Rating the Top Gear specials from best to not so best
It’s the end of an era. The Top Gear we know and love, the global phenomenon that is watched by 350 million around the world, is gone. The show will continue, but the days of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond have come to an end, with the final episode of the Clarkson era having aired to little fanfare.
In the coming months, Chris Evans and a new set of co-hosts will take over Top Gear, and the trio of original hosts will appear in a new show of their own. That could lead to even better things for fans, but it won’t be the same. With that in mind, we look back at one of the best aspects of the series: the Top Gear Specials.
From the North Pole to volcanoes in South America, from Vietnam to India, the hosts created something unique in many ways. And now that the show as it was had ended, it’s a good time to look back and rate our favorites.
Check out our list below of all the Top Gear specials, from our favorite to our not so favorite. There aren’t really any bad Top Gear specials, even if some are clearly better than others, but these are our faves.
As you might expect from this kind of article, there’s a lot of opinion at work here. Let us know if you agree or disagree in the comments below!
India Special (Season 17 Episode 7)
Top Gear is at its best when the show blurs the lines between scripted and unscripted moments. When it does it well, you don’t notice – or at least don’t care – that the show is selling you on an illusion of sorts. When it’s too obvious though, it falls flat.
The “India Special” is an example of when Top Gear gets it wrong, and that is made even more apparent when in the same episode it does it right.
This special is like two separate episodes cut together. On one hand, you have the hosts pulling elaborate pranks and gags that are heavily scripted and just not that funny – a keen example of this is when they put banners on a train, and the banners then rip in half to spell obscene things. On the other, the hosts get stuck on an insanely dangerous highway at night and the hosts freak out a bit. The latter is riveting, the other stuff is not.
The result is a forgettable episode that oscillates from cringe-worthy moments to amazing driving.
Winter Olympics Special (Season 7 Ep 7)
This is technically the first “Top Gear Special,” but it is a very different kind of special from the others. Rather than go on an incredible and frequently grueling trip to a remote corner of the world, the hosts head to Lillehammer, Norway in anticipation of the 2006 Winter Olympics held in Torino. There they put on what is essentially a regular episode, but with a slightly bigger budget compared to the other episodes of the time.
This special shows where the series is heading, and it provides some outright laughs as hosts engage in some wacky automotive engineering in order to show up the athletes. It’s not quite on the same level as the other specials, hence the low ranking, but it’s still an entertaining and unique episode of TV.
Burma Special (Season 21 Ep 6 & 7)
The Burma Special has some incredible moments, but it also tries a little too hard at times. The journey takes them through the sparsely populated jungles of Burma in an effort to reach the river Kwai, the site of a famous World War II prison camp that spawned a book, and later a movie. The trip is billed as a grueling trek – and it occasionally is – but more often than not the host’s wounds are self inflicted.
It just feels a bit disconnected to hear the hosts fret about how isolated they are right before they come across a small, but well populated village. It ends up feeling forced.
Now, with that all said, there are some genuinely funny, and genuinely wild moments as the pair drive beat up trucks that they heavily modify. The forced narrative hurts a bit though, and the final challenge to build a bridge in homage to a brutal and horrific real event is also a but tacky. That’s kind of par for the course with Top Gear though, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Africa Special (Season 19 Ep 6 & 7)
The “Africa Special” has all the tools for an excellent special, and it has moments that stand out. It also has some moments that just don’t pop.
If this special were the only special, or if it belonged to another show, it would be a massive success. The episode has some amazing moments as the hosts try to find the true source of the Nile. There is also an especially epic traffic jam that is just shocking. That all works.
There’s just something a little flat as Clarkson, May, and Hammond quickly make their way through several countries. They never really stop to appreciate it, nor do they ever really show anything they haven’t done before. It is still an excellent episode, just not as strong as the others.
Middle East Special (Season 16 Ep 0-2)
This special is in some ways a victim of Top Gear’s success. The trio head to the Middle East for a Christmas special, and their journey goes shockingly well. There is plenty of danger all around them, and there are numerous restrictions, but ultimately their journey is a fairly tame drive from Iraq to Bethlehem.
One of the biggest issues they come across on this trip is that the show is so popular in Syria that there is a concern the Israeli border guards won’t let them in (Israel has a policy of not allowing people that have traveled to Syria cross the border). May also gets knocked out, Clarkson is nearly killed by a bug, and Hammond’s car nearly explodes, but all in all it was a leisurely trip.
With that said, how many other shows get to race cars on an old chariot track? The “Middle East Special” may be in the middle of this list, but that is very much relative and shows how strong the Top Gear specials are.
Patagonia Special (Season 22 Ep 0-1 & 0-22)
There is a poetic justice that the last Top Gear special featuring Clarkson, Hammond, and May ended in disaster. To be fair, that probably contributed to Clarkson’s firing, but it is still fitting.
