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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.

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.

This all-male line-up strikes some as subliminally sexist. Yet somehow "Top Gear" manages to attract a huge family audience that is 40 percent female.

"Women can look at us and they can look at their partner who's got the Fritos and the drinks and the massive stomach and they can go, 'You're not so bad,'" Executive Producer Wilman explained.

Broadly speaking, the show uses cars and the people who drive them to comment on contemporary society.

Take those slow-moving, road-hogging campers, which the British call "caravans." Over the years, "Top Gear" has turned the destruction of them into an art form.

"I know in America it's a big deal, camping. But here, really, camping is just the end of the world. 'Cause it always rains. So, I can't see why that's a holiday. 'Come on, everybody! We're gonna go away and defecate in a bucket and live in a field in a small box and get in everybody's way on the way there!'" Clarkson joked.

Many of their segments are vaguely disguised as pieces of consumer journalism.

"You put the news on, you always see news about Third World wars. And there's an army inside a Toyota pickup with Kalashnikovs. And it always, you just always go, 'It's always a bloody Toyota pickup, isn't it?' You know. And you think, 'They must be like the cockroaches in the nuclear explosion. They cannot stop.' So then, you go, 'Hang on. There's a film in that,'" Wilman said.

Actually several films: they set out to destroy a Toyota pickup truck, only to drive it away after minimal repairs. After the Toyota survived a building demolition, they retired it to a place of honor in the studio.

They all agree that one secret to the show's success is their often toxic relationship. "The chemistry that exists between Richard, James and I has rather taken over. Now you can't really engineer chemistry. That just happens. We really genuinely loathe each other," Clarkson said.

"Top Gear" is taped inside a hangar at an old RAF airfield outside London. Their offices are a maze of dilapidated trailers that abut a specially-built test track.

This is the realm of "the Stig," the show's fourth on-air personality, an anonymous professional race car driver who doesn't speak.

"The Stig was a happy accident. We couldn't find a racing driver capable of an intelligent comment. That's a problem that you find around the world. And then, I think Jeremy said 'Why does this driver need to talk at all?'" Wilman said.

We tried to get him to utter a few syllables when he took Steve Kroft on a test drive in the new Camaro. It didn't work. Driving 130 miles an hour and screeching around the hairpin turns, we didn't even hear a grunt.

What's his appeal?

"Well, kids like him 'cause he's kind of, they love a helmeted thing, you know, and all that kind of superhero," Wilman explained.

He is also the perfect marketing tool, and his image helps sell the brand across the globe, subsidizing one of the biggest budgets on the BBC.

Some of their stunts belong in the Guinness Book of World Records. They successfully crossed the English Channel in a Nissan pickup they converted into an amphibious car.

They raced across the spine of Africa in junk heaps they bought on the local economy in Botswana.

But one adventure stands above the rest. "Absolute best thing we've done? Mmmmm. Mmmmm. North Pole, probably. No one else is going to it. That's why," May said.

In a race to the top of the world, Hammond ran alongside a dogsled while Clarkson, May and the camera crew made the trip in a specially equipped two-ton truck.

"We were just driving along, you start to hear that creak, as the ice started to creak. If the car had gone through, we would have been finished. It's minus 60 degrees, minus 70 degrees. We'd have been dead within two or three minutes. That was a time where you think 'Oh God. What am I doing here?'" Clarkson recalled.

They brought along gin and tonic to keep them warm, and ended up taking a lot of heat for drinking while driving.

"Well, you see, that's the thing. You use the word 'driving.' But technically, it's actually a frozen ocean so it's sailing. And you can sail if you've had a few drinks this was our argument and they, again, the BBC just went, 'Yeah, great,'" Clarkson recalled.

The show manages to careen into controversy almost every week, usually for something Clarkson has said. He's offended everyone from the prime minister to truck drivers, who took offense at this characterization of their profession: "It's a hard job. Change gear, change gear, change gear, check your mirrors, murder a prostitute, change gear, change gear, murder. That's a lot of effort in a day," he said while driving a truck.

