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Will a New Format Be Enough to Save ‘The Grand Tour’?

The Amazon show’s fourth season premieres Friday, as does the program’s new ethos. Now the question is whether that will help the show catch up to contemporary car culture—or firmly push it out of style.

Scott Laven/Getty Images

The Season 3 finale of Amazon’s popular car show The Grand Tour was titled “Funeral for a Ford.” The episode dedicated most of its run time to a documentary film about the history of the midsize Ford sedan. It’s a mundane topic on the surface, but as the film showed in extensive and loving detail, mundane things like a family car can represent the way a society operates. And after decades of commanding the market, Ford was discontinuing its midsize sedan in order to concentrate on other models.

After the film, the show returned to the studio—a large tent set up in the English countryside—where host Jeremy Clarkson tried (and failed) to hold back tears as he announced that The Grand Tour’s fourth season would feature a format change.

The week prior, The Grand Tour had devoted its entire program to a unique motoring challenge. Clarkson and cohosts Richard Hammond and James May were dropped onto the edge of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, with parts, provisions, and instructions. Their goal was to build a vehicle and drive it hundreds of miles off-road to civilization. Adventure and high jinks ensued.

This combination of engaging documentary-style programming and unscripted road trip movie/amateur engineering challenge has long been the backbone of Clarkson, Hammond, and May’s collaborations. But episodes had typically also included car reviews, celebrity interviews, short comedy segments, and studio banter. Now, with the shift in format, the longer documentaries and travel videos would constitute the entirety of The Grand Tour.

It’s easy to understand why Clarkson was so emotional. Though the show itself would continue, the door was closing on a formula that the three men had followed for 17 years and more than 200 episodes. But car culture, and the world in general, has changed dramatically over that time. Powersliding a Lamborghini around a racetrack—long a staple of The Grand Tour and its predecessor, Top Gear—is no longer as socially acceptable as it once was, and car shows have to adapt to this new reality. The tweaked format was a necessary but nonetheless dramatic reinvention for a show that had sometimes been obstinately resistant to change. Now, as Season 4 premieres on Friday, the program has an opportunity to catch up to the contemporary automotive and media landscape. It remains to be seen whether the hosts will embrace it.

In 2002, the BBC rebooted its long-running car show, Top Gear, around Clarkson and Hammond, interspersing sensible car reviews with studio discussions, celebrity interviews, and segments about top-end performance cars. May joined the cast for the second season, and the show began to take on a life of its own.

Celebrity guests who visited would sit down for an interview with Clarkson, then take a used compact car around the show’s test track. The best times were posted on a leaderboard, and that competitive nature ultimately attracted the likes of Tom Cruise and Will Smith to the set. Nowhere else on television could you see Helen Mirren and Usain Bolt thrashing the same used Chevy around a British airfield.

The consumer advice segments of the old Top Gear remained when the BBC relaunched the show, but with an increased emphasis on humor and pizzazz. For instance, Clarkson issued a loving review of the Ford Fiesta by re-creating the shopping mall car chase scene from The Blues Brothers and participating in an amphibious landing exercise with the Royal Marines. In another review, he drove a Skoda Yeti, a small family SUV, while a helicopter landed on the roof.

The flashiest and most popular segments involved all three hosts choosing a car within a given category—from top-end supercars to good first cars for teenagers—and then either undertaking an international road trip or completing a series of challenges in them. They sailed an amphibious pickup truck across the English Channel, attempted to build police cars for £1,000, and entered a 24-hour endurance race using biodiesel they’d grown themselves.

Eventually, interest in cars stopped being a necessary prerequisite for Top Gear viewers. As the hosts rode motorcycles across Vietnam and drove to the North Pole, it became known as a tremendously popular travel show that was occasionally interrupted by HD helicopter shots of half-million-dollar sports cars, segments on esoteric topics like the history of Italian carmaker Lancia, or hilariously weird stunts in rusted-out econoboxes. It was like putting Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows, Mythbusters, and a lighthearted 60 Minutes segment all in the same program. And it was immensely successful.

At its height, Top Gear was rebroadcast in dozens of countries and watched by tens of millions of viewers. The show’s greatest strength was its three hosts, who had an easy repartee and boundless knowledge of and enthusiasm for their subject matter. Whatever the topic, it’s very easy to watch people who like each other doing something they enjoy doing—which is probably why this edition of the show lasted for 22 seasons.

But ultimately, those same hosts also became the show’s greatest weakness. Clarkson, in addition to being a very funny, knowledgeable guy, is a 59-year-old conservative millionaire with a teenager’s fascination with edginess. He never veered into overt shock humor, but he seems to delight in finding and pushing against the boundaries of polite conversation.

