The inordinately expensive five-minute intro to the new Amazon car show The Grand Tour is nothing if not gaudy: a sort of music video ode for classic car fanatics, set to a live performance in the California desert of "I Can See Clearly Now" by the Hothouse Flowers. For those familiar with The Grand Tour’s progenitor, Top Gear — one of the most popular shows on the planet — it’s hard not to view the $2.5 million spectacle as a sod off to the BBC, which dropped the show’s three longtime hosts a year ago after an altercation between a senior producer and then-host Jeremy Clarkson. But what else would you expect from 56-year-old Clarkson, who’s delighted in provoking everyone from truck drivers in the north of England to, famously, the entire country of Argentina (as well as America’s Deep South).
His new project, which debuted in November, immediately became Amazon’s most-viewed premiere and prompted a single-day record for number of Amazon Prime sign-ups. Rumored to cost anywhere from $160 million to $250 million for three seasons, TGT is just two episodes into its 12-show run. Clarkson, along with co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May, who bolted with him from the BBC, have not lost a beat in switching to the new format, which is essentially the same as Top Gear, with the exception of a mobile tent-cum-studio and a team of copyright lawyers. We caught up with Clarkson at New York’s Classic Car Club Manhattan to ask him about the new show.
I read a couple years ago that you and James May were going to retire and open a pub, but it seems like that’s not coming to fruition.
Well, no, because we worked out that we don’t really like anyone. We’d have a list of people who weren't allowed in so long that we realized we’d have no customers at all. So he’s going to do a shoe shop, and I’m going to be a farmer — that’s the latest thing.
It seems like you spent a fair bit of time in America for the new show. Do you like it here?
Well, this isn't America. This is an island off the coast of America, same as Britain … I know America quite well, actually. I've been to all of the States. I know both the Dakotas; I can discuss streets in Austin, Texas, and Sacramento, California. There are weird little outlying bits of Birmingham, Alabama, that I know quite well. And there are really good hotels in Utah. But I haven't been to New York until really quite recently. So the part of America I know well is between California and New York.
So if you haven't spent much time in New York, then you haven’t met Donald Trump, I assume.
I have not met Donald Trump. Everyone was very surprised about Trump's victory except me, because I spent most of my time in America in between the blue bits.
Where “people have started to mate with vegetables,” as you once said when you were in Alabama for a Top Gear special.
Well, that day was bad. It was scary. There were a lot of men in pickup trucks who came to do us harm. But that's the bit of America I knew — where I go most of all. When Trump won, it was much like Brexit.
And you pushed your fans to vote "Remain," which would have kept the UK in the European Union.
Yeah, I pushed hard. Shows how much we know, doesn’t it? But we live in a democracy: You just have to roll up your sleeves and say, "Well, there we are. We’re out of Europe; you got Trump. Carry on."
For someone who's sort of an equal-opportunity offender, you do come across as political.
I would on British stuff, because I’m allowed. I think Piers Morgan’s biggest mistake when he came over here was getting involved in the gun debate. You’re British: Shut up. It’s up to Americans to decide what they want to do with guns. We can watch with amazement, but it’s not up to us to lecture. When Barack Obama came to Britain and started telling us we had to stay in Europe, he almost swung 10 percent of the population the other way. We don’t want to have Americans telling us what to do. It's the same thing.
The show is watched all around the world, so it’s understandable that people everywhere want to know what you think.
As a newspaper columnist, I think the Trump win is hilarious. Had Clinton won, I would have had nothing to write about. With Trump now, he’s going to be vomiting column ideas for me every single week. And, let's be honest, I don’t live in the States, so it makes no difference — selfishly — to me.
So tell me about the new show.
It’s three old men who fall over and drive cars: there you go. Three fat old men — well, two fat old men and a slightly thinner one. We fall over and laugh at each other. That’s the show.
Has it been hard to adjust to the new format? I know you've taken most of your team with you.
It's all the same camera team and production team — same hosts. Everyone thinks the BBC was a nightmare to work for. It wasn’t. There was one bad apple at the time, and he’s now gone.
You did say you liked the BBC.
I loved the BBC. The BBC is a terrific organization, and it did allow us to say what we wanted to say, and so does Amazon — Amazon studiously so. They ring every week and make observations, and they’ve made a couple of helpful ones. If we’ve said something about America, they’ll tell us, "Actually, you might want to be a bit careful saying that," which we don't know because we’re British. So they’re useful advisers, but they don’t ever say, "You can’t say that, you must say that, and can you all wear Coca-Cola hats." Which is what we were worried about. And no commercial breaks. So it’s all the same, really.
Did you have any demands that came with signing on to do another show?
Yeah, we didn’t want any commercial interference. The BBC, as you know, is not commercially funded. And I’d been there 27 years, and the idea that somebody might say, "Oh, could you mention Coca-Cola?" That would have made my penis go inverted with horror. Yeah, I can’t do it. If someone said, "Here's £20 to say, 'Aren't those tires lovely?' " I would say the opposite, I’m such a contrarian.
Yes, you seem to criticize everyone.
Exactly. Everybody’s terrible. Including me.
Were you worried that essentially having to reinvent Top Gear would be too difficult?
Honestly, if you like traveling as much as I do, how can you not be excited? We go to the Namib desert on The Grand Tour, and I got a purple metal-flake beach buggy to try to get across the Namib desert with an army of people to make sure I always have a glass of rosé wine or the cigarettes I like. Not the white-tipped Marlboro Lights, but the browned tipped. You know, with a camera team that’s sort of brilliant and willing, and a team of producers that is brilliant and capable, why would you not?
The first episode of the new show opens with a celebration of green technology and hybrid cars — albeit hybrid hypercars. Do you still think that regulation is going to kill the supercar?
What Mclaren and Porsche and Ferrari have done is the equivalent of weaponizing a wind farm. They’ve taken green technology and turned it into speed and power and more excitement and noise. There’s nothing even remotely environmental about those cars, make no mistake, and I still maintain that there is only one solution for cars, and no government or carmaker is following it with any sort of real enthusiasm: We will have to use hydrogen. The more hybrids that come along, and electric cars, the more people think they're being environmental, which they’re not, because of course, they’re charging it up from a power station.
But the more they think they are, the less demand there is for actual environmental solutions. It’s one of the reasons I genuinely hate hybrids and electric cars, because what they’re doing is delaying the introduction of hydrogen cars.
You do have a Doctor of Engineering, even if it is honorary. Shouldn’t you build one?
Unfortunately, I have no skills at all. Everything is always broken, as far as I'm concerned — usually is if I've touched it.
What should we make sure not to miss in this new series?
Honestly, my favorite episode is the one in Jordan. I think it’s very funny. Very few cars in it, but I did do a lot of laughing, and I think the audiences will laugh as well. I hope they will. Otherwise we’ve just wasted our time.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.