Top Gear stories revealed on desert dune bash
The loveable but unruly trio of ‘manchild’ TV presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond have legions of fans across the globe thanks to their antics on popular UK TV motoring show ‘Top Gear’.
And UAE viewers will be in for a hefty helping of the antics involving ‘The Hamster’, ‘Captain Slow’ and loudmouth Clarkson this month, as OSN has lined up four of the show’s ‘best of’ episodes.
Ahead of the first show on Sunday, 7DAYS was invited to test drive the Toyota RHD Hilux 3.0 AT diesel. It is the same four-wheeled beast that was modified by the Nordic giants at the Arctic Trucks company for one of the most memorable ‘Top Gear’ specials, during which May and Clarkson drove the car and raced Hammond - on a dog sled - to the Magnetic North Pole.
Just as exciting as ramming the 2.5 tonne mammoth up Dubai’s ‘Big Red’ sand dunes however, was the behind-the-scenes stories Arctic Truck’s Captain Hjalti ‘Iceberg’ Hjaltason relayed about that epic trip.
Not originally due to be on the North Pole adventure, put back a year after Richard Hammond suffered a near fatal car crash, Hjalti - at well over 6ft - jokes that he was the only one Clarkson could not bully.
“It was a brilliant trip for me personally and a huge thing for Arctic Trucks, a big break,” he says. “I was not chosen originally because I was a Bear Grylls, boy scout type person. But we knew the cars, how to drive them and make them work.”
Despite his Arctic inexperience, Hjalti must have felt like he had to play babysitter to Clarkson and Co, who are renowned for their mucking around as much as they are for their motoring insight.
Hjalti admits he was concerned that antics in the Arctic could have been a cocktail for disaster.
“Remember the scene when they are drinking gin and tonic and saying technically they are sailing and not driving?” asks Hjalti.
“They had been doing that the whole day. It was surreal, the camp was attacked by a polar bear and we were in the middle of a sea of ice, sleeping in tents and had a couple of celebrities drinking gin and tonic. It was not very professional,” he recalls.
“But obviously everybody clicked together and realised how to do this... And Clarkson and May were not drinking the whole time!”
While the BBC team will have wanted to get the action in the can, Hjalti says there was no room for prima donnas on the trip.
“The whole time there was a danger that the car could fall through the ice. So it was a little bit plain luck,” he says.
Prior to departure, local pilots and a weatherman told them the ice was impossible to cross in certain places.
It was not just luck that got them through though, the Top Gear boys were helped by what people from this region would know as ‘wasta’ - influence. Not only had Toyota signed on with an open chequebook to help fund the trip, without any guarantees of good reviews for the truck, dropping the Top Gear name helped keep the expedition on track, literally.
“We had been driving through rumble fields for days,” says Hjalti, referring to the most gloomy part of the trip where Clarkson and May were genuinely fed up.
“We heard it was possible to get ice satellite images. That is the only thing that kept us going. These guys are Top Gear, they can call somebody. So they called this Canadian guy who controls the [satellite] camera up there. “‘Hello, we are Top Gear’ and we need a satellite image of this area’.
‘Ok it costs $10,000.’ ‘Tell me - are you a Top Gear fan? If I give you two tickets to see filming would you send the picture?’”
“No problem, they got it for free,” says Hjalti.
“When we got the picture it showed a clean surface in the middle of the fields. It was like 50km long - like a highway - so for two days we are digging into this only because we knew that highway was there, somewhere.”
As we bash up and down UAE dunes - a world away from the Arctic chill - it is clear that Hjalti is fiercely proud of the modified pick-up and the hundreds of hours of work put into it. So, it was a little disheartening when the Top Gear producers were adamant they wanted to break it on camera during the Arctic slog.
“They said to us in the beginning they were going to break it. that it would look good, they were going to roll it over,” he says.
“I felt really bad about it. On the second day though they realised that if we broke down we were done.”
Despite, this Clarkson did manage to destroy a shock absorber on the Hilux and damaged the fuel tank.
“Luckily that was an extra tank and he did not completely destroy it. If he had lost the fuel we would probably still be there,” says Hjalti.
Arctic Trucks modify cars for Toyota’s ‘Extreme’ range for the UAE market, including the FJ Cruiser.
The Best of Top Gear shows start Sunday on OSN at 11pm.