Clarkson is a larger-than-life onscreen presence. He stands 6-foot-5 with a booming baritone voice, and his cohosts have spent nearly 20 years poking good-natured fun at his oversized personality and occasional bouts of physical clumsiness. Somewhat fittingly, his attempts at subtle, edgy humor are anything but. (The mere existence of a “Top Gear controversies” Wikipedia page would be problematic even if it weren’t as long as it is, with four different bullet points for “Cultural mockery.”)

In 2014, actress Somi Guha sued Clarkson and the BBC over a racist joke the host made during a special set in Thailand that year. In the episode following that special, the trio drove through Patagonia and Clarkson’s Porsche featured a license plate that was viewed as a reference the Falklands War. The plate so outraged locals that they literally chased Top Gear out of Argentina before the conclusion of the planned road trip. It was the second time Top Gear had beaten a hasty retreat with a mob in pursuit, after a badly executed bit nearly got them stoned at an Alabama gas station in 2007.

Three months after the Patagonia special aired, the BBC fired Clarkson for attacking a producer because he was unsatisfied with the show’s catering arrangements. Top Gear went on hiatus, and when Hammond and May quit the show shortly after Clarkson’s firing, Amazon snapped up the trio and rebooted them under the title The Grand Tour, which is essentially Top Gear with the serial numbers filed off and a new paint job.

Efforts to produce a more thoughtful, sensitive program in The Grand Tour’s first three seasons were always undermined by the sense that the hosts were conceding to political correctness, rather than genuinely attempting to avoid repeating past wrongs. A Season 3 trip to Colombia nearly foundered under an overwhelming tide of lazy jokes about the drug trade and a positively shocking antigay running gag about Clarkson’s Jeep.

By season’s end, it was painfully obvious that something needed to change, but the last two episodes served as a reminder of the heights the trio could achieve when they celebrated their shared passion for cars first and foremost, and directed their humor at themselves, rather than people who couldn’t fight back. (It helped that the Mongolia special’s very premise precluded human contact, leaving Clarkson and crew with no unfamiliar culture to other and gawk at.)

During the interregnum between seasons 3 and 4, Clarkson once again made headlines by calling climate activist Greta Thunberg an idiot in an interview with The Sun, and accusing her and her generation of killing the car show.

Clarkson is no longer the climate change denier he once was; in 2008, Grand Designs host Kevin McCloud was the celebrity interviewee on Top Gear. Clarkson magnanimously told the environmentally minded McCloud that he was welcome to express concern over impending planetary disaster “and not be killed in any way.” (The next episode featured a collegial interview with newly elected London mayor Boris Johnson alongside the memorable Fiesta review.) But the idea of environmentalism killing the car show, as if that’s a valid consideration when faced with the destruction of the only known habitable biosphere in the solar system, is worth exploring.

The Grand Tour, and Top Gear before it, espouses a very particular brand of car enthusiasm, but there are many other types. In fact, the two shows have a history of exploring these different car cultures; May has gone “spinning” with local gearheads in Johannesburg, learned Finnish folk racing from Formula 1 world champion Mika Hakkinen, and driven Neil Armstrong’s Corvette in a film about the peculiar automotive enthusiasms of early NASA astronauts.

In other words, while certain rich, older white men might find modern environmentalism threatening to their worldview, it isn’t killing the car show, or car culture. For every gearhead who loves muscle cars, there’s one who loves four-cylinder hatchbacks. Some car enthusiasts tune up their cars to go racing, while others obsess over aerodynamics and drying style in order to maximize fuel economy—a subculture called “hypermiling.” While fending off boos during his Top Gear appearance, McCloud offered an environmentalist justification for maintaining old cars: Keeping an older car on the road, even a less efficient one, has a lower environmental impact than the mining and pollution required to construct a modern car from scratch. Car culture, like any other kind of culture, is merely changing to fit the times.

The question now, which Amazon seems to be asking rather pointedly with the format change, is whether Clarkson and his cohosts can change quickly enough to avoid being left behind. The Grand Tour’s Season 4 premiere, which drops Friday, features Clarkson, May, and Hammond piloting boats down the Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam. And while there are some slightly cringey fish-out-of-water moments, it manages to run 90 minutes without veering into overt racism. More than that, though, it’s a genuinely informative and fun travel program, defined by gorgeous scenery, funny pranks, and enough local history that it feels like something more than empty calories.

This refashioning does, however, seem like the last chance for Clarkson, May, and Hammond, who have earned countless last chances in the past because they’ve come to define the genre. The very first moments of the Season 4 premiere sum up their predicament. As they go to pick up their boats, they find that the Mekong River has gone dry at their planned meeting point thanks to climate change and Chinese dam construction upriver. So they hop on bicycles—a form of transportation Clarkson in particular has complained about in the past—and ride to their new staging point.

“We are in tune with the times, though,” May said.

“Exactly right,” Clarkson said in response. “There is global warming, there is climate change, and if you hosted a car show now, I think you’d feel foolish.”