Thoughts on The Grand Tour, Top Gear, and the state of Automotive Television

This started out as a pretty simple facebook thing, but then it got… long. Raise your hand if you’re surprised.

No one? Fuck. Well, I am who I am.

Ok, so first off, here’s a bit of automotive history – Clarkson on the History of Japanese Cars:

Opening with the bombing of Hiroshima may be a tad insensitive, but it is historically accurate. So, I’ll allow it.

BUT.

This is pretty much the definition of what’s wrong with The Grand Tour. I’ve kept my mouth shut to this point – the car guys (and girls) love it so far but I’m having the same misgivings as I had with the last few seasons of TopGear under Clarkson, May, and Hammond.

And, because I am who I am, I’m going to tell you why. At length. Buckle up, buttercup.

So, did you watch that bit on youtube? Yeah, the image quality isn’t great, but he’s telling a story. Unlike the last ten years, where history has been the domain of James May – That’s fine, May’s a serious historian, and tinkerer, but Clarkson also has a huge (or had, at least) interest in histry. And that’s basically been gone for five years now. He just shouts. He’s the Trump of the automotive world. SHOUT THINGS! REACT TO PEOPLE! SHOUT MORE THINGS! LISTEN TO THE CHEERS!

And that’s the problem.

The Grand Tour isn’t thoughtful in the way TopGear has always been. They used to interview people, now, they “kill” them. They used to test cars, now they slide them. They used to have adventures. Now, they go to other countries and irritate people.

Now, they were already doing that on BBC TopGear. But the BBC was obviously keeping Clarkson in line.

But Clarkson is running the asylum now. And it’s worse for it.

The other side of things, is that the Grand Tour is fully aimed at the US market. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a different market, and it’s one that doesn’t necessarily appreciate what TopGear used to do really well – Be British.

It’s a shame. The British stoicism brought something to the show that you wouldn’t get elsewhere. Yes, Clarkson is an ass (and he really is) but he’s turned it up to eleven now, and it’s very obviously Spiderman 3 syndrome: “If one villian makes a good story, then four villians will kill them!” Except it doesn’t does it? It just irritates, and suddenly, there’s not enough time for the depth, and thoughtfulness that had TopGear appealing to a lot more than car people (My mom used to watch TopGear, because it was, actually, entertaining, beyond the cars).

At the same time, TopGear (the new one) has gotten a bad rap. Matt LeBlanc, especially, is a fantastic presenter. He’s got exactly the right tone and presence on screen for it. Chris Evans, especially, got pummelled for his style in teh first two episodes, but after that, he quieted down a lot and started to deveop his own voice, rather that shouty Clarkson imitation. I feel bad for Evans, I really do. He was set up to fail on this one, because they were going to need a scapegoat for lower ratings when TopGear came back. But the show itself, beyond the fanboi “THERE’S NO TOP GEAR WITHOUT CLARKSON” shit, has actually been pretty good. In fact, if you watch it back to back with The Grand Tour you start to see…

That Clarkson and crew really haven’t done anything different with The Grand Tour, except try to be… more irritating. Again, I think Clarkson got a lot of help, and was really kept from doing the truly stupid stuff, by the BBC. And at the same time, Clarkson (and May, and Hammond) did bring something very special to TopGear.

And the thing is, fanbois, that’s never coming back.

Ever.

In fact, it hasn’t been there for the last two or three years at TopGear, anyway.

The Grand Tour is what Clarkson wants to make. And it’s inferior. Top Gear is what BBC needs to make, because the franchise makes money for them, and, it’s currently inferior. But they’ve got a good cast and they’re playing with how they do things – they’re evolving.

Clarkson’s Grand Tour, however, is a dinosaur. I wouldn’t expect it to last long, unfortunately.

Just from what I’ve seen on social media, there was massive buzz about Episode 1, huge interest in Episode 2, and no one has said a word about Episodes 3, 4, and 5. There’s good reason for that. The show is lackluster at best. It’s a shadow of its former (Say, Top Gear Season 15 or so) glory. Now, that said, the latest episode (ep 5) has been pretty good, all in all. They got back to what they’re good at, a bit. Still fell back onto “how funny is it that we’re British and we don’t understand foreign cultures?” (ie. irritate the locals) but still, they were actually back on form.

This whole “kill the famous guests” thing has to fucking go though. It’s so old and played out, already. Just. Stop.

But all the fanboi’s care about is that things never change. And that’s a problem inherent in the automotive community, not just in terms of Top Gear: “If it’s not my way, it’s shit”.

Literally none of the fanboi’s could see that we won, overall.

Yeah, Clarkson, May, and Hammond? THey left (a stagnant) Top Gear.

But Top Gear continues.

They started Grand Tour.

At the same time, in the interim, we got a revival of Fifth Gear online, and we saw a huge growth in really solid youtubers doing good things with cars – Matt Farah and the Smoking Tire, Chris Harris, Might Car Mods, Roadkill, Petrolicious, /Drive, Regular Car Reviews, and the list goes on.

And these guys, they all have something going on? Why? Because they’re doing something different, something new, and it’s interesting.

As an aggregate? We totally won. I mean, we REALLY won. We went from one real car/lifestyle show, to dozens, in any style you might like. And that’s awesome.

But no.

The Fanboi’s only want TopGear, circa season 21. Forever. And Ever. Because change is scary and they are scared, scared little menboys.

Which means we’re more likely to just get more of the same, than what the boys are really good at, which is telling interesting stories around cars, not just around tire smoke. And that’s a shame. But it does keep the dollars coming in, and the cameras rolling. So, I’m torn. But I don’t look forward to The Grand Tour. I watch it because it’s there. I used to really look forward to Top Gear (and I am looking forward to seeing where the next season of new Top Gear goes, as well, with LeBlanc at the helm).

Embrace the new. It’s pretty awesome. And you still have your thing.

Car People on Car Shows

This started as a quick facebook comment and then became more talky. So, it goes here. We’ve all (whether we’re car fans or not) seen the Clarkson suspension, which appears to be due to him hitting? Attempting to hit? A producer. Now, in any other business, you attempt to hit your boss or manager, you get fired. Period. But this is TV, and Clarkson’s face makes money. So, who knows what’s going to happen.

But.

I disagree whole-heartedly with the notion that “without Clarkson, there is no TopGear”.

I would agree that, without Clarkson, there is no TopGear as we have come to know it. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. TopGear has become… stale. They’re predictable, and… yeah. Stale is the word. It’s still entertaining, I still adore the “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” bits, but the cars? There’s only so much “million pound” metal I can watch. I noticed a little while back, the slower cars on the test track now? 1m21s or so. That’s the SLOW stuff. It used to be that was the one or two top cars. But the top twenty or so now, are under 1m20s on the track. It’s cool they exist but… yeah, boring.

Even the fun, “here’s $1000, go buy a car and do challenges” have started to fade away in favor of “go pick a car and do challenges”. The last few of those have been $100,000 cars and trucks. Again… less fun. And the less said about the “build an ambulance” sketch the better. The cheaper, old car stuff was more fun and felt more honest.

But a lot are saying, with the latest fiasco, that if Clarkson is gone then TopGear is done.

I disagree. But I think it’ll change. And maybe it’s time for that. There’s no doubt that the formula has worked: for nearly fifteen years now, in fact. And it prints money for Clarkson, and the BBC. (and yes, Hammond and May, too). But the BBC is a business, and it will rarely rock the boat. And Clarkson is… Clarkson. He’s a big fan of being who he is, and rich. So, he’s not going to do anything different, take a chance.

Hammond and May though both have a lot of side projects, on TV, and in the world. May, especially, is a man of huge and varied interests. His Toys series, and “Cars of the People” are fantastic, and involve a lot of history, something that used to be baked into TG, but has become less and less so the last three or four seasons.

And they look bored most of the time. Inevitably, May gets to be eccentric, and Hammond gets abandoned somewhere (because he’s the only physically willing one out there). And I gotta say, the bit where Hammond was imitating May and Clarkson, and throwing knives at the dolls he made of them rang… at least a little true.

I think May and Hammond are bored with the current format. And I don’t blame them. It’s the Clarkson show for sure. But TopGear wasn’t that, until the last few years.

So, If the beeb gives Clarkson the boot (and they won’t, is my guess), things will change. But I don’t think TopGear ends, at that point. The UK has plenty of big, car-oriented personalities to choose from.

Me? My top pick to replace Clarkson is Jay Kay.

I think I’ll tag this “first world news”. It’s the closest I get to celebrity gossip.

[Commuting] An Interesting Proposition (as Opposed to a Modest Proposal)

So, it just occured to me, that, yes, I’m talking about commuting a lot at the moment. But this is really starting to intrigue me. What I hear regularly from my coworkers is:

“you’re insane”
“I’d never do that, that’s way too much work”
“What if I sweat?”
“Ugh. Cycling.”
“6 kilometers? that’s like, an HOUR on a bike!! why would you do that?”

And no one believes me that my commute, by bike, is between ten and fifteen minutes. And right now? I’m not in particularly good shape. Walking the same 6km (45 minutes each way) has been beneficial, but I’m not in GOOD shape right now. But here’s what’s interesting to me. I’ve complained about the buses in Ottawa for years. I’ve lived in two places where it was literally quicker to walk a straight line (one street, Bronson, to work) than wait for a bus, take it, wait and transfer to another, and then get to work. Plus, I didn’t have to stand around freezing in the cold, because movement/exercise = warm. So I have….

AN IDEA.

And my idea is this. A Top Gear-esque challenge.

I need someone (preferably someone I know, so this isn’t creepy) to arrange with me to “race” by bus, to work, from their home. On the map, I’ll use an intersection close to them, but not their address, and to their workplace ( I’m currently using 333 Laurier Avenue as the “workplace” but that can change). Right now, I’m basing things on a “mid-point 10th Line, Orleans” map, but I’ll straighten it out so it’s accurate. I want to gauge door-to-door, rather than “once I get on the bus”. This will actually make things more difficult for me, because… I’ll have to bike from Ottawa South to their place in Orleans, FIRST. So, I’ll already have done about 25km. I’ll be warmed up, but I’ll also be the beginning of tired.

Now, I have two choices, as I lay this entire idea out in my head. First the bus route:

So, that gives a few options: as short as 34 minutes (at 8am, on a Monday), and as long as 48 minutes. I’ll leave the busing route up to the experts, BUT, I’ll want to know what route they’re using.

For myself, I have two choices.

First there’s the shortest route (sorry for no visual on this: GoogleMaps won’t let me embed a route that isn’t car/bus based). This is physically the least distance, at 20.2km on the map. Sounds like the smartest route, right? But it’s St. Joseph, Ogilvie, St. Laurent. In the thick of the morning commute (and obeying all traffic laws) this is going to be stop’n’go on a bike, and relatively tense. I would assume. So, IS the shortest route the fastest? I don’t think so, but maybe I’ll have to do this challenge twice.

My preferencial route, however is about four kilometers longer. UP 10th line, away from my destination, and then across the parkway, and bike paths (some of which are gravel). The majority, in fact, is bike paths, and then cuts down through Rockliffe Park, into Vanier, and then over into downtown. The majority of this ride can be done avoiding traffic. In fact, along the paths on the parkway? I can probably go non-stop, full-out, for ten or twelve kilometers. And, it’s prettier.

Now, google maps claims that either of these routes (20.2km for the most direct, shortest route and 24.1km for the “off the beaten path” route) should take me an hour to an hour and a half. HOWEVER. That seems to base average speed on about 18km/h. I tend to average closer to 25km/h, and on the right bike, with the right, open route, with little in the way of signs and lights to slow me, I can easily break 30km/h. The last “race” I did, I averaged 29.8km/h, but got stopped in traffic through downtown, where they hadn’t shut traffic down for the event).

Assuming I can hit and maintain my last-summer average of 27km/h, well… That 20.2km should be about 35 minutes, and the 24.1km should be around 50 minutes. That’s squarely in line with the bus route’s estimated 34-48minutes. But, that’s also best case scenario for the buses, and I don’t know how accurate that is.

I will be choosing my weapon carefully. Specifically, for this, I’d leave my commuter at home, and bring out the Cyclocross. I’d never planned on commuting on that bike, BUT, at the same time, I was never planning a 20-25km one-way commute. If I was doing 50km a day? I’d be riding something faster and more efficient than my fixie. I’d be willing, at some point, to try this again, and ride the single-speed. But realistically, a single speed would not be my commuter of choice with a 20+km one-way commute. So, lets be realistic about it.

I’ll be rolling my Opus Stern for this one.

So, all that said, there’s a solid-ish plan… is anyone willing to play James May to my Richard Hammond?

What, you’ve not seen the Top Gear Commuter Challenge?

Ok, so who’s gonna be the Stig? I’m thinkin’ sometime in late June?

Ask Me About My Zombie Plan

I do actually get asked this occasionally. I get asked this, because the question above is emblazoned across my favorite hoodie:

No one ever really has the time to listen, so my rote answer is “be faster than you”. Which is true. You don’t have to be the fastest gazelle on the plain, just not the slowest. But that’s not REALLY my plan.

I love the Walking Dead. Loved the comics years ago, love the TV series now. I also love Hyundai. I love MY Hyundai. My truly beloved 2.0T Genesis Coupe. But.

But, but, but.

My disbelief is not suspended when the survivors of the apocalyse drive around in a pastel-green soft-roader, cute-ute Hyundai Tucson. There is NO WAY anyone in their right mind would keep that little SUV around for any length of time after the zombie apocalyse hits. Know why? Because it’s useless for anything except an inch or two of snow, and the occasional gravel driveway. That’s not to belittle the Tucson. It’s a super effective compact crossover: gets decent mileage for commuting, and you can stuff all the kids sports gear in it. My little brother and his wife have one.

But it will not get you through the zombie apocalypse.

It’s just product placement. And I can live with product placement, but this is just glaringly terrible product placement. No one wo was planning on surviving would drive this, except to make a get-away to their real vehicle.

And that’s MY plan. I’ve meant to talk about this for a while, because, hey, it’s fun, and I dream about it. No, really. I do. I dream zombie survival. Doesn’t everyone?

So, the zombie apocalypse hits, where do you go?

Well, if you can, you get one of these:

That, boys and girls, is a Marauder. That is how you survive the apocalypse if you don’t have access to tanks. You can buy it in civillian garb, like Top Gear tested it:

Ok, so maybe that’s not realistic. So, what do you do? Well, if you’re me, and you know the guys and girls I do, you improvise. You do NOT head for the Hyundai dealership. You head for the Ford or Chevy dealer. Probably Chevy. Why? Well, you might get lucky and find a used Hummer H1 on the lot, if it’s an ex-Hummer dealer (probably Chevrolet/Cadillac these days). They’re tough, ride high, have a ton of weight behind them, and brutal torque. You can probably plow through zombies all day, if you need to. Chances are, you’re not finding one of those, either, though. So, what do you look for?

If you’re smart, you look for 2-mode, full-size, body-on-frame hybrid SUV’s. Specifically, Tahoes and Suburbans. They’re about the toughest thing Chevy has ever mass-produced. They get better mileage than regular ones (25% better in the real world, which, when you don’t know when you’re getting gas next, is a big fucking deal) thanks to that cool 2-mode hybrid system. They’re still Chevy trucks underneath everything, so parts? EVERYWHERE. Suspension, drivetrain (except for the hybrid, sure) body panels, the works. All easy to get to fix up your fleet. And you take a fleet. you get torque multiplication thanks to that cool-ass hybrid transmission, AND you get torque from 0 RPM, which is important, if you’re trying to bull your way through a horde of zombies.

So, me and my hand-picked group of survivors? We’re hitting the Chevy dealership first.

After that, we’re holing up in a Canadian Tire. Now, keep in mind, we’re in Canada. If you’re in the states, Walmart makes sense: there’s guns and ammo there, and that’s useful, no doubt. But any big-box store with a ton of supplies, and car repair bays is what you want. Well, it’s what I want. You can go hang, really.

So, Canadian tire. Not much in the way of store-front glass, so you can seal it up good and proper. Lots of automotive bays so you can get inside, with the vehicles, really quickly. It also means you can load/unload your vehicles without watching for brain chewers. This takes a whole lot of stress off. And stress is a killer.

Well equipped too: generators, welding gear, parts, specific and potential weapons. You’re gonna want to weld skid plates, brush bars, and armour to the windows/door frames/where-ever of those ‘burbans. Not to mention that the windows and at least the lower sections of the garage roller doors will need plating.

You see where I’m going here, right? You’ve got a base of operations, that comes pretty well stocked (I say well stocked, but Canadian Tire never has that ONE THING you want, in stock, does it?) can be made defensible against the undead, and gives you the tools to build and maintain expedition vehicles.

Now, all of this assumes a world where the undead are the real problem, not the living. But either way, I ain’t rolling no all-season-shod, stock-as-shit, soft-roader Hyundai.

Because my disbelief is not suspended.