Top Gear is one of the longest-running shows on BBC, and it’s also the most-watched show in history (a little more on that later). For gearheads, it’s the cream of the crop, the Holy Grail of motoring television programmes. It began in 1977 as a half-hour motoring magazine show, where presenters would speak about common motoring issues: new car road tests, safety, fuel economy, the police, etc. Boring stuff.
This version ran for 21 years, until it was canned in 1999 and then reformatted and reintroduced as Top Gear in 2002. The original presenters were Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, quirky and knowledgeable Brits with a 9-inch height difference. James May joined them in series two, and the rest is history.
Throughout Top Gear’s life, little has been known about what goes on behind the scenes. There seems to be public controversies and outcries that erupt from the show’s presenters at least once a year, thanks to their opinionated and often unscripted utterances. The show is very hush-hush about what goes on behind the green curtain, and we’re here to dispel some of those myths and set some of those facts straight.
So without further ado, here are 17 behind-the-scenes facts about the greatest and most popular motoring show of all time: Top Gear.
17 Clarkson Brought it Into This World, and He Can Take it Out
A big reason that Top Gear gained so much popularity at the beginning of the 21st century is due to the reintroduction of host Jeremy Clarkson in 2002.
He helped resurrect the show by reformatting it from its dated beginnings from 1977, into a modern show that new gearheads everywhere could enjoy.
But he was also partly responsible for its original demise. He originally joined Top Gear in 1988, when it was still in its original format. He gained a celebrity public persona thanks to the show, and then, in 1999, he called it quits and left, in order to pursue his TV career. When he left, Top Gear’s audience fell from 6 million viewers to 3 million, and it was relegated to the scrap yard… until he came back three years later like a horse-powered phoenix, pumping new life into the show.
16 The Presenters Don’t Get Free Rides
Contrary to popular belief, the hosts of the show, Richard Hammond, James May, and Jeremy Clarkson, don’t actually get free cars from the multitudes of companies they rep on Top Gear. You would think they might since they can singlehandedly make or break the value and sales for any singular car (and they have, many times). But no. While they spend a lot of time carefully apple-picking which cars are going to be presented on the show, they don’t get any free perks or free cars from those companies. This is due to strict BBC regulations.
This fact may also come as a shock, given all three presenters’ marvelous personal car collections. But it’s important to keep in mind that, though they have to buy cars from dealers like the rest of us, they also make a lot more money than most of the rest of us.
15 The Test Track is the Stuff of Nightmares
The test track on Top Gear is one of the most notorious aspects of the show. Many celebrities have put on the helmet and ridden around the track and have made known their fear of it when driving on the beast. There are probably more F-bombs and "sh*ts" dropped during the celebrity test runs than there are on any other part of the show.
And there’s a reason the track scares the life out of people. It was designed by Lotus Cars as a testing facility, and many of its Formula One cars are tested there. So, it’s not your everyday test track—with its pits and hammerhead and hairpin turns, it’s one of the most grueling tracks for any driver, professional, or pedestrian. So, it’s no wonder why your average "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" curses like a sailor when driving on this beast of a track.
14 How an Episode Comes Together
Top Gear Executive Producer Andy Wilman, who was brought onto the show’s current form by presenter Jeremy Clarkson, has explained how a season of Top Gear is made (which typically takes 1 to 2 years to create). Apparently, there are nine producers and the three presenters in the room, all brainstorming to come up with a big, showy road trip that will be the meat and potatoes of the season. Then the younger kids in the office will create the stunts. The three presenters will come up with what cars they want to feature, what kind of cars or cockamamie contraptions they will build (like the Top Gear fire engine, or Top Gear train).
Then they go off and blow the budget, often to the tune of six figures over the limit. They get told off, but their show is way too popular to cancel, so it’s a wash. The scripts for the studio section of the show are written on the Tuesday before the show airs. On Wednesday, they decamp and go over the script and then film with little rehearsal, and it’s on.
13 The Presenters’ Influence is Enough to Destroy Lives
...or at least the lives of the people who spent the countless hours designing many of the cars featured in the show. Jeremy Clarkson, especially, has always been the most opinionated of the presenters, and it’s often gotten him in trouble. Back in 2009, Clarkson was coupled with a Ford Ka, to test drive. Now, Jeremy has been very vocal about his lack of technical knowledge regarding the cars he drives (he famously skips the 2-hour-long technical press conferences of every car he drives, whereas his co-presenters don't skip them). He does this not to be lazy, however, but so he doesn’t have to think about the man who designed the car and can be as rude and unbiased as possible.
When Clarkson said the Ford Ka “looks like a frog,” sales for the car plummeted, and his quote made headlines around car media outlets everywhere.
