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Since its revamp in 2002, Top Gear has developed a number of notable features and regular segments throughout the show's run. The show has roughly stuck to its original magazine format; it often consists of at least two or three "films", one of which will usually be a car that is reviewed in a semi-serious fashion and then put around the track by the Stig. Also seen in most regular episodes are a news segment and the Star In A Reasonably-Priced Car interview. The show will occasionally break format and feature one long film, always revolving around a big trip overseas.
Below are the bits that are the most frequently seen, along with examples of how far the show will go to prove how ambitious (but rubbish) they can be.
The following are typical segments featured on Top Gear:
Not just simple car vs. car races, but such unlikely contests as :
- Car (Bugatti Veyron) vs. fighter jet (RAF Eurofighter Typhoon). Hammond drove the Veyron in this challenge, making him the last of the three to try it and the only one to lose his challenge. The car did one mile, there and back, horizontally. The plane did its mile vertically. (Series 10, Episode 3)
- Car (Ferrari 612 Scaglietti) vs. commercial airliner/public transport to Verbier, Switzerland. In one of the most ludicrously unlikely (and hysterical) moments of the series, May and Hammond arrived in Verbier and were yards from the finish when Clarkson drove past them on the town's high street. May and Hammond would probably have won handily if the destination hadn't been about the only ski resort in Switzerland without a rail service... (Series 5, Episode 8)
- Car (Bugatti Veyron) driven by Clarkson vs. private plane (Cessna 182) flown by May, with Hammond riding shotgun. The car won, possibly because May did not have his instrument rating and therefore could not fly after dark. That, and a whole lot of problems with their airways clearances resulted in them taking the long way around the Alps. It was a very close result nonetheless. (Series 7, Episode 5)
- Car (Aston Martin DB 9) vs. passenger train (Series 4, Episode 1)
- Car (Ford SportKa) vs. racing pigeons. (Series 4, Episode 4)
- Car (Mazda MX5) vs. racing greyhound. Despite Hammond's insistence that he was using the ancient Japanese art of Beatidogu, the greyhound won. (Series 7, Episode 6)
- Car vs. traceurs. Captain Slow was soundly defeated -- by the time he arrived, the freerunners had managed to climb almost to the top of the building. (Series 8, Episode 7)
- Car vs. rock climbers. On the way up, the climbers beat Clarkson by a couple of minutes. On the way down...the climbers used a parachute.
- Car (Fiat Nuova Panda) vs. marathon runner (A.C. Muir): Clarkson raced the marathon runner across London during rush hour...and lost. (Series 6, Episode 7)
- Car (Hammond) vs. speed boat (May). Richard thought he had won until James put down the newspaper that was covering his face. (Series 12, Episode 5)
- Car vs. bike vs. boat vs. public transportation: May (car), Hammond (bike), Clarkson (boat), and The Stig (public transportation) see who can cross London the fastest during morning rush hour. Hammond arrived first, then Clarkson, then the Stig. Of course, that means the car came last, prompting Clarkson to tell May that he ruined Top Gear. (Series 10, Episode 5)
- Car (Nissan GTR driven by Clarkson) vs. Japanese bullet train (ridden by Hammond and May) May and Hammond were soundly beating Clarkson until Hammond missed a train and Clarkson managed to avoid heavy traffic in Tokyo. They were neck-and-neck until the final stretch, which was essentially a footrace from different sides of an island to a statue at the top. Clarkson won by a few minutes. (Series 11, Episode 4)
