Then Came Top Gear

top-gearThroughout all of my years, television for gearheads has been limited to shows and movies that featured cars as a tool for the leading actors. The earliest example that springs to mind is the original Batmobile created by legendary custom car guru George Barris. The majority of Barris creations were reflective of the 60s era, with outlandish and eccentric designs. I often find it quite amusing how things that so appealed to me as a child take on a different light today, and the Barris Batmobile is a prime example.


Batman’s famed ride was the only reason I ever watched that campy and ludicrous television show. Each week I would tolerate the goofy colored sets, tilted camera angles and the “Biff!- Bam!- Pow!” graphics to see the car glide on its turntable, blow flame from its exhaust, and peel rubber as it roared out of the cave. I openly admit to being a sucker for a well placed action sequence that displayed gratuitous horsepower.


Today however, when I see a replica of the heroic machine, it still brings a flood of memories back to mind, but my eyes see a sleek body design that has been festooned to the point of being a clown car. I suppose that’s why so many years later when “Batman” hit the silver screen in 1989, the car Michael Keaton drove instantly stole my heart. With its sliding canopy and its low stance over huge tires, the new Batmobile was part fighter jet, part dragster and bad to the bone; a fitting companion for the remade image of the Dark Knight.


If there is one great truth I have learned in all my years, it’s that Hollywood sees the “hero car” as an expendable commodity. You can bet your movie ticket against the house on any given day, if there is a classic muscle car, Italian exotic, or rakish sports coupe on the screen, it will surely be ready for the scrap heap by the time the curtain falls. It’s almost as though the directors want to see the gearheads in any audience wince or cover their eyes as these automotive icons flip, roll and burst into flames. If we wanted that kind of entertainment, we would spend our Saturday afternoons down at the salvage yards watching the car crusher make sheetmetal pancakes.


The advent of “Reality TV” has assaulted us with everything that is bad and shameful about human nature. I liken it to a phrase I have often heard about the horror film “Rosemary’s Baby,” in that the creature was hideous, yet you couldn’t seem to take your eyes from it. Reality TV strikes me in that kind of way, except that I have no problem switching the channel before I feel my dinner churning violently from the inevitable nausea. I don’t know who came up with the notion that watching people argue and expose their petulant nature was entertaining, but when there are hundreds of channels to fill I guess nearly anything gets a shot.


One of the first gearhead shows suffered from this phenomenon, and that was “American Chopper.” While I am a semi-bike kind of enthusiast, watching custom motorcycles take shape was still interesting to watch, but I found myself in that same place as I was all those years ago watching Batman; waiting for all the senseless arguing to be over with and just get back to building motorcycles.


Unfortunately other shows followed this same template, like “American Hot Rod.” This was a disappointment of the first order since Boyd Coddington was a legend in the custom car world, and watching the petty bickering only served to tarnish his professional image. Other short-lived series like “Rides” tried to focus on the cars themselves, and the people who are passionate about the automotive world, but trying to inject TV into the already busy and hectic realm of car building was filled with drawbacks, mostly because car builders aren’t actors, nor do they aspire to be.


Other efforts have tried to bring the auto magazine experience to life on the television and the internet. While I mean no disrespect to any of these people, many of whom are idols of mine; it quickly becomes evident that some of us are more at home behind a keyboard than a camera or microphone. While the knowledge and experience of any of these magazine editors is not in question, no one will ever mistake them for Paul Newman.


The television show “Overhaulin’,” was a novel approach with automotive designer/builder/wizard Chip Foose providing the creative talent. His co-host Chris Jacobs lent his easy-going on-screen personality to the show, allowing Foose to more easily blend into the faux world of television. The second co-host, Courtney Hansen delivered the kind of eye candy that all car-guys love; sexy, beautiful and not afraid to get her hands dirty. The kind of girl we all want posing next to our finished and polished automotive art.


“Overhaulin” left production after five years on the air, and who could blame them after thrashing to turn wrecks into show cars in only seven days. Most car builders count their time in years of tedious detail work, so five seasons of that kind of mayhem probably wore a decade off of the Foose lifeline. As interesting as the show was in the beginning, I’m surprised one of the ‘marks’ who thought his car had been stolen didn’t go postal and take someone out. Then again who knows how much reality footage wound up in the “we can’t show that” trash bin?


Then came “Top Gear.”


God Save the Queen! Never has our motherland given us such a royal gift. Across the airwaves of BBC America came a show that we all had secretly been dreaming of, even though we didn’t realize it ourselves. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May represent three distinctly different personalities, but even when they disagree with each other the result is hilarious, as opposed to spoiled brat temper tantrums. Here are three certified “petrol-heads” (as they say in the Queen’s English) that also possess the classic timing to deliver a comic line or the well placed barb. The only destruction that goes on is the shredding of tires as the boys drift and powerslide around their airport test track in clouds of smoke and the symphony of roaring exhausts.


The cars we have seen in magazine pages and on static display show what their lofty specifications are all about. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys and Aston Martins grace the floor of the studio, and then are seen at ferocious speed as if we were watching cheetahs chase down gazelles in the Africa wilds. The in-car cameras capture the exuberant reactions of the hosts as these magnificent machines raise their heart rates, adrenaline levels, and the rush of pure automotive joy. We revel in the sights and sounds as we join them vicariously on each hair-raising ride. Then to our delight, instead of watching these objects of our affections meet some horrific demise, we see them glistening under the studio lights, basking in the glory of their power and speed. Just when you think your senses have soaked in all they can take, the four-wheeled thoroughbreds are handed over to a masked hero; the mysterious ‘tame racing driver’ known only as “The Stig.”


His only opponent is the stopwatch, his face remains hidden behind the mirrored visor of his helmet, and he pushes the potent supercars around the test track with fearless abandon. The wail of the tires and the maelstrom of exhaust make you want to thrust your fist skyward as The Stig rips across the finish line, and you wait with eager anticipation to see the time posted on the Power Lap board.


“Top Gear” has found the unique way to pluck the heart strings of the gearhead. They make us laugh, they make us cheer, and they tickle our dreams with the fleeting touch of reality. To see our dream cars breathing, roaring, and ripping by at blinding speed somehow makes them more real. It may not make them any more affordable, but now they are more than still images on a page, and even if we never sit behind the wheel ourselves, we can relish the experience over and over again in re-runs.


Rumor has it that the boys across the pond are coming to the end of their run, and are ready to move on to other projects. Last week the series premiered here in the USA on the History Channel, and while the new hosts are obviously still getting their feet wet, I think they have the potential to make a great show. They are following the format of the Brits to the letter, but hopefully in time they will make the show their own. I have high hopes the new boys will carry the torch with pride because I don’t think the gearhead community is ready to give up our favorite dose of weekly automotive playtime.


We’ve waited a long time for “our kind” of entertainment, and I’m not ready to let go just yet. “Top Gear” is automotive therapy of the first order, and I highly recommend viewing early and often.



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