Top Gear

Sunday, May 21, 2006 by

Do you know anything about cars? I don’t. I failed eight driving tests (yes, eight – in at least one mainland European country you are declared clinically insane if you fail your driving test more than half a dozen times) and have since only driven Ford vehicles on the grounds that the controls are in the right place. Hardly scientific stuff. And I had to beg at court only the other week not to take my licence from me thanks to the work of Mr Gatso.

So, if the knee is jerked, I shouldn’t really be ideal viewing fodder for Top Gear. I may well be male and in my 30s, and, like at least two of the presenters, I have been known to combine fiercely pressed denim jeans with a suit jacket, but I have next to no knowledge of cars and beyond being able to drive, little actual interest in them.

But this is the beauty of the brand of auto-centric television Top Gear now channels into our homes. Yes, of course it adores cars, but it goes beyond the grain of telling you which type of motor is ideally suited to you, represents value, has economy in fuel etc. Forget that. Whingers who constantly berate the programme for not representing the “average” motorist (down my street that’s a Volvo owner with a dog cage screwed into the boot and a stereo which insists on playing the Black Eyed Peas far too loudly) miss the point – if you want sage advice on goodly intended cars, ask a dealership local to you. Have a word with your local mechanic. Subscribe to Exchange & Mart. Top Gear is about fantasy, experimentation and the future, and this was epitomised in tonight’s episode.

The beautifully redefined Top Gear now centres on the camaraderie between three prankishly knowledgeable presenters, all of whom have attitudes and foibles, and the daft situations and asides they cook up to take the show beyond documentary and into entertainment. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May are all entirely capable of sitting in a fine new machine to talk to the passenger wing camera about the dust in the controls or the weight of the suspension or (I’m improvising) the lack of view out of the rear window thanks to an overegged spoiler. The cars are so unaffordable that they cease to be the point. The presenters and the strategy become the reason to tune in.

Memories of James Bond came back to me as the team asked the question, at the outset, whether an amphibious car could be developed to catch public imagination. The trio were set a task to each buy a car they felt they could suitably adapt so that its roadworthiness was unaffected but it could then be transformed into a boat. What followed was the sort of laughter-tracked television, via the living room, which nobody could have scripted.

Whether it was the ever-bullish Clarkson arguing with a marine expert that instead of one small outboard motor on the back of his “indestructible” Toyota Hilux, he wanted two big ones; or the struggle which May had to reacquaint himself as a sailor (“How long since you last went sailing?” “31 years!”), the progress of the three was enchantingly captured and screamingly funny. We ended up with a Hilux and outboard motor from Clarkson; a VW camper van which was streamlined, propellered, weighted and turned into a narrow boat by Hammond; and, true to his laid-back persona (which extends to his driving, hence his onscreen nickname of “Captain Slow”), a Triumph Herald with a mast and rudder fitted courtesy of the resourceful May.

What’s also obvious from Top Gear in its current three-pronged, all-purpose format is that the three presenters are close enough to rip each other to shreds and collapse into fits of their own. Clarkson’s good at this. For all his opining and bluster, he is never afraid to laugh at what others have to say or do, and as he waited at Keele (geddit?) Services on the M6 with his attempt at amphibious mobility for the others, he almost fell to the floor when Hammond and then May each turned up with their efforts.

Part two of the task involved going to the Rudyard Reservoir in Leek (geddit? #2 – was Tim Vine on the production team?) and taking their boats across the two-mile radius of water. The journey between Keele Services and Leek isn’t fantastically long, but May had to make it longer due to his mast being unable to go through low bridges and overhanging trees. Both May and Hammond also broke down, thereby negating their amphibiousness in creativity – their adaptations to allow water travel had badly affected their acquisitions’ original aptitude for use on the roads, and Clarkson was gleeful and cocky as he towed Hammond in while May eventually used the RAC (“The question was – which would arrive first? Summer, or James May?” – Clarkson).

However, it was May who was able to get his engine cool enough for a restart and (“Watch this!”) head straight for the water upon arrival (“That’s really annoying” – Clarkson). The enthusiasm as he drifted into the drink in a perfect line (“It works!”) was obvious; his ability to hoist his sail and take full control was not as he hit the reeds at the other end and got stuck.

The other two tentatively made it into the water but Hammond’s propeller – his main and, frankly, only hope of keeping the “Damper Van” afloat, snapped off via the entry ramp and immediately he was on his way down. Clarkson, meanwhile, had time to switch off the car engine, leap through the hacksaw-cut sunroof of the “ToyBota” and put on his life jacket prior to starting up the outboard motor.