- 1949-era "Race to the North" (Jaguar XK120 vs. Vincent Black Shadow motorbike vs. 60163 Tornado steam train). The car won, with May driving; the train with Clarkson was a close second. The bike stopped after a fuel tank error and wasn't able to finish. The race was hard on two of the presenters, with Hammond winding up cramped and uncomfortable and Clarkson collapsing to the floor and remaining there until May revived him with beer. (Series 13, Episode 1)
- Car vs. the postal service: Hammond and May (taking turns driving) tried to see if they could beat a letter posted in the Scilly Isles to its destination address in the Orkneys. They lost (Series 13, Episode 4)
- Car (Clarkson in a V8 MK IV Jaguar XJ) vs. God: Clarkson left England's most westerly point, Land's End at sunset, with the aim of reaching England's most easterly point, the town of Lowestoft, before sunrise. During the Summer Solstice. Clarkson won. (Series 16, Episode 6)
- Motorhome races (Series 10, Episode 6)
- People carrier races
- Bus races (double decker vs. single decker, vs. a shuttle bus, vs. two "bendy buses); all in the name of finding the best bus for London city streets. Of course a huge part of the fun was wondering when the driver of the double decker was going to roll his bus over. The single-decker won. (Series 12, Episode 5)
- Airport vehicle races (Series 14, Episode 4)
- Car vs. dog sled: for the Polar Special, Clarkson and May in a highly modified indestructible Toyota Hilux vs. Hammond in a dog sled accompanied by driver Matty McNair in a race to the magnetic north pole. Clarkson and May win and become first people ever to drive to the magnetic north pole in a car.
- Car vs. Olympian: James May riding shotgun in a Mitsubishi Evolution rally car against Richard Hammond as one member of a four-man bobsleigh team. Hammond and the bobsleigh team won by just under two seconds. (Originally shown on Series 5, Episode 8 but shown again on the Winter Olympics Special)
- Car vs. Olympian 2: The new Mini rally car model (driven by Kris Meeke, a professional rally driver) vs. Amy Williams, gold-medalist in the skeleton sleigh. Williams and the Mini both began at the top of a 2km sleigh run, with Williams taking the track and the Mini heading an equal distance down a nearby road. At night. With slush and snow. And May riding co-pilot. In the end, the Mini won by less than two seconds. (Series 17, Episode 1)
- Car (Skoda Fabia Super 2000) vs. "Jetpack Man": The Skoda rally car (driven by professional rally driver Toni Gardemeister and with Hammond as co-driver) vs. "Jetpack Man", Yves Rossy from Switzerland. The car would (naturally) go around the course, while Rossy would have a helicopter bring him up to 8000 feet before he follows the course from above (at a constant 120mph). But he then has to parachute himself to land on the finish line/point. And the race ends with a win for Jetpack Man, although the car was not that far behind.
The presenters embark on a two-to-three-day drive to some significant destination in new cars they have chosen for themselves, in order to give a thorough evaluation of the power, speed, handling, quality, and ride comfort. On some occasions, they have also used these cars to go looking for the best driving roads in the world.
There does not appear to be a budget, but the cars must fit into a general genre (e.g. lightened supercars, American muscle cars), subject to the willingness of the manufacturer to lend a car for the presenter to test. On two occasions, Clarkson (Ford GT) and Hammond (Dodge Challenger) have undertaken the trip in cars they personally own. Hammond ended up buying the Challenger when Dodge wouldn't lend him one for the trip, stating that Top Gear tended to treat their cars as rubbish. On a more recent occasion (during their "Best luxury car for an Albanian mafia road trip"), Clarkson stated that because Bentley abruptly changed their mind in supplying one of the cars, he had to find a "local" Bentley to drive. And it is a Bentley only in name.
