Man of the gear

John Walsh meets... Jeremy Clarkson
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Outside Charlbury Station, Jeremy Clarkson is waiting in a classic pose: leaning against an automobile, arms folded, one hand occasionally raising a cigarette to his lips, the long vertical of his 6ft 5in frame bisecting the gleaming horizontal of the car: man and machine, you see, in sacred conjunction. It's the look Bruce Springsteen chose for the cover of his Tunnel of Love album, complete with cowboy hat and bootlace tie. Mr Clarkson has not selected either accessory today, but both the cowboy hat and the folded arms can be found on the cover of Jeremy Clarkson's Motorworld, a handsome book published to tie in with last year's 12-part dash round a dozen countries that topped BBC2's ratings.

The only trouble is that the car against which he is leaning is a Nissan Primera - and long-standing fans of Top Gear's corkscrew-barneted Wild Man will know that Nissan drivers are one of Clarkson's many betes noirs. ("They can't park, don't understand roundabouts and are not averse, once in a while, to driving the wrong way down a motorway"). A man of strong but mysterious opinions, he also nurses a chronic dislike of foreigners (especially the Welsh and the Swiss), Colin Welland, the World Bank, travelling salesmen (especially of photocopiers), homosexuals, political correctness and his own feet. But as we career through the Oxfordshire lanes, it becomes clear that the Nissan is only on loan, for purposes of review, which Mr Clarkson duly supplies: "The most ordinary, depressingly dull corporate junk, although actually there's an inherent niceness about its steering and its responses".

Sitting in the driver's seat, he is a bulky, looming presence, that huge pink slab of a head surmounted by a tangle of curls, which seem to be associated with it without actually growing from it, like lichen on a boulder. It's very familiar, because of Mr Clarkson's extraordinary broadcast style. His Top Gear performance is full of in-your-lens gurning and vast facial close-ups, whispered confidences and over-the- shoulder chat, beery puns and breezy one-liners: "So the question is," he summed up last Thursday's critique of the new Ford Ka, "if you drive this, will people want to have your babies, or will they laugh in your face?"

Sex and cars have been mentioned in the same breath ever since the Model- T Ford acquired adjustable seating, but in Clarkson they sometimes seem interchangeable. His appreciation of cars goes beyond horsepower, big ends and rocker panels, into darker realms of attraction and desire. Viz comic featured Mr Clarkson performing sex with a "Ferrari Testosterossa" ("Yeah, take that you sexy bitch, it's hard..."). His image has gradually coarsened, over his seven years with Top Gear, from an enthusiastic impresario of speeding chrome to the shambolic, xenophobic, drinking 'n' smoking figure of Super-Lad.

At the Clarkson home - a Georgian mansion once owned by David Sainsbury - we parked beside his beloved Jaguar. I blinked at the sight of the rest of the Clarkson stable - an Austin Maestro, a Citroen Passat - in a corner. "One is the cleaner's, the other's the nanny's" said Jeremy. "Don't jump to conclusions." Clarkson moved here last year with his dark and pretty wife Francie (who doubles as his manager) and their children Emily (two) and Finlo (seven months; the name is Manx, like Francie), though they still return to their Fulham flat at the smallest pretext. In their Provencal kitchen, Jeremy makes coffee while Francie fields phone calls from Birmingham, the site of this week's Motor Show. Everyone from the City Council to the Evening Post is up in arms about Jeremy's recent description of the nation's second city as "a rugby team's bath after they have let the water out" - i.e. a circle of scum with nothing at the centre.

Did he mind upsetting people? "Oh, of course. Sometimes you think, 'Oh dear, I've hurt someone and that's awful.' But then you have a drink and forget about it." He is looking forward to Birmingham, his interest in the Motor Show undimmed by familiarity. "I love the glitz and glamour of it. You must remember that after arms and legitimate drugs, the motor industry is the third biggest in the world and when it fluffs up its feathers and puts on a show it can look... pretty good." The days of draping babes across bonnets had gone, though? "It's not just that. The trade's been very depressed for the past few years, because of all this nonsense about pollution and the need for electric cars. And the motor industry, instead of flexing its enormous muscles and fighting back, has kow-towed and made these tedious little cars. But they've pretty well gone away, and it's all back to power and fun and games, and pouting girls..."

