It says a great deal about the exalted status of Top Gear – that rare, almost unique combination of cult and popular phenomenon – that two such showbiz veterans as Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc should be so jittery about taking the show on. Both men possess as much car and broadcasting know-how as their illustrious – and latterly infamous – predecessors. And yet jittery the new presenters most certainly are.
Evans has spoken of the prospect of “imminent career death” if his tenure is not judged a success. Various unnamed “weasels” and “malcontents” (his words) in the industry have, he claims, got it in for him. He is referencing, presumably, the rumours surrounding filming this winter: that he was struggling to drive and talk at the same time; that the budget was over- running; that he had vomited after one especially hairy ride.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been driven around at really high speeds but when you are, it’s difficult,” he admits. “I was sick. The next week a Top Gun pilot was sick as well, so I’m in good company.” Footage of LeBlanc performing “doughnuts” (tight spins, lots of smoke, lots of rubber) near the Cenotaph necessitated an apology. Suffice to say, when we meet, Evans is not his usual sunny self. Nor, according to further whispers, has he been so on set. He is, however, admittedly yet to punch any colleagues when offered a cold supper.
LeBlanc, meanwhile, when I speak to him, confesses he’s surprised by the negative publicity the show has received, even before the first episode is aired. “I didn’t anticipate the ruthlessness of the British press. I know it’s a big show but hey, we’re not cowboys, it’s all meticulously planned, permission granted, in writing. I didn’t fire those guys [Clarkson, Hammond and May]. I’ve met them. They’re nice guys. I’ll watch their new show. I wasn’t there when any of it went down. It’s not my fault they’re gone. I didn’t put a gun in anyone’s mouth.”
Other reports have suggested the two stars don’t get along. Having interviewed them separately, I can’t speak for the warmth, or otherwise, of their relationship. LeBlanc, however, is emphatic. “All this stuff that Chris and I are at war with each other is a big load of bulls**t. We’ve never had a rift! I’m a true car fan, Chris is a true car fan. We’re hanging out, having a laugh, doing our best. He is an extremely smart guy. I’d beat him in a race, though – and you can tell him I said that.”
Evans does not refute the boast. When both men appeared in the show’s previous incarnation as the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car, while Evans did well, LeBlanc clocked the best time of that series. “Matt is a brilliant driver,” says Evans. “Really on it, gung ho. I love cars, but I’ve never raced. I’ve gone over 200mph, but for me cars are more about the aesthetic. Matt can take an engine to pieces and put it back together again blindfolded. I can’t do that.”
“Chris is more about the aura of cars, the mystique,” says LeBlanc. “I’m more technical. I’ve always been fascinated by how these inanimate objects harness this explosion. The internal combustion engine is an amazing thing. Plus,” he adds, “I inject comedy. That’s my background. I’m always pitching jokes.”
His motoring expertise notwithstanding, LeBlanc knows when to quit. “I’m not going to pretend I do all my own stunts. I do as much as I’m comfortable with. When it gets really crazy, I have a stunt driver. That’s no secret. Insurance companies are involved. If something calls for real precision driving, I let someone else do it.”
Whether Evans and LeBlanc can re-create the bantering conviviality that made the Clarkson-Hammond-May dynamic so entertaining remains to be seen. Maybe they’ll develop a different sort of chemistry, who knows? What is not in doubt is that both new boys idolise automobiles every bit as much as their forerunners. Evans, 50, has been “in love with cars for as long as I can remember, from when I first pushed toys around on the carpet. My boys are the same now.” He has two sons, seven and three, plus a 28-year-old daughter. “She loves cars too. She’s married to a mechanic.” During his Warrington childhood his family variously had a Vauxhall Victor, a Ford Anglia and a Hillman Imp. “The Anglia is the most dynamic. The Hillman is the most eccentric. The Vauxhall is the most sentimental, it was my dad’s last car before he died.”
The first car he owned himself, aged 17, was a Mini 1000. “It cost £500. My mum worked her b******s off to pay for it.” Evans took his test at the earliest opportunity. “It was a massive deal. TV shows and films in the 70s were full of cool cars. It mattered. It was a ticket to the rest of the world, driving your mates to the beach, chipping in for the petrol, taking your first girlfriend out for the day.”
When he started earning serious money on The Big Breakfast in the early 1990s Evans bought a Ferrari 328 GTS. Still only in his mid-20s, “the insurance cost almost as much as the car. Three things you spend money on before you have kids: houses, holidays and cars.” Especially cars, in his case. “They represented an escape, an opportunity, an aspiration. And if I’m honest they’re about materialism too, not having had anything growing up.”
His car collection these days is forever changing. “Generally, I’m coming back to Britain. I have more British cars. I was into Italian before that. Ferrari. Lamborghini. Alfa Romeo.” Evans won’t go into more detail on the current contents of his garage. Matt LeBlanc, I press, told me he has “lots of Porsches, a Mercedes and two Ford trucks, plus between 30 and 35 motorbikes.” “Good for him,” Evans grunts.
