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Top Gear: The Show That Made Everyone a ‘Car Guy’

Tonight we here in the US of A bid a fond farewell to Top Gear when the last show featuring the trio of Jeremy “The Orangutan” Clarkson, Richard “The Hamster” Hammond, and James “Captain Slow” May airs on BBC America. I’m sure I don’t need to go into the details about how their run on the show came to an end, but there was some doubt whether we would get to see the last of the programmes that were TopGearfilmed before it all went belly up. It was a bit of a let down, just sort of petering out mid-season series like it did. I have no idea what tonight’s episode will include, if anything, regarding their exit from the Top Gear stage, but at least it’s something we know is coming this time and we can treat it with the profound respect it deserves. 

More or less.

When I first started this post — if I’m honest it was about 2 months ago — I was trying to find some clever hook by which to hang many profound insights into the allure and worldwide popularity of the show. At first I thought it was simple writer’s block (heaven forbid), but then decided that attempting to be all and melodramatic ‘n junk would have done a disservice to what they’d accomplished over the last 13 years. So I ditched the profundity idea and decided to just blather a bit on what I think about it. Which will, if you bear with me for a few sentences, hopefully make some sense. 

Because I’ll come right out with it: Top Gear is probably the main reason why I’m even contributing to this pokey motoring blog in the first place. See, before Top Gear (BTG) what were car shows like? Well, unless you were a real “car guy” they were likely pretty dull. Reviews of vehicles concentrating on horsepowers, 0-60 times, G’s on the skid pad, ride quality and handling, and a few bits about torques and  rack-and-pinion steering, along with short infomercial segments for whatever products were sponsoring the show that day. Essentially the television equivalent of car magazines. Which isn’t to say there isn’t good, entertaining writing in these magazines or TV shows — there is, quite a lot of it — but to really appreciate it you pretty much had to be at least something of a car fanatic. Which I wasn’t for the most part. Oh, I’d occasionally check out the Car and Driver, Motor Trend, or Automobile magazines while waiting at a dentist’s office or at my mechanic’s (where I have spent far too much time and money, hopefully garnering some future discounts by shamelessly plugging them with a link), but I never pored over them to digest every detail and spec of every model that interested me. And I tried to watch Motor Week every week (never was much for Car Talk though).I certainly had my own thoughts about automobiles though, in part because they’re a wonderful subject for analogizing evolutionary theory with. 

But then one weekend afternoon I was flipping around the cable channels looking for something to watch when I chanced upon this BBC America show that had some guys standing around in a warehouse (as I thought at the time) surrounded by a bunch of other people standing around them while they talked about cars. Mostly cars I’d never heard of and would never (or rarely) see on the street, let alone buy, so why would anyone want to watch that? And I was, almost immediately, hooked. They were at the same time clever and intelligent and stupid and funny and entertaining. They weren’t just reviewing new cars (mostly) which is what any self-respecting car show was doing up to that point, they were presenting them for our entertainment and amusement. They used words and phrases with which most of us* are unfamiliar in our everyday lives and viewing habits (many of which I am busily sprinkling throughout this missive if you haven’t already noticed), but which have crept into our, if not daily, at least occasional, lexicons. They weren’t reviewing cars as much as just telling us what they thought of them. How refreshing was that?

Thus, when Hafner began this humble blog some time later, and I was directed here by Glenn Reynolds (to whom we owe much, much — pardon the pun — traffic), I felt comfortable blathering on in the comments about what I thought about whatever goofy vehicle was being featured. And Chris at least (hopefully a few others as well) liked what I thought and set me up here as a regular contributor. Not having been a classic “car guy” I never would have even considered writing about these things, but Top Gear made me realize that there was more to the whole “automobile culture” than new car specs and reviews, Concours d’ Elegance car shows, and building ‘project cars’ in one’s superbly equipped garage facility — which Caravansreally only ever featured higher-end muscle cars and the like rather than the mass of simple mostly rubbish cars that the rest of us puttered around in. And with the right verbiage attached even discussing the humble Chevrolet Vega or Morris Marina could be entertaining

After all, how hard could it be?

Someone once said, probably here in the Car Lust comments at some point, that the essence of humor arises from two things: Smart people doing stupid things, or stupid people doing smart things. I daresay Clarkson, Hammond, and May managed to convince us on most occasions that they hit either one of those. 

It’s had its share of controversy, of course. I didn’t really care for the 9th series’ “US Special” all that much, not that I’m above having my culture mocked, but that one was a bit iffy, but we’re certainly not the only country to have had, shall we say, issues with their presentations on occasion. Among other things. To be fair, most of those I find to be pretty stupid things to get all huffy about, but then, that’s what satire is all about. 

We here at Car Lust have had our own problems with the show at times. One trait in particular is the degree to which they, well, destroy cars. Especially to our readers, the thought of dropping a piano on, say, a nice example of a Ford Pinto, could be rather distressing. At first, this didn’t bother me since — truth be told — they were doing it to cars I wasn’t familiar with, so who cares?  But then when Top Gear USA (which I’ve never warmed to) did the same thing to some American cars which were dear to my heart, I got a little uncomfortable with it. 

Jeremy-clarkson-top-gear-1That, however, goes to the heart of the matter: Top Gear was never really about cars, it was about what the hosts thought about cars, their owners, drivers, and anything else vaguely related to motoring. And what they thought was interesting, funny, and entertaining. Even people who didn’t really care much about cars could enjoy the show; they’d watch the latest supercars being run around the track, and then happily go back to their boring old Camry or (IMO) equally boring Corolla and think about flappy-paddle gear-boxes, maybe wonder about its brake horsepowers or torques, and watch out for the rozzers of whatever extraction. It made cars something more fun than objects to fuss and swoon over by a bunch of gearheads. And in the end they’re just cars.  

So while we may be tempted to place Top Gear and its now-former Clarkson-May-Hammond-Stig incarnation up on a pedestal in the annals of motoring history, I for one am simply going to remember these moments in TV history for what they were: A show about what some entertaining blokes thought about cars.

Oh, and if any of the three of you unemployed gentlemen are reading this, we have an opening for someone to write about non-North American cars, which we are somewhat lacking in experience with. We don’t pay much (read: nothing), but the hours are good and the best part is, we have diddly editorial supervision!

And since this is also a Monday when we traditionally have an open thread, feel free to discuss anything Top Gear related, especially links to your favorite clips. Here are a few of my favorites:

Has Communism ever produced a good car?

Top Gear motorhome challenge.

The Ultimate Caravaner’s Car.

The Race Across London.

Best Cars for Teenagers.

The One-Tank (of gas) Challenge.

* All us’s and ours’s referring to we here in north America, some parts of our northern Canuckistani neighbors excepted.

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-carlustblog.com