Then again, he’s also said some awful things about the Toyota Corolla, and his words have never seemed to affect its sales.
12 The Crashes Are Real, and They Can Be Deadly
Back in 2006, co-host Richard Hammond, endearingly referred to as the Hamster, was involved in a VERY high-speed crash while trying out the jet-powered Vampire dragster. The “car” is capable of reaching 370 mph, and Hammond was going about 314 mph at one point (an unofficial British world record). He was going 288 mph when he crashed, and it looked like there was no way Hammond could survive.
He was then airlifted to Leeds General Infirmary, where he was in serious condition but survived. He was in an induced coma for 2 weeks, missed the rest of the season, and suffered trauma and psychological scars. Everyone agreed to not mention the crash after Hammond’s return, which is why it’s a bit under the radar.
Apparently, a blown-out front tire caused the crash, and when the car was rolling, Hammond’s helmet was dragging on the ground. It’s speculated that were he any taller, he would've been decapitated. In lieu of the terrifying event, the Hamster managed to raise a whopping £230,000 for air ambulances.
11 The Iconic Opening Credit Music
If you’ve ever been humming the opening tune to Top Gear in your head, which anyone who’s watched the show probably has, you might have asked yourself, “Who the hell made this song?” The tune is called “Jessica” and was written by the Allman Brothers Band back in 1973. The 7-minute epic instrumental was a huge hit for the Allman Brothers and was originally a tribute to the gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (by that, we mean it’s meant to be played with only two fingers on the left hand).
“Jessica” peaked at number 65 on the Billboard Hot 100 back when it came out. Originally, Top Gear used the Allman Brothers’ version, but they eventually recorded their own version (maybe so they wouldn’t have to pay as much in royalties to the creators?) Regardless, it’s one for the ages.
10 There Was a Show You’ve Never Heard of That Briefly Took Top Gear’s Place
Back in 2001, when Top Gear was discontinued and scrapped, talks for a new show hit the drawing board. Channel Five came out with 5th Gear, another British motoring series that was designed to be basically the same thing as Top Gear. The goal was to be a continuation of the original (pre-2002) version of Top Gear, and it had three of the ex-presenters from Top Gear featured on the new show: Quentin Willson, Tiff Needell, and Vicki Butler-Henderson.
5th Gear badly wanted to use the Top Gear name, but BBC refused.
And it’s a good thing they did because if Channel Five had managed to get Top Gear’s name, we’d have never had the re-evolution of the show in the first place! 5th Gear never became as popular as its predecessor, though it ran until 2012. It was then canceled, restarted, and canceled again in 2016 due to a lack of funding.
9 It’s Easier to Win the Lottery Than It Is to Get Tickets to the Show
Okay, that headline may be a bit misleading. But if you were ever planning on trying to get tickets to the show and be one of the few faces that surround the presenters during filming, you’d better keep on wishing. The wait time to become a studio audience member on Top Gear is longer than any other show in history, with an estimated 336,000 people on the waitlist, which equals about 21 years of waiting. That’s right—your newborn baby would be in college by the time you’d come around to getting the call to show up to the Top Gear studio. Your time is probably spent much better pursuing some other, more realistic, dream.
8 Top Gear is in the Guinness World Records
That’s right—Top Gear is in the Guinness Book of World Records, and it may not be for what you think. You may think it’s for some racing achievement, some super fast lap time, or most awesome cars every portrayed on a TV show, but you’d be wrong. In 2013, Guinness World Records crowned the show the “Most widely watched factual TV programme in the world.”
The show’s audience covers an astounding 212 countries and territories around the world, from Guatemala to Ghana, Myanmar to Moldova, and everywhere in between.
While accepting the award in 2013, Clarkson wryly quipped, “I am very proud to be involved in such a factual programme.” Also, we were wrong about the other records… Top Gear has been in the Guinness Records a few times for (1) first ever double loop-the-loop in history, (2) longest-ever slot car track (set by James May) (3) jump in reverse world record, and (4) series 6’s record attempt for number of times a car has rolled at high speeds.
7 Controversies and Expensive Trouble
When we say “Expensive Trouble,” we don’t mean the expenses that go into fixing up a car or production of an episode. Back in 2014, a formal complaint was lodged to BBC for $1.8 million because of a racial slur that was used by the presenters after they built a bridge over the Kok River.
Indian-born actress Somi Guha made the complaint following the showing of the "Burma Special" episode. In the episode, a makeshift, temporary bridge was built over the Kok River. After its completion, Clarkson said it was a “proud moment, but there’s a slope on it.” Hammond replied, “You’re right. It’s definitely higher on that side.” The complaint by Guha said that “slope” is a derogatory term for an Asian person. In April of that year, Top Gear executive producer, Andy Wilman, apologized for the apparently racist remark.