Examples of road trips undertaken include:
- Testing supercars on the way to the Millau Viaduct in France. Jeremy brought his own personal Ford GT along on this trip. (Series 7, Episode 3)
- Going on a caravan holiday to see if they would enjoy it. They didn't. (Series 8, Episode 6)
- Finding the greatest driving road in the world. The best was found to be the Stelvio Pass. At least until Series 14... (Series 10, Episode 1)
- Driving American muscle cars through the west, starting in San Francisco and ending at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, to participate in the speed testing there. Richard had to purchase the Challenger he tested for this trip. (Series 12, Episode 2)
- A single-tank economy run from Basel, Switzerland to turn on the Blackpool Illuminations. (Series 12, Episode 4)
- A trip to Romania to find the legendary Transfagarasan Highway. Also, James finally gets to drive the legendary Dacia Sandero. (Series 14, Episode 1)
- Investigating automotive points-of-interest on the east coast of the U.S. from North Carolina to New York. And with a brief stop in Intercourse. (Series 15, Episode 7)
- A trip to Albania to find the best luxury car for members of the Albanian Mafia. The final test is a Bank Robbery and getaway; Clarkson and Hammond successfully escape. May, saddled with the "Bentley", doesn't. (Series 16, Episode 3)
Clarkson: See you, James.
Hammond: It probably didn't hurt much.
- A test of high-performance hatchbacks in Italy, ending with a run at the Monaco Grand Prix track. (Series 17, Episode 2)
- Another test through Italy, this time of mid-engine supercars. The test ended with a run at the Imola Grand Prix track to try and beat the Italian Stig's time. (Series 18, Episode 1)
Top Gear "cheap-car challenges" are designed to test the presenters' ability to select a decent car, by requiring each one to purchase a specific type of used car on a tight budget and then complete several tasks assigned by the producers. These generally involve a timed lap, a brake test, a ride-quality test, a build-quality test, and a maintenance test (by allowing each presenter to use whatever money he has left to fix or improve his car). Occasionally, the tests will overlap with other races, such as the Classic Car Rally from Series 13. Examples include:
- Buy a car for £100. Clarkson wins, having saved his Volvo from a trip to the scrapyard by having a friend buy it for "ONE POUND!!" (Series 4, Episode 3)
- How much Porsche can you get for £1500?(Series 5, Episode 6)
- Two-door coupé that isn't a Porsche for less than £1500 May won on points, but conceded the title to Clarkson in exchange for the latter admitting "I'm a clot and I ruined my car" (which was true). (Series 6, Episode 2)
- Italian mid-engine supercars for less than £10,000 None of the presenters were able to reach the Slough branch of Spearmint Rhino, leading Clarkson to conclude that, "yes, you can buy an Italian supercar for less than £10,000 but, for the love of God, DON'T!" (Series 7, Episode 4)
- £1000 White Van Man Challenge (Series 8, Episode 8)
- £1200 British Leyland Challenge May wins, by making back the money he spent on buying the Austin Princess, plus another £20. (Series 10, Episode 7)
- Alfa Romeos for £1000 Breaking a three-year slump, Clarkson finally wins again, beating May by two points... to get a grand total of -127.5 (Series 11, Episode 3)
- How much lorry do you get for £5000? Despite getting "a gear lever in his bottom" and ploughing through a brick wall, Clarkson didn't manage to get as many points as May, who ended up winning.(Series 12, Episode 1)
- Car for a 17 year-old for £2500 (Series 13, Episode 2)
- Rear-wheel drive coupés for £1500 (Series 13, Episode 5)
- Pre-1982 classic rally cars for £3000 (Series 13, Episode 6)
- Second-hand saloon for regular & track days for £5000 (Series 15, Episode 2)
- Classic British roadsters for £5000 (Series 15, Episode 6)
- Second-hand BMW 325i convertibles (Series 16, Episode 4)
- Buy and modify a car for motor racing for the same price it takes to play golf (Series 18, Episode 7)
The three are presented with a special kind of car to create or modify. Among others, they've tried to make:
- A convertible minivan (Series 8, Episode 1)
- Conversion of motor vehicles into amphibious vehicles: On two separate occasions, Clarkson, Hammond, and May were challenged to buy used vehicles, convert them to be amphibious, and then drive them across a body of water (a freshwater lake in the first episode; the English Channel from Dover to Calais in the second). And on both occasions, Hammond's conversion sank. (Series 8, Episode 3 and Series 10, Episode 2)
