james may

Why I reckon motoring TV is about to change

NEVER has the sale of a secondhand tent seemed quite so emotional.

If you haven’t watched the last episode of The Grand Tour yet(and you don’t mind forking out for Amazon Prime) then you might want to put your copy of The Champion down for an hour, watch it and then come back, because it’s really worth catching up with. In a nutshell, the motoring telly giant that was the Clarkson/Hammond/May trio came to an end – except it sort of didn’t.

After an extended piece bemoaning the Ford Mondeo’s steady slide from the top of the car sales charts a genuinely emotional Jeremy announced that there would be no shows involving him taking the mickey out of the latest motors alongside his two mates in front of a studio audience, either for The Grand Tour or back on Top Gear. An extended montage of what they’d been up to on both shows followed – including everything from Richard Hammond’s many crashes to the Reliant Robin space shuttle – duly followed, giving the trio’s work the sort of send off a certain incident involving cold meat and a late night at a hotel a couple of years ago denied them.

The only snag is that it was all much ado about nothing, because the three of them then went on to say they are going to carry on working together on The Grand Tour, albeit in a new format that focuses solely on their big globe-trotting adventures. Read between the lines, though, and I reckon that there’s a wider truth; that the studio-based school of motoring telly they pioneered is finally on the way out.

I’ve written before that a lot of Top Gear now feels tired trying to hang on to elements popularised more than 15 years ago and that I’ve already predicted the next series, fronted by two celebs who aren’t practised motoring writers, is going to be awful. Which is a shame, because the one that’s just finished was one of the best yet, and that includes comparing it to ones presented by the old trio.

But in a streaming-obsessed world where you can watch everything on demand simply rocking up in an old aircraft hanger and then packing in an audience around a few strategically-parked supercars just seems a bit, well, a bit old hat now. I’ll happily predict that Top Gear will eventually follow suit and go for a rethink in a few years’ time, and might even be parked up altogether.

Saying that about a car show that I’ve grown up with, from crackly early Nineties episodes of a fuzzy-haired Clarkson moaning about mid-sized Vauxhalls to Chris Harris doing balletic mid-corner routines in McLarens, is a bitter pill to swallow, but I also loved Top of the Pops and Tomorrow’s World, and the world moved on from both of those too. Personally, my own prediction is that the massive motoring juggernauts that are Top Gear and The Grand Tour won’t be replaced by something equally big but several slicker, smaller shows, covering exactly what you want, when you want. Petrolhead paradise on demand. My vote’s with a show packed with old TVRs and Morgans.

I could be completely wrong of course. Maybe no-one wants to buy a secondhand tent and, stuck with it, they’ll have a rethink of the rethink…

The only way is Up – if you’re looking for a small hot hatch

The Up GTI is the smallest hot hatch Volkswagen makes

IT’S THE sort of late landing an Irish budget airline would be proud of. There’s arriving fashionably late – and then there’s the Volkswagen Up GTI.

Connoisseurs of pint-sized and spiced-up hatchbacks might have already read that as of this week the smallest of Wolfsburg GTI-badged wonders has just gone on sale across the UK. You might have also read in the motoring mags about how it copes tremendously with tight turns, and seen James May making excitable squawking noises while driving it on The Grand Tour. But the fact remains that Volkswagen first started promising us a spruced-up version of the teeny-tiny up way back in 2013, at a time when I was actually using a bog-standard Up as a company car.

I can only assume that Volkswagen was being considerate by teasing us with it in concept car form – albeit missing that elusive third letter and badged as just the GT then – so it could give press-on drivers like me the chance to save up for it. Which is a good thing, because even in the poverty spec guise I reckon the Up’s the best car VW currently makes (especially now that the Scirocco has been pensioned off).

But all those years of teasing car nuts with the idea of an Up with added oomph has given the rest of the motoring world time to catch up. For a few hundred pounds less, for instance, you can have the Renault Twingo GT, which follows roughly the same formula but sticks the engine behind the rear seats and spits all the power out through the rear wheels. So basically it’s a Porsche 911 that’s more practical and easier to park. There’s also the Smart ForFour Brabus, which uses the same engine as the Twingo in a much heavier package and slaps on a £20k price tag for the privilege. Erm, and that’s about it.

Sure, there’s a new Suzuki Swift Sport on the way too but it’s astonishing that there’s no Sport spinoff of Ford’s Ka+ and that Vauxhall’s VXR boffins haven’t got their hands on an Adam. There’s no GTI twist on Peugeot’s 108 or a VTS variant of its sister car, the Citroen C1. Even VW hasn’t extended the GTI fun factor to the Up’s extended cousins – why isn’t SEAT doing a Mii Cupra, or Skoda Citigo vRS?

