ClassicLine’s resident roadtripper, Ben Coombes, is back with a brand-new series of motoring travel blogs. Combined with his love for classic cars, Ben will be bringing us tales of epic road trips, driving adventures and the latest from the Pub2Pub HQ.
Generally, the morning trawl through the overnight emails is a fairly uninspiring event. The first coffee of the day is downed against a backdrop of clicks revealing invoices, marketing mailshots and work-related requests, and the desire to return to bed grows with every message. However occasionally, amongst the tedium there lurks a message which piques your attention. Way back in the pre-Omicron world of last autumn, such an email was found lurking within my inbox. The jist of the message was:
‘TVRs needed to participate in the filming of the Top Gear Christmas Special.’
The email had been sent by Eric Appleby, the TVR Car Club’s regional organiser for the Hampshire area, who had taken on the task of tracking down ten TVRs to participate on behalf of the club. Predictably, after sending his email to his club mailing list, he was inundated with offers, and so had the unenviable task of drawing names out of the hat to choose the final ten. And luckily, my name came out of the hat. Result.
Kermit was going on Top Gear.
The shoot was scheduled for a Monday in October, and in the weeks leading up to it, the morning scan of the inbox continued to produce regular sparks of interest – details of the plan for the day, paperwork and disclaimers to sign and even a request to wear our best Christmas jumpers. And then the wait was over, and it was time to head to Dunsfold.
With Kermit having received its first polish in years in recognition of the event, we set out that morning full of anticipation for the day ahead. The sun was shining, and we even found an open petrol station with a minimum of effort – quite an achievement back in October.
Our first stopping point was at a queue-laden services on the M27, and it was here that we met up with Eric and the other TVRs, which certainly made for an uplifting sight. A selection of Griffiths and Chimaeras, a bright orange Tuscan, a Cerbera, a gloriously ‘80s wedge and a few other entries from the Blackpool manufacturer’s ‘greatest hits’ back catalogue, along with their enthusiastic owners – our burbling convoy to Dunsfold represented everything that’s right with the current-day TVR scene.
On reaching the hallowed turf of the airfield which plays host to the famous Top Gear test track, we were ushered to a holding area where the true size of what we were to be involved with became apparent for the first time. On the drive over, our convoy of TVRs had felt like a serious gathering, but we now realised that Top Gear had pulled out all the stops and brought together around 200 of the finest and most varied enthusiast cars around. There were contingents from the Aston Martin, Lotus and Lamborghini owner’s clubs. There was a Noble M600, a Ferrari 355 and a brace of Ariel Nomads. A plucky Morgan 3-wheeler shared tarmac space with a KTM crossbow and a Pagani Zonda.
Could parking lots get any better? I highly doubt it. We were waiting in a queue which put most car shows to shame.
And waiting was certainly a feature of the day. For six hours we waited in our holding area, as the sounds of hardworking engines drifted over from the just-out-of-sight test track, and the sky phased from watery blue to ominous gunmetal grey. But just as the appeal of wandering the world’s most exotic car park began to wane, we were marshalled onto the test track, where a stage had been set up and a slightly incongruous-looking Christmas market erected.
The intention was that our 200-odd cars should be laid out in a Christmas tree pattern in front of the stage. Once it was dark, they would be lit up with Christmas lights to form a Christmas tree shape so large, it could probably be seen from space. A simple plan, but one which took quite some time to achieve, given the accuracy with which each car needed to be positioned by the marshals. But eventually, as darkness came the job was done, the cars were liberally strewn with fairy lights and it was show time.
After a spot of preliminary filming, we were set up for the main event. Cameras rolled and drones circled overhead as the presenters rolled through the middle of our tree-shaped pattern, following camera car towards the stage. And then, with a press of the big red button which was strategically placed there for the task, we turned on the Christmas lights on the cars, Shakin’ Stevens began to play a Christmas song on the stage, and soon the day’s shoot was in the bag.
Or it would have been, if things were so simple. As with any TV event, multiple shoots were necessary to satisfy the director’s creative whims, meaning that we repeated the scene three times before everyone was happy to call it a day, as the first drops of rain began to fall, and a convoy of exotic metal and fibreglass made its way down the main runway, filing towards the exit.
And the filming wasn’t finished a moment too soon. The rain built into a fearsome storm as I guided Kermit East onto the A303, bound for Devon and home. It came in torrents, pumping down with such force that the windscreen was a sodden blur and the road a muddy torrent. For what seemed like hours, we tiptoed on into the night, the downpour flickering in our headlights and the occasional flash of lightning from the storm overhead.
And then we reached the flooding.
The first area of standing water was the worst. We plunged into it so deeply, it brought back memories of fording burst wadis during the AfricanPorsche Expedition. Muddy water swept up over the windscreen, blotting out our vision as I followed our bow wave, a tactic which succeeded in keeping down the water level in the TVR’s engine bay, and at its low slung air intake, as the distance to dry tarmac slowly dropped from 200 metres to zero. Further flooding followed, and I took to following another, rather more highly slung vehicle to gauge the depth. In one area, we had to swerve around an exhaust which the waters had claimed from an unfortunate motorist, another lake held a large piece of plastic trim to be dodged. And all the time, the rains kept falling and the TVR kept soldiering on, losing a headlight, its speedo, the power steering and the cleanliness of its carpets to the conditions. But eventually, at one in the morning, the rain eased off and we rolled into Devon, the tarmac merely wet rather than sodden and home within reach.
And so ended our day as an extra on Top Gear.
And in our minds, it was clear who the real star of the show had been. Kermit the Chimaera, who once again had shown itself to be a far more tough and stalwart vehicle than anyone would believe.
What a legend.