On April 12, Amazon aired the last episode of the third season of the Grand Tour, its car show hosted by the original hosts of the BBC’s Top Gear, where they starred from 2002 until 2015, when show creator Jeremy Clarkson was sacked by the BBC for his boozy punch-out of a producer. As I wrote about the Grand Tour for PJM in January when the third season debuted, I figured I’d write up some thoughts on the season’s final episode, since it’s a farewell to the show’s old format. But as I was assembling this piece, Will Lloyd of the American edition of the London Spectator asked, “What do Game of Thrones critics think they’re watching?”
Romain Rolland once complained that ‘there is too much music in Germany.’ Today there are too many television critics in the world. Some of the finest writers of multiple generations spend most of their writing lives recapping last night’s television. Is any of it really criticism, or are thousands of words agonizing over, say, Don Draper, adding up to anything more than the digital equivalent of chip wrapping?
Such thoughts do not bother the critics. They are convinced of their rectitude, secure in their sense of being the most powerful tastemakers in the land. As the New Yorker’s queen of TV Emily Nussbaum put it in 2015: ‘Those of us who love TV have won the war. The best scripted shows are regarded as significant art – debated, revered, denounced.’
So yes, I’m writing a piece on a comedy car show, my equivalent of “chip wrapping.” But like comedy, chips are fun and enjoyable from time to time. And for many, a refreshing change of pace from the horrors and insanity of the news cycle.
How Ford Changed the British Class System
As I mentioned in January, Amazon struck a three-year deal with the presenters of the classic British car and humor show Top Gear in 2015, only a few months after Clarkson was fired by the BBC. Amazon’s Grand Tour, which co-stars alongside Clarkson the professorial James May and vertically challenged (and occasionally crash-prone) Richard Hammond, was a lightly re-imagined update of Top Gear, still with lots of exotic supercars beautifully filmed going around tracks, lots of cheap old cars being kit-bashed and ultimately bashed, and lots of very broad clowning about and bickering from three middle-aged guys avoiding midlife crises. At the beginning of their third season, it was announced that the show would be reformatted in its next season. So its season finale ended on a pair of sad notes, which we’ll get to. But first, it was a celebration of Ford in England, focusing on their assorted mid-sized models, including the sensible four-door Cortina and high-performance Sierra RS Cosworth, which by the end of the 1980s, was reportedly the most stolen car model in England.
As an American watching the finale, to me, it tacitly highlighted a difference in scale between England and America in the 1960s and ’70s. Clarkson and May both sounded so proud of their fathers when they bought or were given their Ford Cortinas in the early 1970s. England’s postwar rationing continued into 1954, and as May mentions in his segment on the Ford Cortina GXL, endured power outages in 1974 thanks to miners’ strikes. Meanwhile, as highlighted by Don Draper in a memorable scene from Mad Men, successful middle-class American businessmen and entrepreneurs of that era bought themselves big honking Cadillac Coupe de Villes and Eldorados, not mid-sized four-door Fords. It’s a bit reminiscent of The Who’s Quadrophenia album and subsequent film, which glorified gangs of young men on Howard Wolowitz-sized tiny mopeds. My dad, who co-owned a Chevy dealership for years, bought Cadillacs even after GM’s build quality had descended to British Leyland depths in the 1970s. If you were a suburban businessman in the U.S., that was simply what you did.
One of the reasons why Ford sales exploded in England in the late 1960s, James May explains, is that by then, “if you earned £3,000 a year the government would take 41% of it away in tax. So, to get ’round this problem, a lot of companies paid their staff a bit less, but then to make up the difference they gave them a car. And that wasn’t subject to any tax at all.” Speaking of Mad Men, while explaining this change in tax laws, May appears behind the desk of what a typical British executive’s office would appear in 1970, complete with cigarette in hand, and a secretary bent over the entire duration of the shot. Messrs. Sterling and Cooper would certainly approve.
