Returning from my Covid jab (the Vauxhall Opel Astra Zeneca one as I like to call it in my puerile way), I settled down with a Wagon Wheel and a VW Beetle mug of tea to take my mind off the very small risk of the very serious side effects that might soon enough overwhelm me. Instead, though, I started to feel a bit weary, even drowsy. I fear this may have been the side effects of Top Gear kicking in.
I’m being unkind. The latest BBC One series, at least on the evidence of this first episode and the teases about subsequent attractions, is actually cleverer and more entertaining than any series I care to remember, and that includes the not-so-golden Clarkson era. Usually, the sequences are just some variation on how many caravans or old British Leyland cars you can blow up in one go, interspersed with some gosh-it-goes-fast supercar porn and a race to Helsinki. It wasn’t that such exercises were repetitive and futile, but that they weren’t actually that much fun, especially, it has to be said, when the new trio of Chris Harris, Freddie Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness took over. Jokes were laboured, jollity forced, japes underpowered. Now, though, the presenters have gelled a bit, and the show is more original and above all, more intelligent.
Harris is the one who actually knows about cars and can drive them. The £2m, V12 800 horsepower Lamborghini Sian is the sort of product that usually revs a Top Gear presenter’s engine, and Harris duly soils himself upon his first introduction to this sinuous beauty. In between petites morts, Harris even manages to give us a succinct and lucid explanation of how the hybrid works. He is also honest enough to admit that it all has very little to do with stopping climate change, so we shouldn’t be fooled by this bit of greenwashing by VW Group, who quietly own the famous Italian marque nowadays. There’s a dad joke about the name as well, which is commendably lame.
Speaking of dads, most of the show is given over to the “boys” driving the cars their respective fathers once owned, which is surprisingly touching and satisfyingly nostalgic, but does go on for too long and had me nodding off like a dog on the parcel shelf. Harris is moved to tears by the sight of a 1980 BMW 323i, a fine looking car. He’s never been able to drive one before because of reverence for his father, though the serene moment is shattered when he shrieks that they’ve found an example “with the optional five speed gearbox!”.
The Harris family were obviously quite well off, whereas the Flintoffs were more of a Ford Cortina family, with the poignant footnote that Freddie’s old man used to sleep in the car on cricket tours because he couldn’t afford the hotel room. The McGuinnesses went around in a yellow Ford Fiesta with a tiny, thin steering wheel that made the mighty coal miner hands of McGuinness Snr seem like those of a giant to little Pads.
It’s all very nice and sweet, but there really ought to have been a “mum car” segment, instead, to coincide with Mother’s Day. Top Gear, as it happens, is about the same age as the Ford Fiesta nameplate, both having been a familiar part of our lives for about 45 years. The basic concept has endured, but with many radically different looks and versions over the decades.
Some were practical, useful designs (the Baker, Goffey and Bastaple variants that put fuel economy and space efficiency first); some were flashy and best forgotten (such as the short-lived metallic orange Chris Evans Edition); and others genuinely memorable but impossible to control (like the end-of-the-production-line Clarkson “Fracas” Special, unusually offered with a cold meat buffet as standard – no hot meal on the options list). Like the Fiesta, Top Gear has dominated its segment of the market for all that time, and looks likely to continue to do so, though some find its success puzzling.
By the way, I wonder whatever happened to Jeremy Clarkson?
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