- Converting a Reliant Robin three-wheel car into a space shuttle (with the help of a team of Rocket Engineers, of course). The challenge was, that if they got it high enough and could then land it (via remote control), the European Union would grant them funds to build a full sized one to go to space. It got to the required height but couldn't release itself from the main fuel tank, and crashed down in a ball of fire. (Series 9, Episode 4)
- Custom stretch limos. Their creations included Clarkson's Giant Panda 2-door limo, May's "Salfa Romeaab" double-fronted creation, and Hammond's open-topped sports limo. (Series 9, Episode 6)
- Police cars on a £1000 budget. In addition to the budget, each car had to be fitted with a special device for helping to stop crims.(Series 11, Episode 1)
- Improve a Renault Aventime to have the same running time as a Mitsubishi Evo X. (Series 12, Episode 3)
- Build their own electric car that would be better than the existing G-Wiz. Enter Geoff...er, the Hammerhead Eagle i-Thrust. (Series 14, Episode 2)
- Turn a caravan into an airship to ease congestion on the roads. (Series 14, Episode 3)
- Make motorhomes out of ordinary cars. (Series 15, Episode 4)
- Converting a combine harvester into a snowplow, which was tested in (and destroyed part of) Norway. (Series 16, Episode 5)
- Make cheap trains, using cars as the locomotive and caravans as the train cars. Clarkson ended up splitting off from Hammond and May after they disagreed with him over the train's "locomotive", resulting in Clarkson creating the world's first ever sports train. (Series 17, Episode 4)
- Build affordable mobility scooters, capable of going off-road. After testing them in town, the boys went up a group of wounded soldiers in an off-road race to a nearby summit. Hammond was the only one to make it to the top, where the soldiers were waiting for him. (Series 18, Episode 4)
The Top Gear crew have been very creative in finding other entertaining things to do with (and to) cars:
- Drive 'til you get bored: to test the comfort and enjoyability of the Jaguar XJ, Clarkson devised a test to see how far he could drive it before he got bored with it (he ran out of country). (Series 2, Episode 4)
- 24 hours in a small car: Hammond and May spent a day in a Smart Forfour to evaluate the company's claim that the car's interior was as comfortable as a lounge. (Series 5, Episode 4)
- Helicopter gunship and tank evasion: Clarkson drove a Lotus Exige in an evasion pattern trying to prevent a WAH-64D Apache attack helicopter from getting a missile lock on the car. A couple seasons later, he performed the same stunt, substituting a Challenger 2 tank and its gun for the helicopter, and a Range Rover Sport for the Exige. (Series 4, Episode 1 and Series 6, Episode 1)
In another variant on this stunt, Clarkson compared the Mercedes SLK55 AMG to the Porsche Boxster S by driving both cars through a British Army urban combat training facility while attempting to evade expert snipers from the Irish Guards, firing at him using special laser targeting systems designed for combat simulations. (Series 6, Episode 5)
- Clarkson also set out to discover if a mid range Ford Fiesta could be used by the Royal Marines in an amphibious assault. The result: amazingly, yes. The smoke grenades even fit perfectly in the cup holders.
Just before that he drove the same Fiesta through a shopping mall while being "chased" by a Corvette. While reviewing various aspects of the car. "I just broke the speed limit...indoors!" This set of tests were after someone wrote in complaining that they didn't do the good old fashioned standard tests like they used to in the old format days. Apparently the old standard road tests include things like marine assaults and car chases. This is why reading 'The World According to Clarkson' is a surreal experience. (Series 12, Episode 6)
And when the same viewer (allegedly) complained about that review, Clarkson did a "serious" review of the Renault Twingo... which ended in doing a barrel roll in a Belfast sewer (successfully) and a Ramp Jump onto a departing ferry (unsuccessfully). After the segment, Hammond asked Clarkson (who'd been sick while filming the segment) how much Night Nurse Clarkson had consumed. Clarkson admitted that he had no idea. (Series 14, Episode 4)
- Escaping a submerged vehicle: With several trained divers as backup, Hammond was dropped into a deep pool in a car to see if it really is impossible to open the doors and windows while said car is sinking. This was left in the world's least nerve-wracking cliffhanger. Hammond: "And we'll find out later if I die."
