The taller two of the former Top Gear trio were locked in room 224 of The London Hotel, a swank place just off swank Sunset Boulevard in swank West Hollywood. One by one, interviewers swooped in and out in half-hour blocks for Qs and As. It was all very casual despite the ticking clock in the corner. Jeremy's pack of Marlboros sat open on the coffee table along with his Nicorette gum, which he chewed throughout our conversation.
Holed up in Southern California to shoot and promote their new show The Grand Tour, which will debut on Amazon Prime on November 18, the two global superstars were gracious, funny, authentic, and even charming. Reports have The Grand Tour taking the Top Gear way - and its hosts - to the next level. Bigger budgets, reported up to $5.5 million per episode, certainly won't hurt, and the early clips released to get the buzz going look very promising.
In the flesh, the 6-foot-5-inch Clarkson could be pegged a bit older than his 56 years, but his boyish blue eyes, though not piercing, were immediately disarming as is his mischievous grin. His handshake was warm and genuine, not too firm.
May's infamous likability translates to the real world. Captain Slow, 53, is the one you want living next door, maybe even renting that spare bedroom. Dressed in jeans and untucked button-downs seemingly plucked from the hamper, these guys were relaxed, comfortable in their skins and their lives.
Also unafraid. Both jumped at the chance to throw their third mouseketeer under the bus, saying Richard Hammond couldn't make the call today because of dehydration caused by the previous day out shooting in the California desert, but they quickly share the real reason.
Autoblog: Gentlemen, we were just joking about Richard's absence. You guys have been in the California desert for a few days?
Jeremy Clarkson: We have, yes, and he's become dehydrated after drinking a lot of gin.
James May: Yeah, there's a hell of a lot of gin in the desert – we thought it was just dust and wind.
Jeremy Clarkson: The official line from the PR people is that he's unable to join us because he is dehydrated. And he is dehydrated, but it's alcohol-related.
Autoblog: Well I hope his stomach is feeling better.
Jeremy Clarkson: We don't care. It makes my life better that he's not here.
"We were creatively fueled by our mutual loathing of each other." – James May
Autoblog: If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you a few easy questions first. Then maybe I can surprise you with something.
Jeremy Clarkson: We're used to it. Works our mental agility.
Autoblog: The first question is: What do you think made Top Gear so special? That made Top Gear, Top Gear?
James May: Oh I know the answer to that one.
Autoblog: Cause you've answered it a hundred times.
James May: Yes and I've thought about it very carefully because people ask me all the time.
Autoblog: I want to know.
James May: I think it's that we were creatively fueled by our mutual loathing of each other.
Jeremy Clarkson: Yeah, it was probably one of the things. I genuinely don't know. I just don't know. I've thought about it so much and I have no idea why so many people around the world watched it. It's impossible to say. People say it's the chemistry between us and even that's just loathing as James rightly points out.
James May: It's a particularly volatile sort of chemistry.
Jeremy Clarkson: Cars. Yeah, people like cars but not so much these days. Travel, there's loads of travel shows, I just don't know.
James May: What I do know, though, because I've thought about it a lot as well – it was something very complicated and actually quite fragile which is why attempts for people to do other things in the Top Gear style – I even have people saying to me "will you come and present an award ceremony or something corporate? We've put together something and it's very Top Gear," and I immediately say no 'cause I know it won't be. It's a very difficult thing to understand. We don't understand it but we were in it, so...
Autoblog: Well, I'm glad to hear that you don't know. You know, years ago, I was one of about five thousand US auto journalists that auditioned for US Top Gear, to host, and they asked me that very question before I went in for some sort of screen test. Honestly, besides the chemistry I remember talking about the editing of the show, how the assembly of the show was so beautiful.
Jeremy Clarkson: Beautifully shot. Beautifully shot.
Autoblog: But also, the way you cut in and out of the car and the conversational way about it seemed to be unique in the space before. Now of course people try to copy that style, but at the time it was quite unique.
Jeremy Clarkson: The amazing thing is what do we keep winning awards for, or used to keep winning awards for.
James May: Unscripted
Jeremy Clarkson: Unscripted, it was scripted.
Autoblog: It was scripted, but it didn't feel scripted.
Jeremy Clarkson: It was scripted in as much as we knew what we were going to be talking about roughly, but it wasn't actually scripted, like you say that and you say that. But when you get to know James and Richard so well I could say something to James or Richard and I know what the answer will be. I just know what they are going to say, which...
