BY BRIAN GODAR
The new season of Top Gear is here! If those words didn’t send you sprinting to your DVR then you are probably not one of Top Gear’s 350 million regular viewers. Yes, 350 million. That’s 40 million more than the entire population of the United States. If that number seems staggeringly high to you, it’s for good reason. Top Gear is the most popular show in the world by a wide margin, shown in over 170 countries.
For those of you who don’t know, Top Gear is a British automotive television program. Yawning yet? Well, the show has grown from that simple idea into a cultural phenomenon. How did the show make that leap? The show’s hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, took what was a straightforward program about cars and flipped it on its head. The series does indeed review cars, though most viewers will have to content themselves with drooling in front of their TVs, as the average person will not be able to afford the $100,000 – $2 million supercars that are most frequently reviewed. While the excellent film crew has perfected the delivery of this automotive pornography, the real magic of the show is in the challenges and unique races.
With the show returning for its 19th season this Sunday, I thought it would be a good opportunity to go back through the previous 18 seasons and pick out my top moments. This was a difficult task as there are hundreds of segments to choose from, but I have narrowed it down to my top ten favorite moments. These segments best embody the spirit of the show, which is grown men acting out their automotive dreams simply because they can.
How do you push the limits of the, hands-down, fastest car in the world, the Bugatti Veyron (yes, I know other cars are faster now, but this was in 2009 so bear with me)? Its top speed and acceleration put it well out of the reach of all other cars, even the previous fastest car in the world, the McLaren F1. Once you have proven that you are the fastest production vehicle on four wheels, the only natural progression is to take your challenge to the sky. In this case, the Veyron takes on the RAF (Royal Air Force) in their elite fighter jet, the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Eurofighter is specially designed to be aerodynamically unstable so it can turn on a dime. Can the fastest car in the world keep up with a jet designed to deal out death at the highest rate possible?
9. Police Car Challenge
The state of police cars in Great Britain is appalling, at least according to the hosts of Top Gear. The cars currently in use are slow and expensive, so the police are discouraged from high speed chases lest they ruin their cars. Top Gear sets out to remedy the problem by having the hosts each create their own police cars on a budget. The results are less than standard, but more than hilarious. From Richard Hammond creating a Barbie-inspired mini SUV with a tongue to Jeremy Clarkson attaching spikes to the side of his wheels to James May inventing a spray paint dispenser system for his car, all of their creations are unique solutions that end up creating their own infinitely more complex and hilarious problems.
8. Building an Electric Car
Electric cars carry a certain stigma in the automotive world. Everyone agrees that they are helping to save our planet by lowering emissions, but at what cost? Fully electric cars are a pathetic sight, taking 30 seconds to reach their top speed of 35 miles per hour. The speed freaks at Top Gear thought that they could do better, and honestly which of us wouldn’t think that after sitting in a G-Wiz? The result is the Hammerhead-I Eagle Thrust, and it is everything that one would expect with a name like that. The hosts test the range, acceleration, crash safety, and practicality of the car before handing it off to an automotive reviewer to see if they can garner a higher rating than the G-Wiz.
7. Car vs. Gravity
The Porsche brand can trace its roots all the way back to the original Volkswagen Beetle. Since the split in the 1960s, Porches have gotten faster and faster while the original Beetle…. well, it hasn’t changed at all. The Porsche 997 Turbo S is one of the fastest cars in the world today, while the Volkswagen Beetle is still one of the slowest. This race doesn’t seem fair, does it? It would take a force of nature to level the playing field and make this a race that anybody would care to see; a force of nature like gravity. That’s right; the challenge is a one mile drag race, with Richard Hammond driving the Porsche down a mile-long road, while a Volkswagen Beetle is dropped from a helicopter hovering one mile above the ground. Even if you don’t care about the result of the race, there is something magical about seeing a decrepit old car smash into the desert sand at maximum free-fall.
6. Rolling a Reliant Robin
Sometimes even the hosts of Top Gear find a car that they don’t like. In this case, it is the precariously perched Reliant Robin, one of the few tripod cars in existence. The unique feature of the Robin is in how those wheels are configured, with one wheel in front and two in the back. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, that does sound like an idea that only someone on an acid trip could think was good. Jeremy heads up to northern England, the only place that these cars are popular, to see if he can manage to drive the car without rolling over. Can Jeremy drive the car without rolling over? Can he even make the first turn without rolling it?
