Top Gear — in the form we know and love — began airing on BBC Two in 2002, and over the ensuing 14 years it became required viewing for any serious petrolhead, and even managed to bring many non-car fans into the fold.
Of all the hilarious, engaging, and informative episodes, several have stuck out as head and shoulders above the rest, and it’s worth looking back on them as the show faces an uncertain future. After firing Jeremy Clarkson and triggering the exodus of cohorts Richard Hammond, and James May, the BBC relaunched Top Gear with a new cast led by Chris Evans. However, Evans recently announced that he was leaving after just one season. Only time will tell if Top Gear will find its footing again.
For your viewing pleasure, I won’t give away the endings or meat of our favorite episodes. Instead, I’ll give you just enough info to get the gist. I hope your interest will be piqued enough to seek the episodes out for yourself. Enjoy.
Trying to kill the Toyota Hilux – Series 3, Episode 5 (concluded in 6)
Although I had been watching Top Gear for a while before I saw the wanton destruction of the Toyota Hilux, I wasn’t yet sold on the show. It was this episode, though, that sold me. Not only was I hugely impressed with the Hilux’ ability to just keep living; I was also impressed with the creativity of the script and shot selection. On a larger scale, though, I consider this episode the beginning of the current Top Gear. Putting a pickup on the roof of a building during a controlled implosion effectively separated modern Top Gear from the previous iteration. I truly believe it was that moment that marked the beginning of what we know now as Top Gear.
When the boys set out to find the ‘greatest driving road in the world’ in three of the greatest lightweight supercars in the world, I am sure they didn’t expect to suffer so much. That is exactly what happened though – especially for James May. While this episode isn’t broadly as memorable as others, the hijinks – and the cars – on the road trip have stuck in my mind. Clarkson rips around in a lovely Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera. Hammond pushes a Porsche 911 GT3 RS to its limits. And, amusingly, James May (aka “Captain Slow”) chooses an Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24, which has absolutely no frills and a suspension made of stone. Not only does he get pummeled, without air conditioning, he’s forced to get naked to stay cool. While seeing a skinny, pale Englishman might not sound like your idea of viewing pleasure, it’s hilarious enough to make it worth your while.
This might not be one that makes everyone’s 10 best list, but it’s certainly on mine. In this one the boys, with a lot of help from the Stig, use a diesel-powered BMW 3 Series to compete in the Britcar 24-Hour Endurance Race. During the race, the BMW does what all good bimmers do and breaks down. This requires the team to pilfer a part from the parking lot. It’s not as amusing and engaging as other episodes, but this one has heart. You can tell the boys — and Stig — had a lot emotionally invested in this one and it shines through and sticks with you.
1949 Race to the North: Jaguar XK120 vs. Vincent Black Shadow vs. Tornado locomotive – Series 13, Episode 1
With gorgeous scenery, vintage vehicles, a race, and — of course — plenty of mishaps and suffering, this episode had the makings of a best-of film from the outset. The premise is simple: in 1949, Britain produced both the fastest motorcycle in the world, the Black Shadow, as well as the fastest car, the Jaguar XK120. So the boys decided to make believe it’s the late ‘40s again and race the two vehicles against a British-built train to the North of England. Rain, soot, and cream-colored sweaters make this one tops in my book.
You have to love this episode not only for its pure ridiculousness but also references to the iconic film The Great Escape. May puts both an Alfa Romeo and a Saab together to make a limo that is sporty and sensible – complete with an interior sporting both a sauna and a replica of the Sistine chapel. Hammond builds a rear-drive sport limo convertible. And Jeremy builds a FIAT Panda-based two-door limo so long that occupants must use a pull-cart to get to the back seat. It’s funny when the homemade limos are on the track but when they head into central London it really gets good.
Though Dodge ripped this bit off for one of its Dart television ads (don’t worry, I gave the people at Dodge’s ad agency, Wieden + Kennedy, a hard time for it), Top Gear was the first to roll a Reliant Robin. Well, OK, not the first … but they were the first to do it on TV. I mean, who would have thought a three-wheel door stop would be so unstable during sharp cornering? Apparently, Jeremy Clarkson, who rolled the thing more times than I care to count in this hilarious episode. The last roll is perhaps the best … don’t worry; I won’t ruin it for you.
