#10 – The Ukrainian Road Trip (Series 21)
“Sitrep: Richard Hammond is a b**tard!”
This may surprise you, but a Special from this past series of Top Gear made it in, and not for the reason you might expect. The road trip was initially quite funny, but nothing Top 10 quality (A recurring pattern with a lot of the shortlist I came up with this blog), but it was the ending that took this one over the top.
The finale to this Road Trip made for a very clever ending. The three were driving three small hatchbacks, James in the infamous Dacia Sandero, Jeremy in a Volkswagen Up! and Richard in a Ford Fiesta. They were given 23 litres of fuel for a 100 mile journey, and were told they had to RUN OUT of petrol before they reached Chernobyl, the famous town that suffered a nuclear meltdown in the past. A difficult feat to accomplish when you consider how economical all three cars are.
It was quite ingenious to see the lengths that the three were going too in order to try and run out of fuel faster, like redlining the engine revs, disabling the engine management system, swerving, even running with the doors and boots open to increase drag.
And the grand finale? Some incredibly eerie and chilling footage from inside Chernobyl itself. One of the best shot segments in the show’s modern history for me, took it over the top, and into the 10 slot. And if you’ve ever played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, you’ll remember that ending too. I’m certain of it.
#9 – The Romanian Road Trip (Series 14)
“James, would you like some Cannabis?”
This is an underrated special for me. The team took three convertible Supercars, the Aston Martin DBS Volante, the Ferrari California and the Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, and drove them through Romania. First, through the “People’s Palace” and the tunnels underneath, providing some amazing sounds, James May hilariously crashing his Lambo, and the epic finale of finding the Romanian Transfăgărăşan (Thanks Wikipedia) highway, regarded as one of the best driving roads in Europe (Which kind of taints another special later on in the list, but hey ho.)
Some excellent driving and shooting from the final 10 minutes, rounds off a surprising little gem of a special. And it’s not even the best special from Series 14 either. More on that later…
#8 – The Albanian Road Trip (Series 16)
“Whatever you do, don’t say peach.”
What Romania provided in thrills, Albania had for laughter. Top Gear pretended they got a letter from an Albanian Mafia boss, asking what the best luxury performance car was, so the boys took a Mercedes S65 AMG, a Rolls-Royce Ghost and a Bentley Mulsanne…Sort of, to Albania and find out.
Unfortunately for Jeremy, Bentley pulled out of the film when they heard what was going on, on instead, he had to drive a “Yugo” instead, a cheap Albanian coupe. Let’s just say, it stuck out like a sore thumb. And that’s a big reason why the road trip works so much, it makes for some awesome moments, like the Yugo breaking down, the drag race segment, and the hilarious “bank robbery” finale, which was excellently choreographed and shot.
Overall, an excellent special that doesn’t get the love I feel it deserves. The car chase alone is worth it.
#7 – The Ultimate Driving Road (Series 10)
“I HAVE NOT HAD MY TEETH DONE!”
Series 10 was the biggest Top Gear series ever produced, and a lot gets missed as a result, but this one was fantastic. In their European adventure for the greatest driving road ever, Series 10 kicked off with the boys using the Porsche 911 GT3 RS, the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera and the…odd choice of James in an Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24 Race Car, to find the greatest driving road in the world.
This segment is brilliantly shot from start to finish, with some amazing views, on-board shots, and driving skill, as well as being a surprisingly funny road trip with some genuinely great moments thrown in, like Hammond’s fail in Luxembourg, Hammond and May’s incredible rant at Jeremy for the Italian traffic (Which lights up the bleep machine more than any moment in Top Gear history), and James slowly being roasted into a Tandoori Chicken as a result of his awfully stuff Aston Martin.
As well rounded a special as you get, funny, engrossing, entertaining, and a trend setter for future road hunting specials that still hasn’t been topped yet over 7 years later.
#6 – The Bonneville Road Trip (Series 12)
“…AND, we were factual!”
Okay, this one may surprise you. But to me, this was WAY better than it had ANY right being. When I first saw it advertised as a Muscle Car Road Trip, I was like “sigh, I hate Muscle Cars.”, but this road trip kicked ass.