5. The Smallest Car in the World
Quick, what is the smallest car you can name? Most of you are probably thinking of the Smart, that annoying little German car that is less an automobile and more a washing machine on wheels. If you guessed that then congratulations, you’re wrong. The Peel P50, a car manufactured from 1962 to 1965, holds that distinction. As the name suggests, the P50 contains a rocket-powered 50cc, 4.2 hp engine taken from a go kart. The car measures a mere 47.2″ high, 52.8″ long, and 39″ wide, and it most likely weighs less than you do, clocking in at 130 lbs. In this segment, Jeremy Clarkson, who stands 6’ 5” tall, crams himself into this little car and drives it into work at the BBCs main office in London. You read that correctly, he drives it into the BBC building. The car is small enough to fit inside doors and elevators, and Jeremy can be seen in the background of BBCs nightly news broadcast as he drives around the building. While this is all good fun, it is worth noting that the car does not have a reverse gear, so you may only want to purchase one if you are the extroverted kind of person who doesn’t mind asking other people to lend a hand and turn you around when you get stuck.
4. Race to Monte Carlo
If you had to get from England to southern France, you would assume a plane or train would be quickest, right? So would most people, including James May and Richard Hammond. Jeremy Clarkson disagrees. He contends that you can drive from London to Monte Carlo in less time than it takes the Eurostar and France’s high-speed train, the TGV. How fast does the TGV go? Try 200 mph. That is the top speed of elite supercars, and definitely much faster than any automotive speed limit. To get the job done, Clarkson selects the best car for the journey, the Aston Martin DB9. This episode spawned many similar “Car vs.” episodes, which are some of the best in the entire show.
3. Car-Boat Challenge
“How hard can it be?” Any longtime Top Gear fan knows that those words mean an epic challenge is about to take place. In this case, it is one of the most epic challenges in the entire show. The hosts are tasked with creating their own amphibious vehicles that can function as both a car and a boat. All three of them manage to create boats that are as drastically different in concept as the men are in personality. Jeremy straps an outboard racing motor to the back of a Toyota pickup truck, Richard takes a page from Huck Finn and creates a Mississippi steamboat out of a camper van, and James May crafts a sailboat by adding a mast and sail to a car. The challenge after that is to test the capabilities of the boats in a body of water, and the results do not disappoint. As anyone would expect, each boat fails spectacularly and all three hosts end up in the water.
2. £1500 Porsche Challenge
Ah, Genesis. Top Gear is most well known for their creative and hilarious cheap car challenges, and this is the challenge that started it all. Every little boy dreams of owning a supercar when they grow up, but most of us never earn enough money to make that feasible. The hosts are sympathetic to the everyman, and they set out to see if you can buy a Porsche at a price that normal people can afford. In this case, they were given £1500 ($2,500 US) to buy a Porsche, and then they were given a series of challenges to test the cars and determine if they were worth the money. Multiple warning lights, clouds of smoke, and breakdowns later, they discover that no, you actually can’t buy a Porsche for £1500 unless you also hire a tow truck to drive you around everywhere.
1. Vietnam Road Trip Special
This road trip special epitomizes everything that is good about Top Gear: middle-aged friends in sweaty, uncomfortable conditions with tempers flaring, beautiful cinematography, and a 1,000 mile road trip. The hosts are flown to Hồ Chí Minh City in southern Vietnam, where they are given 15 million Dong (the local currency, you perverts), which is about $700 US, and told to buy a car. Cars are relatively new in Vietnam and haven’t had time to depreciate, so the hosts are forced to purchase motorcycles. After they buy their bikes, which Jeremy can’t ride because he appalls motorcycles and never learned how, they are given their challenge: do what the Americans couldn’t do in the war; make it 1,000 miles north to Hanoi. Beautiful shots of Vietnam are interspersed with motorcycle breakdowns, snake-eating, and the gaudiest American flag mini bike every created. Since it wouldn’t be Top Gear without additional challenges, the hosts have to turn their motorcycles into boats for the final leg of the journey, and any fan of the series knows that boats + Top Gear don’t mix.