"It's a weekly occurrence that somebody will complain," Clarkson said. "'Top Gear' was on last night. And it's just, you sit back and wait for the complaints. But if you start to pay attention to everybody's concerns, you end up with something bland and boring. So, you sort of have to ignore everybody in order to do the show how we want to do it."

The most consistent criticism from constables is that the show glorifies speed.

"What did Aldous Huxley say about speed? I forget. It was, 'Speed truly is the only truly modern sensation.' Speed is great. Speed works. Where would we be as a species without speed? You know, we'd still be eating mud," Clarkson argued.

One of their most hair-raising adventures was in the U.S. They were each given a thousand dollars to buy a car in Miami and drive them to New Orleans. When they reached the Gulf Coast, the producers gave them a special "challenge."

"OK. Says here we must not be shot or arrested as we drive across the proud state of Alabama. But that we will get bonus points if we can get one of the others shot or arrested," Clarkson explained.

Clarkson came up with the idea of painting slogans on each others' cars designed to test the limits of southern hospitality.

"So, I was saying, 'Well, what would really wind them up?' 'I'm Bi' and 'Man Love Rules OK?' and 'Country and Western Music is Rubbish,' and all of the other things, 'Hillary for President' that we wrote," Clarkson remembered.

"We stopped at a gas station and a woman came out walking towards me and Jeremy," Hammond said.

"Are y'all gay looking to see how long it takes to get beat up in a hick town?" the lady asked them at the gas station.

"I'm not gay. I'm married," Clarkson replied to her.

"'NASCAR sucks?' 'Country and Western is rubbish?' Guess what, you're in a hick town man," the woman warned.

"I recognized straight away coming from quite a rough northern town here that it was ugly. It was going to become ugly," Clarkson remembered.

"She said she was gonna get 'the boys,'" Hammond remembered. "By then, pickup trucks full of people with guns were turning up and sort of milling around. And a man, a massive guy, in the middle of the forecourt began a countdown from ten, 'Ten, nine, eight...' God! Didn't know what he was gonna do when he got to one. He was operating at the very limit of his capacity counting backwards from ten. But whatever was gonna happen at one was gonna be bad. So, we ran. We just ran away."

People threw rocks at them. "They pursued us in pickups. You didn't see all of it because the camera crew had to run away as well. And yeah, actually that's the most frightening and dangerous thing we've ever done. I did fear for my life slightly," May added.

But the episode that had the critics screaming for the show's cancellation put Richard Hammond behind the wheel of a "Vampire" jet car going 300-miles per hour. Then a tire blew and the car flipped and crashed.

"It was a bit touch and go. Was in a big coma. It was horrible for my wife and my parents and my daughters," he remembered. "There was briefly a call for, you know, 'Top Gear must end.' But that quickly died down because there was no appetite for it from the public."

Hammond eventually recovered and returned to the show four months later to talk about the accident.

"I think it was very important that we said to the world, 'If it can go that wrong even in our silly, glossy television world, then it can go wrong in the real world,'" Hammond said.

Despite the obvious risks to life and limb, they've all elected to carry on.

"So, we've had this arrangement so that while, you'd have to announce it the following week, 'This week, unfortunately, James May was killed making that item.' And then, you'd have to pause momentarily. But the next word, and we've all agreed on this, should be 'anyway.' So you go, 'James May was killed by making that item. Anyway, the new Ford which is...' and just move it along," Clarkson told Kroft. "So it's basically, he came, made some noise, and now he's been killed. A bit like a house fly or a rock drummer. They just come, they make noise and they die. And we'll do the same thing. And then we'll find somebody else who's either slow and pedantic, short and irritating or big and bombastic to come and fill our shoes."

  • Steve Kroft

    Few journalists have achieved the impact and recognition that Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes work has generated for over two decades. Kroft delivered his first report for 60 Minutes in 1989.