Jeremy Clarkson hates America. He hates the junk they call food, the stuff in “Styrofoam buckets” that “passes for coffee”, the blindingly shiny perfect teeth, and he finds the natives rather thick – both in the head and around the middle. But what he hates the most about America is what it drives.
Their cars are cheaper and have a bit of power, he notes, but that’s because they’re under-engineered rubbish, made out of “melted down action men”. Worse, if the Americans actually manage to stumble upon a proper bit of (European) car-making, like say a Mercedes SLR McLaren, they ruin it – cut to a shot of a fugly SLR tricked out with broad red panels. It’s properly hideous.
But then a funny thing happened. He drove a Corvette C6 and actually liked it. American automakers, it seems, have discovered materials like carbon fiber and devised a method to steer around a corner. Could it be that he was all wrong or is the C6 a fluke? There was only one way to find out – bite the bullet and make the hop over the Atlantic. Jeremy Clarkson: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly is the result.
It starts out in a style familiar to Top Gear fans around the world – Clarkson ranting on in his inimitable style as the camera pans to take in some stylish shots of America’s Wild West. Well, sort of – it’s really just California, except for a couple of visits to Las Vegas, but that’s close enough for a Brit, what with the ominous rattlesnakes and scuttling scorpions, not to mention people who think Asia is a country in Europe and Scotland is next to Austria.
As an added bonus, he’s brought The Stig over despite rumors that “his head would explode if he left the shores of England”. As I find myself mourning The Black Stig at odd moments, I am appalled that they would chance The White Stig thus, but he seems to be in fine helmeted form, so that’s all right.
First up, the Corvette Z06 – he races it along a track in Death Valley and rather likes it. He thinks it compares favorably to Ferrari’s products and for one-third the price, he ups his ‘like’ to ‘fantastic’. If you think this seems a little too good to be true, you’re right. He takes it out on the road and everything falls apart. The tyres are too loud, the gearbox feels like it “belongs on a plow” and the radio is useless… “In many ways then, this car is rather like herpes: great fun catching it, but not so much fun to live with every day.”
It’s also a gas guzzler, which sets up our next car very nicely: the Toyota Prius. Oh, dear. This is going to get ugly real fast, isn’t it? He begins by pooh-poohing the vaunted fuel efficiency and admits that he loathes the look of it. “What about speed?” he asks a bit rhetorically. “Nope, it hasn’t got any.”
All of this introduces us to “Billy Bob”, who thinks “Deliverance is a documentary and his top three loves are, in reverse order, his cousin, his collection of guns and, at number one, his pickup truck.” Could there be anyone more American? Billy Bob sprays some spittle and then brings out his gun collection (which includes what looks like an anti-aircraft machine gun) and blows the Prius to smithereens. Thanks, Billy Bob.
That settled, we go to a car that Clarkson likes much better – the Ford Mustang. A true piece of Americana that gets beaten by a real, live mustang in a race. Seriously, horse: 38 seconds; car: 40 seconds. “Yes, I’ve seen faster cows than this!” he yells.
Mustang fans should wait before putting on their KKK outfits and setting out in search of a good ol’ lynching however, because that was just the set up. The Mustang by itself might be a good looking piece of garbage, he says, but the idea is to build up the basic model into something “brilliant” and “fantastic” (even if still unable to negotiate a corner). He offers two examples – the Roush Mustang and the Shelby Mustang. Souped up racing versions of the original, it’s the Roush that wins him over, mainly because they actually re-engineered the car rather than jazzing it up on the surface like Shelby.
So of course, he sets up it up against the Lotus Exige S. In a race between the “American Eagle” and the “British Mosquito”, the “plastic toaster from Norfolk” wins because … it can steer around the corners. Can you see a theme here?
Well, okay, but what happens if you pit an Escalade against a Hummer H2 on a race up a steep mountain? The answer is that you’re likely to win – as long as you’re in a Range Rover. He steers with his feet on the steepest part of the mountain, stops to pick up litter, gets briefly lost, chats with his producers and still makes it to the top first. Clarkson can’t contain his giggles as he examines the Escalade and H2 sitting stuck halfway up the slope. “Rotten bit of luck for them.”
He’s so taken aback by the sheer crumminess of the Escalade in partcular, which literally disintegrated during the challenge, that he sets up a fishtank test between a Lincoln Town Car and a Jaguar XJ6, a car he describes as one made by a bunch of “Communists in the Midlands”, so badly made is it. The quest here is to see which shoddily made car can retain the most liquid if you drilled a hole on top and filled it full of water. The Lincoln refuses the contest point-blank – everything leaks out faster than they can put it in.
