The Secret Behind the Hit TV Car Show "Top Gear"

Steve Kroft Profiles the Iconic BBC Car Program "Top Gear" And Gets Taken For A Ride He'll Never Forget

No one ranks the most popular television programs on the planet, but if they did, one of them would have to be "Top Gear." The British automotive show is seen by 350 million viewers in 170 countries every week. And the U.S. market is largely untapped, a small cult-like following on the cable channel BBC America.

The program is ostensibly about cars. But it's really about the adventures of three clever middle age blokes who travel the world conducting all sorts of elaborate competitions, races and challenges that push the boundaries of television and automotive acceptability. It is part reality show, part buddy movie, part "Monty Python."

With spin-offs and merchandising, "Top Gear" is a billion-and-a-half dollar property and global gold mine for the BBC, the same people who brought you "I, Claudius."

But it's not likely you will confuse the two after you've seen our story.

60 Minutes Overtime: Top Gear
Overtime goes over the top with the blokes behind the British car-show sensation "Top Gear." All the conversations, crashes, and humor that didn't make the "60 Minutes" broadcast.

Photos: Top Gear, Behind The Scenes
Extra: "Top Gear" in Alabama
Extra: Top Gear's Clarkson on Cars
Link: BBC UK - "Top Gear"
Link: BBC America - "Top Gear"

There's nothing on television quite like "Top Gear." What began as a boring automotive program in the 1970s has morphed into a global driving adventure.

In a recent episode, the hosts took three of world's highest performing cars on an expedition to find the best driving road in Europe, which they finally discovered in Romania.

Viewers tune in to watch extravagantly filmed segments, usually involving some kind of motorized vehicle. It could be driving the smallest car ever made through the BBC's offices, or testing the toughness of long haul trucks by smashing one through a brick wall.

There's a news section, car reviews, and a talk show segment with international celebrities, who must agree to turn some laps in an underpowered Kia to demonstrate their driving prowess.

This summer, Tom Cruise almost killed himself clocking the season's fastest lap.

We asked the executive producer, Andy Wilman, to try and define the show's appeal. "It's a journey into the male mind, which, I believe, is a really, potentially, very funny place. 'Cause, let's face it, nothing happens there," he joked.

The show's popularity has turned a trio of aging automotive journalists, with schoolboy senses of humor, into worldwide television stars.

"I like the idea that us three are arbiters of taste," co-host Jeremy Clarkson told "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft.

First among equals is Clarkson, a big, bombastic chain-smoking newspaper columnist, who is one of the best-known commentators in the U.K. His subversive personality sets the tone and drives the action.

"You've said some pretty outrageous things. 'All BMW's are driven by people who are psychologically unfit to drive anything more powerful than an electric razor,'" Kroft quoted.

"Yeah. That certainly was the case. I would change that to Audis now. But it was the case with BMW. You need to look at, 'Why did that person buy a BMW? What was it about the BMW?' There's something about the image of the car that appeals to them. They are, what my son calls, 'Winners!' They love to win! 'I wanna win!' And there's no sense, 'Well, it was good game. I wanna win! And I'm a winner! And I'm gonna be cross if I've lost.' There's always that BMW, thing," Clarkson said.

Asked what makes a good car for him, Clarkson told Kroft, "Soul. Soul. Definitely, soul. Something that you just think 'Wow. There's something about this thing. It's talking to me.'"

Clarkson's regular foil is James May, a connoisseur of cars and superior engineering. He told Kroft the fasted speed he had ever driven was 259.2 miles per hour in a Bugatti Veyron Super Sports.

Despite this achievement, his colleagues call him "Captain Slow" for his pedantic, professorial bearing and absent-minded behavior.

A running joke has them running into the back of whatever car he's driving.

Richard Hammond is the shortest and youngest of the lot. He's called "the Hamster." He is the only one who bothers to whiten his teeth, dress stylishly and feign sincerity when trying to explain the show.

"It's effectively, it's three middle aged-ish men exploring their passion for cars and how cars matter to other people," he explained.

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