Top Gear: Polar Special

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Top Gear: Polar Special
Presented by Jeremy Clarkson
Richard Hammond
James May
Country of origin United Kingdom
Running time TV cut
60 minutes
Extended cut
70 minutes
Original network BBC Two
Picture format HDTV 1080i
Original release 25 July 2007
Related shows Top Gear
External links

Top Gear: Polar Special is a full-length, special edition episode of BBC motoring programme Top Gear. It was first broadcast on 25 July 2007 on BBC Two, with an edited version repeated on UKTV channel Dave and BBC Canada. It was the first episode of Top Gear to be broadcast in high definition. In the episode, Jeremy Clarkson and James May attempted to be the first people to reach the North Pole (the 1996 location) in a motor vehicle. Meanwhile, Richard Hammond raced against them with a dog sled, the traditional means of transport around the Arctic. The idea for the special was originally proposed by the BBC to coincide with the Polar Challenge race, an annual event where competitors race to the 1996 location of the magnetic north pole by trekking and cross-country skiing.

The co-ordination of the whole project, from filming to the two separate but parallel expeditions to the Pole, was through joint co-operation by the car manufacturer Toyota and Top Gear, along with assistance from Arctic Trucks, an Icelandic vehicle modification company, for modifying the vehicles for the journey, including the Toyota Hilux that was to be used by Clarkson and May. Toyota promoted the event under the name Hilux Arctic Challenge.


At Resolute, Nunavut, Clarkson and Hammond announced their intention to travel from the small hamlet to the 1996 location of the magnetic north pole. Hammond declared he would be going there the traditional way via dog sled, aided by American explorer Matty McNair. Clarkson stated that he aimed to beat his colleague in a car to prove that it could reach the pole. The car in question would be a Toyota Hilux which had been modified for the trip with powerful headlamps, bigger wheels and an altered suspension. For the trip, in which Clarkson hoped to prove that Arctic explorations to the pole could be quicker and luxurious, he would be accompanied by a reluctant May, who was not eager to go to the pole. Clarkson pointed out that if he came, he could go down in history as the first person to go to the pole "who didn't want to be there".


Prior to filming of the episode, work on the vehicles for Clarkson's expedition (Clarkson and May's Hilux, a second Hilux and a Toyota Land Cruiser for the film crew and support team) began in December 2006, modifying the cars in preparation for the journey at the start point of Resolute. Testing and further modification was done from February 2007 until April later that year.[1] While the testing phase was underway, the presenters were sent to Austria to begin their cold weather training (which were the first scenes to be filmed).[2] Their trainer, an SAS veteran, taught them how to erect a tent and what to do if they should fall into frigid water, with Clarkson pushed in when none of the trio wished to enter the freezing water at the site. Behind the scenes the presenters were also taught how to build a makeshift aircraft runway, pull a sled, and deal with polar bears. On 20 April that year, the presenters arrived in Resolute where they completed their training with a two-night expedition camping on sea ice (a scene that was not shown in the episode).

Due to the presenters' constant joking and horseplay during their training, the group preparing them were forced to take drastic actions and showed them graphic images of explorers who had suffered frostbite injuries. Polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes was also called in to speak with the presenters. As a former guest on their show he was familiar with their penchant for tomfoolery so he bluntly informed them of the grave dangers of polar expeditions, including the risk they had of falling out with each other, before showing pictures of his own frostbite injuries he suffered on his left hand and what remained of it after surgery. Whilst the presenters were learning of the seriousness of their expeditions, the support teams for each expedition used satellite images provided by the BBC, to plot the route that they would take.

