Flop Gear USA?

By Charles Krome

Well, that was anti-climactic. After months of buzz and years of anticipation, the U.S. version of the BBC’s Top Gear finally debuted last night on the History Channel, and I for one was underwhelmed. The original program has become something of an icon among a certain swathe of Anglophilic gearheads, based on its combination of wacky English humor and the opportunity it presents to see a wide range of vehicles get put through their paces each week. Admittedly, I’m not much of a fan: Jeremy Clarkson is the definition of insufferable, and his two co-hosts, Richard Hammond and James May, leave me cold as well.

But I have to say the Brits have it all over the troika heading up Top Gear USA, which brings me to complaint No. 1 about the show: Rutledge Wood, Tanner Foust and Adam Ferrera seemed like amiable enough guys last night, but they project an aura of being too young to be taken seriously as experts, on the one hand, and on the other, they didn’t bring enough energy to be taken seriously as enthusiasts. Part of the problem, no doubt, is that the History Channel seems to be struggling to get a handle on who makes up the show’s audience.

That is, is the network trying to attract auto enthusiasts who already have a relatively firm grasp on the industry or casual fans looking to learn more about the wonderful world of the automobile? It’s hard to split the difference without one or the other groups losing interest, and there was a fair amount of that going on during the show last night.

Which leads me to complaint No. 2: The U.S. show is broadcast as if the original did not exist. That might not be a problem for the aforementioned casual fans, but it made for some awkward moments last night for me. Consider the introduction of “the Stig.” This is the anonymous driver who remains hidden behind his crash helmet while hot-lapping the show’s cars, helping provide expert insight into some of the world’s best super cars, among others. Over across the pond, the role of the Stig is a cultural phenomenon that jumped to new heights this summer when driver Ben Collins was outed as the man behind the mask.

Top Gear USA naturally has its own Stig, but his low-key, off-hand intro last night must have been mystifying to any viewers who had never seen the BBC program, while to those who have, like me, the same lack of explanation made it seem as if the U.S. folks were trying to pull a fast one by stealing the concept with nary a nod to the original.

Then there’s the content itself. I was admittedly still settling in when the show started, but the first vehicle I saw on the screen was a vintage Cobra, then there was some kind of segue to the Dodge Viper, and I was getting geeked for some serious snake-on-snake action. But when I was finally able to focus all my meager attention on the screen, the guys weren’t talking about the Cobra and Viper going head to head; they were introducing a segment in which the latter was trying to outrun a Cobra attack helicopter. Things didn’t get too much better as the night progressed, either: Another debate over which is the best bull to come out of the house of Lamborghini? Yawn.

I’m not counting Top Gear USA out entirely, but at this stage, a more appropriate title for the show would be one that matches the program I wish I watched last night: The Walking Dead.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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  1. TG USA isn’t up to the standards of the original. I’m willing to watch a few more episodes to see if the hosts can develop into something more, but I’m not hopeful. Right now, they are all too “light weight”. Jeremy Clarkson IS an idiot, but that’s part of the appeal of Top Gear.

    What’s more disturbing is that TG USA is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, which naturally means they will never say a bad word about M-B (or any other History Channel advertiser). One of the advantages of the BBC show is that they have the freedom to dis a car, such as when Jeremy called the BMW X6 “the stupidest car in the world”. He’s also said unkind words about at least one M-B.

  2. As a big fan of the original TG, I was looking forward to the US version, if anything to have a response to Clarkson’s endless quips about us over in the “uncivilized” world. But I had some of the same questions as to the intended audience of the US version. If they’re going to make it a carbon copy of the original, they are going after the same viewers (people like me who watch TG on BBC America). But those viewers will no doubt find the US version lame, specifically because it is a carbon copy of the original. The whole thing seems destined for failure.

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