We had to get hold of many things in order to make Top Gear. White coats, spare tyres, enormous plates of meat for some gag involving The Stig. But most of all, we had to get hold of cars. Despite the shouting and falling over and idiotic attempts to run an art gallery, we were a car show after all.
(Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sniff Petrol’s (a.k.a. Top Gear script editor Richard Porter) new book “And On That Bombshell: Inside The Madness And Genius Of Top Gear” for sale now. Go buy the book.)
In theory, this was the easy one. But this being Top Gear before dialling any number you first had to think about how much we might have pissed them off. After a few series we pinned a ‘loves us / hates us’ chart to the office wall with the names of all the car makers on it, stuck to the side that equated to their current attitude towards our shenanigans and the things we’d said about their products.
I’m sure we made their lives utterly miserable as we sent back another demonstrator with bald tyres and a funny noise from the suspension, but I don’t think we were needless oafs about it; this was the collateral damage of making cars look cool on TV. Privately they might have called us rude names and cursed our gearbox-bursting ways. Publicly, car makers were quite grown-up about this stuff. It helped that, as time went on, we could get their car in front of a few hundred million people around the world.
Andy Wilman took a robust view of such things. He once rang one of the nicest press men in the business to express displeasure that a promised new model was no longer available at the right time. More specifically, his disappointment was couched in a range of quite strong words beginning with S and F and possibly C. The press man listened politely to all of this for several minutes before carefully choosing the moment to tell Wilman that he was on speaker in his car with his kids in the back.
This kind of thing was rare, however. Most of the time, we just asked nicely. Sometimes cars were actually offered to us. It was Toyota’s PR man, for example, who suggested we had a fleet of preproduction Aygos to play football with, as long as he could have them back in reasonable nick. If you look up ‘stoical’ in the dictionary, there’s just a picture of his face from the sidelines during the very first panel-bending sliding tackle. At least he’d had the presence of mind to disable the airbags.
I can only think of one absolute flat refusal, and it was one we managed to turn to our advantage. In the dying days of MG Rover, the beleaguered company decided to sell a lightly rehashed version of an Indian small car called the Tata Indica, onto which it slapped some new bumpers and a badge that said CityRover. So we asked to have a go in a CityRover and the company said yes.
The CityRover was crap, but that was good. Sometimes it was nice to review a truly awful car. It’s more fun than writing a script about a brilliant one. Unfortunately, between the time we sent the first demo back and the moment we asked for another one to film, Rover themselves seemed to have realised that their new small car was a rancid sack of cack.
Naturally, our childish response was to decide that James would test it anyway by going to a dealership with some hidden cameras and doing it in secret. Fortunately, this was 2004 and while the hidden cameras of the era weren’t unnoticeable James May was. We were able to shoot an entire covert road test on a dealer test drive.
Perhaps because of this surprisingly successful buffoonery, I can’t remember being refused another car after that. The closest we got was during our attempt to set up the definitive showdown between the McLaren P1, the Porsche 918 and Ferrari’s LaFerrari, which descended into petty childishness worthy of Top Gear itself.
McLaren said they thought Ferrari would cheat. Ferrari said they thought McLaren would cheat. Porsche seemed unbothered. McLaren said to get round the cheating aspect, all the cars must be from customers. Ferrari said that was unfeasible and all the cars must be from the factory. Porsche seemed unbothered.
McLaren said the test couldn’t be at the Top Gear track because they knew it well from testing there and their data said their car might be outgunned. Ferrari said that was fine.
Porsche seemed unbothered.
Finally, we arranged for a neutral location, with mutually agreeable sources of cars, and we seemed to have a showdown on our hands. McLaren were in. Ferrari were in. Oh, ah, this is awkward, said Porsche. We seem to have sold all our 918s. Leave it with us...
Further down the automotive food chain, borrowing new cars always involved a lot of phone calls, yet it was rare to find anyone who wouldn’t want to lend us a car, even if their teeth were gritted as they did.
No wait, that’s not strictly true. Once, many years back, a likable American chap from a large company came to the office to talk through some things his company had coming up. Talk turned to a newly announced mid-range saloon of a type that was very important to the business.
You’d think he’d be pushing it hard, but no. ‘I don’t wanna lend you one those,’ the American man said loudly. ‘I watch Top Gear with my kids and we wanna be entertained. Seeing one of those on the show would bore the ass off me.’ We liked him a lot. He seemed to like us too. Despite the occasional mauling and misunderstanding, I think a reasonable chunk of the car industry did.
The things Top Gear did with new cars might have been punishing and time consuming and sometimes required another vanload of tyres. But when it came to our treatment of new cars, I hope we never bored the ass off anyone.
This excerpt is from “And On That Bombshell: Inside The Madness And Genius Of Top Gear” and is reprinted with the permission of the author and the publisher, Orion Publishing. Photo via BBC Worldwide.