Top Gear Specials Back Up Cars: Where are They Now?
Hello and welcome to that tricky bit of virtual land that time forgot, which traditionally falls between Christmas and New Year. Remaining un-christened, various nicknames (my personal favourite being ‘perineum’; inspired by the similarly dubious area which lies between the human anus and scrotum) have been dreamt up to label this sort of baron, no-man’s wasteland which nobody knows quite what to do with. Apart from continue to consume mince pies at a rate of knots and knock back any beverages containing ANY trace of alcohol. If only to numb the pain of receiving the gift of novelty socks once again. And having to endure distant relations overstaying their annual welcome. I’m lucky, as since me mam grew older and slightly shakier, she appears to have upped the volume of cooking sherry she infuses her legendary homemade chocolate biscuit cake with. To the degree that it would make Oliver Reed shudder.
So, to help steer you through this difficult lapse of what supposedly constitutes time, Drivl has conceived this 'thought' piece on the Top Gear Special back-up cars. Because, let’s face it. If you're anything like me - and let's hope you're not for the sake of your nearest and dearest - you probably spend a lot of this non-defined passage of time re-watching old Top Gear Specials. And therein, considering what became of the back-up cars which featured on all of these Top Gear Specials.
The Unsung Heroes of the Top Gear Specials
I’m talking about those equally courageous cars which loitered, menacingly in the background shots every time one of the three main automotive stars of these annual TG specials began their deathly rattles. And suggested that they might not be up to the job in hand/to continue their epic journeys into the unknown. Usually across the plains of the Serengeti or the car registration plate-precarious landscape of Patagonia.
As much heroes (albeit unsung, compared to their illustrious counterparts) as the triumvirate of £1,500 or less high milers which gobbled up vast swathes of areas of land -which on paper would have appeared a road trip too far for such aged contraptions picked up in the bargain basement section of the classifieds; no longer wanted or loved – these unlikely ‘forfeit’ vehicles covered the exact same journeys as a host of odds-reversing Mercedes, Subarus, Volvos, BMWs, Porsches, Fiats, Mazdas, Lancias, Suzukis, Toyotas, Land Rovers, et al; all of which were purported to have witnessed far better days.
These plucky underdogs by and large turned out to be even pluckier and staggeringly more underdog-ish than even the top-billed triumvirate of cars which completed a series of mis-adventures (which took them to far-flung locations across the globe, so that we, the viewers, could be entertained at this time of year) were. But the unresolved question is this. Just what became of the forgotten stars of the memorable Top Gear Specials once the cameras had stopped rolling? Where did they end up, and what did they see out their retirements doing?
The Magnificent, er, Six, Ride/Drive Again…..
Which is where Drivl comes in. For it is us/I, who has managed to track down these downtrodden, underplayed and widely ridiculed cars, following at times what turned out to be very vague tip-offs and breadcrumb trails. Yet ultimately led me to where these vehicles’ careers took them once their TG Special days were numbered.
2007 - Botswana Special – VW Beetle (original) - Not needed
The very first Top Gear Special, if you discount the Winter Olympics, USA and Polar Specials which, chronologically went before. And I do this for the simple reason that 2007’s African odyssey was the very first time we were introduced to the presenters’ nemesis-esque back-up car; roped into a special as a means of reminding Clarkson, May and Hammond as to what fate would befall them should their chosen rides fail them at any point during these continent-exploring challenges. Ironically, said Beetle was hailed as the undisputed winner by the trio, for the simple reason it didn’t fall prey to any mechanical histrionics throughout the trip. Conversely however, it was never called into service – and thus providing an undesired seat for a disgruntled co-host – due to none of the breakdowns to the main cars being critical enough to warrant it being called into service.
So, where did the erstwhile Vee-dub end up? Well, we all know precisely where Hammond’s loveable rapscallion, ‘Oliver’ ended up, didn’t we. That being as a permanent feature in the diminutive presenter’s personal fleet at his rural Herefordshire pile. However the fate of the Beetle wasn’t quite as romantic. Bought on the cheap by an art student, the Beetle represented a blank canvas to its new owner. Who, according to sources, went on to paint the unsuspecting people’s car in all the colours of the rainbow, while introducing the sort of interior smells that for legal/ethical reasons aren’t offered by the manufacturers of Magic Trees air fresheners. Naturally the seats were soon recovered in Afghan Hound-mimicking faux fur, and the dashboard was afforded a fuzzy felt makeover.
2008 - Vietnam Special – Honda Cub motorbike - Not needed
The second of the Top Gear specials which perpetuated the threatening theme of a back-up car, the hugely entertaining Vietnam Special, did away with a back-up car as such; instead opting for a back-up motorbike. In the guise of the ubiquitous Honda Cub. But then there was method in the perceived madness, as lest we forget this particular special was circumnavigated via two-wheels per se. Much to Clarkson’s eternal frustration. The Cub which fulfilled the role of back-up bike became even more of a spectre in their rear view mirrors, not least due to its garishly provocative exterior design. Which encapsulated any lingering anti-American vibes Vietnam held on to, aided and abetted by the blaring of ‘Born in the USA’ on continual tape loop. In the event, the back-up bike was not needed.
