In the United States, the explosive popularity of Top Gear started with the Internet. By now, sitting down at a computer to watch Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May feels normal. When their version of Top Gear first gained notoriety beyond the United Kingdom, it did so in clips and torrents posted online. If you wanted to track down episodes of Top Gear before they regularly started appearing on cable stateside, chances are you found your way onto its fan site FinalGear, which once linked to torrents of every episode. Similar shows, such as Top Gear’s international versions and Fifth Gear also made it on the site.
The site stopped posting torrent links in 2014, but its forums and IRC channel live on.
Top Gear didn’t get to be the international juggernaut it is by exactly legal means—otherwise, it might have been stuck in the United Kingdom forever or, at best, relegated to some fourth-tier U.S. cable channel. Rather, its popularity came from car fans’ tendency to rip and share.
I wanted to know more about car shows’ long and storied relationship with the Internet, so I spoke with FinalGear’s U.S.-based owner, who goes by Viper007Bond (or “Viper” for short) on the forums, and asked us to refer to him as such to preserve his anonymity.
Back around 2003, it was incredibly difficult to find anything from Top Gear online. Movies, not television, dominated the nascent torrent scene, and the internet wasn’t quite up to the task of streaming anything yet. Short, pre-YouTube, low-quality clips from the show started to appear on car forums, however, and that left guys like Viper and a forum friend who went by VUK wanting more.
Top Gear was this funny British show that was willing to be brutally honest about cars—something we rarely see on highly-commercialized American television, where the wrong word could kill a sponsorship. Plus, it dealt in high-octane fantasy, the kind of stuff car people dream they could do with their friends and an unlimited budget. Of course it resonated with automotive forums, where car folks go to kvetch, commiserate and laugh.
“Somehow the discussion of Top Gear came up...and [VUK] said, ‘oh, I’ll start ripping and sending you things,’” Viper explained. “We’re talking about 100 megabytes for an episode—those little postage stamps, so [terrible quality], you know?”
But “then other people wanted copies of it after they saw that was going on,” Viper said.
Eventually, he explained, the Scene—the merry pirates responsible for ripping much of the content that’s out on the Internet—took over ripping duties from VUK.
FinalGear then grew into a repository of reliable torrent links, making it easier than ever for fans to download episodes without having to worry that you’ve got the wrong, possibly virus-ridden link. The site never hosted pirated content itself, but it became the definitive place to find the original broadcast versions of a show that wasn’t available in the U.S.
It was a grueling schedule for the handful of fans who kept FinalGear running, who had to be home every time there was an episode of the several shows they covered for the main page’s 11-year run.
“That piece of FinalGear, kind of, was no longer important as it used to be, but you know this was all before Netflix and I think Top Gear was just a U.K. show,” Viper said.
“I don’t think they realized that it would be popular outside of the U.K.,” he explained. “Of course, old [pre-2002] Top Gear was like Motor Trend or whatever...very U.K.-focused. Once they rebooted, it became an entertainment show rather than an informational show.”
Network execs likely didn’t initially consider that Top Gear would find an audience abroad, given its location on a British public broadcasting network and now, a huge swath of viewers who were watching it without paying the BBC’s license fees to fund it all. But they certainly took notice of its popularity online once it did. Cast members and staff occasionally made mention of their Internet following on the show and its related websites, much to FinalGear’s amusement.
“I can’t speak for the BBC themselves when it comes to FinalGear,” explained Richard Porter, Top Gear’s script editor during the Clarkson, Hammond and May era. “They always get a bit uptight when they think people are nicking their stuff. But FinalGear was well known in the old Top Gear office and I remember we used to have a good chuckle over the demotivators thread.”
On the show itself, presenters still tiptoed around their known pirate-heavy following.
“Never in name,” Viper explained, “Always jokingly like ‘oh the internet, dah, dah, dah, whatever.’ You know, that kind of thing. I know they were aware of the site. I can’t speak officially. I don’t know for sure, but my understanding is that everyone but the legal department didn’t mind, because to them they were just producing something and more fans were enjoying it.”
