Favorite Top Gear Episodes: The Stig Laps £100 Cars + ’68 Charger
It’s Volvo versus Audi versus Rover in this malaise melee.
I've talked to plenty of Top Gear fans who love the show's infamous cheap-car challenges, but I'm amazed at how many have not seen the grandpappy of them all: The original £100 car challenge from Season 4, Episode 3.
The original idea was that Top Gear had received complaints about only featuring high-end, high-price-tag cars (a real change from 80s- and 90s-era "old" Top Gear, which was more consumer focused). In order to combat that perception, the presenters were each given a budget of £100 ($125 in today's money, about $180 when the episode aired in 2004), told to buy a road-legal car, and report to a specific highway rest stop for—and every Top Gear fan should know the next four words by heart—a number of challenges.
Jeremy showed up with a Volvo 760GLE—"Two tons of Swedish magnificence!"—while James May bought an Audi 80 1.8E and Richard Hammond showed up in a pile of rust vaguely the size and shape of a Rover 416 GTi. Their first challenge was a drive to Manchester and back, which, aside from the Volvo spontaneously emptying its own radiator, turned out to be surprisingly drama free. Back at the test track, the cars were subjected to a braking test, an inventory of non-working electrical bits, and a Stig lap (the only time I can recall seeing The Stig sawing fruitlessly away at not one steering wheel, but three).
And then came the final challenge: The guys had to drive their cars into a wall at 30 mph. The hosts would be docked 10 points for death, 5 points for each broken bone, and 1 point for a blood injury. The Volvo's speedo didn't work, so Jeremy hit the barrier at closer to 40 mph, resulting in a broken thumb and 5 points off his score. In the end, though, Jeremy pulled out a last-second victory when—well, you'll just have to watch the episode to see.
As a bonus, this episode also features Richard Hammond's review of what he (and I) considers the greatest American muscle car—the 1968 Dodge Charger 440 R/T. I will never get tired of seeing big American iron on tiny, rain-soaked British roads.
As far as cheap-car challenges go, this episode is pretty tame; there was a lot more action to be seen in future challenges, which included £1,000 Alfa-Romeos, £1,200 British Leyland cars, £1,500 Porsches, and even £5,000 heavy-duty trucks. These, in turn, would spawn the epic cross-country challenges that would become some of the show's best-known and best-loved episodes. But I rather like the humble £100 challenge, because it shows how the whole thing began.
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