This wasn’t a race, as May would later point out to his considerable advantage, but the terms of the challenge had been lost on Clarkson who was able to take his creation for a gentle and successful spin round the reservoir while Hammond frantically tried to bale the water out of his van. “I’ve got a spare outboard motor,” he was gleefully informed by Clarkson. “I’ll give you a million pounds and a leg, either one, take your pick” replied a desperate, sinking Hammond. He got the motor, strapped it up, pulled the string and got it moving, but even though the boat was finally (if dubiously) so (“It’s moving! It’s a boat!”), it was still going downwards as well as across. Hammond gave up and Clarkson took another verbal offer of a million and a baling bucket in return for a rescue. The van disappeared.

Meanwhile, May was sailing away, allowing for type by being very slow but nonetheless upright, calm and heading in the right direction, even though it wasn’t a great sailing day (“I need more wind!”). Clarkson, however, seemed a clear victor as he reached the pontoon, (Hammond still bailing out water from the car area) with the two miles complete. But, in a moment which will have pleased the sizeable minority of Clarkson detractors, he swung way too hard on the motor steering and gently, carefully and slowly, the ToyBota capsized, leaving Clarkson and Hammond clinging on to wheels. They laughed (and judging by the shaky filming, so did their terra firma cameraman), Clarkson mock-wept and beat his fists, face down, on the underside of the overturned ToyBota, and they leapt on to the harbour, waiting for May.

Displaying his usual considerate, underplayed shtick, May had happily sailed off at his own pace, needing to do little in terms of baling as the sealing job on his bonnet was successfully keeping the water out, and eventually – with Clarkson and Hammond waiting impatiently and feeling defeated – he got within shouting distance.

“Is that your boat?” he asked Clarkson.


“It’s the wrong way round.”

May switched his steering so he could use the stronger reverse gear on the ramp to get out (“If he reverses out I’m going to kill myself” – Clarkson) and managed to get halfway up before his clutch bust. However, he declared himself out of the water as he’d made the slipway and, in a truly superb pay-off prior to the film’s end, proclaimed: “Sailing – really boring!”

Back at Top Gear‘s hangar and May was declared the winner of the task by show of hands, having pointed out to Clarkson that it was never meant to be a race, and, looking at the ToyBota, that if he went on a cruise holiday and came in upside down he’d want his money back. Clarkson’s usual competitive streak came back to haunt him again when, having claimed his amphibious vehicle was the only one any of them could drive home, he then couldn’t start it. He said goodnight with his head on the steering wheel and Hammond and May both laughing at him.

Top Gear works primarily because of these three, but also because it was long established that the things which make car enthusiasts and professionals excited aren’t the things which make Mr Average Motorist excited. In an era when people are being encouraged to drive less (a stance which Clarkson is infamous for vehemently opposing) then banging on about the appropriately-monikered Reasonably Priced Car is not interesting to the viewer because the presenters haven’t the patience or interest either. They can only enthuse about cars which are sleek, law-bending and inspirational enough to whet appetites, regardless of actual expense. If it excites Top Gear, it’s a shoo-in for the audience.

The argument that it is too macho is also a non-starter, judging by the amount of women in the audience heckling their opinions during the Motoring News or Cool Wall sections, while plenty of celebrities of either gender have driven the Reasonably Priced Car round the racetrack outside in the hope of getting to be Stig-like in their handling skills. And to everyone who claims the show should be replaced by a more environmentally aware motoring programme, be quiet. Nobody but you would watch it. It’s about viewers, not issues.

Sunday nights are the perfect time for Top Gear, because just before the majority ups themselves for work, traffic jams and dodgy started motors in the colder months, you can wile away an hour with fast cars, jokes about sartorial inelegance and whitened teeth, and three overgrown schoolboys trying to turn landcraft into yachts, taking supercars through Parisian rush hours, racing one car’s European journey against a light aircraft’s equivalent, using a vehicle to climb a previously motor-free mountain, or presenting a BBC drivetime programme with vast incompetence (complete with Clarkson’s breathtakingly reckless idea to adapt the travel news so as to not mention where the queues were, but just read out the registration numbers of the people who’d caused them).

Motoring is only part of the issue with Top Gear; the real aim of the programme is to make the monotony of motoring a real source of entertainment, and boy, does it succeed. It’s worth watching even if you can’t drive and, thankfully, I still can.


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