The 42-year-old Brit’s first-ever presenting gig was in 1988 at BBC Radio in North Yorkshire, reporting on “The Hammond Organ Appreciation Society.” The segment never made it to air, but soon after, on Jan. 1, 1989, Hammond hosted his first radio show. After serving as presenter for car programs on smaller satellite-TV networks, Hammond was selected in 2002 to be the co-host—along with Jeremy Clarkson and James May—of a revamped version of the popular car program Top Gear.
Featuring its cheeky hosts driving an enviable fleet of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Bugattis, the car show has become a genuine phenomenon. With more than 350 million viewers per week in 170 countries, it’s not only the most popular car show in the world but one of the most popular TV shows, period.
Now, Hammond has decided to take his talents to America with a new show, Richard Hammond’s Crash Course. Premiering April 16 on BBC America, the show sees the garrulous British host embed with American workers and operate their big machines, including everything from an Abrams A1M2 tank to tree harvesters. In the process, the show teaches us about the plight of the blue-collar American worker.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Hammond opened up about why people love cars, his favorite Top Gear celeb drivers (hint: Michael Fassbender is one of them), his intriguing new show, and his Hollywood aspirations.
Have you always been into cars?
My grandfather on one side was trained as a cabinetmaker but eventually worked as a coachbuilder and then built cars. I inherited from him a love of cars, but with no technical ability whatsoever, sadly!
What was your first car?
My first car was a 1976 Toyota Corolla Liftback in red, like the one in The Blues Brothers. I painted a Union Jack on the roof. I was absolutely in love with it until I destroyed it, which broke my heart! I was waiting to pull out of a side street onto a main street, and I saw a car coming the other way and he was indicating he was turning off but he had just left the indicator on, so I ended up ramming the side of his huge Volvo with my ’76 Corolla. My parents had bought me it for my 18th birthday, but the accident happened before my 18th birthday had arrived. I was standing in front of it and its face was all crumpled up. My world fell apart! Sadly, I didn’t have another car for quite a few years.
Cars used to be a pretty popular lovemaking destination. Were you one of those people who happened to lose their virginity in a car?
[Laughs] You know I have never been asked that in 17 years! To be honest, my cherry wasn’t popped in one, but a fair amount of practice went in there after. It’s one of the ways cars are wrapped up in the mythology and our past. When you’re a kid, it’s the one place you can go to get away from the adult world.
Why else do you think people love cars so much?
We do use them as a means of self-expression. It’s not just the kid who’s spent every penny from his job to upgrade his car to tell the world he cares about sports cars, it’s also the person driving around in a fuel-conscious hybrid electric car, because it’s more a message to the world than an effective means of saving fuel, to be quite honest. They are an outfit, and we put them on. They also tap into something primal because the ability to move from one place to another at speed is about dominating territory.
Just to play devil’s advocate, when some people see a guy with a humongous SUV, they think: “small penis.” They are ridiculed by some as a representation of a man’s endowment … or lack thereof.
I don’t necessarily disagree with that! They are feathers, and there’s a type of male that needs to display them, as well as an age where men need to display them. It’s a symbol of potency, of power, and of wealth. They are one of the few occasions where we can show the world how we want to be seen. Is it an extension of the penis? I don’t know. I mostly drive around in a Fiat 500 TwinAir, and that’s a pretty small car! [Laughs] But I think nowadays less and less men are burdened by that need.
Does Top Gear have environmental organizations on its case?
We do. Let’s face it: there is a limited supply of fossil fuel and it’s going to come to an end. Whether or not it contributes to danger to the atmosphere … it’s hard to tell because there are so many conflicting reports on either side.
What are your favorite car movies? Did you see Drive?
I did! I really loved it. I’m kind of a classic guy. I do enjoy my Mustangs—I have a ’68 390 GT at home—so I’m a big fan of Bullitt, since it’s [Steve McQueen’s] Bullitt car.
Do you think The Fast and the Furious franchise helped fuel the renewed interest in car culture? It was launched around the same time as the revamped Top Gear.
No, I don’t think so. I think they’re just the same thing that we’re an expression of. For all the reasons I spoke earlier about how passionate we are about cars and how enmeshed in our world they are, that’s why it happened.
You have a segment on Top Gear called “Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car” where celebrities work the racetrack. Who were the best ones this season?
Slash was absolutely incredible! And the guitar came out, so the very last scene involves him standing on a Toyota pickup with a guitar. When Michael Fassbender came in, we were all sitting around going through the script, and he came in and just started chatting away! Really down-to-earth guy.