The cars were surprisingly great, especially Jeremy’s 640bhp Corvette ZR-1, with James in the Cadillac CTS-V and Hammond actually buying a Dodge Challenger, which is as American as a Bald Eagle on an Apple Pie. There were incredibly beautiful road shots throughout the film, there was some great humour in there was the RV and Richard’s missing key, the driving was superb between Jeremy and James in their cars, the running jokes of the “factual” VISA’s and Rico totally NOT being Vegas was great…
…And another case of an awesome finale, this time at the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats, where you genuinely want to root for the three trying to hit their 150, 160 and 170mph targets, Jeremy breaking the production car record in the process. It was an awesome, feel good ending to a special that smashed my expectations out of the park.
#5 – The Bolivia Special (Series 14)
“Turns out, the least reliable car in the world, is the MOST reliable car in the world!”
Bolivia, was awesome, and it’s funny to me because this is the special I think got the least amount of attention when I originally asked you all on Twitter what your favourite Specials were.
Bolivia’s initial 15 minutes or so kind of set the tone really, with the task of just getting them off the boat to start being hilarious, with James’ epic fail, and Clarkson nearly dying from watery quicksand.
But as it goes on, it gets the Top Gear formula just right of adding just enough humour not to weaken the show, but with enough captivating material to engross you in the long run. And Bolivia had drama by the bucket-load. What do you expect when the challenge was to cross the Amazon Rainforest in three 4×4’s you only saw on the Internet, one of which, a Range Rover, notorious for having terrible reliability?
But MAN, the night time bridge crossings, ridiculously sharp hills, the rainforest crossings, the unbelievable “Death Road” sequence, and the entire sheer bravery of the cars travelling nearly 18,000 feet high through the desert, were absolutely incredible. Jeremy said it was the toughest challenge he’d ever done as a Top Gear host, and I can’t say I blame him, it looked like HELL.
The shots of the Pan-American highway and the ending beach scene were beautiful. A shame about the rather forced ending of the Toyota meeting its end, but overall, this Special was fantastic, and I think it might be the most underrated Top Gear special of them all. Awesome on nearly every single level.
#4 – The Polar Special (Series 9)
“James, is that your SPAM? *gunshot*”
Surprise, the Polar Special is ONLY Number 4. There’s nothing wrong with it, there’s just four specials I like more. This to me, is unlike any other special that Top Gear has produced, more so for the story that it told, more than the actual entertainment itself.
As a special, it actually provides less entertainment, and replaces it with drama and magnitude instead. In one corner, you have Jeremy and James in an adapted Toyota Hilus, vs Richard Hammond and legendary explorer Matty NcNair and a sled with Wild Dogs.
It starts out all bright and cheerful for James and Jeremy as they race off to an early lead when the going is fairly easy, but it soon gets dark as they nearly fall in some thin ice, and the sheer pandemic of the ice boulders in the 2nd half of the special, would be enough to break many men and the dissention between the two of them when the going got tough was incredible. Top Gear gets a lot of stick for being “too staged” but this one was very, very real. It looked like they wanted to kill each other at one point. But some of the scenes, like the crashed plane, are beautiful, and the sheer jubilation from the two towards the end was amazing too.
My biggest problem that stops it cracking the Top 3, is that there’s a lack of focus on Hammond and Matty. I understand why, they’re not in the car, and it probably didn’t have half the amazing footage that the James and Jeremy relationship had, but there’s some surprisingly shocking scenes in there too, like the fighting dogs, and Hammond literally losing the ability to count to 10 due to the cold is scary.
Throw in a pretty funny opening training sequence and you have a special that’s very unique, but incredibly captivating, brilliant piece of TV that washes off a lot of Top Gear’s stereotypical criticism and leaves you with a hardcore 65 minutes of something you’ll most likely, never see again.
#3 – The Botswana Special (Series 10)
Okay, now we’re getting into the really, REALLY great stuff here. Botswana was amazing. The sequel to the US Special as the Top Gear trend of going foriegn became more of a thing, the first trip across Africa was incredible, as the boys asked: “People of Surrey, do you really need your Range Rovers?”