6 James May Wasn't Originally Going To Be on the Show
Many watchers of Top Gear might not know this, but upon its original manifestation (actually its second run, starting in 2002), James May wasn't originally interested in being a co-presenter alongside Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson. Clarkson wanted him for the show, but May declined. Instead, Top Gear got Jason Dawe.
Dawe wasn't in many segments of the show. But in the segments he did appear, many viewers complained that he was boring. After demand for the show increased following the conclusion of the first series, suddenly, James May wanted to present. He was there until 2015, when all three presenters left the show.
Jason Dawe, on the other hand, poor Jason, began presenting Used Car Roadshow in 2005, but it was canceled after only two years due to a ratings failure.
5 Who's “The Stig”?
Anyone who’s ever watched Top Gear knows of the elusive entity known only as "The Stig." He's the mute, anonymous driver whose identity is unknown and who shows up to drive incredibly and do things that no one else on the show wants to. The Stig was the brainchild of the series’ executive producer, Andy Wilman. He adds a whole lot of comic relief to the programme and, even with no speaking lines, has garnered just as much fame as the presenters.
There have been 3 Stigs. The first was Perry McCarthy, who appeared in the first 22 episodes of the re-launch in 2002. He wore all black and is known as the "Black Stig."
The second, and original White Stig, was Ben Collins. He appeared on the show from 2003 until 2010, when he was canned from the show for revealing his identity in his autobiography.
And the third Stig is… question mark?
4 They Have Enough Money to Abandon Cars
Here’s an interesting story regarding presenter Richard Hammond. After being caught in a huge traffic jam that was caused by terrible floods, Hammond actually abandoned the Porsche he was driving, on the freeway. He then put on his running gear and raced home through the 16 miles—on foot!—in order to make it to his daughter’s 4th birthday on time.
The Hamster had been driving from London to Herefordshire, shooting for the show, when the flooding happened and caused him to get stuck in traffic 16 miles from home. Hammond had been on a 12-hour journey at the time when he abandoned his 911 Carrera in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire at around 3:00 AM on a Saturday morning and opted to run home.
3 The Presenters Unsurprisingly Make a Lot of Money
This one probably comes as a shock to absolutely no one. For the enormous viewership and ratings and public personas from Top Gear, presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond are well compensated. As mentioned earlier, the show is broadcast on 212 territories, and its Top Gear magazine boasts 1.7 million subscribers. Clarkson has been there the longest, since 1988 (minus a few years hiatus), and in return, he's paid the most.
In 2014, Clarkson earned $890,000 for his services alone.
His salary was set to jump up to $12.3 million after his release from Top Gear and resurgence into The Grand Tour (which we’ll talk about in a minute), though Clarkson refutes these numbers and says, “The numbers aren’t much higher than they were at BBC; we just have to waste a lot less on health and safety.”
2 Jeremy Clarkson Crashes and Burns and… Flies From the Ashes?
If there’s any behind-the-scenes fact that made headlines more than any other, it’s this one, regarding Jeremy Clarkson’s firing. In 2015, fans everywhere booed in dismay when they learned that their favorite presenter wouldn't be appearing on the next series of Top Gear—the same man who was responsible for its revitalization.
In 2014, Clarkson was already on very thin ice with the producers, due to being in the center of three very large controversies on the show. (1) He was accused of making a racist joke on the Burma episode, (2) he uttered the N-word off-air and knew full well after his sincere apology that the next screw-up would likely cost him his job, and (3) an October 2014 riot chased the Top Gear crew out of Argentina.
Then, Clarkson was told by producer Oisin Tymon that the kitchen of the hotel they were staying at was closed and that he couldn’t get a hot meal, and Clarkson went off the handlebars and punched the producer in the face, busting his lip. Clarkson was then fired, only to be hired by Amazon a short time later, which brings us to…
1 The Grand Tour
Following Clarkson’s disgraceful firing from Top Gear, Amazon Studios picked him up in order to create a rival show, one that would be called The Grand Tour. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has even said, “It was a very, very, very expensive show,” and he’s the richest man in the world!
Whereas Top Gear episodes boasted a per-episode budget of around $556,000, the new show's budget ranged from $1.2 to $4.9 million an episode. That’s about $36 million per season or $109.8 million over the promised three seasons!
The initial price tag to license the show was $160 million, but Amazon Prime fought and got it for $250 million, according to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. But Clarkson knew what he was worth. With him at the forefront, Top Gear brought BBC Worldwide approximately $225 million in annual revenue.
Sources: telegraph.co.uk, dave.uktv.co.uk; www.carthrottle.com