The “Patagonia Special” became well known for the controversy surrounding Clarkson’s license plate, which many in Argentina felt was a reference to the Falkland War. The Top Gear production team has repeatedly stated that not only was it unintentional, it would be almost impossible for to have deliberately done it. That didn’t stop a mob from waiting for the hosts to violently chase the cast and crew out of Argentina. It’s remarkable, and the danger is very real.
Putting that climax aside, the rest of the special was filled with some remarkable footage. It isn’t quite as impressive as some of the others, but that is credit to those other specials rather than a knock on this one.
U.S. Special (Season 9 Ep 3)
This special is amazing, revealing, and incredibly depressing for American Top Gear fans.
It begins simply enough, with a challenge to get from southern Florida to hurricane ravaged New Orleans while driving cheap, American made cars. Say what you will about the Deep South, it has good roads, so the challenge should have been fairly straightforward.
If you discount the “Winter Olympics Special” this episode is actually the first of what would become the format for the others. It is also one of the first times Top Gear discovers how horribly wrong things can go, as the hosts are forced to flee from a group of rednecks that threaten the hosts and the crew. Any and all scripting disappears the moment someone throws a rock at you.
Even putting aside that seminal moment in the series’ history, the rest of the special showed the hosts messing with each other, complaining bitterly, and celebrating the world of cars. So basically it was Top Gear at its finest.
Botswana Special (Season 10 Ep 4)
One of the earliest specials is also one of the best, as the hosts seem to genuinely be surprised with what they are seeing and doing. There is certainly some scripting mixed in there, but it comes off as natural.
To highlight this, at one point the hosts encounter the then-Vice President of Botswana in a seemingly random, or at least very informal meeting. The Vice President smiles and jokes about the hosts’ trip across the desert, but then genuinely seems shocked when he sees the beat up old cars they are about to attempt the journey in. That is Top Gear at its finest, when the hosts do things that seem insane.
Clarkson, May, and Hammond also develop real bonds with their vehicles, so much so that Hammond named his “Oliver” and later shipped it back to the UK where he then had it restored. It all just feels honest, even with the scripted moments.
Bolivia Special (Season 14 Ep 6)
There’s a moment in the “Bolivia Special” where the hosts simply have to stop. Their lives are in danger, and the risks just become too great. It hammers home the point that while there are some choreographed sections and a full production team is shadowing the hosts throughout, the challenges they take can frequently be dangerous. It isn’t just a trick of a well honed TV production team, the footage is genuinely remarkable.
The hosts trek through the Amazon jungle, then make their way to the “Death Road,” a stupidly dangerous road that earned its name countless times over. They then contend with their increasingly deteriorating vehicles in an environment that seems to want them dead. You can fake some of that, but not all.
Most of the Top Gear specials have a lot of risk to them, but this one is arguably the riskiest of them all. The “Polar Special” may have had more opportunities for death to grab the hosts, but this special was on reflection, the craziest of them all.
Vietnam Special (Season 8 Ep 8)
Compared to some of the other specials, the Vietnam trip is fairly tame, at least in terms of the ruggedness of the journey (that is very much relative though). It also shows the hosts at their finest, joking with each other in a natural way, while exploring regions most of us will never have a chance to see. It may actually be the most honest episode of Top Gear ever made, and it comes across like a true road trip amongst friends – or maybe frenemies.
Sure, there were some scripted moments – probably more than we know – but it was done so smoothly that it felt like everything was natural. And a lot of it certainly was. You can’t really plan for torrential rains and mechanical difficulties, especially when you are on a cheap, underpowered bike. Clarkson even broke two ribs on this journey. The threat of making the hosts ride a bike painted with an American flag deep into the heart of what was once North Vietnam, was also appropriately shocking.
If you ever find yourself wondering why May and Hammond both decided to leave the BBC and follow Clarkson after his firing, watch this episode. The trio have a natural camaraderie that plays out well on screen. This episode more than any other in the series’ history shows exactly that.
Polar Special (Season 9 Ep 8)
Selecting a “best” Top Gear special is a difficult choice. It could have gone to any of several episodes, and you could make a great case for any of them. With that said, it’s tough to pick against a show where the presenters could have easily died several time on their way to setting a world record.
As previously noted, Top Gear is at its best when it is more spontaneous and less scripted. In this special, there is very little that could have been scripted. From the moment a trainer pushed Clarkson into arctic water to the look of frustration bordering on hatred on May’s face, there are some true moments here. Sure, the gin and tonic may have been planned (or not), but it is a great moment for the series.
Scripted or not, the journey to the North Pole is a grueling one, and the dangers were very real – so is the desolation. Top Gear frequently finds itself in locations that are mostly inaccessible, but few are as inhospitable as the North Pole. Clarkson and May went on to become the first team to drive to the Pole, an accomplishment that was somewhat lost in the entertainment value of the show.
The “Polar Special” is filled with danger, humor, and remarkable moments that will leave you in awe. And that’s Top Gear at its absolute finest.