Auditioning for Top Gear USA
Frequent readers of this space know that we at Car Lust are huge fans of the UK-based but internationally recognized automotive show Top Gear. It's one of those rare shows that is so compelling, so funny, and on occasion even so touching, that it transcends its subject. My wife, for example, has an implacable lifetime immunity to the car lust virus, but even she enjoys watching Top Gear just to see where the blokes will be going and in what kind of madness they will be engaging. It's exactly the kind of show that we at Car Lust would make if we had the money and the talent to do so. In fact, I'm guessing that James May and I are both drones serving the same slow-driving, bad-car-loving hive mind.
Given all this, you'd think that we would be excited about the official announcement that the oft-rumored American version of Top Gear is going forward. Just just imagine a show in which the winning Top Gear formula of irreverence and a uniquely honest brand of automotive commentary was applied towards American vehicles. That sounds like a dream come true, doesn't it?
It's an interesting idea, but like many of the commenters on the Top Gear bog, I'm worried. I'm wary that Americanizing Top Gear will flatten out the simultaneously dry and over-the-top humor that makes Top Gear so special; that the wry insights will be dumbed down to match the perceived tastes of the American audience, and that the chemistry between the new presenters will be rather more forced than the effortless interplay that makes the original Top Gear so much fun.
I am open-minded about the idea of an American Top Gear, and I understand that it's unfair to expect it to be exactly the same as its legendary big brother. Clearly there's some potential here; the challenge featured in the first trailer appears to include such Car Lust fodder as a Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe and a massive Cadillac De Ville Coupe. If matched up with the right set of presenters, an American Top Gear could avoid the pitfalls I mentioned above and wind up as a pretty neat show.
Unfortunately, my biggest concerns involve the choice of presenters--rally driver Tanner Foust, NASCAR analyst Rutledge Wood, and comedian Adam Ferrera. I'm sure all three are decent guys, but I'm worried that they come off with so little personality in their Q&As (here are Foust's, Wood's, and Ferrera's). I'm even more worried that none of them has a background in automotive journalism as the three Brits do. That combination seems dangerous--the Americans might be able to replicate the antics, but without the chemistry or incisive, honest insights that the three Brits offer, I worry that the whole thing will all seem more like Jackass-style buffoonery than anything else.
As you might expect, I think all the American Top Gear needs is a little dose of the honesty and wit that all of you bring to Car Lust. So given that, I think we should all fill out our own Top Gear US Q&As and make a thoroughly pointless and irrelevant push for some Car Lust representation on Top Gear US. I'll start, but feel free to submit your own answers in the comment section.
Given some of the difficulty some have had with our comments lately, it might be a good idea to copy your selection into Notepad or something similar before submitting, so that if the Typepad comment system loses your comment it won't be completely lost in the ether.
What's in your garage? I have a 240-horsepower Honda Accord and a 110-horsepower Audi sports coupe; those two cars would both make a great deal more sense if I could somehow swap those horsepower numbers. Besides the cars, my garage also contains a bicycle that I don't ride and an oil spot that is positioned, purely coincidentally, underneath the Audi's engine block.
What's the fastest you've ever driven? I'm going to demur on that specific question, on the grounds that it may incriminate me. However, the least intelligent thing I've done in a car is traversing a full block of narrow, slick Seattle street nearly sideways in a Ford Mustang GT, crab-style, with full throttle and opposite lock canceling each other out nicely. I still shudder to think what might have happened had the rear wheels hooked up.
Who or what caused your worst car crash? The hubris of youth, manifesting itself in my misplaced faith in the combination of my Acura Integra's brakes and my reflexes. That didn't end well--twice.
What's your dream car? A 1986 Saab 900 SPG. It's outdated today, but at the time it was a slick, smooth, and sophisticated. It combined Saab character, contemporary muscle-car acceleration, the Jaguar XJ-S' penchant for high-speed cruising, and all the utility of a small station wagon. It was a world-class performance car with a hunchbacked profile and a whale-tail spoiler.
What was the first car you owned? My first car was a 1986 Toyota Celica GT hatchback, a lovely little car that I purchased for a mere $900 but that featured the best driver's seat I have ever had the pleasure to sample. Unfortunately, that car met a tragic end in 2000 when it was driven into by a 16-year-old girl who had only had her license for two weeks. It was a sadly fratricidal crash; the implement of my Celica's destruction was actually its big brother, a 1980s Toyota Supra.
What car do you hate most in all the world? The Saab 9-7X. As a Chevrolet Trailblazer SUV with a Saab badge, it was a cynically badge-engineered vehicle with no respect for the tradition of Saab and absolutely no honest benefit to offer the consumer. I saw a 9-7X on the road several days ago, and I was sorely tempted to immolate it.
Why film an American version of Top Gear? The cynic in me would ask, "Why indeed?" But, more charitably, America has its own interesting set of vehicles and unique relationship with those vehicles, and that could represent some interesting new editorial ground to break.
How is Top Gear US going to be different to the UK version? I'm tempted to answer that Top Gear US will be differentiated from the UK version by its relative lack of quality and popularity. In terms of style, Top Gear US can't ride as heavily on the charisma of its presenter--at least not at first, until the audience has become familiar with those presenters.
What's your favourite thing that Top Gear has ever done? For sheer laughs, I'd probably choose the amphibious challenge or the Volkswagen Scirocco ad. For overall quality, the Vietnam special. But as a symbol of what makes Top Gear great, I'd choose the used Porsche challenge that appeared relatively early on--it featured some interesting cars, a lot of laughs, and some misadventures that didn't feel forced or staged. It was just another episode, really, but I was transifxed the first time I watched it.
Who's your favourite presenter from the three guys in the UK? Richard Hammond is the funniest of the three, and Jeremy Clarkson is clearly the straw that stirs the drink--the show just wouldn't work without him. But my favorite is easily James May. I love his wit, his sense of history, his self-deprecation, and his sense of cars. He's the one of the three with whom I would most like to grab a drink.
What will be your definition of success for Top Gear US? In terms of artistic success, it just has to be honest. I'd love if it was as hilarious and truly moving as the UK series can occasionally be, but more than anything the American series has to find its own voice. That voice has to both tell the truth and be honest to what it is. The US series could fail by being uninteresting or by failing to bring in an audience, but the worst failure would be to either pull its punches to avoid offending automakers or to try too hard to strike the same tone as the UK series when it hasn't earned that trust or involvement from the viewers yet.