When the segment resumed, Hammond was eventually able to open the door and swim out. However, it took so long for the pressure to equalize that he ran out of air and had to get oxygen from a diver with him in the car. When they dropped the car into the pool a second time, he opened the door as soon as the car hit the water and escaped unaided.
- "Extreme" test driving: Six foot, five inch tall Jeremy Clarkson once test drove a 1961 Peel P50 -- a tiny, one person car -- by driving it into and around the BBC television studios, including into an ersatz "Top Gear production meeting." If you were watching BBC News 24 when Clarkson's test drive was being filmed, you might have seen something go across in the background... (Series 10, Episode 3)
- Car football (soccer): Using a giant inflatable ball, two teams of professional drivers (captained by Hammond and May) played a football match using Toyota Aygos. Several seasons later, the winning team of Aygos defended their title against a team composed of Volkswagen Foxes. The VW Foxes won, not least because it was the same team of Aygos and most of them were damaged. (Series 6, Episode 1)
And in a variation on that theme, one of the events in the Top Gear Winter Olympics special was a game of car ice hockey, between two teams of Suzuki Swifts. As before, one team was captained by James May, the other by Richard Hammond, and the match was "refereed" by Jeremy Clarkson.
- Destruct testing a Toyota Hilux pickup by, in order, driving it down stone steps, scraping it along walls, driving it into a tree, tying it to a jetty and leaving it to be submerged by the rising tide (the tide actually broke it loose, it drifted away from the jetty and got flooded with silt and sand), dropping it from a crane, driving it through a shed, dropping a caravan on it, repeatedly hitting it with a wrecking ball typically used to fell skyscrapers, setting it on fire, and finally placing it on top of a 240 foot block of flats and demolishing the flats. No mechanical spare parts (they had to replace the windscreen for safety reasons) and no tools other than what would be in a normal car toolkit were used. (Series 3, Episodes 5 & 6)
It still started. It was 13 years old with 195,000 miles on it and cost them 1000 pounds to buy. It now occupies a place of honour in the main studio -- to get it there, they drove it into the studio. Shortly after the show aired, Toyota released a new version of the Hilux called the 'Invincible', and Clarkson had one modified by Arctic Trucks for the Polar Special. Two. One for them, and one for the camera crew. In series 15, James took a modified Hilux (specifically, the one used by the camera crew in the Arctic special) to the top of Eyjafjallajökull, which is an active volcano. That erupted a few months before the episode aired.
- Playing "car conkers" using two cars (or caravans) held aloft by electromagnetic cranes. This is sometimes the fate of a car that the presenters really don't like, as was the case in the episode where Clarkson tries driving an early-model FSO Polonez. (Series 5, Episode 4)
- Playing 'car darts' using old cars, an air cannon and a large dartboard painted on the floor of a quarry. Extra points were awarded to the person who also destroyed the caravan conveniently placed on the bulls-eye. (Series 4, Episode 4)
- Customizing a Soviet-built Lada into a sports sedan. Granted, this required enlisting a team of technicians from Group Lotus, a fortnight, and about £100,000. (Series 1, Episode 8)
The Power Lap
Most weeks one of the presenters (usually Clarkson or Hammond) does a more-or-less conventional track test and review of the week's featured car. After that review, he turns the car over to the show's "tame racing driver", The Stig, for a Power Lap. The Stig takes the car as fast as he can around the Top Gear test track, and at the end of the segment the presenter reveals The Stig's lap time and posts it on a board.
