SOUTH GATE, California — Dennis Pittsenbarger is in his element. The animated host of the new show “Sticker Shock” is standing on the set, surveying the array of super cool, unusual, and wild rides spread out before him, and he couldn’t be happier.
Hot rods, hearses, Woodies, Beetles, muscle cars galore, you name it, they’re out there on the ginormous floor of a former Firestone tire factory in Southern California. It’s a location that serves as the perfect backdrop for this show about cars, their backstories, and their value that’s set to air starting next week on the Discovery Channel—our parent company.
We caught up with Pittsenbarger between takes during filming. Wearing Ray-Ban specs framing his black hair and beard and decked out in a black Levi’s jacket, gray t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, he’s the picture of a laid back car guy.
At the moment we’re discussing the deeper meaning of what a hot rod is as the crew preps a black 1976 Pontiac Sunbird for a close-up, its massive blower flipping us the bird.
“A lot of people will define a hot rod—they’ll say: ‘A hot rod is a ’55 Chevy. A hot rod is a Mustang, Camaro, Cuda,’” said Pittsenbarger, who is also a racer and restorer in addition to his hosting duties.
“I’ve been asked that question a million times where I was off doing a radio show for Hot Rod. What is a hot rod? And I think it’s best defined by, either my friends at the magazine or by myself, it’d simply be this—it’s taking something and modifying it, and personalizing it to make it your own.”
So as much as I am the first one to say: ‘In my world, I’m a Camaro junkie.’ That’s fine. But I appreciate the kid who takes a Honda and puts an 88-millimeter turbo on it, and a big wing, and all the carbon fiber and all that. To me, he’s doing the same thing, just with what he has—just a different version,” said Pittsenbarger.
It’s that kind of broad-based thinking that helps Pittsenbarger keep each car that appears on “Sticker Shock” in perspective as he and one of the show’s four expert appraisers will critique everything and anything—from an Eleanor Mustang tribute to a Batmobile—roughly a half dozen cars per show. Think “Antiques Roadshow” except with cars and car-related collectibles. It’s fun, fast paced, and easy to get caught up in the action.
“I could totally roll in that car,” said Pittsenbarger, pointing at the Batmobile replica that’s based on the Barris-built classic from the 1966 “Batman” TV series. When asked if he’d wear a matching costume while driving it, the host says he’s definitely game.
“It would have to be period correct, Adam West Batman—definitely not Christian Bale for this one,” he said as he points out a few of his favorites from the show, including a 1964 Chevrolet Biscayne and a butternut yellow, 1931 Chevy Roadster that was featured with The Beach Boys on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
“We have cars from Florida, we’ve got cars from where I live in Oregon, we’ve got cars from Iowa, Texas—it’s a neat collection from not only a car perspective, but it’s also a neat collection of cars from just geographic differences.”
It’s time to shoot the next segment. Pittsenbarger inspects the undercarriage of a 1951 Kaiser Traveler that’s up on a lift surrounded by a full crew, a big boom microphone, and big ass lighting rigs. He chats up the Kaiser’s owner as Todd Wertman, one of the show’s four expert appraisers, gives the classic a close up inspection.
A multi-purpose car with dark green paint and a matching interior filled with related collectibles, the Traveler can convert from a six-passenger sedan to a cargo carrier by folding its rear seats forward. It rolls on fat white walls, sports massive chrome bumpers and side trim, and an American flag hangs from its antenna. It’s a predecessor to the modern hatchback utility vehicles of today.
The gray-bearded owner in a black flamed bowling shirt stands by anxiously as he awaits the verdict of what his cherished ride will be appraised for. Thirteen episodes of “Sticker Shock” have been shot and this season features appraisals of some 72 vintage vehicles.
Between takes, dozens of crew members prepare for the next scene as several extras stop to check their text messages. A craft services runner offers us bite sized chicken and waffle appetizers as we watch a replay of the previous segment on the director’s monitors.
Tod Mesirow, the showrunner and executive producer, gives it a thumb’s up and they move on to the next car to be shot for today’s episode. Mesirow has numerous auto-themed shows under his belt including “Monster Garage” and “Wheeler Dealers.”
Mesirow’s a big car buff as well and gives us the lowdown on everything from the Firestone plant which was built in 1928 to the best barbeque in the neighborhood (Ray’s BBQ on Sante Fe Avenue in Huntington Park).
Up next is that black, blown ’76 Sunbird with a blood red interior and matching red pinstripes.
“Just to give you an example, I mean, here’s a little Pontiac with a small block with a blower. See, now that’s me. That’s ‘Merica. You got to leave the A off and say ‘Merica. But that’s the thing about me. I don’t think that only one kind of car is cool. I think a lot of cars are cool,” he explains.
The Sunbird’s owner is Mike Swanson, from Davenport, Iowa, the lead singer of an AC/DC cover band called “Rolling Thunder.” He tells Pittsenbarger and Addison Brown, the female appraiser of the group (Randy Carlson and Nick Smith are also appraisers), that he calls his souped-up Pontiac the “Chicken Hawk.” She gives the car an excellent critique as part of a pretty funny segment.
“A lot of it can be an idea of how people can have a little fun, see what cars are worth, and get an idea. I mean, that’s what’s fun about working with the appraisers, I get to have the fun,” said Pittsenbarger. “I get to tell the stories and have fun with these guys. Let them have an ability to look at the car objectively, put a value on it, and along the line really it’s about telling the story, and what connects people to their cars.”
“Sticker Shock” is airing on Wednesday, May 2, at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. From there, tune in on Wednesday nights at 10 to catch the entire season.