Top Gear — in the form we know and love — began airing on BBC Two in 2002, and over the ensuing 15 years it became required viewing for any serious petrolhead, even managing 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 they’re worth looking back on 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 departed after just one season. With a new cast and yet another revamp, 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. After this episode, though, I was hooked. 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, I consider this episode the beginning of the current Top Gear style. 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 episode combines two of Top Gear‘s best features: Jeremy Clarkson’s metaphors (“the Lotus Exige is like putting a Saturn 5 rocket in a food blender”) and insane showdowns. There are a few car vs. military machine face-offs throughout the show’s history, but the Exige vs. Apache is one of the best. Not only do we get to completely nerd out over the Apache’s bonkers weapons systems — it can identify 256 targets from 8 kilometers away, pick the 16 most dangerous, and eliminate all of them — we get to watch the Lotus attempt to evade the helicopter’s missile lock. Does the Exige avoid certain death? Watch and find out.
We can always count on one of the trio to claim that a car is faster than a train, plane, boat, or any other craft from A to B. It’s a Top Gear hallmark. This time, it’s Clarkson suggesting the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti can get from the United Kingdom to Switzerland faster than his co-hosts can get there on a plane. No brainer, right? Obviously the plane is faster… or is it? See, the catch is that Hammond and May will have to use public transportation to get to and from airports in the U.K. and Switzerland, while Clarkson only has to worry about traffic on the motorways. Can Clarkson’s 6.0-liter V12 grand tourer outrun a passenger jet? I’d say watch the above video to find out, but, sadly, the BBC has yet to post a video of the race on YouTube. You’ll have to hunt down the clip yourself!
We’ve all dreamt of a car that can transform into a boat, but for some reason, no major manufacturer has put such a vehicle in production. Well, the Top Gear trio has come to the rescue with its own amphibious cars. Predictably, each craft represents its creator’s personality. That means James May chose a dainty convertible with a sail, Richard Hammond chose a wonky van with a poorly-engineered propeller, and Jeremy Clarkson bolted a massive engine to the back of a pickup. What could possibly go wrong? Everything. Everything could go wrong. And it does.
One of the funniest segments in Top Gear history is Clarkson’s test of the Reliant Robin — or rather, when Clarkson rolled the Robin numerous times. However, before that segment aired in the 15th Series, Top Gear used the Robin’s pointy shape as the basis for a Space Shuttle. Not only would the Top Gear crew need to build a rocket, they’d need to fly the Robin a few thousand feet in the air and land it safely for use some other time. The hilarity of the situation ensued when Hammond and May realized how expensive and time-consuming the project would be. Unsurprisingly, the pair decided to use cheap parts from model airplanes, but the best part of the clip is learning of all the scientific obstacles impeding their success. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also educational!
You have to love this episode for its pure ridiculousness, but it also references the iconic film The Great Escape often. May puts both an Alfa Romeo and a Saab together to make a limo that is sporty and sensible — complete with an interior sporting 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.
This episode was a double-whammy of entertainment, with two different vehicles highlighting the show. First up was the Peel P50. Clarkson was on the lookout for a small car, but simply wasn’t satisfied with traditional “small” vehicles. Compared to the Peel P50, everything is massive. Clarkson pilots the tiny production vehicle to work at the BBC, but instead of parking his car in the lot, he proceeds to take it in the elevator and drive it around the office (and into the background of a live news broadcast). Afterward, the crew decided a good matchup for the Veyron (top speed of 250 mph) would be the Eurofighter jet (top speed of 1,500 mph). The Veyron would race down a mile drag strip, turn around and race back while the jet would hit an altitude of one mile, and come back down. First back across the finish line wins. Go on and join the 31 million other people who have watched this race.
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 for under $1000 each 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 it, though, it’s a fabulous journey.
Have you ever wished you could road trip through Vietnam on a scooter or motorcycle? That’s exactly what the boys did in this episode. This special is less about the rickety two-wheeled vehicles they ride 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, however, the trip gets a bit dicey.
While all the other episodes on this list are ambitious but rubbish, as the boys like to say, 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. 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.
Yet another two-part special from the Top Gear trio sends the boys in search of the source of the Nile River. James chooses a Volvo 850R as his automotive companion, Jeremy picks a BMW 528i Touring, and Hammond (smartly) goes with a Subaru Impreza WRX Estate. During their journey, each member is forced to turn their vehicle into a camper, which meant adding weight, and, in Hammond’s case, a toilet seat on his bonnet. After initially failing to find the source, the trio ventures further and has to build a ferry to cross a crocodile-infested river. At the end of the journey, the boys agree to race to the Nile’s origin because only one of them will be remembered for their accomplishment.
Top Gear‘s hosts spend a lot of time in cheap old beaters, but they also drive amazing supercars to even more 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, a Ferrari 430, and a 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.
Since its 2002 relaunch, Top Gear hasn’t been about testing everyday cars or focusing on practical considerations like cargo space and fuel economy. Over-the-top stunts make up the bulk of the show’s repertoire now, but not everyone appreciates that the cars on the program are 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 exploits 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, the Atacama desert, or 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.
The 23rd Series of Top Gear is also the first without Clarkson, Hammond, and May. For most fans, that meant the new hosts had huge shoes to fill. As we know, Chris Evans didn’t make it to Series 24, but this clip of Chris Harris reviewing the Ferrari F12 TDF shows why he stuck around. Not only can Harris drive well, but he keeps the audience engaged as he explores an insane supercar. This episode also features Ken Block tearing around the streets of London in an 800-horsepower Hoonicorn Mustang, under the pretense of giving Matt LeBlanc a “tour of the city.” It’s Gymkhana with Top Gear‘s budget. What’s not to love?