A standard feature of the Power Lap is the introduction of The Stig, which (starting with Series 6) follows a specific pattern. The presenter starts by saying that it's time to turn the featured car over to the show's tame racing driver, and then adds a humorous description of The Stig (sample; the description changes every week): "Some say that he thought Star Wars was a documentary, and that he recently pulled out of I'm A Celebrity because he is frightened of trees... and Australia... and Koo Stark... and Ant and Dec. All we know is, he's called the Stig." These are frequently Ripped from the Headlines, and the most popular are scathing attacks on minor celebrities of the week ("And, long before anyone else, he realised Jade Goody was a racist pig-faced waste of blood and organs").
In more recent episodes they've played a bit with the formula. Perhaps one of the best was Hammond's flub: "Some say that one of his legs gets longer when he sees a pretty lady, and that I haven't done one of these for some time and I've forgot to make up a second thing."
The fastest ever Power Lap was done by a BAE Sea Harrier, in 31.2 seconds. It went a bit wide on some of the corners, but the pilot claimed that he could have kept it in bounds, and still set the lap record. The fastest Power Lap by an automobile was 58.2 seconds, by the 2004 Renault Formula 1 car. Given that the best of the world's supercars manage in the 1:18 range, that's stinking fast.
However, neither of those times was recorded on the official Top Gear lap board, because to qualify for the board the car must be street legal -- able to go over a speed bump and using road-legal tires during the lap. The 1:10 time set by the Ferrari FXX driven by Michael Schumacher in Season 13 was removed from the board on the next episode because the car was using racing slicks. The current fastest lap is the Ariel Atom 500 V8, with a time of 1:15.1 (which is more than a second and a half faster than second place, the Bugatti Veyron Supersport, at 1:16.8).
Star In A Reasonably Priced Car
Most weeks the show features a (usually British) celebrity guest. Prior to filming the show, the guest receives some coaching from The Stig, and then takes the reasonably priced car out for a fast lap around the Top Gear Test Track, which is taped. During the show itself, Jeremy Clarkson interviews the guest, and at the end of the interview the taped lap is shown in the studio (and onscreen for the viewer). At the end of the taped lap, Clarkson announces the star's lap time, and posts it on a leaderboard. For series 1-7, it was a Suzuki Liana before it was replaced in series 8 by a Chevrolet Lacetti, which in turn was succeeded in series 15 by a Kia Cee'd. The current fastest time on the leaderboard (1:42.1) in the Cee'd belongs to Friends star Matt LeBlanc. When it comes to the lap time, two things will invariably happen: the star will lean forward (even Tom Cruise), and Clarkson will drag announcing the time as long as he can. Any time better than one-fifty is to be proud of, and anything that threatens to break the current record will elicit gasps from the audience.
When the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car is a Formula 1 driver, the old Liana is brought out of retirement for the segment. F1 drivers' times are listed on a separate leaderboard, because of their exceptional driving skills compared to the garden-variety celebrities who are usually featured in this segment. The FI leaderboard is currently headed by Sebastian Vettel at 1:44.0, beating the previous record held by Rubens Barrichello.
Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper, David Tennant, and Matt Smith have all taken part in this. Tennant complained, jokingly, that Piper was spared a time penalty for cutting a corner because she'd worn a see-through top to the show recording. Clarkson did not dispute this (Piper had cut a couple of corners, but the time stands because they generally feel it actually worsened her lap time).
In five of the six episodes of Series 11 (June/July, 2009) they invited two guests per show, 'to get some rivalry going'. With the sixth episode of Series 11 they went back to one guest (Jay Kay, who successfully toppled Simon "Codpiece" Cowell from the top spot on the SiaRPC Lacetti Leaderboard), and have kept that format ever since, with occasional exceptions when two guests are promoting the same project.