Did you guys crack any penis jokes [because of Shame]?
Come on, that’s all we did! That’s all we spoke about. He took it all well, of course.
You suffered a terrible crash in a dragster called Vampire back in 2006 that resulted in hospitalization and brain damage. Could you talk about what happened?
I remember I was doing 300mph, although at the time I didn’t know because there was no speedometer fitted, because if there was, they’d have thought I’d push it too fast. We’d wrapped shooting for the day but I said to the director, “I think we’ve got one more run in us.” I remember wrestling with the steering wheel and trying to straighten it out, but it wouldn’t, and I pulled the parachute and hit the brakes but it didn’t do anything, and then I remember it started to roll. I was thinking, “This thing has no roof … I’m going to die.” The next thing I remember is coming to in the hospital a couple of weeks later.
Was there some reluctance to get back in the saddle?
Everyone who acquires a brain injury will tell you that it’s hard to deal with things emotionally. About six months after, we did a race in a car that we’d modified for Top Gear, and about a week running up to it I had been foul to everyone, including my wife, and then the day before I had a breakdown and told my boss, “I don’t want to shoot the show. I’ve had enough.” And then it suddenly became clear that I was scared, and I hadn’t had to handle being scared since the crash. I’d lost all of my coping mechanisms, but once I realized that, I coped with it. But now, it’s taken it’s place in my life as one of the big things that’s happened to me along with meeting and marrying my wife, having my daughters, moving house, getting the job on Top Gear. It’s one of the big milestones of my life and if anything, it’s made me stronger.
Let’s awkwardly segue into your new show, Richard Hammond’s Crash Course.
[Laughs] There is a link in the title and I’m aware of that! And I really don’t mind. But the show was a great proposition about this little guy, after hosting the biggest car show in the world and driving everything in Europe, to take on these huge workplace vehicles and talk to Americans about their lives and jobs. I’ve never done anything in the States, and to work on an American production, by Americans and for Americans, it seemed too interesting to turn down.
Not to give too much away, but in the premiere episode, you operate an Abrams A1M2 Tank, that’s used by the Army. What was that like?
I mean you’re in an enormous, powerful, complicated machine and a formidable weapon, and it felt every inch of that! And I was working with a tight-knit tank crew, so their day job is going to hell and back. To break into that team was pretty hard, but they were so welcome and accommodating. We fired live rounds from the battle tank!
You also got to operate a gigantic machine gun and went to town on a minivan. As a car enthusiast, is the minivan your mortal enemy?
You need an enemy and that just leaps out as something that says, “Come on, take me on!” It’s such a sad, drab inevitability in all of our lives. We wake up one day and go, “Today, I have to drive a minivan.” I’m a 42-year-old man with a wife and two daughters, and I embrace some of that, but I’m also aware that it’s not like it was! [Laughs]
What’s the craziest machine you operated this season on Crash Course?
Well, it’s all pretty focused and the show is as much about American workers as machines, but I just loved the Oshkosh Striker [firefighting vehicle]. I asked the guy, “Does it have to look so cool?” It’s so powerful and fast, especially considering it weighs 60-odd tons. The ubiquitous tractor—I loved it! When I went home I bought a tiny British version of it for my home, and I’m digging some foundations for my wife’s new stable as we speak. Weirdly, my favorite was this scraper that’s used at the Denver Landfill Center. It weighs 100 tons and has this engine in the front and engine in the back, and it’s hydraulically articulated in the middle and can lift 40 tons of dirt in one go and then spread it on a thin layer of trash. It was such an alien thing to drive!
You’re hosting one of the world’s most popular TV shows, Top Gear, and about to host this new show, Richard Hammond’s Crash Course, in America. What’s left for you to conquer?
I’d love to work more in America. People from England talk about “breaking America,” and it’s not something that happens overnight, but it’s a great place to work and I really enjoy it. People here are so communicative and open to sharing ideas. If you chat someone up in the elevator they’ll just talk freely! But I’d love to take the concept of Crash Course further and just explore the workplace, maybe even beyond vehicles. I love having a view as an outsider, viewing things that are entirely familiar to you with a new pair of eyes. And then maybe one day I’ll take the lead in an adventure-action movie starring a small bloke! [Laughs]
Who would be your leading lady?
I’d want it to be Angelina Jolie but I’d be no good ‘cause I’d keep fainting! I’d probably piss her off quite badly! Whoever it is, I’d probably just giggle a lot. But I’ve been very, very lucky.