If you have the pleasure of being outside the UK and watching Top Gear, you’ll just know the three hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, as reasonably affable hosts of an entertaining TV show. However, if you’re based in the UK, you’ll be far more familiar with Clarkson’s views espoused through his column in the right wing tabloid The Sun and the embarrassing campaign – led by a man driving a tank through London while dressed as The Stig – designed to appeal Clarkson’s firing for punching a producer.
But, despite this, we’ll freely admit that Top Gear is an entertaining show. And a large part of what made Top Gear entertaining was its road trips, taking different cars around the world and seeing how they fared in varying conditions. The blend of choppy editing, fast cars and the three hosts means the road trips often resemble a Ken Loach-directed version of The Fast and The Furious, in a good way. If you haven’t seen the show but still like cars, let this be your primer into the world of Top Gear and their soon to launch show, The Grand Tour. The trio’s new show will appear on Amazon Prime from November 18, with the company spending a reported £160 million ($202 million USD) for 36 episodes of the show. To whet your appetite for their triumphant return, here’s a guide to the best road trips and treks ever done by Jezza, Hamster and ‘Captain Slow.’
Search for Driving Heaven (Series 10, Episode 1)
Top Gear’s road trips are known for their scenic views, car vs. public transport challenges, and the chemistry between the three hosts, which are all seen in action during this road trip. The premise behind this journey was to find the best driving road in the world.
In comparison to other episodes, this was rather low on hi-jinks, but was made up for with the scenic views and a trio of great cars, including a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera, Porsche 911 GT3 RS and Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24. The latter however was ruined somewhat by James May getting so hot while driving it that he was forced to strip down to his underwear. Starting out in Monte Carlo, they eventually find their dream piece of road in, surprisingly, Switzerland.
Vietnam Motorbike Special (Series 12, Episode 8)
The Vietnam special stands out because it was a rare show that focused on motorbikes, not usually Top Gear’s forte. The aim for this episode was to ride from the length of Vietnam, from south to north, a trip of 1,000 miles. The constraint this time was that they’re given just enough money to find them motorbikes, something that appears to genuinely anger Clarkson (perhaps foreshadowing the incident that led to him being let go from the show) as he has no interest in motorbikes.
Despite this, he eventually got into it, getting what he decided was a mod-style suit for the occasion. They traveled up a mountain and then changed into a recurring theme of the show: amphibious upgrades on land vehicles. They then used the water-ready bikes to find Ba Hang Bar in Halong Bay, a resort off the coast of Vietnam and only accessible by water.
France (Series 3, Episode 7)
The trio went to France to test out three supercars, the Pagani Zonda, Ferrari F430 and Ford GT. An earlier excursion, taking place back in series three, it was back when the road trips were accompanied by in-car reviews – something that was later dropped in favor of ever-bigger tasks and challenges.
Like most episodes they drove through France in its near-entirety, going from the French countryside to Paris, where nearly an entire segment was spent showing the impracticalities of a supercar in a city by spending forever and a day just hilariously trying to get the vehicles out of a simple car park.
Bonneville Salt Flats (Series 12, Episode 2)
Part of the USA special, the Bonneville Salt Flats was based around hitting high speeds in difficult salt-based conditions. They took a Challenger SRT8, supercharged Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V respectively to reach their assigned speed targets, tussling with the difficult conditions. The scenic beauty takes center stage in this segment, although you soon became invested in the trio’s speed achievements as well.
Japan (Series 11, Episode 4)
Part of the show’s traditional car vs. local transport series, this episode pitted a Nissan GT-R against Japan’s famously quick public transport system which included the 200 mph bullet train. This show also functioned as a look into the efficiency of the network while Clarkson makes some very British references (we’re not sure Bill Oddie, a UK-based nature show presenter, carries across cultural lines).
In fact, it’s the sheer efficiency of everything in Japan, from the toll barriers to the transport system which accurately displayed the arrival time of just about everything, that made this road trip worth watching.
Bolivia Special (Series 14, Episode 6)
The Bolivia Special upped the ante for the team, sending them to Bolivia’s North Yungas road which is nicknamed ‘death road.’ The road peaks at 4,650 meters high and gained its name from the high number of fatal accidents on the path.
The inherent danger involved turned North Yungas into a destination for thrill-seekers and there’s now a vibrant tourist industry based around it, so you can take a tour on the road if you so desire. It’s at times like this when the show truly resembles the aforementioned Ken Loach’s remake of The Fast and The Furious, with the blend of straight-to-camera monologues and views of the daunting feat.
The North Pole (Series 9, Episode 8)
The North Pole episode reprised the car vs. local transport premise, this time coming in the form of a sled and some huskies. The car used on this journey was an adapted pickup truck, which was modified to deal with the special demands of the terrain.
Once again, the sheer vastness of the terrain is the main star here, and if the North Yungas road trip resembled Fast and Furious, this episode was a distinctly British take on some of the scenes of Interstellar.
The German Border (Series 15, Episode 2)
The German Border episode took a break from the usual challenges, this time giving the trio a fuel-based test. Giving each presenter just 13.35 liters of gas, they were given old school 90s “European” sports cars, and were all tasked with making the German border without the tank running out.
The grey rainy skies means there isn’t as much to savor visually, but the added fuel element added a constraint that made the show intriguing. The other element, a constant of the Top Gear series, is how good the presenters are at essentially talking to themselves out loud and making what should be a dull episode worth watching.
Botswana (Series 10, Episode 4)
More beautiful visuals in this episode, starting out in The Makgadikgadi Pan in Botswana, one of the largest Salt Flats in the world. At the time of filming for the episode, no car had ever driven across the Pan.
The roads are referred to as a ‘crème brûlée’ because of the thin top that can be easily cracked, with a soft layer of foam underneath. These conditions meant they had to hollow out their vehicles before embarking on the trip, a journey that was marked by a visit from the president of Botswana Ian Khama, who was then vice president when the episode was filmed in 2007.
Crossing the English Channel (Series 10, Episode 2)
One of the show’s more left-field challenges, this road trip tasked the presenters with turning cars into car-boat hybrids to cross the channel themselves without public transportation methods. The trio had previously been tasked with creating car boats before, so they built on those prototypes to create upgraded versions of what they’ve described as ‘amphibious cars.’
This episode also had the added wrinkle of trying to break Richard Branson’s Guinness World Record channel crossing time of three hours and 45 minutes, an ambitious task to reach in homemade car boats. Clearly they didn’t beat the record, but it’s still extremely fun watching them try and fail.
US Special (Series 9, Episode 3)
Perhaps the most controversial episode of all of the trio’s trips, the first time the boys hit the States involved them with not only a sweltering heat wave and horrible conditions in three very low-budget used cars, but a physical attack upon them as well, exacted by the locals who were naturally not entertained by their antics.
The segment in question is that of the “offensive cars” challenge, where each had to decorate their mates’ vehicles with slogans that would provoke locals into engaging. From sexual orientation and music preference to political standings that would strike a chord to this day, the episode was, to both fans and not, perhaps the epitome of the trio’s outlandish capers.
Sound off in the comments below which episode was most memorable for you and how high your expectations are for The Grand Tour.