This was the first time the boys made a trek across the pond for a road trip but it certainly hasn’t been the last. Their challenge: land in Miami and find three American cars each for under $1000 and drive them to New Orleans. Along the way, they’re beset by complications as well as a series of challenges, including a braking test that sends Hammond’s pickup into an alligator-filled swamp and a run for dear life from some enraged hillbillies. This film might be insulting to Southerners, as it makes them look like murderous, inbred morons. If you can laugh at yourself, though, it’s a fabulous journey.
Though a motoring and driving enthusiast, I’ve had little love and respect for NASCAR. It seemed a bit too simple for my taste. After all, what’s the fun of watching some slack-jawed wide-loads drive in an oval for a couple hours in carbonated, rear-drive sedans? Turns out, quite a lot. As Richard Hammond discovers when he takes a lap of the infamous Texas Speedway, there’s more to NASCAR than meets the eye. Of course it’d take a Brit to turn this American on to the biggest American racing series.
Ever wished you could road trip through Vietnam on a scooter or motorcycle? That’s exactly what the boys did. This special was less about the rickety old two-wheeled vehicles they chose and more about the three presenters as they careen through the wildly gorgeous Vietnamese countryside. Along the way, they have custom suits made, which only add to the hilarity. When Clarkson eventually crashes the scooter he barely knows how to operate, though, the trip gets a bit dicey.
While all the other episodes on this list were ambitious but rubbish, as the boys like to say, this one was monumental. The Polar Special is on another planet altogether. Imagine the sheer audacity required to wonder if your television show could successfully drive a car to the North Pole for the first time in the history of man. And that’s exactly what they did. Clarkson and May — full of gin and tonics — race a highly modified Toyota Hilux against Hammond and a team of sled dogs to the top of the earth. If you only watch one episode of Top Gear in your entire life, make sure it’s this one. It’ll make you laugh and cry and leave you with a sense of wonder like few things in life can. It’s a masterpiece.
Top Gear‘s hosts spend a lot of time in cheap old beaters, but they also drive amazing supercars to amazing destinations. Even that isn’t always glamorous, though, as Clarkson, Hammond, and May found on this road trip through France. The cars — a Ford GT, Ferrari 430, and Pagani Zonda — were great, but living with them in the real world proved to be a challenge. From negotiating Paris’ legendarily treacherous traffic to trying to extricate the cars form a cramped parking garage, the Top Gear trio provided a more realistic portrayal of the supercar experience.
Of all the bizarre vehicles created on Top Gear, Clarkson’s “TGV-12,” a Jaguar XJS convertible hitched to a roofless caravan to create a “sports train,” is one of the most awesomely absurd. The goal was to lower the cost of rail travel in Britain by creating trains from old cars and Top Gear‘s nemesis — the caravan. An argument over the Jag’s effectiveness as a locomotive led to a split, with Hammond and May constructing what they thought was a more sensible train. This being Top Gear, they ran into a few problems of their own, of course. Come for the hilarious spectacle of cars driving on railroad tracks, stay for the destruction and calamity.
Every petrolhead has probably dreamed of going racing at one time or another, but the cost complexity of motor sports push many would-be racers away. In Series 18, though, the Top Gear trio lived the dream. They claimed to have bought and prepped three cars for racing, each for less than the cost of a set of golf clubs and an annual country club membership. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the type of racing they chose was rallycross, which features courses of half tarmac, half dirt. Watching Clarkson, Hammond, and May slide around and trade paint with some aggressive racers (all of whom are named Gary) is epic, and it’s nice to put oneself in their shoes and imagine spending a weekend at the track.
Since its 2002 relaunch, Top Gear hasn’t been known for testing everyday cars, or focusing on practical considerations like cargo space and fuel economy. That’s a big part of the show’s appeal, but not everyone likes the idea that the cars featured on the show are usually irrelevant to the average driver. To address those critics, Clarkson undertook a thorough road test of the Ford Fiesta back in Series 12. The Fiesta is a sensible small car, but Clarkson ends up doing some not-so-sensible things with it. The stunts rival anything you’ll see in any episode of Top Gear.
Clarkson, Hammond, and May don’t exactly seem equipped to take on the Amazon jungle, Atacama desert, and Bolivia’s “Death Road” in clapped-out SUVs, and that’s what makes the Bolivia Special one of the best. It’s a genuinely extreme test of man and machine, with some of the toughest conditions ever featured on Top Gear. In this case, it’s not just the hosts’ incompetence that makes it seem unlikely that they’ll succeed; it really is a battle against the terrain. Plus, at one point May attacks Clarkson with a machete which, as Hammond points out, isn’t something you normally see on other shows.