Autoblog: It couldn't have started out that way.
"When you get to know each other so well, it makes it seem and feel natural, which well, it actually is." – Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Clarkson: No it didn't but by the time anybody was watching the show, which started when Hammond had his big accident, and everybody tuning in to see if he'd come back. And that's what made it so popular. When you get to know each other so well, it makes it seem and feel natural, which well, it actually is. I could say something to him and I know what he's going to say back. I know exactly – we haven't written it, we haven't planned it, it's easy. He can say something to me and he knows what I'm going to say back to him.
James May: It's terrifying.
Jeremy Clarkson: Isn't it?
James May: It's interesting you mention the editing because the other thing people didn't realize is that we did have, eventually, the finest set of camera and sound people in the world doing a program about cars. We've still got quite a few of them, which is great. I often used to think that when it goes to some countries where it was very popular like India, for example, a lot of the things we said – if you're not a native English speaker living in Britain, it must've been lost on them. So maybe they were just looking at the excellent pictures.
Jeremy Clarkson: When we were in Al-Raqqah, back when ... actually it was Syria, in Al-Raqqah, which basically doesn't exist anymore. Not that long ago – four years?
James May: Five years now, yeah.
Jeremy Clarkson: He got out of the car and all, "Welcome to Syria, Captain Slow," and you look at it now. I went into a shop and they were showing Top Gear as we were in the shop. I thought, "What the hell do they think we're doing on this show?"
James May: Yeah, right.
Autoblog: They don't understand a word of it?
Jeremy Clarkson: Well they do, it's translated, but it was so alien because it was showing them the green and pleasant land of England, and it was raining, and they were in Syria.
Autoblog: Of course.
Jeremy Clarkson: "What the hell is this, and what are they doing?"
James May: Do you remember – you must've been there. As we were driving up towards the Turkish border we stopped by the side of the road and there was the local equivalent of like –
Jeremy Clarkson: It was in Iraq.
James May: Yeah, it was still in Iraq. It was a burger van, but obviously not selling burgers. It was selling local stuff. It was a tiny little thing. It was unpowered, it was in the middle of nowhere. There was this one bloke working on it, on his own. We stopped, and I went to buy a bottle of water or something from him. And he said, "Oh, hello James. What are you doing here?" And I thought, That is unthinkable. I've got a sort of bond with this bloke.
Autoblog: Amazing. You guys are just more likable than you know.
Jeremy Clarkson: Oh I don't think so. Our Producer Andy Wilman has a theory, which is quite interesting. He said, that it's a car show, at heart. It became less so but it was still a car show at heart, which would make an eleven-year-old boy want to watch, because it's cars. And his dad would go, "I'd quite like to watch that as well." So now you've got, in a nuclear family, you've got son and father watching. And the daughter fancied Richard Hammond, before he lost his looks, which was a bit catastrophic when he grew a beard and died his hair. He's so cute, but then mother would walk in and go, "I've got the whole family watching, which is so rare these days. I don't care what it is, I want to watch it as well." So, it became family viewing, in the UK. The whole family would sit down and watch Top Gear.
Autoblog: Because of the business practices of the BBC, you guys really cut through the clutter with true honesty. Do you feel that that was a factor at all in the way it appealed across borders?
James May: I think in Britain, there may have been an element of: We were naughty boys at school, and as of now, we've got the teacher with us. Even now, with BBC, we have to be proper.
Autoblog: There is a babysitter here.
James May: Yeah.
Jeremy Clarkson: Exactly.
James May: That's what I think, to the British audience, we would be very sensitive to that. The idea that this is the very respectable, established BBC, and here are these boys on there saying "gentleman's sausage," and there you go. Being a bit naughty. But I don't believe that could've worked in the rest of the world, because they wouldn't have been tuned into that subtlety, wouldn't they be?
Autoblog: But the opinions on the vehicles themselves being so absolute and so extreme was unique.
"Carmakers started to realize that our show promotes the car as an entity to the world...It just makes cars interesting and exciting, and that's good for the car industry." – Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Clarkson: That was tricky. When I first started 27 years ago, carmakers were like, "Oh, we can't lend you cars if you're going to say that about us," but we rode through that storm a long time ago. Carmakers started to realize that our show promotes the car as an entity to the world. It doesn't say, "buy a Chevrolet rather than a Honda." It just makes cars interesting and exciting, and that's good for the car industry. Pretty much by and large, the carmakers – I'm banned from Mitsubishis at the moment.
