Top Gear is one of the very few car-themed television shows that’s known outside of the automotive industry. Even if you don’t like cars (heck, even if you don’t drive), there’s a very good chance you’ve heard of it or have seen it.
It achieved this unexpected level of popularity because it doesn’t focus solely on cars and the oily bits that make them move. It puts them into context by looking at the culture surrounding them, at the folks who design them, and at the people who drive them. And, yes, sometimes the hosts modify, race, and completely destroy what they drive. From the Jeremy Clarkson days to the Amazon-led reboot, here’s a look at the best Top Gear episodes of all time. No spoilers, we promise.
Trying to kill the Toyota Hilux (season 3, episodes 5 and 6)
Although we had been watching Top Gear for a while before we saw the wanton destruction of the Toyota Hilux, we weren’t yet sold on the show. After this episode, though, we were hooked. Not only were we hugely impressed with the Hilux’s ability to just keep living, but we were also impressed with the creativity of the script and shot selection. On a larger scale, we consider this episode the beginning of the current Top Gear style. Putting a pickup on the roof of a building during a controlled implosion effectively separated modern Top Gear from the previous iteration. We truly believe it was that moment that marked the beginning of what we know now as Top Gear.
Top Gear‘s hosts spend a lot of time in cheap old beaters, but they also drive amazing supercars to even more amazing destinations. Even that isn’t always glamorous, though, as Clarkson, Hammond, and May found on this road trip through France. The cars — a Ford GT, a Ferrari 430, and a Pagani Zonda — were great, but living with them in the real world proved to be a challenge. From negotiating Paris’ legendarily treacherous traffic to trying to extricate the cars form a cramped parking garage, the Top Gear trio provided a more realistic portrayal of the supercar experience.
This episode combines two of Top Gear‘s best features: Clarkson’s metaphors (“the Lotus Exige is like putting a Saturn 5 rocket in a food blender”) and insane showdowns. There are a few car vs. military machine face-offs throughout the show’s history, but the Exige vs. Apache is one of the best. Not only do we get to completely nerd out over the Apache’s bonkers weapons systems — it can identify 256 targets from 8 kilometers away, pick the 16 most dangerous, and eliminate all of them — we get to watch the Lotus attempt to evade the helicopter’s missile lock. Does the Exige avoid certain death? Watch and find out.
We can always count on one of the trio to claim that a car is faster than a train, plane, boat, or any other craft from A to B. It’s a Top Gear hallmark. This time, it’s Clarkson suggesting the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti can get from the U.K. to Switzerland faster than his co-hosts can get there on a plane. No brainer, right? Obviously, the plane is faster … or is it? See, the catch is that Hammond and May will have to use public transportation to get to and from airports in the U.K. and Switzerland, while Clarkson only has to worry about traffic on the motorways. Can Clarkson’s 6.0-liter V12 grand tourer outrun a passenger jet?
We’ve all dreamt of a car that can transform into a boat, but for some reason, no major manufacturer has put such a vehicle in production. Well, the Top Gear trio has come to the rescue with its own amphibious cars. Predictably, each craft represents its creator’s personality. That means May chose a dainty convertible with a sail, Hammond chose a wonky van with a poorly-engineered propeller, and Clarkson bolted a massive engine to the back of a pickup. What could possibly go wrong? Everything. Everything could go wrong. And it does.
U.S. special: $ 1,000 American car road trip (season 9, episode 3)
This was the first time the boys made a trek across the pond for a road trip but it certainly hasn’t been the last. Their challenge: Land in Miami and find three American cars for under $ 1,000 each and drive them to New Orleans. Along the way, they’re beset by complications as well as a series of challenges, including a braking test that sends Hammond’s pickup into an alligator-filled swamp and a run for dear life from some enraged hillbillies. This film might be insulting to Southerners, as it makes them look like murderous, inbred morons. If you can laugh at it, though, it’s a fabulous journey.
One of the funniest segments in Top Gear history is Clarkson’s test of the Reliant Robin — or rather, when Clarkson rolled the Robin numerous times. However, before that segment aired in season 15, Top Gear used the Robin’s pointy shape as the basis for a Space Shuttle. Not only would the Top Gear crew need to build a rocket, but they’d also need to fly the Robin a few thousand feet in the air and land it safely for use some other time. The hilarity of the situation ensued when Hammond and May realized how expensive and time-consuming the project would be. Unsurprisingly, the pair decided to use cheap parts from model airplanes, but the best part of the clip is learning of all the scientific obstacles impeding their success. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also educational!
You have to love this episode for its pure ridiculousness, as well as its frequent references to the iconic film, The Great Escape. May puts both an Alfa Romeo and a Saab together to make a limo that is sporty and sensible — complete with an interior sporting a sauna and a replica of the Sistine Chapel. Hammond builds a rear-drive sport limo convertible, and Clarkson builds a Fiat Panda-based two-door limo so long that occupants must use a pull-cart to get to the back seat. It’s funny when the homemade limos are on the track, but when they head into central London, it really gets good.
While all the other episodes on this list are ambitious but rubbish, as the boys like to say, the Polar Special is on another planet altogether. Imagine the sheer audacity required to wonder if your television show could successfully drive a car to the North Pole for the first time in the history of man. That’s exactly what they did. Clarkson and May — full of gin and tonics — race a highly modified Toyota Hilux against Hammond and a team of sled dogs to the top of the Earth. If you only watch one episode of Top Gear in your entire life, make sure it’s this one. It’ll make you laugh and cry and leave you with a sense of wonder like few things in life can. It’s a masterpiece.
