It’s only a few weeks now until the eagerly-awaited Grand Tour debuts on Amazon Prime, returning our beloved — if occasionally controversial — petrolhead heroes Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May to our TV screens.
And with the return of the iconic trio comes the restoration of spectacular road trips, the likes of which proved extremely popular during their Top Gear run. In total, eleven specials were produced over an eight-year period, and over the course of their run, morphed into two-hour epics that swallowed up two nights of viewing.
So popular were the specials that the Grand Tour threatens to be nothing but extended road trips full of calamity and chaos.
So, to prepare for the inevitable mayhem that is about to come, here’s every Top Gear special ranked in order from worst to greatest.
India Special (2011)
The India Special arrived during a period in which Top Gear was suffering somewhat of a series slump. With the average viewership down from 7+ million in 2008-2009 to below 6 million in 2010-11, when watching the farcical trip across the Indian continent it’s not hard to see why.
Largely directionless, the hour-long programme knitted together a series of woolly scenes around a weak premise (a British trade mission) and relied far too heavily on several instances of forced humour. There was the odd chuckle (like James May’s errant autonomous lawnmower going AWOL), but, on the whole, the India Special deservedly goes down as the worst effort produced by Wilman and the team.
Middle East Special (2010)
This period of lacklustre programming also happened to include the next special on the list, the Middle East Special, which, although was a slightly sharper and tighter affair, still suffered from an over-dependence on engineered laughs.
It contained a bit more of the camaraderie for which the three presenters are renowned, but a relatively exciting start soon tailed off into incessant meandering through uninspiring scenery, and sadly ended in a thoroughly underwhelming fashion as the three lads delivered presents to… Baby Stig. Sigh.
It speaks volumes when the best part was James May suffering a potentially threatening head injury…
Africa Special (2013)
The African Special profited from a well-timed two year hiatus, being the first special since 2011’s Middle East venture, and it was far more reminiscent of classic Top Gear programming.
The premise — which had been shaky in the Africa and Middle East specials — was far more stable, and presented the trio with the genuinely interesting challenge of locating the true source of the Nile. This produced a number of laughs and exciting moments along the way, which included the now-infamous “We’ve just come into Jezza!”, as well as Jeremy’s woeful attempt at utilising a log as a handbrake.
Winter Olympics (2006)
The inaugural Top Gear special paved the way for the development of the feature, even if it didn’t quite follow the now-recognisable format.
It saw the trio attempt to run their very own Top Gear Olympics with a predictable serving of utter chaos and abject failure, as they fired a jet-propelled Mini down a ski slope, raced a bobsleigh against a rally car and participated in a thrilling motor biathlon.
It was a solid special and the banter between Clarkson, May and Hammond at its absolute finest; Richard Hammond building a barrier out of chairs at the bottom of the wrong slope being a memorable moment of calamity.
Bolivia Special (2009)
The Bolivia Special was an example of Top Gear at its finest. Set against a beautiful backdrop, the three boys blundered their way along a tortuous route and drove their 4x4s to the absolute limit.
James May falling off a barge, Richard Hammond discovering a snake in his cab, the perilous trip along Death Road; and the epic final stretch when the boys barrelled down enormous sand dunes to the sea — this special had the lot.
Polar Special (2007)
The Polar special followed on from the success of the Winter Olympics and USA specials, and by now had transformed into the classic format which was followed practically unto the end of the series’ run.
James and Jeremy raced Hammond to the North Pole, car vs dog sled, in a contest fraught with peril (Polar bears and melting ice), tantrums (Richard Hammond) and gales of laughter (toilet-based shenanigans galore!). It was a truly epic piece of programming.
Patagonia Special (2015)
It garnered infamy for the events that unfolded towards the end of the trip, but the Patagonia adventure was a pretty solid special in its own right, minus the unsavoury drama.
The cars were magnificent, the trip took them through some spectacular vistas and there were a plethora of cock-ups along the route. The idea of ending up in Ushuia to play a car football match against Argentina also had the promise of sheer entertainment.
Sadly, it was all marred by a group of Argentine nationalists who perceived Jeremy’s licence plate to be a direct reference to the 1982 Falklands War. Thus, the episode ended with the presenters and crew being hounded out of the country amid scenes of violence.
Burma Special (2014)
Another of the two-hour instalments as opposed to the earlier 60-minute specials, the lorry trek across Burma was Top Gear at its best.
Whether they were causing mayhem in Rangoon, playing football on a motorway or making an absolute pig’s ear out of building a bridge over the River Koq, the drama rattled along at a terrific pace.
It is simply one of the most epic adventures undertaken.
USA Special (2007)
Despite its age, the USA road trip is still one of the finest specials to date. The premise of having to buy cars for less than it costs to hire them from the airport allowed for dozens of brilliant moments as the boys took their £1000 rides all the way from Florida to New Orleans.
There was American Stig, Jeremy’s love of Florida (“everybody’s very fat, everybody’s very stupid and everbody’s very rude”), the roadkill challenge, the alligator-infested wood, and — who can forget?! — the infamous run-in with the gang of rednecks on a petrol station forecourt in Alabama.
Pure brilliance from start to finish.
Botswana Special (2007)
Who can forget Oliver? The relationship that bloomed between Richard Hammond and his terrific little car was nothing short of beautiful.
In a trip that saw the trio cross Botswana in its entirety, in the most unfitting cars possible, the boys barely survived the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, and undertook a hilarious route through the stunning Okavango Delta.
Somehow, in their fleet of woefully-prepared road cars, all three presenters made it, genuinely against all the odds. If anyone wants to try and count the number of times Jeremy broke down, feel free — you’ll need a day off work it was that many!
Vietnam Special (2008)
Okay, so it doesn’t technically involve any cars, but the Vietnam special is by far the most complete road trip Top Gear ever undertook.
From Jeremy’s initial reluctance to engage in riding anything that resembles a bike, the narrative develops into a astoundingly good road trip that contains everything you’d want from a TV show.
The boys buy each other comedy gifts, purchase tailor-made cashmere suits, get on the wrong train, crash into things, fall off their bikes, encounter the most terrible traffic, soar along breath-taking mountain roads, and generally have a bloody good laugh.
And then, when you think it can’t get any better, they have to transform their bikes into boats and sail for the finish line amid the myriad of islands in Bahang Bay. Absolutely stupendous.