Hot hatches inject a sparkle of excitement into the all-too-often anodyne world of front-wheel-drive supermarket companions, and the smaller and lighter they start off the more fun and immediate they end up being in GTI form.

Come on carmakers, let’s have some more! Until then the only way is Up, even if it is five years late. Or to a Twingo GT, if you’re being awkward.

Why the Wheeler Dealers Escort Cosworth resto will have you hooked

The Ford Escort RS Cosworth is the first car to be tackled by the new Wheeler Dealers duo

I’M NOT sure if it’s possible to hack into someone’s Sky Plus box but you’d find nothing particularly shocking if you raided mine.

There’s the new series of Red Dwarf, a couple of episodes of Robot Wars and – guilty pleasure time – an ace documentary I recorded a couple of years ago about the making of Thunderbirds. In London media bubble speak it’s all on message content for my target demographic – in other words, the sort of stuff you’d expect a thirtysomething bloke to watch. Except the Harry Potter. That’s my wife’s. Honest!

But what you won’t find much of is motoring telly. Of course there are old episodes of Top Gear and James May’s excellent Cars of the People but the truth is that when you work with cars all day it’s very hard to sit back and find automotive telly that’s genuinely enjoyable. A reality show about some Americans swearing at a rusty Ford in a workshop – and there are many – just doesn’t really cut it.

The new series of Wheeler Dealers, however, just might. Last Saturday I got the chance to watch the first episode ahead of its January 2018 launch, and the new on-screen partnership between presenters Mike Brewer and Ant Anstead really works. Even my wife – who prefers watching Harry Potter, remember – thought it was truly watchable petrolhead telly.

The show’s opening episode already had me at “Hello” because it chronicles the purchase and restoration of one of my favourite cars, a Ford Escort RS Cosworth, but it’s the way that Ant makes the nerdy technical bits feel weirdly accessible that really drew me in. There’s a lovely scene where he strips a turbocharger down to its nuts and bolts, but explains everything in the sort of language even Donald Trump could understand. There are charmingly hand-drawn diagrams on blackboards too, just in case you think a wastegate is something the binmen use to collect your recyclables.

There’s something compelling about the pair’s on-screen banter too – even if you loved the show when it was Mike Brewer and Edd China it’s hard not to find the new partnership effective, because it’s still a show fronted by two blokes who really love – and know a thing or two about – old cars. My only grumble is that it still feels like a show aimed at America first (so Donald Trump definitely WILL understand), but on the opening episode alone I reckon Wheeler Dealers is onto a winner.

It’s made it onto my Sky Planner, put it that way!

Top Gear vs Grand Tour isn’t the TV battle you might think

CarFest is proof enough that Chris Evans really is a petrolheadAFTER what feels like an eternity one of the biggest battles in motoring is about to get underway. Or at least that’s what the tabloids want you to think.

In the ginger – sorry, red – corner there’s the new series of Top Gear. Chris Evans has stuck to his vow to resuscitate it post-fracas by the end of May 2016 – but only just, because the new series finally hits our screens on 29 May. Their contender in the increasingly grey-haired corner is the old Top Gear trio, only with a reportedly much bigger budget and a cyberspace colossus backing them.

The script every other newspaper report, motoring website and Facebook commenter want you to read is that Chris’ capers will crash and burn to either horrifically low ratings or the entire team falling out and vowing never to work with each other again by the end of the first series. In the meantime Clarkson’s new show will roll up, convert every TV viewer into an internet evangelist and that’ll be the end of the car show I grew up with.

All of which is utter nonsense, of course.

Top Gear vs (the rather oddly named) Grand Tour just isn’t going to happen, and I haven’t heard a single car nut tell me they’re going to watch one over the other. They’ll watch Chris Evans and Jeremy Clarkson, mainly because one’s on a TV show starting next week and the other’s fronting an online collection of films which is unlikely to start until much later in the year. I can’t be the only one wanting both to succeed, because it means for the first time we’ve got two big budget motoring shows to sit back and enjoy.

Both are fronted by blokes with charisma and a genuine, heartfelt passion for classic cars – if you’ve ever been to one of Chris’ CarFest shows and watched him wandering around gawping at the supercars, you’ll know he’s still one of ‘us’ no matter how much he admits to being overpaid by. Jeremy, Richard and James (who incidentally are publicly rooting for Top Gear’s success) are meanwhile free to do even more of the big, spectacular car adventures they did so well before someone threw a plate of cold meat in the works. I’m keeping an open mind on both, and so should everyone else.

The only thing we’re missing now is a third way for people who want an intelligent, no-nonsense car show with proper reviews about things you might actually buy. Come on Channel 4, bring back Driven