James May: I've always been barred from driving a Bristol, not that that's been much of a hardship.
Jeremy Clarkson: But you were banned because you're a friend of mine.
James May: Yeah, largely because I'm a friend of yours. Yes, I think we said it with what we were sort of saying. It's okay to like cars and get excited by them, and everybody involved in that business benefits from that.
Autoblog: Since you can't really express in specifics what you think absolutely made Top Gear Top Gear, I assume you're going to try to take that recipe and add something new to it to make The Grand Tour. What is that thing?
James May: Well it's sort of already there.
Jeremy Clarkson: You don't want to add.
Autoblog: Not add?
"What we've done with the new show is, it's shepherd's pie. It's lamb, not beef. It's still comfort food. It's still a very nice pie, but it's slightly different." – Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Clarkson: Not at all. Not add. For 12 years people have had cottage pie because they're very familiar with cottage pie, they like it. They like the show. What we've done with the new show is, it's shepherd's pie. It's lamb, not beef. It's still comfort food. It's still a very nice pie, but it's slightly different. It has to be, obviously, because the steak is gone. I'm just hoping that people don't go, "oh, no, I've always liked my cottage pie, none of that shepherd," but within a week or two, I'm hoping people will say, "That's a really good show. If we had started with this show, I think people would have loved it." And then, if we've changed it after 12 years to what Top Gear was they would have said, "oh no, no don't don't..."
James May: I don't think anybody's going to watch it and go, "What the hell has happened to them?" Still, a lot of it, because it's still us three and we haven't changed, is going to seem familiar.
Jeremy Clarkson: We're in a tent, not a studio. We do different things in there. It's still us three.
Autoblog: But the core is still there?
Jeremy Clarkson: Yeah.
James May: Well, the core is us.
Autoblog: Of course.
James May: To go on as cottage pie, changed into shepherd's pie – there are a certain number of people who wouldn't notice because they can't really tell the difference.
Autoblog: It's about having fun, right?
Jeremy Clarkson: Exactly. That's what we were talking about just last night. We won't know what the viewing figures are anymore because they won't be released. You won't get social media feedback like we used to – when it went out at eight o'clock and you could see this avalanche of people come on Twitter. And we won't get the next day in the supermarket, where people say, "I watched that new show last night." All that will change, now that it's on Amazon. The only thing we can do is say, "we think it was a good show." We recorded it yesterday, and the truth is, we do think it's a good show.
Autoblog: You just recorded it yesterday?
Jeremy Clarkson: We did and we think we did a good show. That is all we can do now, is to say, "We couldn't have done it better than that."
Autoblog: A little personal, what's the new toy in the garages these days? What's your favorite?
James May: In our own?
Autoblog: In your own.
James May: What I've actually ordered a new car, haven't I? I've got an i3, but I ordered a new i3, because it has an improved battery. And I've gone for no range extender. I did have that before, but I felt that was a form of cowardice, so I've abandoned that.
Autoblog: It is wimping out.
Jeremy Clarkson: I think you can tell him the other cars you have, too. I don't want people to think you drive an electric car and nothing else.
James May: No no, of course I don't, I still have a range extender. It's a Ferrari 458. And I've got a Porsche range extender as well. I have a Rolls-Royce range extender.
Autoblog: And the latest is the i3?
James May: Yeah. I haven't got it yet. It will be in about six weeks, or two months, or something.
Autoblog: What about you Jeremy?
Jeremy Clarkson: I have a gray Volkswagen Golf.
Autoblog: Okay. Which engine?
Jeremy Clarkson: GTI, I just drive a GTI and it does everything I want. I drive lots of very fancy cars all the time. But to have your own car where nobody looks at you is safer on the motorway. When he drives his orange Ferrari, everybody takes photographs. That would bore me to death, so I just drive a gray Golf and nobody sees me.
Autoblog: I completely understand. How do you feel about autonomous cars? Are they the future? How far out is that future?
James May: I think it's immensely far off, a genuinely robotic car that can behave like a human driving a car can, because people constantly underestimate the wit of humanity. I can't remember which astronaut said this, that the human being is still the greatest computer in the world and is completely free to produce. It can be produced for nothing by totally unskilled labor. That was it. But I think partial autonomy has a place, and we were arguing about this earlier because, believe it or not, we don't agree. I think partial autonomy, for boring bits of journeys, would make them quicker, safer, and give you time to do something else. But I still want to be able to drive a car because I like it. I find it amazing.