The Cool Wall
From time to time, Clarkson and Hammond rate the coolness of various cars by placing photographs of them on a large board labelled (in decreasing degree of coolness) "Sub Zero", "Cool", "Uncool", "Seriously Uncool". The decision had nothing to do with the quality of the car. The first criteria of how cool a car is was how much the presenters believed that actress Kristin Scott Thomas would be impressed by that car. Interestingly enough, when Kristin Scott Thomas actually appeared on the show, it turned out that she liked the cars Clarkson and Hammond had called "Uncool", and was less than thrilled with the ones they had decided were "Cool". Since then, Clarkson and Hammond have substituted their appraisal of the reaction of BBC news anchor Fiona Bruce for Scott Thomas's as their decision rule.
The second steadfast Cool Wall rule is any car that a Top Gear presenter owns automatically goes in the Seriously Uncool section. The Ford GT jumped up and down the board for a couple of series as Clarkson bought one, sold it, repurchased it, and sold it again. One occasion saw Clarkson put the Fiat Panda (owned by May) off of the Cool Wall onto the back wall of the studio past Seriously Uncool. Another recent one in Series 16 saw the card with the Porsche 911 Carrera given to an audience member to put on his garden gate in Ireland because Hammond and May both own one.
An additional, selectively-applied rule is how much of a cock you'll look while driving it. This is occasionally adapted as how many celebrity cocks drive the car. The more, the worse.
A final, rarely used section, the DB9 Fridge (complete with dry-ice smoke) was created when the Aston Martin DB9 was deemed too cool for the "Sub Zero" rating. Exactly why a fridge is considered sub-Sub Zero has never been addressed -- at the very least, it should be a DB9 Freezer. Hammond once attempted to put a superbike on the wall in the "Cool" section, prompting Clarkson to remove it and the wall around it with a chainsaw.
Clarkson loves to tamper with Hammond's Cool Wall decisions. Once Hammond was so adamant on a decision of his that Clarkson had to place it high up where Hammond couldn't reach. When Clarkson slipped two discs in his back, Hammond got revenge by placing his choices very low, where Clarkson couldn't reach. Hammond also used a scissor-lift to place a card a long way out of reach during a dispute. Clarkson responded by hitting the Emergency Stop switch, preventing him from getting down again. Hammond was stuck up there for the rest of the episode. At one time, while Clarkson was on the waiting list to purchase a Ford GT, he moved all Fords on the Cool Wall to the top of the "super cool" section. Hammond quickly moved them back where they belonged. And then there was Hammond keeping something off the wall by eating the photograph.
A combination of Road Trip and Cheap Car Challenge. Traditionally appearing once a year (usually as a Christmas Special), these are entire episodes dedicated to the trio making their way across a country in cheap cars they bought there, while performing challenges. They often have an ostensible purpose (e.g. the Botswana special was intended to demonstrate that two-wheel-drive cars are good enough for most terrain) but their main charm is the scenery, the humor of the challenges, and the chemistry of 'three mates mooching along.' Unlike the road trips, the presenters usually have to rough it, camping out overnight and having limited access to the amenities of civilization. These specials tend to be rich with Continuity Nods and Running Gags, and often include an encounter with the Stig's local cousin.
- US Special (Southern United States - aired February 2007): The first overseas special, originally conceived as a much shorter, one-time film. The presenters bought used cars for US$1000 in Miami, Florida and then drove to New Orleans, Louisiana to see whether it is more economical to buy a car for the use of two weeks than to rent one. Originated the tradition of painting slogans on each other's cars. The Stig for this episode was Big Stig - a man dressed in the same fashion as the normal Stig, but he was a bit, er, rounder. (Series 9, Episode 3)
They have since embarked on two further road trips to America, though these aired as part of regular episodes. See the Road Trips folder for more details.
