God Save the Queen! In the year of Our Lord, 2002, the British Broadcasting Company gave birth to a revamped television series called, “Top Gear.”
Humble beginnings to be sure, and as host Jeremy Clarkson often called it, “Our pokey motoring show.” One only has to dial back the episode selection on iTunes or Hulu to Season 2 or 3 to see just how accurate Clarkson’s description was at the time. Little did any of them know the flame they lit would take the world by storm.
As with most successful forms of entertainment, time runs its course until the flame dies a slow miserable death or blows out in a fireball. One might say Top Gear suffered both as its three presenters were growing weary after 22 seasons, and all came to a screeching halt when Clarkson punched one of the producers at the end of a long day’s shoot.
Before the implosion, Top Gear reached heights unheard of in modern television by spawning international versions of the show in Russia, China, South Korea, Australia, United States, and more recently, France. While the US version has been cancelled due to cost and conflicts between its presenters, these only represent versions franchised by BBC Worldwide. Many other similar shows have tested the waters, but most, like the US version are not willing to front the cost for the time it takes to build a strong audience.
The US is particularly woeful in this category as television production companies happily grind out one lame reality show after another, tossing them aside after a couple seasons like disposable lunch bags. As long as they make money and are cheap to produce there is little desire or dedication to create something with relevant value. If any producer says, “Who cares that much about cars?”…then they haven’t bothered to look at the multi-billion dollar automotive business worldwide, especially the high-end exotic sports car trade. But no, they would rather feed us another warmed-over version of who-gives-a-damn, “Survivor.”
Any other detractors need only look at the reruns of Top Gear and how they still survive to this day. The other international versions of the show march on, and the BBC is bravely forging ahead with a new single host format featuring BBC radio personality, Chris Evans. This man is shouldering a daunting task, and the pressure must be staggering, but I wish him all the best.
Meanwhile, rumor continues to circulate about the trio of Clarkson, Hammond, and May starring in a show being produced by Amazon Prime Video. One can only speculate what the results will be, and in my opinion, they face as large a challenge as Chris Evans.
For me, the entire dilemma is a sad one, because Top Gear was a show like no other. The human-car connection is a sensual one that is fostered from a young age. The budding youth of the world put posters on their walls for a reason, because they are objects of dreams and fantasies. Gender is irrelevant here, no matter if it’s the hot actress or the hunky stud, the attraction is the same. The posters of cars do gravitate more to the males, but not exclusively. In either case, the chosen machine evokes a passionate response inside, and we dream of the day we might be close enough to touch the real thing.
Now, be it television or film, I’d say a scant few of us look forward to seeing that sexy actor/actress get beaten to a bloody pulp, skinned alive, or set on fire. Yet Hollywood seems to have an addiction to reducing automotive art to a flaming pile of junk. At my age, I’ve completely given up that the trend will ever change, and you can count the minutes until said “hero car” dies a violent death.
Aston Martin, the famed choice of James Bond 007 for a half century, went the obvious route with the most recent Bond film by providing a cadre of fictitious concepts produced specifically for studio destruction. Maybe even the craftsmen at Aston Martin can no longer bear the wanton massacre of their exquisite handiwork.
Top Gear marked the first time such blasphemy was banished, and instead put such destruction where it belonged, on the miserable, mundane, econobox appliances that grind about on four wheels. In addition, they dispatched these forgettable pieces of junk in creative ways, chief of which was being crushed by a falling piano. I have no idea where they found so many used instruments to serve as wooden bombs, but the effect was hilarious.
Posters, like the pages of a magazine, are inanimate, still images but an exotic sports car is a living, breathing beast that beckons to be set free on open asphalt. Seeing such a machine at a car show surrounded by velvet ropes is still an amazing visual experience, but it tickles only one dimension of the automotive thoroughbred. It was here that Top Gear smashed conventional entertainment and bestowed the ultimate gift to gearheads the world over…our masked hero, The Stig.
We’ve seen superheroes in comics and film, but here on our television was the silent, super “tame racing driver” with nerves of steel and cajones to match. Superman, Batman, Iron Man, or whoever you chose, they are all pure imagination, but The Stig is for real.
Behind the tinted visor and white racing suit, he carries the dreams of us all into the cockpit of each unbridled stallion. The Power Lap is the stuff of legend as he puts on a magnificent show of daring speed and skill. Finally, here was the beast from our wall poster come to life, smoking its tires, spitting fire from its exhaust, and singing the mighty chorus of horsepower behind The Stig’s unyielding right foot. The Power Lap was the most exciting two minutes of automotive ecstasy ever to grace the screen.
Top Gear USA made the woeful mistake of minimizing our driving hero, and while I concede Tanner Foust is a talented racing driver, he ain’t no Stig.
All told, it has been a depressing gulf of time since Top Gear left the airwaves, made all the more gloomy by its muddy future. But if fate has dealt us the last hour of the “pokey motoring show,” then I count myself lucky to have lived through the era of the greatest automotive episodes of all time.
Some say, he is being rebuilt with new hybrid technology, and that he is now fluent in all forms of check engine codes. All we know is, he’s called The Stig…and we miss his heroic feats of speed.
They say all good things must end, but gearheads of the world are praying for it to be otherwise.
-T. August Green