Jeremy Clarkson: What's interesting about autonomous cars is, if you're driving in your autonomous car and a lorry suddenly lunges out in front of it. The car sees the lorry and thinks, "Okay, I must miss that." So the only option now is to swerve to the left. But there's a family of four on the sidewalk. And it will then think, "Well, there's one person in the car, so I'm going to hit the lorry." Which means that the autonomous car, in that peculiar set of circumstances, is actually programmed to kill its owner. Which I think is a really weird, moral difficulty with autonomous cars. The other thing is, we both agree on this, when the steam engine arrived the horse wasn't just killed off, it became a hobby for enthusiasts. And that's what will happen to cars, and I will continue to drive cars because I like driving cars.
"Ford, Chevy, Volkswagen they're all piloting themselves into a hillside, all the big established carmakers, because they are making such terrible, terrible cars at the moment." – Jeremy Clarkson
Those who don't like driving cars will have autonomous cars. By and large they'll be able to do it. Say 10 or 20 years, the only three carmakers in the world will be Uber, Google, and Apple, pretty much. Ford, Chevy, Volkswagen they're all piloting themselves into a hillside, all the big established carmakers, because they are making such terrible, terrible cars at the moment. SUVs and Renault Captur, come on guys. People are going to say "Can I have a poster daddy of a Renault Captur on my wall? Will it be at Le Mans this year?" No, it's just rubbish. And then they go, "Oh well why are people using Uber instead of buying our cars?" Because your cars are rubbish, that's why.
Autoblog: There's a lot of talk about the youth of the world falling out of love with cars. Do you think that's correct?
Jeremy Clarkson: Definitely. Definitely correct.
James May: There are a lot of other things for them to do.
Autoblog: That is true. There are a lot of things for them to do, but is that the largest factor?
James May: I suspect it is. I can remember, it's still one of my most vivid memories, was the first time I went out in a car by myself. Many years later I learned to fly an airplane and went up in an airplane by myself, which is a much more remarkable thing, but it wasn't as exciting. Because that step from being contained and limited, repressed in a way by the inability to move around – from there, to getting in a car, any car, and setting off with nobody with you and being able to go wherever you wanted is the greatest leap forward my life has ever taken. But I don't think it's comparable these days because communication is so much better.
Jeremy Clarkson: My son, who has actually just passed his driving test – I said, "Why don't you learn to drive?" He said, "Because right outside the apartment in London a bus stops which takes me to Oxford for three pounds, and it has WiFi in it. Why would I drive? It's expensive, complicated to find somewhere to park. You can't drink, I can't be on my phone while I'm doing it." He just said, "Why would I drive?"
Autoblog: After all the success and all the fame, what keeps you motivated these days?
James May: Having a good time
Jeremy Clarkson: Every morning we have a better time than almost everyone else in the world.
James May: There's no other reason. You couldn't actually be motivated by fame. It's irrelevant. And not by needing more money to spend, because I don't spend it all anyway. But actually having a good life is such a privilege.
Autoblog: You're still having fun?
James May: Oh, yeah.
Jeremy Clarkson: Honestly, we were sitting the other day in a traffic jam in Liverpool, and we looked into a computer shop. There was somebody there with a purple shirt, flogging laptops on a wet, cold, dark November night. We just thought, "God, we're lucky." I still think of him every time they make me do something, you just think, "We genuinely have the best jobs in the world. We really, really do." I just can't think of anything I'd rather do.
James May: Even fighter pilot isn't as good. You get more sex, but it's not as much fun.
"We genuinely have the best jobs in the world. We really, really do." – Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Clarkson: Right.
James May: Hopefully we can sort of have fun on other people's behalf. That's part of the objective, so they can have it vicariously. Even though the next day they've got to go back to the computer shop, and ... with a purple shirt ...
Autoblog: I recall years ago, you guys were very hard on the first Tesla. How do you feel about Tesla these days?
Jeremy Clarkson: We weren't very hard, actually. We were sued over that, interestingly, we went to court in the UK and Elon Musk lost. And he appealed, and lost again. So, the truth is, we weren't harsh, we were fair. It was a fair road test of that car which wasn't as good as ...
Autoblog: It had its flaws.
Jeremy Clarkson: Yeah.
James May: That's a way back in the Tesla evolution. I've driven a Model S. I'm fascinated by the idea and electric cars, because there's such a lot of good sense in using an electric motor to drive a car.
