When the BBC revealed the six new hosts for the revamped Top Gear, it was exciting for a couple of reasons: First, it meant that the show would go on. Second, it provided a quenching and much needed splash of diversity in race, gender and economic background to the show that is, for better or worse, at the forefront of car culture. With one of those hosts out of the picture, it ironically now may boast its most inclusive lineup ever, and stands to be a Top Gear that speaks to a wider array of people.
See, whether it set out to achieve this or not, Top Gear is one of the most visible and recognized examples of car culture in any medium. And so, it also exerts a considerable amount of influence on the space. If we want new ideas and new experiences to progress in the car world, if we want to learn as much as we can about every piece of it and foster as many new conversations as we can, this is a great place to start.
The refreshed Top Gear did away with the Three-White-Guys-Plus-The-Stig format and instead delivered a very different-looking cast of presenters. Besides the obvious choices like Matt LeBlanc and Chris Harris, chosen no doubt for their enthusiasm and on-camera ability, the then-lesser-known hosts Sabine Schmitz and Rory Reid were smart picks on the BBC’s part.
All of that was great, and rightfully welcomed over wide swaths of the car world. But what we saw air was a different product. Evans dominated in terms of screen time, shouting at everyone from his perch atop the Top Gear pyramid. LeBlanc, though he helmed many segments on his own, often just showed up as Evans’ comic foil. Schmitz would show up occasionally. Reid and Harris were actually relegated to the online-only ghetto of Extra Gear until the third episode.
With Evans out, however, it can only serve to give them more screen time to shine. True, the BBC could just give that screen time to LeBlanc and call it a day. But it also could recognize the influence the show has, and use it to further inclusion in the automotive sphere in the future.
From the get-go, it was very clear that Chris Evans was unfit to host the show. Amidst forced interactions, jokes that didn’t land, and Twitter tantrums, you watched him and couldn’t help but wonder if trying on the same old, white guy formula was working as well as the BBC had hoped (it wasn’t.) You wondered if there was any sort of demo reel that red flagged somebody. And yet, they pushed ahead with Evans, despite the blatantly obvious competence of Rory Reid, Chris Harris, and Sabine Schmitz.
Schmitz is not only bubbly and fun and adorable on camera, but she’s the most experienced driver out of them all, and could quite literally drive circles around most people. Harris, much loved, revered and internet-famous, can throw out a car’s tail and grab YouTube views like nobody’s business. Reid, if you watched any of his pre-Top Gear material, is a knowledgeable and zealous car reviewer. His ease in front of the camera, his charisma and his badass wordplay is exactly what we need on the current show.
They are brilliant and great, and their talents were not adequately tapped into this season. I’m sure it’s because, in terms of host hierarchy, LeBlanc and Evans sat at the top. They were billed as the main presenters and shown as such. I’m also sure it’s because, with six hosts—seven if you count The Stig—it’s more difficult to produce all-inclusive segments all the time.
Besides, it makes more sense to have smaller segments where each host can shine individually. It’s more interesting that way.
Similarly, the show didn’t familiarize us with these hosts and their backgrounds—how they ended up where they did. The difference in upbringing between Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, one wealthy from a story about a bear and the other “slogging away in local radio” provided varying perspectives that a sextet of rich people and the very occasional appearance of Rory Reid couldn’t possibly provide.
In a podcast from last month, Reid revealed that he comes from a much humbler place than his co-presenters because he “isn’t a squillionaire.” And when it comes to cars, that love and passion for the automobile without subsequently vast resources isn’t just an unusual footnote. It matters.
I don’t think that any one of the new presenters was hired to fulfill some boilerplate “diversity” requirement. I think they landed the job because the producers recognized innate and unique talents in each. Seeing them on video helps tremendously as well, as it’s much easier for viewers to identify with someone they’re watching as opposed to reading a name in a byline.
The refresh is also a step away from the old Top Gear, a show that benefitted tremendously from its three hosts’ chemistry but whose decidedly un-PC humor got the BBC into a shit ton of trouble at times. The Clarkson-esque, crass, white-man, dad-joke-ridden boys’ club is no more, much in the same way that archaic world of television in general is no more. Much in the way that it shouldn’t be a part of car culture anymore.
Because that’s really what car culture should be about: inclusion.
Car culture in the English-speaking world, whether we like it or not, has historically been seen as very white and very male. Go to your next Cars and Coffee meet up and just look around if you don’t believe me. You see young people at Cars and Coffee, but that’s about it. And as for young Latino, black, and Asian enthusiasts, their car cultures are less visible in the mainstream and more or less ignored.
That needs to change. Because this new generation of car nerds is younger, we also have the luxury of not being bogged down by antiquated views. We want to see more women and minorities included and represented. We want all passions and tastes engaged and exposed. Speed belongs to everybody.
Top Gear in particular was great about building the culture. One of the most common things you hear about Top Gear is that you don’t have to be a car person to enjoy it. How many times have you showed a non-car person a funny Top Gear clip and then fostered a car-related discussion with them afterwards? The magic of the show is that it presented cars as more than just cars. Sure, you still had the sexy and beautifully edited clips of the latest super Go Fast Thing Getting Sideways, but you also had insane races, challenges, explosions and adventures, all of which made for damn good television.
Add the million-person viewership to the culture to the refreshed take on hosting, and all of a sudden you have a very powerful force in the right direction for car culture today. Series 23, though it had its flaws, did manage to nail down the introduction of new voices and faces to car culture.
And this is why Series 24 will be so important. With one fewer host, Top Gear can be something different and better. It can have more Harris, more Reid, and more Schmitz. The show has built a momentum for itself. Now it comes down to keeping it.