As a result, they had to chose a cheap, two-wheeled car, and decided to cross the heart of Africa across Botswana, to find out. And the special got off to an incredible start with the awful oozing salt flats that the team had to contend with, which takes up the special’s entire first act, and the drastic measures they had to take to get across (Except for Hammond), is incredible, how they’re basically riding chassis in the end, which they had to rebuild down the road.
The pranks in this special are hilarious as well, having “Lite Bite” on the side of the car, and the piece of meat and the cowbell in James’ car had me belly laughing at times. And of course, how could anyone forget the epic, epic moment when Richard’s Opel Cadet was about to sink? “So sad, so sad, it’s a sad, sad, situation.” Jeremy’s awful Lancia and the struggle for it to make the end lead to an awesome swerve, and awesome feel good ending as well.
As well-rounded a special as you can get, with some beautiful filming of the Okavango Delta and the usual charm that came with mid 2000’s Top Gear, the Botswana Special is one of the most entertaining and light-hearted specials Top Gear has done to date.
#2 – The Vietnam Special (Series 12)
“Always give way to the car, from the right!”
I’ve mentioned how being unique can often help with a show like Top Gear, that’s run through 21 series to this point, and Vietnam is a shining example of that. The boys were given a ridiculous amount of money (Something like 10 million Vietnamese Dong), and headed straight for the big car dealerships… turns out that only worked out at about $1,000 US Dollars. And they only thing they could buy there for that price, was bikes. That ALONE is worth tuning for, given Clarkson hates bikes.
But what this special does, more than I think any other on that list, is exposes the beautiful side of a country that, in the eyes hasn’t really been relevant for the better part of 60 years. Vietnam is a beautiful country, with wonderful culture, and I think that’s what gets passed on when you watch it. The visual imagery is just stunning, and the best in any Top Gear Special I think I’ve ever seen. The story of the Vietnamese man talking about how the Americans killed his family as a result of their military “effort” was truly heartbreaking as well. A small shame they really pushed that angle with having an “Americanized” bike as the traditional back-up car. Like, was that really necessary when you talk about how great that country is?
Of course, it has funny parts too, including the new tradition of buying each other ridiculously irritating presents for each other that get in the way more than anything else, Hammond’s bike getting painted pink, and the ending with James, which might be the funniest moment of ANY on this list, overall, you have one excellent, excellent 80 minutes of Top Gear.
#1 – The USA Special (Series 9)
“We need to get these slogans off, boys…”
You want a microcosm to sum up everything great about Top Gear in 60 minutes? Then this is it. This special has absolutely everything. Drama, entertainment, hilarious scenes, a genuinely great ending, some mind-blowing imagery captured on film, and some incredibly dramatic moments. Almost everything I’ve mentioned in positions 5-2 on this list, is shown here in this special, wrapped up into one package.
The challenge was to buy a car in America for $1,000, in an attempt to justify if you could buy a car in America for being a better experience than renting one, then go on a 700 mile road trip to New Orleans in Louisiana, across the Deep South of America. Remember that, it becomes important later.
This is the original, great Top Gear road trip, and it still stands up nearly a decade later. You had some hilarious scenes with them looking for roadkill, and the Cow on the roof of Jeremy’s car, the track racing, the drag and break tests and how James nearly got eaten by an Alligator, and of course, arguably the most famous moment in Top Gear history, baiting the Alabama Rednecks with “offensive” slogans painted on their cars, including “Country and Western is rubbish”, “NASCAR Sucks”, and the worst of the bunch on Hammond’s car “Man Love Rules, OK”, with the headlights painted pink. And it very nearly got them killed. Genuinely. See, Top Gear was being chased out of countries WAY before Argentina made it cool.
And of course, through all the laughs, the genuine shock of seeing New Orleans one year on from Hurricane Katrina, still so utterly damaged and destroyed was very, very sad, and it was a great job from the producers that they were able to change the ending into something that could show they were giving back to such a damaged community.
The US Special to me, shows exactly what Top Gear is. It’s beyond a Motoring programme, that can produce incredibly captivating and entertaining television, with powerful scenes, great humour and is still as strong a watch on TV (A dying format), as anything we get on our screens today. And the US Special is the moment that shows it all.