- The Polar Special (Arctic Circle - aired July 2007): Clarkson and May used specially built Toyota Hilux Invincibles to travel from Resolute, Canada to the magnetic North Pole, racing against Hammond on a dog sled. Unlike other specials, there was no mention of the Stig, and very few truly humorous moments, at least compared to the other specials. Instead, it was more about the difficulties (and very real dangers) of the journey, including incredibly low temperatures, treacherous ice, dangerous polar bears, and the increasing loss of sanity caused by all of the above, along with the constant summer sunlight. Clarkson and May set at least one record during the trip, becoming the first people to reach the magnetic North Pole by wheeled motor vehicle.
- May was also the first person to reach the North Pole who didn't want to be there.
- Africa Special (Botswana - aired November 2007): The presenters bought cars locally for less than £1500 and attempted to cross "the spine of Africa", including the Makgadikgadi Pan (the world's largest salt flats) and the Okavango Delta. The presenters' successful crossing made them the first to cross the Makgadikgadi by car. Originated the tradition of an odious emergency backup vehicle as a penalty if the presenters' own cars broke down. This is the special in which Richard Hammond "met" Oliver, his beloved 1963 Opel Kadett. The Stig for this episode was African Stig - a man wearing a loincloth with the Stig's usual helmet. (Series 10, Episode 4)
- Vietnam Special (aired December 2008): The presenters purchased used motorbikes for 15 million dong (ca. £600 or US$1000) and attempted to travel the length of Vietnam. Along the way, they amused themselves by buying each other odd, bulky presents and watching the others struggle to carry these items on their bikes. The backup car for this special was a bike painted in the colors of the US flag, blaring "Born in the USA" on speakers. There was footage shot of Communist Stig, who wore the usual Stig outfit but in red, but this was not used in the show.
Clarkson claimed to have never before driven any type of two-wheeled motor vehicle before this special, although this was actually just a case of Rule of Funny. (Series 12, Episode 8)
- South America Special (Bolivia and Chile - aired December 2009): The presenters bought off-road vehicles for less than £3,500 over the Internet and attempted to drive from the center of the Bolivian rainforest to the Pacific coast in Chile. On the way, they had to build a temporary bridge over a ditch, ford a river, negotiate the terrifying Yungas Road in Bolivia, and cross the Andes mountains. The special put all three presenters through the wringer, as their worst fears (heights, insects, and manual labor) were present in abundance, making this their most harrowing episode since the Polar Special.
They also almost died while trying to cross a volcanic pass. The air was so thin that their cars almost couldn't run (the fuel-air mixture was way off and couldn't actually combust), and they were suffering from acute oxygen deprivation. (Series 14, Episode 6)
- Middle East Special (Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel - aired December 2010): The presenters bought two-seater convertibles for less than £3,500 (except James, who bought a slightly more expensive type), and attempted to reproduce the journey of the Three Wise Men, traveling from Arbil, Iraq to Bethlehem. Among many other issues, including the usual vehicle breakdowns, they had to deal with avoiding the fighting going on in Iraq and Turkey, the politics of border crossings in several countries, and a difficult drive through the empty deserts of Syria to avoid their trip being found out by Israeli officials. The episode was aired just after Ben Collins "came out" as the Stig, and had therefore been sacked from the show, but when the Three Wise Blokes reached Bethlehem and entered the stable with their gifts, they discovered a baby in a racing helmet. (Series 16, Episode 0)
- India Special (aired December 2011) - The presenters, based on the fact that Britian has had little successful trade with India in recent years, decide to embark on a goodwill mission to promote British products. With their £7000 classic British cars, they travel from Bombay to the northern border in the Himalayas, promoting Britain along the way. They attempt to deliver local lunches faster than a train, reunite the Top Gear Band and have a garden party to showcase British products, and hold a rally to get a fix on what kind of cars are currently popular in India. Along the way they make their way along the lethal highways, prank each other constantly, and deal with a slightly out-of-control lawnmower.
- ↑ Actually, on an episode of his old show "Jeremy Clarkson's Motorworld" he did ride a motorcycle in Vietnam!