Chris Harris, as you might know, is a host on a little show about cars on BBC America called Top Gear. And with the show’s newest season set to premiere this weekend, we sat down with him to chat parking tickets, fire and his role on the biggest car show in the world.
You can catch the first episode of the new season this Saturday, March 3 at 10:30/9:30c on BBC America. And on the next day, Sunday, Top Gear will resume its usual time slot with its second episode, set to air 8/7c.
(Note: this conversation has been edited for grammar, brevity and flow purposes.)
Kristen: It’s nice talking to you again, the entire Jalopnik team says hi.
Chris: That’s good. The last time I saw you I was in a Polish bar… was it Polish or Romanian? I don’t remember.
Kristen: I think it was Ukrainian. All of the Jalopnik happy hours happen there, oddly enough. Anyway, before we get into the serious stuff, I told my coworkers that I’d be speaking with you today and a few of them had questions of their own.
Raphael Orlove wants to know about that ticket that you paid. He wants to know what it was like to give up hope and lose your will over paying a motorcycle ticket.
Chris: Life is about choosing battles, isn’t it? I’ve chosen a few battles that others wouldn’t choose. I chose a battle on your website a few years ago about a car manufacturer from Italy.
Some wouldn’t have chosen that one. But this one, I looked at it and thought, “Well, I’ll go to court, I’ll lose. I could have dressed up in silly clothes and made a scene. But actually, I’ll just pay it.” And as someone wisely said on Twitter, “Pay the court costs and use the money to buy a new, smaller performance bike.” Which is what I did.
Kristen: Mike Ballaban wants to know what Joey from Friends smells like.
Chris: What he smells like?
Chris: Well, he smells fresh as a daisy and he’s a great human being.
Kristen: But, like, is that just in his vicinity or have you really stuck your face in there and taken a good whiff?
Chris: Now, you know I love you Jalopnik lot, but you’re going to get me in trouble with the BBC so I’m leaving my statement here. You take this statement, Kristen: Matt LeBlanc is a great human being.
Kristen: I already had my suspicions that he smelled good, but I just wanted confirmation from someone who’d worked with him.
Chris: I, on the other hand, am not a great-smelling human being.
Kristen: Mike Ballaban also wants to know why Rory Reid blew him off while he was in the UK on vacation.
Chris: No, I know Rory Reid loves Mike Ballaban he’d want to see him as soon as possible.
Kristen: That makes me happy, and I’m sure that will make Ballaban happy, too.
Alright, so! Top Gear. Obviously, from an outsider’s perspective, filming the show seems like a dream. But I know it’s not always like that. What’s the most annoying behind-the-scenes aspect of Top Gear?
Chris: It takes a long time to film it. My background is YouTube where you just turn up with a camera, film whatever you’re doing and go home. And then, a day later, it’s on the internet. Top Gear is a big production, it takes a long time to film it and… you need to have a lot of patience when you just want to get it done. I’m mellowing so much, though… I trust the team. When they say, “Do this,” more often than not, it looks better.
Kristen: Can you tell me a little more about that Alpine A110 fire?
Chris: Yeah, the car is fantastic. I don’t think you’re gonna get it yet, though there are people who want to bring it to the U.S. It’s a great little sports car. Imagine that it’s halfway between a Lotus Exige and a Cayman. It’s got that proper, lightweight sports car feel to it that the Cayman will never have to it because it’s just too big.
So we’re having a great time in it. I’m with Eddie Jordan and we’re on dreamy alpine roads, the Monte Carlo Rally Stage. And then out of nowhere, the power cuts… immediately rolls to a halt quickly, because we were going uphill.
And I thought, “Well, we’ll just stop here and radio the tracking guy ahead of us.” I looked behind me and there was a bit of smoke. So I opened the door and what I didn’t know was that a bit of fuel coming out from underneath it, which was on fire. And the wind was blowing it underneath the car on my side, left-hand drive. When I got out there were flames going up the door. But I was wearing a fireproof suit, gloves. So when the flames went up my arm I was fine. If I had been wearing a polyester jumper, things wouldn’t have been fine.