Over then to the rather more forthcoming LeBlanc. Besides the “five or six Porsches, old and new”, the Merc, the pick-ups and the motorcycles (Ducatis, Suzukis, dirt bikes), LeBlanc, 48, also owns “a big RV motor home. I’m also gonna get the new Ford Focus RS. I had a Ferrari for a while but I’m pretty much a Porsche guy. I’ve got what I want. I like the new Rolls-Royce Dawn but I don’t know if it’s for me.”
Not a bad dilemma for the son of a humble mechanic to have. Raised in Newton, just outside Boston in Massachusetts, LeBlanc was, like his co-host, “obsessed with cars from an early age. I couldn’t wait to get my licence. My grandfather had a ride-on lawnmower and I’d always want to be on that. I loved go-karting. We’d go on vacation to Cape Cod and pass these go-karting places and I was always like, ‘Can we stop?’ and it was always, ‘No no no.’ My dad taught me to drive when I was about 13. I’d ridden motorcycles from when I was eight.”
LeBlanc was, he says, even enamoured of his stepfather’s AMC Javelin, despite it being “a rusty piece of junk”. No surprise that he took – and passed – his driving test at 16. “The first car I owned was an 84 Nissan pick-up. The first car I bought when I earned some money was a 1971 De Tomaso Pantera. I always loved that car.”
Auto-appeal for LeBlanc resides not in the convenience of a car – “I use a motorcycle for that.” (Evans, interestingly, takes the same approach when commuting from his home in Ascot: “I ride a motorbike – Piaggio 500 – in to work most days to beat the traffic.”) Nor does LeBlanc rely on his four-wheeled fleet to secure solitude, as many drivers do. “I’ve got a 12-year-old daughter,” he says. “I often drive with her.”
Rather, the buzz lies in the ability of a car to make him “the master of my own destiny”. And how does London traffic square with being a master of your own destiny? “I get driven around a lot here,” he admits. “My schedule is pretty tight.” (LeBlanc has concurrently been filming the fifth series of Episodes with Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig). “I sit in the back. On my days off I tend to sleep.”
His main home is in Los Angeles. It was there, a few years before he appeared as a guest, that he first watched Top Gear. “I’d see re-runs and thing, ‘I like this show!’ My whole circle of friends is car and bike guys so we were all into it. Then when I went on, so many people stopped me on the street to say they’d seen it, I realised it was a big deal. It got bigger and bigger. Then I looked at the numbers and, man, they were large! I was blown away.”
What was the appeal of the old format for him? “I liked the honest approach to reviewing cars. I liked the dynamic between the presenters, the craziness, the stunts, the fun, the way it was part cars, but also part travel, part culture, part comedy. I never thought for a moment I’d end up on the show.”
What put him into the mix as a presenter, he explains, was when he hosted a spin-off called Top Gear: the Races for BBC America earlier this year. “My first day in the office on this job,” Evans recalls, “I watched the advert for Matt’s Races show and I thought, ‘Yeah, that works. Let’s phone him up.’ ” Evans had first met LeBlanc at a party 20 years earlier at the height of the Friends hysteria. “He doesn’t remember but I do. I was like… it’s Matt LeBlanc!’ ”
Talking of Friends, LeBlanc is hopeful he might be able to entice some of his former co-stars onto the show. “Yeah, who knows, down the road. [David] Schwimmer is into cars. After him it’s probably Courteney [Cox]. She’s a car nut, believe it or not. She’s forever asking me about cars and I’m forever talking her out of some rubbish she wants to buy.”
Evans is also frequently asked by his pals for similar guidance. “People ask my opinion about what car they should get and I always say, ‘What do you want it for? What do you want it to do?’ The important thing is to add to the story of the car. My favourite at the moment is probably our 1976 Rolls-Royce Corniche, because we use it for family holidays, so it’s about those memories.”
Other than that, he adds, cars for him are all about their aesthetic, “the look, the sound, the feel. When I’m in the car I don’t have the radio on. I listen to the engine. It’s been said the sound of a V8 engine is so alluring because it’s syncopated to a human heartbeat.
“Modern cars,” says Evans, “were at a point of cancelling each other out. The Ferrari 488 can do 203mph, the Lamborghini Huracan can do 201mph. So what? They dealt the driver out of the game. Now they’re going back to what it actually feels like to drive. At Maranello [Ferrari’s HQ] they have a guy whose job is to find ways of reconnecting the driver to the car.”
Making that connection is now, in its way, his job too. “When I got the call last summer,” he remembers, “I took half an hour to think about it before I said yes. It’s the biggest TV show in the world, watched by 350 million people, the most illegally downloaded show on the planet. I couldn’t say no really. Well, if I had, it would have meant giving up on making TV programmes.”
So is he anxious? “Not at all,” he says, offering a tight smile. “I’m focused.”