So, “America is losing everything”, and even the heart of Jeremy Clarkson is wrung. He decides to hand them a break: “Let’s look at straight line speed.” The candidate is a Chrysler 300C SRT8. “It’s a modern, road burning muscle car,” he notes. Alas, none of its muscle kept it from keening over in front of a… BMW M5? The video (below) is proof.
Hell, the Americans can’t even get the sound of the engine right. The Europeans don’t just make racing sounds – they have a bloody symphony going. Picture Jeremy ‘Petrolhead’ Clarkson in ecstasy, strumming an imaginary engine as a random European car races around a track.
Whatever. Now comes the most expensive sports car America has ever made – the Cadillac XLR-V. It’s stunning looking, fast and powerful. It’s also “fairly sophisticated” and a bit of a bargain compared to similar models put out by the likes of Mercedes Benz. “On paper it looks amazing… and it is. Amazingly awful.” He hates everything about it, even the European stuff they put on it. Now that is bad. “It is foul,” Clarkson corrects, because he must always have the last word.
He’s so depressed, he has to cheer himself up by tearing a 1994 Buick Park Avenue (“I would rather go on a bus than drive a car like this”) apart with a pair of giant secateurs wielded by a seemingly bovine American and his friends. They slowly and methodically chew their way through some indistinguishable food just as the machine chews up the Buick. And no, I didn’t mind that anvil dropping on my head. Not at all.
But all this is merely leading up to the ultimate horror – pickup trucks. “It’s a Dodge Ram and it looks good – if you’re nine.” It’s not even a car, as classified by the American government, he says, and has apparently achieved about the same level of engineering as an early 19th century covered wagon. But that’s all right, he tells us, because when the time comes for you to marry your sister you can just load a leaf blower, a cement mixer and a barbecue set in the back and you’ll be set. “What?” he drawls. “She’s awful purty and comes from good stock.” Oh, shut up.
Then there is a brief cameo by a Harley Davidson that he blows up. I didn’t exactly get why, except he now gets to smirk, “Now that is what I call a hog roast.”
But really, who cares about a bike going boom when the Dodge Viper is up next? Despite all the warnings by various governmental agencies warning him that to get in the Viper and drive is to die (literally), he jumps in anyway. And nearly dies. “A big red V10 axe murderer,” he calls it, spinning crazily out of control. “I do like it though,” he says, his eyes alight with that manic gleam that shines from them whenever he’s having fun. Alas, he doesn’t love it enough to not compare it to the BMW Z4, which he describes as a “bit rubbish”. I might not know much about cars, but I do know an insult when I see one.
But wait! What’s this? It’s a Ford GT. Of course, it’s about as American as “America’s national anthem, which was written by a Brit”, what with all the Europeans that worked on it. But like the American Navy, he says, which was also engineered by a Brit before the Americans finessed it, the GTX1 is much more American in character and a complete dream.
Look! It makes lovely sounds, goes really fast, isn’t as expensive as its European counterparts and… are you ready? Steers around corners! Yes! He loves it so much he actually bought it.
Now, lest you think this is a documentary by a sniffy Brit about how much America sucks, let me hasten to tell you that you’re only half right. Sniffy Brit he might be, but Clarkson seems genuinely baffled about the quality of American cars. After all, he points out, Americans make the fastest airplane in the world (the Blackbird SR-71), put the first man on the moon, and engineered a city that never runs out of water in the middle of a desert (Las Vegas). Clearly, this is a country that can do better.
Clarkson being Clarkson, he obviously has a couple of theories to offer, chief amongst them his hypothesis that Americans don’t build their cars to last because they’re a society used to the disposable. As his pet example is the ’94 Buick, I found it a little hard to argue but you might have better luck.
As a person who knows nothing about cars and couldn’t care less about any of the models featured, I enjoyed myself watching this. There was a point wherein I found myself getting a little tired of watching all the American cars get humiliated by all the failed cars of Europe, but then Clarkson would snark another comment, finding a new way to drive home his already obvious point and I would forget my irritation. Of course, it also helps that I’m not an American and am more or less inured to his ways as a loyal Top Gear fan.
Like all of Jeremy Clarkson’s various efforts, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is enormous fun. If you’re a sensitive soul, however, you’d be well advised to leave this film alone because he still remains the unchallenged “hero of political incorrectness”.
[Originally published at Blogcritics.org, Feb. 2007]