There’s something epic about Top Gear. Absorbing a huge budget and sending three hapless English petrolheads around the world on increasingly ridiculous quests, the programme has been keeping its viewers extremely entertained since its relaunch in 2002. It’s a global phenomenon and should be recognised as such.
But through all the drama, the banter, the controversy, the speed, the explosions, the jokes, and the cars, this list represents the very best of Top Gear. It’s what has kept audiences thrilled for all these years, and what keeps us coming back for more. Here’s our take on the seven episodes we reckon make Top Gear the most popular TV show… in the world.
1. The Peel P50 in Television Centre
It might not have been the most spectacular but it certainly ranks among the most memorable. Jeremy Clarkson piloted the tiny Peel P50 – the world’s smallest production car – around the streets of London and into BBC Television Centre. Dwarfed by even a Mini Cooper, the Peel P50 was at home in the winding corridors of Britain’s iconic broadcasting hub.
Cars involved: Peel P50
Best bit: Clarkson’s accidental appearance on BBC News
2. Trying to Destroy a Toyota Hilux
It’s well-known that the Toyota Hilux is a robust piece of machinery. They’re popular with farmers, gamekeepers and, as Clarkson pointed out, the Taliban, for precisely this reason. The 90s shape remains one of the most instantly recognisable cars of modern times.
That wasn’t enough for Clarkson and company, however. They wanted to test whether its reputation was earned, and whether the Hilux really was indestructible. To do this they conducted a number of very ordinary scientific tests oh, you know leaving it on a beach while the tide was coming in, setting it on fire, dropping a caravan on it – but it was the final test that makes this episode one of the most brilliant.
The Toyota Hilux survived a huge block of flats being demolished beneath it. After falling to the ground it took only basic mechanical intervention before the engine roared into life – the Hilux in question remains on display in the Top Gear studio.
Cars involved: Toyota Hilux pickup
Best bit: The battered machine’s return to the studio, damaged but still rolling.
3. Driving the Then-new Land Rover Discovery up a Mountain
Looking back, this challenge was rather tame. Appearing alongside the Dodge Viper SRT10 and the Rinspeed Splash back in November 2004, the then-new Land Rover Discovery was a technological marvel. This episode showed Clarkson drive one to the top of Cnoc an Fhreiceadain (Scotland) against a musical backdrop of Holst’s Jupiter. Classic on every level.
Cars involved: Land Rover Discovery
Best bit: The summit
4. Driving to the North Pole
Top Gear has broken a lot of records (and other things) so it’s no real surprise that they were the first to drive to the North Pole. But you’d expect Jeremy Clarkson and James May cooped up in their car to have more hilarious fallings-out.
Instead, they tackled the challenge with a grace and competence not demonstrated in any Top Gear episode before or since. Sure, there were uncertain moments (they could hear the ice cracking beneath the car) and a few times when May clearly wished he was somewhere else (some quality time on the towbar-mounted lavatory seat while Clarkson had the keys was a questionable idea) but the boys were ultimately successful in their quest to drive to the North Pole.
Cars involved: Toyota Hilux ‘Invincible’
Best bit: The fact that Hammond was racing them on a dog sled
5. Crossing the Channel in Amphibious Cars
The boys had been given an amphibious car challenge before. Their task had been to cross a lake in home-made machines that could drive on the public road and also be used in water. Hammond’s ‘Dampervan’ – a bizarre Volkswagen-narrowboat hybrid – began to sink almost immediately and May’s sail-powered Triumph Herald was prone to drifting into reeds. Clarkson’s Toyboata had properly worked, only to be capsized during a moment of exuberance mere yards from the finish. May’s Triumph somehow triumphed.
This time, the boys took their task more seriously. May’s attempt was still rubbish and Hammond’s craft sank again, but after a number of attempts (and a run-in with the port police) the Toyboata prevailed. Clarkson, May and Hammond successfully ‘sailed’ from the old Hovercraft terminal in Kent to a beach somewhere in France – using a modified Hilux and an outboard motor.
Cars involved: Triumph Herald, Volkswagen Campervan, Toyota Hilux
Best bit: The boys arriving on a French beach in front of bemused locals
6. ‘Properly’ Testing the Ford Fiesta
Clarkson frequently laments the letters the programme receives, many of which ask for more sensible reviewing of ordinary cars. In the case of the famous Ford Fiesta test, he responded to one particular piece of correspondence with the proper review to end all proper reviews.
With the needs of the public in mind, Clarkson demonstrates the Fiesta’s prowess at outmanoeuvring baddies in a blacked-out Corvette during a chase through a shopping centre. He then goes on to prove its abilities as a landing craft during a military invasion exercise. Truly informative.
Cars involved: Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Corvette
Best bit: Handbrake turn through British Home Stores
7. The Reliant Robin Spaceship
A truly spectacular piece of television, featuring all the elements that make Top Gear so great – ridiculousness, perseverance, enormous ambition and a truly gargantuan budget. This time, the boys had set their sights beyond the horizon – they wanted to build a space shuttle.
Choosing the Reliant Robin because it looks most like the NASA-built Shuttle, Clarkson, May and Hammond set to work on what would be one of the most spectacular Top Gear failures ever. The project was finished, the launch was set, the countdown began, the ship launched…
Everything appeared to be going smoothly until the Reliant failed to separate from the fuel tank. Rather than gliding gently to terra firma as predicted, the whole ‘spaceship’ crashed into the ground in an enormous fireball.
This episode epitomises the unofficial Top Gear mantra – ambitious, but rubbish.
Cars involved: Reliant Robin
Best bit: The explosion, obviously
Peel P50 by Blogpaedia on Flickr
James May’s Amphibious Car by bombhead on Flickr.