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James May’s Adventures in Politically Motivated Cars

Although there are any number of shows that have come along in their wake, cars on television are most famously associated with Top Gear, about which I’m sure we all have strong views… at least about its presenters. Many of us were early fans of Jeremy Clarkson’s laconic bombast, or at least until he got too up himself and then we turned on him with a contempt bordering on hatred. Richard Hammond soon turned into the slightly sad but worthy equivalent of the Little Steam Engine That Could Try Harder but after the Top Gear trio finally left the BBC and took Amazon’s shilling, only James May retained a modicum of universal respect.

The respect continued with his fascinating and hugely entertaining BBC series The Reassembler, in which he did what it said on the tin and put together everyday-ish items such as a lawn mower and portable record player from a pile of parts, and his wry but well-informed (if scripted) approach that made that series a joy to behold was evident in 2014’s James May’s Cars of the People which is now being repeated on BBC4.

The first episode, re-shown on Sunday last, featured the VW Beetle, its East European counterpart, the frankly egregious Trabant, its later brethren the Wartburg, the dinky little Fiat 500 and most interestingly from this writer’s point of view, the Fiat 124. The latter might not be considered a ‘people’s car’ in the same way as the others until you realise, as a clearly impressed May explained, it was sold under licence and produced right across the globe, mainly in third world countries, and as the boxy, notoriously badly nailed-together Russian Lada, was in production until 2012 ! And after the Beetle, the best selling car ever.

May’s selective deployment of facts and the archive footage his producers chose to illustrate them makes for compelling television, although the Nazi newsreels explaining the gestation of the VW Beetle were sometime chilling. And mentioning the fact that Britain’s only attempt at rear-wheel drive and spacious utilitarianism – the Hillman Imp – sold just 3% of the number of its Beetle equivalent (see John Simister’s article in TCMR No. 2) was certainly salutary. 

So if The Grand Tour and it’s denuded forbear Top Gear are not to your liking and even classic car inclined shows such as Classic Car SOS and Classic Car Rescue fail to please, do make a point of watching James May’s Cars of the People every Sunday on BBC4 or anytime on iPlayer