Kristen: Or a T-shirt.
Chris: Yeah, or a T-shirt. Then my hairy arms would have gone up, that would have been nice.
Kristen: How long did it take for it to burn down completely?
Chris: Not long, less than 10 minutes. It was really, really quick. The amazing thing was the heat was so intense that the aluminum frame melted. There was just molten aluminum coming out, like a river of it.
Kristen: How did Alpine take that bit of news?
Chris: They were massively professional. They had no consideration for the car itself, they wanted to make sure we were okay and wanted to quickly move to the post mortem and understand what went wrong. It’s a great car. The last thing I want is for that incident to someway affect the success of that car. On the one hand, Top Gear should report on stuff like that. On the other, a bit of me didn’t want to because I want to protect that car because it’s absolutely wonderful.
Kristen: What were you doing with it up until that point?
Chris: We were on a rally stage, I can’t say much more than that. The fact that we were wearing race suits and on a rally stage should give you an idea of what we were doing.
Kristen: Is that fire going to show up in the final cut of the episode?
Chris: Um. There might be a few flames, yes. When you see the flames, you will understand.
Kristen: I didn’t get a chance to ask you this when the news first broke, but what was going through your head when you first found out that you’d gotten the part of a presenter on the world’s biggest car show? Did you have any concerns?
Chris: First of all, I felt like an enormous hypocrite because I’d written a story on Jalopnik, which is a well-known automotive website in North America that you might be familiar with…
Kristen: Never heard of it.
Chris: Well, I wrote an article on Jalopnik saying I wouldn’t do it. So, I’m a hypocrite, to start with, by doing it. And I think I went on the Joe Rogan podcast, saying I wouldn’t do it as well. But, you have to answer to your inner 17-year-old. And my inner 17-year-old said, “You’ve been offered this, you can’t say no. You have to give it a go.” And, I think, once you’ve decided to give it a go, you don’t think about it again.
Now, I get plenty of messages from people telling me they love what we’re doing, but I also get messages from people saying they hate me because I’m not one of the three amigos and I shouldn’t be on Top Gear. But that’s just life, isn’t it?
I think it was daunting, but once you decide to do it, you don’t worry about it, you just get on with it. And it’s the best job in the world. I like cars, I like presenting, I like TV shows about cars. Why wouldn’t I love doing this? I get an amazing budget, I get to work with people I like, with some of the most talented production crew on the planet. What is not to like?
It’s daunting, but everything’s daunting. I find it daunting to work in a cake shop because I couldn’t work out what the cakes were.
Kristen: Were there aspects of the old show that you didn’t like and you’re trying to correct in your interpretation of it now?
Chris: It’s not a question of like or dislike. It’s a question of having our own direction. There’s no point in us doing what they did before, because they did it brilliantly. And we’ll just look like a poor imitation.
So, to give you an example, we’ve got a show coming up where Matt and I go and look for Bigfoot using a variety of remarkable off-road toys. Now, that wouldn’t have happened in the previous generation of Top Gear. It’s a different feel, a new direction. It’s establishing what we want to do, what’s our mission statement as Top Gear.
And we’ve sort of shot this season where we’ve eulogized and celebrated the Citroën 2CV. I think old Top Gear would have just ridiculed the 2CV and the people who drive it. But we celebrated it, its feats of engineering and how it’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s just a really cool car that’s charming to drive.
So those are the key differences. I think we’re probably a kinder Top Gear. I think the broader car community is something we like and want to embrace. So, yeah, we’re a bit different.
The changes that Harris brought up—they’re palpable. As he once wrote for us, Top Gear was never just for the highly technical automotive enthusiast. It walked that line between being informative and entertaining for a broad audience, which, as it turned out, was part of the formula that helped it take off in the first place. It seems like the new crew is working to expand that idea even more.
We’ll be watching the first two episodes of the new season this weekend. And on Monday, we’ll have more on the show for you. Check back with us then.