Top gear is probably the best car show to ever grace our television screens and will probably be the best for a while yet. While the modern Top gear is fine, it barely surpasses the entertainment and comedic factor of the version of the show starring Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May.
Part of this success is due to the fact that the trio has had great motorcycle adventures around the world. One of their more interesting excursions took them in search of the North Pole using the machine that made them famous: the car. The Arctic Truck Toyota Hilux was the first four-wheel vehicle to travel to the geographic North Pole, setting a record. Their other trips weren’t as record-breaking, but got more fun. The Botswana Special introduced the world to ‘Oliver’, Hammond’s Opel Kadett. The sinking of Oliver is one of the most famous moments of all Top gear. They also went on “diplomatic” adventures to India, excursions to build bridges in Burma (which turned out to be Thailand) and expeditions to Central Africa to find the source of the Nile River.
With all these adventures, the three presenters had to choose vehicles that could withstand harsh conditions and take a beating due to the various pranks that inevitably took place. Many of these cars weren’t designed at all to do what the three presenters got with them, but they survived—most of the time. Here are ten of the best second-hand cars used in the Top gear specials.
10/10 Jeremy’s Range Rover Classic
One of the cars used by the Top gear trio – which has a history of unreliability and proved to be one of the best – was the red Range Rover Classic that Bolivia Special. Both Hammond and May laughed when they saw the 4×4 parked on the ship next to the Suzuki Jimny and Toyota Land Cruiser.
In reality, the Range Rover proved to be the most reliable vehicle of the three, as Hammond’s Land Cruiser failed to start, broke a differential and rolled down a mountain and James’ Suzuki struggled here and there. The Range Rover did develop a slight overheating problem, but Clarkson solved this by making huge holes in the hood and driving with the hood up.
9/10 James’ Lotus Esprit V8
With the last special the three did it again Top gear, they went to Patagonia and drove through parts of Argentina and Chile. The parameters included a V8-powered 2-door car, so May made sense and bought a Lotus Esprit V8 – a car known for its unreliability.
Both Hammond and Clarkson criticized James’ choice, but it proved to be the most reliable of the three cars. The only major problem with the Lotus was that it was too low for the roads – a problem James solved after spending the night in a workshop. Unfortunately, all three cars came to a violent end when protesters threw rocks at the cars, causing them to run up completely.
8/10 Hammond’s Fiat Barchetta
The Fiat Barchetta was a stylish Italian alternative to the hugely successful Mazda MX-5 and BMW Z3. These were the three cars the trio chose when they did their Middle East Special. Jeremy had the Mazda, James had an automatic Z3 and Richard the Barchetta. Being an Italian sports car, both Jeremy and James expected it to fail almost immediately.
Instead, it endured the heat and dust of the Middle East and was eventually disguised as a Bedouin nomad tent. Towards the end of the journey things started to get in the way – but this was mainly due to Hammond’s foolish adjustments. Little Barchetta proved his worth to the world after surviving the onslaught of the trio’s crazy desert adventure.
7/10 Jeremy’s Jaguar XJ6
On a ‘diplomatic’ mission to the Commonwealth – in this case India – the three presenters had to show that Britain was still great in its former colony. The cars used for the trip had to be British, so Jeremy decided to use the Jaguar XJ6 – a GT car that had been in production for 21 years.
The trip to India went as expected, resulting in some run over food, a botched exhibition at an embassy, and a mighty crime involving a cemetery. In any case, a great game of cricket was played on a mountain with Jeremy’s ridiculously modified exhaust.
6/10 James’ Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow
James’ car for the India Special was an equally British Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow to match Jeremy’s Jaguar and Hammond’s Mini Cooper. The Rolls did fairly well for such a maintenance-intensive vehicle and were the first of James’ specialty cars to have a working air conditioning system – something Jeremy and Richard fixed almost immediately.
When the three heard they were going up a mountain, they each modified their cars for the trip. James swapped his wheels for some off-road wheels and decorated the Rolls in typical Indian fashion – just like the transport trucks have been refurbished. Like the Jaguar and the Mini, the old Roller made it to the finish – even with the horn hooked up to the brakes.
5/10 Hammond’s Ford Mustang Mach 1
Hammond’s choice for the Patagonia Special was quite nice – a Ford Mustang Mach 1. from 1971. While it looked great, the car had some mechanical issues that caused Richard to fall back from time to time. It also looked like a death trap on the ice-covered roads.
Towards the end of the special, Hammond modified his Mustang for the final challenge – which sadly never happened. As with James’ Lotus and Jeremy’s Porsche 928, the protesting crowd counted the Mustang as the presenters and crew had to flee the country.
4/10 James’ Volvo 850R
One of the best Top gear specials were the trio found the source of the Nile, which meant riding in Central Africa. For this task, the three wagons bought which they later converted into personal lodging, as the hotels and motels along the route were less than hygienic — to say the least.
Jeremy chose a BMW 528i, Hammond a Subaru Impreza WRX Wagon and James a Volvo 850R. Despite the low and stiff suspension, the 850R survived the same roads and paths as the rally-bred Subaru and comfortable BMW – despite the various holes cut in it by the other presenters.
3/10 Jeremy’s Isuzu TX ‘Sports Car’
Another memorable special was the three presenters who drove trucks across Myanmar to build a bridge over the River Kwai. Jeremy bought an Isuzu of a certain description with parts from other car brands. Hammond bought the same model as Jeremy, but his had a huge cargo space on the back. In true James May fashion, he bought a small faucet.
The trio drove across the country, eventually modifying their trucks to be more comfortable and work better. It was then that Jeremy gave his vehicle a Shelby paint job and named it the “Sports Lorry.” in typical Top gear style, when they arrived at their destination, the three realized that the river was in another country and that it was actually the wrong river.
2/10 Jeremy and James’ Toyota Hilux Arctic Truck
The Polar Special is unique in that it is the only one of the several specials where the focus is on the race between the two teams, rather than each presenter in their used cars. The race involved Jeremy and James in a highly modified Toyota Hilux – built by Arctic Trucks – race with Hammond and Matty McNair with their sled and dogs to the geographic North Pole.
The race was approximately 310 miles, starting in the Northern Canadian town of Resolute. Along the way, the two teams faced many dangers and difficult conditions, but also saw some amazing sights. In the end, Team Hilux took first, setting the record for the first four-wheel vehicle to travel to the geographic North Pole.
1/10 Hammond’s Opel Kadett ‘Oliver’
The Opel Kadett was the predecessor of the current Opel Astra hatchback. During the Botswana Special, the three were tasked with buying cars that would survive driving across the country and reaching the border on the other side. Jeremy chose a Lancia Beta Coupe, James had an old Mercedes W123 and Hammond brought the Kadett.
During the show, Hammond liked the Kadett so much that he called him “Oliver” and when the trio modified their cars to drive on the bottom of the lake, he refused to screw him up. He loved the car so much that he bought the car when he finished filming BBC and owns it to this day. He has restored it over the years and has stated that he will never get rid of it. The Kadett is also involved in one of the funniest situations to ever come out of a… Top gear special, with Hammond screaming his lungs out as the car slowly sank into a small lake.