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If you’re reading this here on Drivetribe, I would say that there is a 95% chance that like me you are a huge fan of Top Gear, The Grand Tour and the famous trio that became huge stars thanks to both of these. However have you ever wondered how this all came to be? I have, for me it’s far more interesting than the birth of the baby Jesus.
Today I want you to join me in looking back at how these three came to be our supreme overlords, so grab a cup of tea, some biscuits and whatever else you need and join me on this adventure.
NOT A FAN OF LONG READS? THAT’S OK, I MADE A VIDEO VERSION.
JAMES DANIEL MAY
It “May” not surprise you to hear that James May had a short stint in the civil service after finishing a degree in Music at Lancaster university, thankfully though, in the 1980’s he entered the world of car journalism. He had worked as a sub-editor for “The Engineer” magazine briefly before getting a job at Autocar magazine. The car journalist was hilariously dismissed from Autocar in 1992 for hiding the sentence “So you think it’s really good, yeah? You should try making the bloody thing up; it’s a real pain in the arse” in the initials of the Road Test Yearbook.
In 1999, James May appeared on Top Gear for the first time, alongside Tiff and the old crew doing an old English Mafia style sketch and then getting to drive and review the new S-Type Jaguar. James would not return to Top Gear until 2003 where he replaced Jason Dawe who had been part of the trio in the first series of the new format of Top Gear.
To this day, when the trio are asked why May wasn’t in the first series they still say that he “showed up late”, owing to his nickname “Captain Slow” which he earned on the show.
RICHARD MARK HAMMOND
Our little Hamster decided to go to art college when he grew up and so in 1986 he attended Harrogate College of Art and Technology and then went on to work on Radio for Radio Cleveland, Radio York, Radio Cumbria, Radio Leeds and Radio Newcastle.
It was at Radio Lancashire where his career would be magnetically drawn towards cars because every week he would do a phone interview with an interesting guest who would review a car on air. That guest, Zogg Zieglar, encouraged Hamster to go and try out for television interviews for the motor industry and thus began his career.
Initially Hammond appeared on the satellite channel, Men & Motors, however in 2002 he joined Clarkson on the new format of Top Gear. The rest, as they say, is history but luckily I’ll be continue that history later in the article.
JEREMY CHARLES ROBERT CLARKSON
Clarkson’s family had become quite well off when he was around 13 due to, of all things, Paddington Bear and a chance encounter in an elevator between Mr. Clarkson (Jeremy’s father) and Michael Bond. This meant that Jeremy could afford to go to Repton School, where Jeremy has stated in the past that he was bullied profusely and was a suicidal wreck, but he ended up getting expelled for “drinking, smoking and generally making a nuisance of himself.” It is lucky he went to the school though, as this is where he met Mr. Andy Wilman who would go on to produce Top Gear and the Grand Tour.
His career in motor journalism began when Clarkson wrote for the Shropshire Star, who afforded him to luxury of doing a column about motoring, according to Clarkson “I started small, on the Shropshire Star with little Peugeots and Fiats and worked my way up to Ford Granadas and Rovers until, after about seven years, I was allowed to drive an Aston Martin Lagonda… It was 10 years before I drove my first Lamborghini.”
Clarkson began his television career on the original Top Gear (which you can see above) in 1988, getting the job with the help of John Bentley who liked his style of rough and ready comedy where he had no problem insulting the cars in a humorous fashion. The rest of the presenters at the time would be very conservative and car focused, so Clarkson’s approach brought even some non-car folk to the show.
Jeremy Clarkson would team up with old schoolmate and producer, Andy Wilman, in 2001 after the old Top Gear had been cancelled to work on what would become the new version of Top Gear.
NEW FORMAT TOP GEAR
In December of 2001, Clarkson and Wilman met and discussed a new format for a TV show since Top Gear had been cancelled. They wanted to take the old magazine format and switch it up into a more studio style show, with guests and fun segments. They came up with all the different sections of the show which would become the 2002 version of Top Gear that we all know and loved, then they went to the BBC to pitch the idea.
Their timing could not have been better, the rest of the old Top Gear crew had gone to Channel 5 and started a motoring show of their own, Fifth Gear, the BBC was now looking for something to compete with them. Even more lucky for Clarkson and Wilman, the BBC’s cancellation of the old magazine format seemed like it was the right call, Fifth Gear ran for a while but was never a ratings cash cow.
When production began in 2002, the BBC managed to secure Dunsfold Aerodrome which was in a top secret location, just off the B2130 near the Horsham Road. This meant they could use one of the aircraft hangers for the Studio and the runway was perfect as a track. The show was born and on 20 October 2002, the show aired for the first time without James May of course.
A MASSIVE SUCCESS
As you’re probably aware, this format of Top Gear was a huge success but you might not be aware of just how big a success this show was for the BBC and why the trio now get such good treatment from Amazon.
In 2015, at the height of its popularity, the show was on air in 214 territories and had an estimated audience of 350 million viewers which made it the most widely watched factual television program in the world. The program became a £150 million a year cash cow for the commercial arm of the BBC.
This made it a much harder decision for all involved later in 2015 when controversy would strike and change everything.
A PUNCH WHERE IT REALLY HURT
After 2014, the BBC was already a little worried about Top Gear and Clarkson from three incidents which had taken place that year. One was the “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” incident where Clarkson was deciding between the two cars, allegedly using the original version of the rhyme. This wasn’t the only call against the show for racism that year, there were other complaints over the fact that Clarkson and Hammond were discussing a bridge they just built and as an asian man was crossing Clarkson remarked ‘had a slope on it’.
There was also the infamous “H982 FKL” incident during the Patagonia special when a license plate caused what was an almost international incident in Argentina. All of this combined was already causing the BBC some bother and worry.
On the 10th of March 2015, the BBC abruptly put the show on hiatus as they had suspended Clarkson to investigate allegations of verbal and physical abuse against one of the shows producers, Oisin Tymon, by Clarkson. On the 25th of May, after a massive influx of press attention and rising pressure within the BBC to let Clarkson go as he had allegedly punched the producer in the face, the BBC decided to terminate Clarkson’s contract. This would lead to a difficult run of luck on car shows for the BBC.
As for Clarkson, shortly after he left, so too did Andy Wilman who said he wouldn’t want to produce the show without Clarkson, a move which would be followed by Hammond and May not long after. They did however produce one last special involving classic cars for the BBC which involved buying three cheap classic cars and aired on June 28th 2015.
JEFF TO THE RESCUE
Shortly after leaving Top Gear, Clarkson was quoted saying “I have lost my baby but I shall create another. I don’t know who the other parent will be or what the baby will be like.” The rumor mill begin going wild wondering what the new show would be. Due to a non-compete clause the trio could not make a deal with a BBC competitor so the obvious choice would be an American company and the choice seemed clear at the time that it would be Netflix. Netflix though thought that the money involved in getting the trio and producing the show was not worth it and BT Sport, who thought that they could not provide the global reach the show needed.
Luckily for us and the world, Jeff Bezos and his company Amazon, had recently launched a streaming service called Prime Video and needed a large show to attract an audience, given Amazon’s deep pockets a deal was easily made. In July 2015, Clarkson announced he had struck a deal with the company for 36 episodes of a show which would closely follow the Top Gear format and on 18 November 2016, the trio appeared in the first episode, entering the Desert in an episode known as “The Holy Trinity”.
It was finally real, we had more of the Trio and even better than this, the website Drivetribe was created during this time, a website which is currently changing my life. Thank you for reading.