It’s hands-on engineering and innovation and a bigger picture.”
Kevin Allgood, the executive producer of “The Cars That Built the World,” says there is almost a Shakespearean quality to the stories depicted in it. There are complicated family ties among auto industry tycoons and intense rivalries between competitors like Bentley and Rolls-Royce and Toyota and Honda, to name 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 names on a business and they’re still the top businesses.”
It was roughly a year-long process to make “The Cars That Built the World,” a period covering the initial conversations, months of research and writing, the actual filming and post-production work.
The two-night event uses a blend of archival footage and interviews with an array of experts: journalists from Road & Track, Jalopnik and Edmunds, history authors and professors, and even podcaster and car collector Adam Carolla.
There also is an element that differs from the Ken Burns school of documentary-making: re-enactments.
Actors re-create key scenes from the lives of the automotive company founders. Why re-enact history? Allgood says it’s a good way to put real-life events in perspective.
“One thing that we tend to do is take history for granted. You sort of think, especially for something technological, that once you get started, eventually it’s like you’re just on a path that’s predetermined. You just have to chip away at that path, and you’ll get from a horse and buggy to a car,” he says. “And that’s not the way it works at all.”
Sometimes the re-creations spotlight struggles and heartbreaking setbacks. For instance, a re-enactment set in the 1930s shows W.O. Bentley and his brother arriving broke and despondent to a meeting where they’ll meet their failing company’s secret buyer.
“Gentlemen, let me introduce you to your new employer,” says one of the men present. The Bentleys stare in shock at their mystery boss, who turns out to be their bitter rival, Henry Royce.
”When you shoot a re-enactment, it’s much clearer to the audience that (success) wasn’t inevitable, that these people had to make this happen,” says Allgood.
According to Allgood, the most pivotal re-creations are the ones akin to a lightbulb appearing above someone’s head in a cartoon. “We call them ‘aha’ moments. You see them getting the idea that they’re going to use to change the world.”
One such moment helps explain a fuel delivery breakthrough to non-gearheads. “We’re so close, it’s maddening,” mutters Wilhelm Maybach in a re-creation set in the 1890s. As he fusses with his tuxedo’s bowtie and glimpses his wife spritzing on perfume, the wheels in his mind turn and, voila, the idea for atomizing fuel with a spray-nozzle carburetor is born.
For the network behind these documentaries, the aha moment continues to be that history is anything but dull — if you find a way to bring it to life.
“Your’re telling it through the real human beings that accomplished so much instead of making it feel dry and dusty,” says Donahue, who compares the drama of these mega-docs to “a roller-coaster ride.”
And the aha city in the car category is Detroit. Says Donahue, “Without the 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.