It wasn’t until the BBC had the legal means to distribute the show outside the United Kingdom in places like Netflix that anyone started taking real legal issue with FinalGear.
Even then, many believe that these “utter pirates” (as an old shirt FinalGear users made for themselves once read) were what finally convinced the BBC to broadcast Top Gear in America.
“I assume they saw it torrented and stuff and that’s when they realized, ‘oh, we should put this on BBC America,’” Viper mentioned. “I don’t take any FinalGear credit for that—I mean, sure, probably in part, but the internet at large, the fact that [the show was] pirated—I assume, I’m guessing that’s how it led to BBC America and eventually came out on DVD and all that kind of stuff.”
Top Gear’s widespread piracy may have also convinced the BBC’s international commercial arm to move the broadcast schedule up as well, as it was hard to justify waiting for it to appear on TV when it was released shortly after its original airtime in the U.K..
“It used be Top Gear would air a month later after the U.K. airing and now it’s within 24 hours,” Viper noted.
Ultimately, it was the the Federation Against Copyright Theft, an industry group representing the BBC, who handed FinalGear a DMCA take-down request for all the torrent links on the site.
Since other sites now catalog the shows FinalGear covered and it’s much easier to find television shows online now, Viper simply shut down FinalGear’s main page in response, but kept the forums and IRC channels alive. Those remain one of the major places to discuss all things related to Top Gear, its spin-offs like Top Gear USA and The Grand Tour, and other car-related topics.
“Times have certainly changed, and that’s why I never felt too bad about shutting down the front end of FinalGear,” explained Viper. “Gosh, that was 13 years ago now? Internet streaming wasn’t a thing, especially for full TV shows. Hulu and all that stuff didn’t exist. I don’t know. Piracy always gets ahead. Movies were pirated for the longest time and now you can actually watch them [online] legally.”
Naturally, there are fans (admittedly, myself included) who still bemoan that the show has to swap out its original music for broadcast outside the United Kingdom. Top Gear’s other big appeal to car geeks—once file sharing technology improved to let us see bigger, better quality show files—was in its production values.
Elements like the music weren’t network afterthought like many car shows seem to be, and the non-profit BBC wasn’t bound by the same music copyright laws so many American shows were.
Top Gear felt cinematic and spectacular, and its music selection was far more thoughtful than the usual iMovie dad-rock loop that gets plopped over classic car build shows. Clarkson ruminating over the future of cars while driving a delightfully old-school V12 Aston Martin, for example, was set to Brian Eno’s “An Ending,” as he speculates the car may be one of the last of its kind. There’s meaning conveyed in song choice. Musical touches like that and stunning visuals let it reach beyond car fans, over to a more general audience.
Top Gear’s online legions seem to have influenced the international broadcasts, too.
“When it first came to BBC America...it was like the music was supposed to be this huge part of the show and then they would just dub over generic stuff,” Viper noted. “I don’t know if you’ve watched [the BBC America version] at all recently, but ... they would actually go to the trouble of licensing most of the songs [in the original U.K. edit], or they would pick songs that would work for the international market.” Progress.
And now, after becoming popular because of the internet, the trio makes it their broadcast medium. It feels like we’re finally getting what we want in The Grand Tour: a car show that lives on the web. While we’re all finding out at the same time later tonight whether this is the case, whatever music is in the background hopefully won’t have to change across international borders. It’s a show made for online consumption, and geared towards the online masses who will inevitably dissect every minute detail of the show.
In a way, the internet is Clarkson, Hammond and May’s home. It’s how a vast chunk of their fanbase found them. The Grand Tour may be stressing all of the ways it’s different to avoid their own set of legal troubles with the BBC, however, as a viewer sitting back down in front of a computer to download a car show, the trio’s new format feels more like a homecoming.