Gavin Green on the new Top Gear, CAR+ March 2016

Published: 17 February 2016

Gavin Green talks new Top Gear
► New line-up might annoy viewers 
► We await the new show with interest

Ever since Clarkson punched the producer a year ago, media commentating soothsayers have been trying to predict who would present Top Gear. Informed speculation included comedians, models, actors, racing drivers, deejays and other ‘celebrities’ who are clearly telegenic but have, as far as I can make out, no knowledge about cars apart from a professed enthusiasm for the subject, the occasional extravagant supercar purchase or, in the case of the racing drivers, the ability to drive fast.

And as Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond all regularly demonstrated, driving fast is of little benefit to presenting a TV show (they leave that to The Stig, who is funnier than any racing driver without ever saying a word). I can recall only one car expert on the supposed shortlist: Vicki Butler-Henderson.

The mass media has long misjudged the reasons behind Top Gear’s phenomenal success. Of course, it was a lifestyle show based on cars and car culture that appealed to grannies, teenagers, housewives, car fans and those who simply wanted a good laugh. But both Clarkson and May, as well as being superb presenters, also have a deep knowledge about cars. This editorial authority underpinned the show’s credibility. 

It’s the same with The Living Planet or Simply Nigella. These are mass appeal TV programmes that, like Top Gear, require expertise on specialist subjects. Being a mere ‘enthusiast’ is not enough.

Odd, isn’t it, how the mainstream media think minimal knowledge about cars is fine for presenting a car show. But if Chris Evans bred frogs as a kid and loves dogs, would that qualify him to take over from David Attenborough as the next natural history front man on the Beeb? If Matt LeBlanc turns out a great tiramisu and lists cooking as a hobby, would he be tipped to take over from Jamie Oliver? Probably not. 

Chris Evans is no more likely to laud the next new Aston Martin or Ford Focus ST with any conviction than he is to explain the mating habits of a Swallowtail butterfly. Matt LeBlanc is a great actor and I loved him in Friends. But he probably doesn’t know a manettino from a Dry Manhattan. 

Now don’t get me wrong. Evans – a great TV presenter – could be a fine anchorman for the new Top Gear. But he needs some car experts alongside him for the show to mix entertainment with credibility. 

So it’s good to hear that there will, apparently, be one expert on hand: Chris Harris. Or, as the mainstream media put it, ‘the virtually unknown Chris Harris’ (whose YouTube channel has had 24.5 million views and has more subscribers – 334,000 – than many mainstream media websites I could cite). 

Now, Harris is a friend of mine and, assuming the news is true, I’m glad for him. But I’m pleased mostly because it’s more likely to make Top Gear worth watching. 

Harris, like Clarkson and May, is a motoring journalist who grafted on enthusiast publications for years before graduating from the loo stool (the home of magazines) to the centrepiece of your living room (the TV). He knows a Focus steers better than a Golf and that Audis are mostly tinselled VWs; he knows who Adrian van Hooydonk and Laurens van den Acker are; he knows that heel ’n’ toe isn’t a funny way of walking; and he knows the difference between a conrod and camshaft and that a crank case is not (necessarily) Jeremy Clarkson after he fails to get a hot meal. 

Harris really knows cars. Just as Jeremy and James do. Just as Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc don’t. And just as racing drivers invariably don’t either. They’re sportsmen not car experts. So don’t expect too many auto insights (or much humour) from Sabine Schmitz on any reasonably priced car or on a 20-year-old Jaguar, although she’ll be able to steer a GT3 quickly around the ’Ring.

So we now wait for Evans’ new Top Gear and Clarkson’s new Amazon Prime show to hit our screens (in May and September respectively) to see whether either is any good. My suspicion is that neither will be as successful as ‘old’ Top Gear.

The unique combination of BBC credibility and editorial excellence (including global reach), mingled with car journalistic expertise and entertainment value will remain unrivalled, possibly in car broadcasting history, and almost certainly beyond the scope of a disparate new team on Top Gear or any programme produced by Amazon, a firm better known for its commercial rather than its creative acumen.

Read more from the March 2016 issue of CAR magazine

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience