Engine notes

Top Gear hits heavy traffic
By JAMES PARKER  |  May 5, 2009

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GEAR HEADS The hills are alive with the sound of . . . horsepower!

"Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary — that's what gets you." Bravo, Jeremy Clarkson! Now if you'd managed to confine yourself to just that one remark — if, having uttered it, you'd then kept your great flapping piehole shut — your reputation as an aphorist would be secure. But you can't, can you? You're the presenter of Top Gear, the 10th season of which has just been released on DVD, and so you must lean into the camera with your big, pouchy, boarding-school-headmaster's face and say things like, "These days, if you drive a big four-by-four into the city, communists and ecologicals throw eggs at you!!" Now I feel like throwing an egg at you.

The big question with Top Gear, the popular British consumer-car show (in perpetual reruns on BBC America), is this: will it succeed in denting my colossal lack of curiosity about cars? And the answer is: almost. When, soaring along country roads in a new-model Alfa Romeo, fellow presenter James May speaks with quiet, confirmed lyricism of the vehicle's beautiful "engine note," I feel, yes, the stirrings of interest. Technical talk can be very poetic. Sub-technical talk, on the other hand, is not poetic at all: "To cool it," bellows Clarkson, pointing at a Volkswagen GTI W12, "there are massive intake vents in the sill. That's why the car is swollen. Like your granny's ankles." There's a lot of this kind of thing in Top Gear, a lot of leaden banter and heavy-handed raillery. From time to time the action will cut back to a grim television hangar where Clarkson, May, and fellow presenter Richard Hammond are doing a sort of purgatorial improv, cracking car-based jokes in front of a stupefied studio audience. It's hard to overstate the awkwardness of these sequences.

Still, people love this show. You can watch Clarkson interviewing Dame Helen Mirren ("Let's move onto motoring, if we may") and then watch Dame Helen herself, her noble head crammed unflatteringly into a white crash helmet, driving a small car at speed around the show's test lap. American Idol's Simon Cowell does the same thing — turns out he's the fastest celebrity of them all. You can enjoy the cerulean prospect from the middle of Italy's Lake Maggiore as our three heroes take the ferry with their sports cars in search of the best driving road in Europe. You can watch May, with his gorgeous head of thick, womanly hair, sitting equanimously in traffic. (His colleagues, the wags, have given him a name: "Captain Slow"!) The hectic format of the thing — in which cars are pitted against fighter jets, or against men with roller skates and jetpacks, or against other cars, in a desperate cavalcade of velocity and noise — might seem to suggest an insecurity, on the part of the producers, as to the actual interestingness of the cars themselves. But hell no. Cars are fucking great. Engines are great. Big noisy ones. "The hills are alive with the sound of horsepower!" shouts Clarkson, somewhere in Austria.

I understand that, in order to affirm the mystical correlation between machinery and masculinity, a certain amount of zooming around is necessary. Cars are made to go places, after all, with drivers at the wheel. But honestly, I think I'd be happier with Top Gear if they took the thrills out entirely — if Clarkson, Hammond, and May were filmed in a small, white room with dead carpets arguing the finer points of variable valve timing for hours on end. Ten seasons of that and we might be getting somewhere.

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