Despite his Little Englandism (the Motorworld programme amounted to a dozen flights of cultural stereotyping, with some cars attached) he is slavishly devoted to Italian cars, especially Ferraris; his pride and joy is a P-reg Ferrari 355 in screaming scarlet, which he went so far as to buy at list price. Though nervous about people knowing he's got one, he proudly shows off its smooth lines and blood-and-cream interior to appreciative strangers. When, later, his wife offered me a lift in it, his face became all concern; he looked a far cry from the chap who disparages the environmental lobby, suggests, on-air, the the speed limit should be 140 mph and radiates cheeky don't-give-a-shit amorality.

Talking to him about cars is a curious experience. Starting from a position of ignorance - I'm the kind of driver who assumes "overhead camshafts" are things you have to duck to avoid when leaving the passenger seat - I was prepared to be blinded by the automative equivalent of a wine-snob. Not a bit of it. Clarkson off-camera is the same as on, reducing complicated machines to simple metaphorical propositions. Thus he likes Jaguars because "people say there's not much space in there, that you're hemmed in, but I think it makes you feel very cosy and safe". Like being in a cockpit? "No, more like being in a little study with a wood-burning stove. There should be a few books on the walls...".

The other thing he does is wax hyper-precise about some tiny detail of a car as if to suggest, by synechdoche, the wondrousness of the whole. He will, for instance, bang on for ages about the Ferrari's gear lever. "It's a beautiful piece of sculpture.

'Course the Italians have an eye for making things beautiful, rather than strictly functional..." Come off it, Jeremy, I said, there's a gear lever in my Rover which is gorgeous, too, if we're going to writhe like art critics about it, a lovely fat, solid piece of - "Plastic," said Clarkson crushingly. "Or wood veneer, which is the same thing. The Ferrari gear lever is a perfect aluminium ball. They use a diamond cutter to carve the map of the gears. It's something you could take out of the car and Stephen Bayley would have it in the Design Museum. Now take the petrol filler cap on the Fiat Coupe..."

It seemed odd that he never discussed the minutiae of car technology, the anoraky world of torque ratios and the like. This is because he hasn't a clue what they mean. "Yeah, people are always keen to talk about that stuff, particularly the Germans. They love the details. They love to get you down and say, 'Look at our new track rod end. Have you ever seen anything like it?' And I say, sorry, I don't think it's very important. I don't think the vast majority of people who buy cars care a gnat's what is under the bonnet. Just so long as, when they pull out to overtake a tractor, they'll go faster than the tractor."

Did he really not know how an engine works? "I really don't. I've tried over the years to understand the basics of internal combustion - how the spark plug has a spark and ignites the fuel mixture and there's this piston somehow turns this rod which turns the gear lever which makes the car move...'' Had he never stood in a garage when young, like General Colin Powell apparently did, surrounded by wires and widgets, taking a Chevvy to pieces? "Good God, no. Quentin Willson, my co-presenter on Top Gear, said the other day, when he was 17 he was stripping down a Ford Anglia on his parents' kitchen table. I said, 'Quentin, when I was 17, I was getting laid'."

Indeed. Mr Clarkson's naughty-boy credentials date back to his arrival at Repton, the Derbyshire public school, at 13. He grew up in Doncaster, where his mother made soft-toy Paddington Bears under license. "I think I must have been a spoilt brat at home, because it was such a shock when I got to school to find that I wasn't king of the hill any more. I was just another 13-year-old fag who was expected to sweep the corridors. And that's why I took this conscious effort to be Jack the Lad, to drink and smoke, so that way you could stand out." He considered the glowing tip of his Marlboro Red. "It was the best decision of my life. Smoking is just fantastic. I love it".