This episode was a double-whammy of entertainment, with two different vehicles highlighting the show. First up was the Peel P50. Clarkson was on the lookout for a small car, but simply wasn’t satisfied with traditional “small” vehicles. Compared to the Peel P50, everything is massive. Clarkson pilots the tiny production vehicle to work at the BBC, but instead of parking his car in the lot, he proceeds to take it in the elevator and drive it around the office (and into the background of a live news broadcast). Afterward, the crew decided a good match-up for the Veyron (top speed of 250 mph) would be the Eurofighter jet (top speed of 1,500 mph). The Veyron would race down a mile drag strip, turn around and race back while the jet would hit an altitude of one mile, and come back down. First across the finish line wins.
“Serious” road test of the Ford Fiesta (season 12, episode 6)
Since its 2002 relaunch, Top Gear hasn’t been about testing everyday cars or focusing on practical considerations like cargo space and fuel economy. Over-the-top stunts make up the bulk of the show’s repertoire now, but not everyone appreciates that the cars on the program are irrelevant to the average driver. To address those critics, Clarkson undertook a thorough road test of the Ford Fiesta back in Series 12. The Fiesta is a sensible small car, but Clarkson ends up doing some not-so-sensible things with it. The exploits rival anything you’ll see in any episode of Top Gear.
Have you ever wished you could road trip through Vietnam on a scooter or motorcycle? That’s exactly what the boys did in this episode. This special is less about the rickety two-wheeled vehicles they ride and more about the three presenters as they careen through the wildly gorgeous Vietnamese countryside. Along the way, they have custom suits made, which only add to the hilarity. When Clarkson eventually crashes the scooter he barely knows how to operate, however, the trip gets a bit dicey.
Clarkson, Hammond, and May don’t exactly seem equipped to take on the Amazon jungle, the Atacama desert, or Bolivia’s “Death Road” in clapped-out SUVs, and that’s what makes the Bolivia Special one of the best. It’s a genuinely extreme test of man and machine, with some of the toughest conditions ever featured on Top Gear. In this case, it’s not just the hosts’ incompetence that makes it seem unlikely that they’ll succeed; it really is a battle against the terrain. Plus, at one point May attacks Clarkson with a machete which, as Hammond points out, isn’t something you normally see on other shows.
Yet another two-part special from the Top Gear trio sends the boys in search of the source of the Nile River. James chooses a Volvo 850R as his automotive companion, Clarkson picks a BMW 528i Touring, and Hammond (smartly) goes with a Subaru Impreza WRX Estate. During their journey, each member is forced to turn their vehicle into a camper, which meant adding weight, and, in Hammond’s case, a toilet seat on his hood. After initially failing to find the source, the trio ventures further and has to build a ferry to cross a crocodile-infested river. At the end of the journey, the boys agree to race to the Nile’s origin because only one of them will be remembered for their accomplishment.
The 23rd season of Top Gear is also the first without Clarkson, Hammond, and May. For most fans, that meant the new hosts had huge shoes to fill. As we know, Chris Evans didn’t make it to season 24, but this clip of Chris Harris reviewing the Ferrari F12 TDF shows why he stuck around. Not only can Harris drive well, but he keeps the audience engaged as he explores an insane supercar. This episode also features Ken Block tearing around the streets of London in an 800-horsepower Hoonicorn Mustang, under the pretense of giving Matt LeBlanc a “tour of the city.” It’s Gymkhana with Top Gear‘s budget. What’s not to love?
The Kazakhstan race (season 24, episode 1)
Hosts Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid, and Chris Harris travel to Kazakhstan to find out who makes the most reliable car. The trio acquires a W210-generation Mercedes-Benz E220D, a Volvo V70, and a London taxi cab before embarking on an epic road trip that takes them through a wide variety of terrain and weather conditions. Surviving a long road trip is easy as pie compared to what LeBlanc, Reid, and Harris have in mind for these three high-mileage machines. Tourism, racing, and automotive geekery are all on the menu.
When asked to name a big car, most people will think for a second and say something along the lines of “Chevrolet Suburban!” or Hummer!” The Avtoros Shaman that Matt LeBlanc is driving in the seventh episode of Top Gear‘s 24th season makes the Suburban look quaint and city-friendly. It’s a mammoth of a vehicle with eight wheels wrapped by humongous tires. It was designed in Russia to serve as a rescue vehicle in hard-to-reach places like Siberia, so the people who created it didn’t really envision it driving on public roads in the U.K. And yet, that’s where LeBlanc’s test takes place.
Citroen designed the 2CV as a basic, dirt-cheap form of transportation capable of putting every French motorist on wheels after World War Two. The design brief instructed engineers to make a car that could carry a basket full of eggs over a freshly-plowed field without breaking a single one of them. In this episode, LeBlanc and Harris head to France, hop in an unrestored 2CV, and put that design brief to the test.
Anyone who has driven in the British countryside is intimately familiar with the frustration of spending miles behind a tractor moving at 20 mph. Matt LeBlanc decided to take matters into his own hands. In this episode of Top Gear, he set out to build the world’s fastest tractor. Named Track-Tor, it’s powered by a Chevrolet-sourced V8 engine rated at 500 horsepower, and you wouldn’t expect to find on something designed to plow fields.
Though modern-day SUVs normally come with a generous amount of ground clearance and all-wheel drive, they rarely get the opportunity to venture beyond the point where the asphalt ends. Top Gear changed that during its 25th season by sending an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Volvo XC60, and a Land Rover Range Rover Velar to its first horse trials. Matt LeBlanc summed up the challenge well when he observed: “We’re meant to do the horse things, but in the cars.”