Which begs the question, what became of it? My exhausting research traced its whereabouts to the roof of a vehicle dismantler’s portakabin in Brentwood. Where the compact motorised bike sat proudly atop of, as a means of advertising space with regards to the services offered by the salvage and parts-collecting outfit. Which just so happened to specialise in both motorbikes and American cars as luck would have it.
2009 - Bolivia Special – No back-up vehicle featured.
Despite Hammond’s Toyota Land Cruiser giving up the ghost before the journey’s end.
2010 - Middle East Special – Vauxhall Astra Cabriolet – Not needed
Revelling in flashes of brilliance in the middle distance, the intermittent Vauxhall was never far from the pack as the stars of the show did their level best to offend a number of religions and a peoples in a typically Top Gear way. Despite their choice of convertible cars not being particularly antagonistic – a gaggle of arthritic Mazda MX-5s, Fiat Barachettas and a BMW Z3s – the boys’ politically-incorrect expedition managed to raise a few concerned eyebrows as per usual.
For its part, and seizing on its short-lived celebrity status in a way which would doubtless impress the first person to be evicted from the last series of Love Island, the Astra rag-top grasped the nettle of the ‘sleb circuit immediately after the BBC’s cameras stop rolling. And routinely made guest appearances at a raft of provincialy-populist Vauxhall Car club nights for the first couple of years after its moment in the spotlight, before finally winding up as the third choice car with a family from Peterborough with a love of all things Griffin-badged.
2011 - India Special – Austin Allegro – Not needed
Aha. Who can forget the 2011 special which witnessed the globe-trotting trio taking to the highways and byways of the Indian subcontinent, as part and parcel of their ill-advised and fated promotional push of all things resolutely British. Assuming ambassadorial roles on behalf of the government, and selecting a quintessentially British Rolls, Jag and Mini for the task in hand, Clarkson and Co visited the former colony with dubious intentions. In terms of the back-up vehicle, and while not called into action for the Indian special, the Austin Allegro might just consider itself let off lightly when you stop and consider the fate that could have become it.
And which partly explains why it now sees out its days surrounded by poultry in a field near Devizes. Yes, once its TG turn was done back in 2011, the Allegro was put out to graze with donkeys at a sanctuary in Wiltshire. A donkey sanctuary which is also home to a sizeable population of chickens, which took an instant shine to the British Leyland stalwart and very quickly became the flocks newly adopted coup.
2013 - Africa Special – Ford Scorpio Estate - Not needed
From an avid viewer’s perspective, the last any of us saw of the Ford Scorpio estate was the bubbles emitting from a Tanzanian river, as it met with its watery grave. As a direct consequence of the producers of the Top Gear Africa Special not repeating the (wholly shocking) successes of the Three Stooges, as they attempted to negotiate said Tanzanian watercourse via a makeshift ferry constructed by no less engineering colossuses than Clarkson, May and Hammond. But that was then, and this is now.
And lo and behold, some six years on from that debacle, the hardy Scorpio shooting brake has risen from the dead so as to respectfully transport the recently deceased to their last resting place. Snapped up by a Carlisle-based funeral services firm a few months after the Scorpio was (more successfully) shipped to more familiar shores, the robust and redoubtable Ford was repurposed for the carting of Cumbria’s nearest and dearest on their final journeys.
2014 – Burma Special – No back-up vehicle featured
2015 - Patagonia Special – Citroen 2CV - Not needed
Few will be strangers to how this notorious Top Gear Special played out back in 2015, when the presenter’s jolly to Patagonia ended on something of a sour note. Not to mention, potentially life-endangering one for all concerned. To recap, Jezza had chosen to drive a Porsche 928 through the wild west frontiers of this part of South America; and one which sported a rather ambiguous registration plate which irked the locals of one town their adventuring passed through en-route. Accidental word/letter play or not, the upshot was the entire team (including producers and cameramen) fled for their lives after being chased out of Tierra del Fuego by a braying mob; seeking sanctuary across the border in Chile.
As it happened, the fleetingly-glimpsed back-up car on this occasion, a Citroen 2CV, was the only one of the three star cars to make the border escape; with the Porsche, Lotus Esprit and Ford Mustang suffering their fate at the hands of the assembled hordes. Although damaged by its ordeal, the hapless little 2CV arrived back in Blighty and began a new – and some might muse, stereotypical - life as a mode of transport for a trainee French teacher who worked at a secondary modern school in Bromsgrove. According to its book of receipts, V5 and history file per se, there was no mention of what it saw/encountered in Argentina, as it embarked on its new journey as an apt (yet clichéd) vessel for Year 12 student’s French homework books.
During Series 13, Episode 5 of Top Gear, although not strictly-speaking a dedicated special as such, a back-up car was finally brought out of the shadows and recruited, in response to May’s Ford Capri 2.8i throwing in the towel during a series of challenges. That forfeit car presenting itself as the butt of many a TG episode’s joke; a Morris Marina.