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Top Gear Live’s secret barn

  1. Jeremy, James and Richard’s Finnish replacement, Jussi, are bringing Top Gear Live to Finland this week. But how did the shows’ crazy contraptions - last seen at the Birmingham NEC - come about? Dan Read went to Top Gear Live’s secret barn to find out…

    In a draughty barn in an English farmyard lives the weirdest collection of cars you’ve ever seen. Cobwebs cling to roll cages of apocalyptic Porsches, and melted number plates hang from battered Fiestas: battle scars from four years on the road with the Top Gear Live show. Every car, every wound, tells a little story, and nobody knows the life of these machines better than Rowland French, the show’s creative director.

    Words: Dan Read

    Photos: Rowan Horncastle

  2. “Those white Fiestas were supposed to have gas guns,” he tells us. “But they were nicked the day before a show. So we called an armoury who replaced them with real weapons that fired blanks.” You might remember them chasing Stig around the arena in 2009. When he deployed fake ice from the back of his buggy, the Fiestas hopped onto hydraulic castors and skidded over the floor.

  3. It worked so well that Rowland got thinking about a stunt for last year’s Olympic-themed show. “It felt just like driving on real ice,” he says. “So I went out and bought some Fiat Stilos on eBay, all under 60,000 miles, fitted them with the same system and invented car curling.” The presenters loved it. Which is why they’re parked here rather than festering under some scrapheap.

  4. In another corner lurk two Carmageddon cars, looking like Mad Max props. Based on a heavily fortified Ford Capri and an old Porsche 911, they crashed rather too well, tearing chunks off each other like clashing tanks. Their party piece was a magic roof, which sliced off when they crashed, creating the illusion of driver decapitation.

  5. And what about the black-and-white police Viper? “It used to be red,” says Rowland. “And I actually travelled to work in it for a while. It was the worst commuter car in the world - heavy clutch, plastic windows and the skinny rear tyres I’d put on didn’t help.” It finally ended up in the show, but only after he tried 16 cop-car designs before settling on this highway-patrol number.

  6. Perhaps the only things missing here are the 25 City Rovers destroyed in Clarkson’s ‘splat the rat’ game. “Jeremy came up with the idea on a flight to South Africa,” Rowland says. “We needed 25 cars, one per show, but there were only 27 on sale in Britain at the time. So I had to buy them all at once, or else I’d drive the market price up. The dealers couldn’t believe their luck…”

  7. In another corner wheeze the beaten-up Robin Reliants and Bedford Rascals used for car football. Beside them is a pink Suzuki Swift, which actually turns out to be a Mitsubishi Evo 8 that performed donuts on a platform 12 feet off the ground. Another Evo is to be found under a pseudo black cab, while the biggest surprise is probably the genuine NASCAR disguised as a London bus.

  8. “I built lots of stuff you might not have noticed,” Rowland explains. “Like the Focus RSes with special paint that changed colour when heated.” The black cars were kept in a refrigerated lorry, then paraded in front of the audience before going through a heat tunnel. They emerged eight seconds later… this time, shiny white.

  9. “I like to name the cars too,” he says. “I tell the stunt drivers it’s like having a dance partner - you have to learn to love them.” So there are Hades and Cerberus the Carmageddon cars, named after inhabitants of the ancient Greek hell. And then there are Ghost and Darkness, the flaming Impreza rally cars, named after some man-eating lions in Africa.

  10. And of course, there are the Challenger and Discovery: the Fiesta STs converted into replica space shuttles, which led Jeremy to announce he knew lots about the subject. Including the fact that the heatproof tiles could be replaced with other things capable of surviving the furnace of re-entry. Diamonds, for example. Or pizza.

  11. Keen to prove him wrong, Hammond and May presented their colleague with a cheesy margherita. Feeling confident, Jeremy held it over his crotch… while the other two flamed it with a blowtorch. Two minutes and one somewhat charred crust later, Clarkson’s theory was proven correct.

  12. The cremated results aren’t in the old barn. But there are many charcoalled bumpers and warnings of latent explosives. It might be quiet now, but when Rowland’s SFX guys get to work, these dusty sleepers are a blaze of light and fire. Just don’t tell the insurers…

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