Repton, though - didn't that make him more of a Posh Git than a Boy Racer? He bridled. "Well, I did get expelled." What for? "It was a whole series of misdemeanours, best summed up by the headmaster when he said, 'If you'd come up to me on the first day and punched me in the face, I'd have expelled you instantly. And if you'd come up and gone like this [he gives my arm a light poke], I'd have been mildly irritated. But the thing is, you've been doing that [nasty prod] and that [nastier prod] and that [ditto] for five years. Now get out". But what was the final indignity? Drugs? Guns? Sex?

"There was no one big thing. I'd worked my way through the rule book, breaking them one by one, but there was no calamitous moment when I was caught in flagrante with the chaplain's daughter. Mostly it was not being there. I was more interested in the local girl's school. Shall I do my history prep or shall I go and see Sally Ann?"

Told by a Doncaster neighbour that the only fate of the expelled is to become journalists, he joined the Rotherham Advertiser as a trainee. It lasted until his nerve broke one day when covering a Ponies and Produce local show. "I had all the Pony Club mothers giving me earache about how 'Well, she shouldn't have been in that class, so she shouldn't have won'. I'd been hearing how somebody cheated with his marrow and someone else's apples came from Sainsbury's and they hadn't grown them at all, and then the Pony Club mothers... That's what made me do it. I picked up my typewriter in the Press tent at the Wyckersley Show and shouted 'Enough!'. I thought, there must be something better than this out in the big wide world..."

And there was, and it was called cars. Before buying his first car - a Ford Scirocco - Clarkson leafed through the available car magazines, "and they were all, like What Car?, this incredibly tedious line-up of facts and details. I wasn't interested in that. I wanted to know, as I cruise down Doncaster High Street, am I going to look good in this car or not? I didn't give a shit about headroom and boot-sills. And it made me start thinking: I wonder if you could write about cars in a different way?"

But look, I said, you're 6ft 5in. You're far too tall to drive a Scirocco with its streamlined ceiling. Maybe if you'd trusted the boring details, you wouldn't have had excruciating neckache for years... "Well, yeah, I was desperately uncomfortable in it, and the clutch cable used to saw through the bulkhead and break - but it didn't matter because it was such a lovely car. You'd walk up to it after you'd been shopping, and look at it and go, 'You're magnificent'." We're back in Viz country, it seems. I lack the nerve to ask him if he's ever tried to mate with one of his high-performance charges, though I remember his telling Q magazine, on the subject of sexual arousal, "I don't actually swell. There's no swelling when I climb into a car, unlike if I was, say, climbing into Claudia Schiffer. Driving a Ferrari isn't as good as bedding Kate Moss, but it's not far off, I imagine." Gosh, what a naughty boy.

Having almost exhausted the excitement potential of everything on four wheels - he's doing 37 Top Gear programmes this year, Clarkson is now embarked on a new venture, provisionally entitled Jeremy Clarkson Unlimited, which he has just started shooting in the States. "The basic premise is, if it rolls, floats, flies, shoots a big bullet, runs on high explosive or gasoline, then we feature it. It's kind of Beyond the Dodge Viper - that was as exciting as cars get, but not as exciting as motorised transport gets. We'll be doing helicopters, gunships, powerboats... It should be called Big Boys' Toys." Will he be taking the wheel of them all? "Er, no, I can't fly - though I did go on a powerboat once. The most extraordinary experience. I find it hard to talk about it. I mean it can go from nought to 100 in three seconds. It can generate 4G in a turn. You can't see how half an inch of plywood hull in the water can provide enough grip to make your face get all twisted up...".

Mr Clarkson is deliriously entertaining company and a straight talker of refreshingly unambiguous views, but he is, of course, a big kid surrounded by birthday presents supplied gratis to the Corporation by the car companies. His role is to find an heroic voice for the commuter who drives his purple Mondeo to the supermarket on Saturdays. Was there any distant maturity in sight for the horsepower-loving SuperLad? "Well there is a temptation - it starts out with a Mild Lad, then Laddism catches on and you get loaded and Men Behaving Badly, and you're on the crest of this Lad wave and in order to stay in front you're sometimes tempted to go mad and say stupid things. But you have to be aware that there are limits. If someone could provide a direct link between something I'd said and someone getting really hurt, things might be different. But until then..."