“Ford cottoned on to that” change in tax laws, Clarkson, back in the present day, adds:
And came up with a variety of trim levels to suit the typical management structure. There was a base model for the sales rep. And the L for the sales manager.
Then you had the XL with a clock and a locking glove compartment for the sales director. And the powerful G for the managing director. Ford’s badging policy quite literally changed the class system in Britain. Because we used to judge people on how they held their knife and fork, or whether they said toilet or lavatory.
But after the Cortina came along, it was all based on what it said on your boot lid. Our dads understood what these badges meant. And boy, oh, boy, so did we.
Growing up in England with a dad who didn’t have a Ford could be painful as well. Here’s how Richard Hammond, who grew up near the British Leyland factory in Birmingham, reacted when his dad showed up with “a shoulder-sagging bag of disappointment called the Austin Allegro Estate.” He was not happy, to say the least:
The Minivan Kills Ford
He would go on to sledgehammer the Austin as a warning to parents that “It’s cars like this, it’s secrets, dark secrets like this lurking in people’s pasts that creates serial killers and psychopaths. It’s a bloody miracle I’m not one. It’s not being short that makes me an angry man, or being born in Birmingham, it’s this! It’s you!”
Hammond would sledgehammer a second vehicle in the series, a Toyota Picnic minivan, dubbing it “the Allegro Estate of modern times.” Its death by television presenter came because the popularity of the family-friendly minivan led to plunging sales of the Ford Mondeo, and mid-2018 rumors that it would likely be discontinued, hence the episode’s title, “Funeral for a Ford.” (Its American version, the Ford Fusion, was canceled last year, as Ford greatly cut back its non-SUV lineup.) But of course, the episode’s “funeral” (at Lincoln Cathedral, appropriately enough) is a way for the show to allow as many of its fans as possible to take part in the memorial for another British motoring institution, as this is the last episode of Grand Tour, with the original Top Gear presenters, with a studio audience:
Afterwards, back in the Grand Tour’s tent, evidently, fences have been mended sufficiently for the BBC to have given permission to use numerous clips from Top Gear, for a 17-year crash, boom, bash montage of both series, assembled on top of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” including Hammond’s devastating 288 mph crash of a jet-powered dragster in 2006, something rarely seen on the original show. (Hammond’s 2017 crash of an electric Rimac Concept One supercar on the Grand Tour was also shown.)
Amazon scours its ratings numbers from everyone tuning into the Prime Video website via browsers, tablets and set-top boxes like the Roku. And it has apparently determined that what Top Gear called its holiday “specials” — extravagant tours of exotic distant lands, sometimes in exotic supercars, sometimes in cheap old cars, and in the case of Top Gear’s 2008 Vietnam special, on mopeds, the country’s dominant vehicle, is what the Grand Tour should devote its efforts toward. And according to Clarkson, Vietnam will be part of one of next year’s “specials.” In an interview with Clarkson, the London Sun adds that “Pre-production of the new specials has already begun, and Jeremy revealed he knows what the next three episodes will be. The first will take in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, with filming beginning in June.”
Clarkson told the Sun that he teared up at the end of the season three finale, the last show with a studio audience, because the BBC wouldn’t allow him to appear on the air to say goodbye to viewers after he was fired in 2015:
The veteran host, who left the BBC after a fracas with a Top Gear producer, admitted: “That show was my baby:”
“In 2002 I came up with the Stig, then an audience with a track and all that stuff. So, you know, you do something for 17 years and then it goes.
“It’s a wrench. Even though The Grand Tour goes on, it’s a wrench to say goodbye to the studio element of it for sure.
“The truth of it is, I think, I never got the chance to say goodbye to Top Gear. One minute I was there and one minute I wasn’t. It was like, did the show and then never did another one.
“Never said goodbye. Never got a gold watch. Never got a retirement speech. Nothing. So this was almost as though we were saying goodbye to Top Gear as well. That’s why it was so emotional for me.”
But what a sendoff. Thanks for all the chips.