The End of an Era: The Indiependent’s Favourite Top Gear Specials

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It was announced last week that Jeremy Clarkson was to be dismissed from the BBC, following the widespread investigation into a “fracas” between the presenter and a Top Gear producer. Amidst the controversy of both the incident itself and the somewhat inevitable decision to let Clarkson go, one thing is certain; without him at the helm of the popular BBC Two motoring show, it will never be the same again. It is the end of an era – spanning more than a decade – of the squabbling professional friendship between “Jezzer” and his co-presenters Richard “Hamster” Hammond and James “Captain Slow” May. With even their futures on the show currently unclear, some of us here at The Indiependent have decided to take a moment to reflect and ultimately celebrate the best of the trio and what was, before the show moves on to pastures – and at least one presenter – new.


US Special (2007) | Words: MR

This special looked to answer a fairly simple question put to the team – can they buy a car that’s better and cheaper than a hire car? Cue a trip to the USA , where they were each given $1000 to try and find a car that would take them from Miami to New Orleans. At the end of the trip, the trio would sell their cars and see who could make the most profit. Jeremy bought a Chevrolet Camaro, Richard chose a Dodge Ram pick-up truck and James picked a Cadillac Brougham. Over the course of their trip, the group would stop in various places and take part in challenges in order to decide who had the best car. James began with an advantage as his Cadillac was the only one with a working air conditioning system – something that was useful in the warm southern states.

What makes this special stand out for me is the fun of it. There are some genuine laugh out loud moments (Jeremy arriving at the group’s camp-site with a dead cow on the roof of his car, Jeremy and Richard sabotaging the air conditioning in James’ car to even the playing field) alongside times where laughter is perhaps more nervous (the braking challenge where Richard nearly drives his truck into an alligator filled river). And of course there was fear for all involved when the car ‘decoration’ challenge led to the group being chased out of an Alabama town, being pelted with rocks. Filming actually had to be halted while the presenters and crew frantically cleaned the cars and made a run for the state border. Before Argentina, it was the most life threatening challenge the team had faced. The show’s ending, however is rather poignant. Upon reaching New Orleans, the trio are dismayed to discover that parts of the city are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. So they make the decision to find people who are in need of a car and give the vehicles as gifts rather than looking for profit. So they had some fun and did some good – and weren’t too controversial in the process.


 Polar Special (2007) | Words: AH

Putting a vehicular twist on the annual Polar Challenge (in which competitors trek and ski in a race to the North Pole), the Top Gear team decided to hold a race – between a car and a traditional dog-sled – to the 1996 location of the magnetic North Pole. Jeremy and James formed one team in a heavily modified Toyota Hilux pick up truck, while Richard joined explorer Matty McNair and travelled with her husky dogs. One of the funniest elements to this special was in the “training” the boys went through before the expedition began. Speaking to various experts and the infamous explorer Ranulph Fiennes, the trio learnt of the dangers of frostbite in intimate areas and toilet-going in the presence of polar bears. And amidst their laughable first attempts at skiing in Austria, they were also put through their paces by a tough SAS veteran – who among other things pushed an unsuspecting Jeremy into frozen water.

When the expedition finally began in Resolute, Nunavut – it became clear which team had the bigger advantage. For the first three days, Jeremy and James’ Toyota breezed across the smooth ice with relative ease. The two were so content in fact, that they spent the majority of their trip snacking on chocolate and sipping on Gin and Tonics.  Meanwhile, Richard was put through his paces on the dog sled, becoming increasingly more irritable and exhausted as the relentless energy needed to perform such a physical task caught up with him. The car team did face some struggles, however when they faced rougher/thinner patches of ice, and at one point needed to be pulled free by another vehicle. This didn’t stop Clarkson and May from ultimately winning the task though and they became the first people to reach the magnetic North Pole in a motor vehicle. Hammond, however never reached the North Pole with his dog sled team – instead choosing to give up after hearing of Jeremy’s gloating success. This special is definitely fun, and is among the most challenging and successful tasks the team ever faced.


Botswana Special (2007) | Words: AH

Of all the Top Gear specials, this might just be my favourite. The four part challenge started, as always with the purchase of cars. The presenters were each given £1500, with which they were to buy a used car that a) had two-wheel drive and b) was not designed in any way for off-road use. Jeremy bought a 1981 automatic Lancia Beta Coupé – which would prove to be immensely difficult later on, given it’s sizeable weight. Meanwhile, James chose to purchase a 1985 Mercedes Benz 230E and Richard bought a 1963 Opel Kadett A. One of the elements that is so enjoyable about this special is the unlikely attachment Hammond had with his car – whom he affectionately nicknamed ‘Oliver’. ‘Oliver’ would go on to become one of Hammond’s prized cars and feature in his one-time CBBC show, Blast Lab, but it was in this episode that the little kitsch car was first featured. It was made clear at the beginning of the challenge, that any presenter whose car broke down and could not be fixed during the journey, would have to drive a Volkswagen Beetle instead. This was the first time a substitute car was offered in a challenge, but given the trio’s collective dislike of the German automobile, it was not welcomed well.

The first real challenge the trio faced was to cross the Makgadikgadi Pan – one of the largest salt flats in the world – using these cars. This was a feat that was applauded even by Botswana’s then-vice president, Seretse Ian Kharma.  In order to cross the salt flat, and avoid getting stuck in the tar-like substance that hid beneath a precariously thin layer of crust, it was advised that the presenters shed their cars of excess weight. While Clarkson and May happily smashed and ripped apart their vehicles, Hammond – now fully in love with ‘Oliver’ – refused to do anything but get rid of his spare tire. This just so happened to be the perfect plan, as Hammond’s car breezed across the salt flat easily – unlike the other two. There was a bonus challenge of the cars being put through time trials by The Stig’s ‘African Cousin’ before the team were tasked with equipping their cars to travel through the Okavango Delta – where wild animals, like lions and rhinos, roam the nature preserve. It was here that ‘Oliver’ faced his toughest trial yet, when Richard arrogantly tried – and failed – to ford a river. Luckily though, Hammond managed to fix him – but at the ironic expense of losing out the overall challenge to the Beetle – which completed the journey completely unscathed. One of the most loveable and amusing specials, this episode is something of an iconic reminder of the team at their best.


