Top Gear America is back Friday with the first of five episodes on the MotorTrend app. This iteration of the show is hosted by Dax Shepard and Rob Corddry, along with Jethro Bovingdon, who I spoke to this week after watching the upcoming season. This show is a car show and I like car shows, so I’m rooting for it.
And I’m rooting for it in part because the inevitable comparisons to the original Top Gear aren’t really fair, nor are they very elucidating. Because while the new Top Gear America shares the bones of the old British one — there are car reviews, challenges, stunts, The Stig, etc. — it also leaves behind a lot of the bad, like the casual racism. There are no studio audiences or celebrities either, but the car reviews are solid; if the challenges might need a little work that can be explained in part by limitations imposed by the pandemic.
This version of the show — there was another one with different hosts in 2017 that is no longer — was at first conceived in 2019, and it was supposed to film across the country. Instead, because of the pandemic, they were confined to California for the most part, filming episodes this past summer in a heatwave. The three have a puppy-dog sort of chemistry that had to be developed on the fly.
For Bovingdon, he just wanted to get involved behind the scenes at first, because it sounded like a fun project. A motoring journalist in the U.K. for years, Bovingdon has a lot of experience but not a ton of name recognition outside of car nerds. And yet, on the show, he’s frequently its most engaging and charismatic host, no small feat given the on-screen experience of Shepard and Corddry.
It almost didn’t happen at all.
“They told me very, very early on in the project, way before, maybe a year before, that they didn’t want any British people involved in the hosting, so I knew I was off the table,” Bovingdon told me. Still, he was later invited to a screen test.
“And I went down with no real preconception other than, God, it’s intimidating, the idea of doing a Top Gear show, just because you know all the history that comes with it, and all the baggage that comes with it, and all the expectation, and the fact that people love to snipe at any version that isn’t the original,” Bovingdon said. “But then I got there and I met Rob and Dax and I was like, ‘Oh my god, these guys are really funny,’ and we get on pretty well.”
Originally, the producers of the Top Gear America wanted the show to have conflict, like the original, but it turned out that Shepard, Corddry, and Bovingdon simply liked each other too much.
“Consciously, we decided to just do our own thing,” Bovingdon said.
Bovingdon got the job in late 2019 and they started shooting in the months before the pandemic, before stopping in March and resuming the shoot last June.
“It gave us time to refine some of the ideas,” Bovingdon said. When they were back shooting the timing wasn’t optimal, but they powered through.
“I think at one point we shot for ten or twelve days straight in over 110-degree heat. We were just dying emotionally, in cars with no air conditioning,” Bovingdon said.
Bovingdon doesn’t know the budget for the show, but he said by his standards it was pretty big, though he has spent a lot of his career making videos with just himself and a cameraman. He said Top Gear America, on the other hand, was a “small Army” compared to that, though the crew on set assured him it was pretty modest.
What I can say having seen the series is that there doesn’t seem to be too much of a lapse in production quality, with the highlight of the series, for me, being Bovingdon’s review of the Ferrari F8 Tributo in the third episode. The reviews were Bovingdon’s favorite part of old Top Gear, too.
“The thing I loved, really, was the reviews, because they did so many iconic treatments of cars, and now I get to do that on this show,” he said. “It’s [also] been a surprise to me how much I’ve enjoyed driving the crappy old cars.
I won’t reveal any spoilers for the show except to say that there is dynamite, there is a Vector W8, there is an Aston Martin Vantage, there is a Bugatti Chiron, there is a McLaren Senna and there is a Hyundai Veloster N, among other cars. In broad strokes, Shepard seems to be positioned in the Jeremy Clarkson role, to Bovingdon’s Richard Hammond and Corddry’s James May. Or maybe Bovingdon is James May and Corddry is Hammond.
I’m hoping, in any case, they eventually turn into simply Shepard, Corddry, and Bovingdon, as another season is planned and this time, if things go right, they’ll be able to travel the country and make the show they set out to make in the first place. Bovingdon said that their biggest goal is simply to have fun, and the three think that, if they can do that, it’ll show up on screen.
“We live in a pretty miserable world, especially the last year,” Bovingdon said. “And the car industry is almost always under attack and, if we can show some of the great stuff they do and remind people why they love cars in the first place, I think that’s good.”