Autoblog: Obviously. You just ordered one.
Jeremy Clarkson: Hello? Hello?
James May: What?
Jeremy Clarkson: The world cannot produce enough electricity right now for laptops, and phones, and lighting, and what have you. If everybody suddenly buys an electric car, how are we going to charge them up? Seriously, there are already brownouts in New York, London. We can't have electric cars.
James May: No, but the point I was making was, technically, the use of a motor to drive a car is an excellent idea. The issue has always been electricity, because it's never liked being stored. It's never like being generated locally. That's the obstacle to overcome, and nobody knows how we're going to do it, but taking part in the experiment is worthwhile, because it's interesting, I think.
Autoblog: Was there something you guys really wanted to do on Top Gear, but never got to do it?
James May: I once wanted to beat Jeremy to death with a shovel at the North Pole.
Autoblog: Only once?
"I once wanted to beat Jeremy to death with a shovel at the North Pole." – James May
James May: Yeah. Well, it was only one time when I had a shovel. It was interesting, because I thought, "Well, we're behind this big block of ice." We were out of sight of everybody else, and it was an area that would melt later in the year, and I thought, "If I just beat him to death and dig a small hole, I actually, possibly could get away with it." But I still didn't do it.
Jeremy Clarkson: To be honest, we were allowed to do everything we wanted on Top Gear, and we're allowed to do anything we want on The Grand Tour, so it's –
Autoblog: You never had a list and didn't get to the next thing?
Jeremy Clarkson: No.
James May: I don't think we did. We're not very good at organizing.
Autoblog: How does it make you feel that there's two, maybe three generations of folks out there that all want to be James May and Jeremy Clarkson?
Jeremy Clarkson: They would love our jobs. It's the weirdest thing.
Autoblog: They don't want your jobs, they want to be you. That's different.
Jeremy Clarkson: They want to live our lives, which is basically having our jobs. But if they did that, they'd have to work with James May, and that's – you'd have to kill yourself.
"Richard Hammond isn't such a constant, because he's often dehydrated." – James May
James May: The only real disadvantage to being me, because it's brilliant in many ways – He's there, he's a constant. Richard Hammond isn't such a constant, because he's often dehydrated. He's also massively incompetent.
Autoblog: Trump or Hillary?
Jeremy Clarkson: We've learned not to say anything on that.
James May: Yeah, we don't know...
Autoblog: Has anyone else asked you this?
Jeremy Clarkson: Yeah.
Jeremy Clarkson: Yeah. It's very embarrassing for America to have that as a choice, because we just look from outside going, "There's 300 million of them, are they the two best people they could think of?"
James May: Can we have none of the above?
Autoblog: I'll take it.
Jeremy Clarkson: That's why I put on Twitter on Independence Day, "Make America Great Britian again".
Autoblog: McLaren F1 or P1?
Jeremy Clarkson: Oh, P1.
James May: P1.
Autoblog: Don't even have to think about it?
Jeremy Clarkson: No, no, no.
James May: Modern cars are better.
Autoblog: Amazing. Why do you hate American cars so much?
James May: Oh I don't think we do.
Jeremy Clarkson: Hammond likes them a lot.
Autoblog: I know he likes them a lot, but he seems to be alone on that.
Jeremy Clarkson: It's like the Porsche 911. I don't really hate the 911, I just hate – I enjoy taking the piss out of Hammond for liking the 911. So when he goes, "I love this Mustang," I go, "Oh, well it's terrible." I don't really mean that, I just want to annoy Hammond. That's what it basically boils down to.
Autoblog: Jeremy, if you had to marry James or Richard and kill the other, what are you doing?
Jeremy Clarkson: I'd kill myself, honestly I'd kill myself rather than – The thought of marrying one of them would cause me to kill myself. So that's the easy way.
Autoblog: James, I have to ask you the same thing. Who are you marrying and who are you killing?
James May: I'll kill both of them.
Autoblog: You're going to be single?
James May: Yeah.
Jeremy Clarkson: He wants to do that, anyway.
Autoblog: So you would kill yourself before you have to marry one of them, and James you would just kill both of them.
James May: This is an interesting philosophical question, because Jeremy, having killed himself, when it comes to me, Jeremy's not in it because he's already dead so I can only kill or marry Richard Hammond, so I'll kill him. And then I'd be alone and free.
Autoblog: That's a perfect way to end this. Thank you, gentlemen.