Vietnam Special (2008) | Words: MR

This special had a massive challenge element  – to travel the entire length of Vietnam (around 1,000 miles) in eight days. The presenters were initially delighted to each be given 15 million Vietnamese Dong. That is, until it turned out that this wasn’t actually that much money at all. Rather than being able to buy a car as they had all hoped, the money was only enough to buy a motorbike, much to the annoyance of James and Jeremy. Richard, as a motorbike enthusiast however, was delighted at this turn of events. As with a lot of the other challenge episodes, the producers had a trick up their sleeve. If any of the presenters bikes broke down beyond repair (that they couldn’t fix themselves without buying new parts) then they would have to complete what was left of the trip on a ‘backup’ bike – which was decorated in the American flag with a iPod system blasting out ‘Born In The USA’ – which was highly offensive to the local people.

Rather than face the usual tests as in other specials – the journey itself was the test here. That’s not to say it was plain sailing. The final part of their journey, to a bar in the middle of the water in Ha Long Bay, is hilarious. Surprise turns to disbelief then frustration, elation, some more frustration, bike/boats sinking and lots of laughter. All three made it there in person, just not all of them with their bikes. This is an episode that ties together modern history (Jeremy talking on the beach with a war veteran about the conflict and visits to various memorials and former battle sites) with sharing the beauty of the country with the world. Add in the usual making each other uncomfortable (Richard refusing to eat just about everything offered to him), mistakes (James order train tickets to the wrong city) and surprises (Jeremy revealing he’d learned Vietnamese prior to the trip) makes this a special among specials.


Bolivia Special (2009) | Words: AG

In the 2009 Christmas Special  – a personal favourite of mine – we saw Clarkson, Hammond & May travel from the dense jungles of Bolivia, through the Atacama and over the Andes, all the way to the pacific coastline of Chile. But first, they were tasked with purchasing the off-road cars that they would each be using for the duration of the journey, from local sellers on a budget of £3500. Now, when making a blind purchase in a country like Bolivia, it’s probably to be expected that not everything is going to be as the seller had said it would. That proved the case with all three. Jeremy’s Range Rover Classic turned out to only have a 3.5l engine, rather than the 3.9l that was advertised. Richard’s Toyota Land Cruiser 40 not only had a broken side window, but also came complete with a slapdash job of a convertible roof. And James’ Suzuki SJ413 turned up with flat tyres and was also not the colour it had been advertised as. After the three had eventually managed to manoeuvre their cars off the raft they had arrived on and on to dry land – after a considerable struggle – they set off into the depths of the Amazon jungle.

As I see it, there are two key events along the duration of this special, that it is, and will continue to be, remembered for. The first of which, being the presenters’ treacherous – and at times, perilous – trek along the notorious Yungas Road – one of the deadliest roads on the planet which leads from Bolivia’s capital La Paz to the North-Eastern region of the country. One scene sticks out in particular, in which Jeremy reaches a very narrow passage of the road at the same time as another car travelling in the opposite direction. Although it is fairly clear there would’ve been safety measures in place on the chance that something went wrong, you still find yourself a bit on edge.The other highly memorable stage of their journey is of course their literally breathtaking attempt at ascending the mountain road over the Andes. With the cars almost constantly breaking as well as Clarkson, Hammond & May’s own physical struggles due to the increasingly severe lack of oxygen at over 16000ft above sea level, they wisely decided to go the alternate route around the mountain, after giving it all they had. There’s no doubt that this was one of, if not the most dramatic of all of the Top Gear Specials over the years, and one that will definitely be regularly enjoyed for many years to come.


Africa Special (2013) | Words: AG

“So, you’ve seen Sir David Attenborough’s take on Africa. Now its time to see ours.”

First aired a little over two years ago now, this two-part special saw Clarkson, Hammond & May challenged to find the true source of the world’s longest river: the Nile. With the starting point set at a “small village in rural Uganda” and a budget for the presenters’ estate car of choice at £1500, Jeremy arrived first in a BMW 528i Touring – a car that he stated “looks at home” against the Ugandan backdrop. Richard followed not long after, in a trademark blue Subaru Impreza WRX Estate, which he claimed had everything one could need for the rough terrain they were likely to encounter. Then finally, James turned up, as predicted by Clarkson & Hammond, in a Volvo – But not the type they might have expected. An 850R – which merely by looking at the tyres, or lack thereof, anyone can tell is a very bold decision.

Now, after a rather longwinded speech about the legacy of the Nile and all those who’ve lived and died searching for it’s source, upon reaching Lake Victoria, it may have seemed that they’d already found it. However, of course that wasn’t true as the lake itself is sourced from many different tributaries. So, after travelling many, many miles through Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, the three eventually find the river they believed lead to the true source of the Nile. This will always be one of the most memorable Top Gear challenges, chiefly due to the momentous nature of it. It’s likely that the true source of the Nile might never be certain, as there are various interpretations of what defines a river’s source, however, Clarkson, Hammond & May appeared to have found yet another possibility – and entertained us thoroughly as they did.


Words by Alex Graham, Annie Honeyball and Megan Roxburgh

Compiled by Annie Honeyball

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