First off, let me say right now that I know next to nothing about cars. I do know how to drive (both automatic and manual, I'm proud to say); I know where to put the gas in; and I know not to leave the headlights on when I turn the car off. Other than that, I'm pretty much clueless. I can stay clueless, too, because both my husband and my son Micah are total gearheads, and I refer all things automotive to them. Despite this -- or maybe because of this -- I am completely addicted to the BBC car program (or programme, as they spell it), Top Gear.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it is a combination talk show/automobile review/stunt extravaganza/three-ring-circus. It is co-hosted by three presenters: Jeremy Clarkson, a very large (six foot six inches, I believe) car expert, journalist, and hater of all things green; James May, a shaggy, highly intelligent and exceptionally well-read journalist, whose nickname is "Captain Slow" and whose rumply, absent-minded professor mien I confess I find quite appealing; and Richard Hammond, a Davy Jones (of the Monkees, not the ocean) lookalike who nearly lost his life five years ago when an Indy-style racecar he was testing for the show flipped and speared him headfirst into the ground.
There is also the Stig, Top Gear''s "tame racing driver," who tests the featured cars and whose identity is ever-secret, although we do know he is a professional driver and that he is fond of listening to self-improvement tapes in foreign languages while hurtling around the test track at very high speeds.
The talk-show element of Top Gear consists of short interviews with celebrities, usually from British television and most of whom Americans have never heard of, then the celebrities do their own laps around the test-track in cars which most Americans have also never heard of (the steering wheels are all on the wrong side, too). The celebrities' lap times are then posted with much ceremony - for a long time, the fastest celebrity driver was Simon Cowell, whom, though British, I have heard of.
Top Gear also does serious reviews of cars, and, according to Micah, the reviews are thorough and honest; I wouldn't know, and as I said, I am completely unfamiliar with most of the cars, anyway (what the hell is a Panda?).
For me, the best part of the show are the challenges. Every other week or so, the three hosts are given a task by the producers, usually something that is well nigh impossible, like driving from Germany to northern England on one tank of gas. Each man chooses his own vehicle, and the winner gets bragging rights. Did I mention that they are each given a (very) limited budget with which to purchase a vehicle? So the cars in question tend to be very vintage and very decrepit (no brakes, for example), and sometimes the challenges are really insane, such as driving across the Kalahari Desert or over a 17,000ft Bolivian volcano (this last challenge almost killed both the presenters and the vehicles from lack of oxygen - they had to turn back and go around the volcano before they all died of altitude sickness). In most of the challenges, Clarkson provides the most bluster and bravado; Hammond is the pluckiest; and like the tortoise, May is slow but steady, as his nickname implies. They spend a lot of time arguing and getting lost and so on; they also accidentally set things on fire a lot, and it really is very funny.
The best and funniest challenges are when they have to modify their clunkers, as in the following clip. In this episode, they are tasked with creating cars that will also function as boats; the finish line is on the far side of reservoir.
In this second clip, we find out what a trio of gearheads would do with an Olympic ski jump, a team of rocket scientists, and a Mini Cooper. What indeed?
So that's my confession. Ridiculous as it is, I love Top Gear.