The Expeditions[edit]

At 13:00 on 25 April 2007, both expeditions set out from Resolute and began making their way for Bathurst Island, an uninhabited island where they would be making camp for the first day. While Hammond and McNair moved at a steady pace during the initial days of their expedition, only being stopped by the presence of a polar bear following them, Clarkson and May's progress was relatively smooth with good speed that was further helped beyond Bathurst by satellite navigation ensuring that their route led them across smooth ice. This resulted in them facing no major difficulties and having no major issues with some polar bears that they encountered, allowing their expedition to open a notable gap between them and the dog sled expedition. The only slowdown that they faced was when they were moving away from Bathurst, whereupon the Hilux became trapped after partly falling through the ice whilst May was in command of the vehicle and towing Clarkson on some skis for some fun. Following the incident, in which the vehicle had to be rescued by the support team with the aid of one of the accompanying vehicles, the danger of thin ice and the car's weight likely to make it fall through if it cracked, forced the team to carefully plot a new route that would keep it away from any landmasses where the ice was at its thinnest, with the tyres of the expedition's vehicles being deflated and careful management of speed being maintained until they reached thicker ice.

Three days after starting out and having reached firmer ice, the vehicular expedition's speed began to reduce drastically as they began encountering difficult terrain in the form of a maze of sharp-edged ice boulders. Not only did this provide a difficult surface to gain traction upon, it also posed a danger to the vehicles and their tyres as some of the boulders were concealed beneath thick beds of snow. From this point on, the expedition had to rely on their guides to scout ahead for a safe route, while demolishing outcroppings of ice with axes when it was necessary to clear a safe route and continue moving forwards. Some routes proved impossible to proceed down and forced the team to go back and try a new route, whilst it took time to get the vehicles moving again when they became stuck; in one instance when Clarkson and May got stuck taking a route, the effort needed to free them took around three hours. As a result of the obstacle they faced, the expedition made almost no progress for two days and thus allowed Hammond's expedition to catch up. Although both he and McNair were regaining the ground that his colleagues had made and were now starting to cross the boulder field, Hammond was beginning to suffer from the expedition. While making camp, he conveyed on camera that his mental concentration was being sapped after he had struggled greatly with counting off the leads of the sled's dogs.

After being stuck in the boulder field for two days, Clarkson attempted to overcome the obstacle by applying more speed as a direct result of his temper snapping. The result of this caused the presenters' Hilux to plough through a thick bed of snow and hit a concealed block of thick solid ice, ripping one of the front tyres off and damaging the reserve fuel tank. As repairs were being made by the support team, the expedition found that the tank was leaking fuel and that a shock-absorber had also been dislodged and damaged by the accident, leading to the remaining fuel in the damaged tank being put into the standard tank of the truck. Despite concerns about their fuel supplies after the accident, coupled with exhaustion straining the relationship between Clarkson and May and the belief they would not reach the pole, the expedition finally managed to overcome the boulder and field. Taking in this achievement, Clarkson remarked on how the car had overcome a barrier that many experts had said would have been impossible for a car to cross. As the vehicular expedition slowly caught up with its rivals and retook the lead, relations between McNair and Hammond also became strained with the latter suspecting that they would not be first to reach the Pole. On the morning of 2 May 2007, his prediction was proved correct when the GPS system in Clarkson and May's Hilux confirmed that the team had finally reached the 1996 location of the North Pole (which is stated as being at 78°35.7′N 104°11.9′W / 78.5950°N 104.1983°W / 78.5950; -104.1983 (Magnetic North Pole 1996), although the team's GPS had put them just 0.7 miles SSE of it). Their success made them the first people to reach within a mile of the magnetic north pole location of any year in a motor vehicle.

Following their victory, Clarkson and May contacted Hammond and revealed that they had reached the finish line. Hammond never made it to the pole, as it was felt cruel to make him go on "just so Clarkson could gloat",[3] so instead he was collected along with the other presenters to be evacuated by plane. The remaining members of the Hilux expedition team drove on to the disused Isachsen weather station, making camp and checking the vehicles were in a good enough condition for the return trip to Resolute before making their way back to the hamlet.

In an ending statement, Clarkson said that it had been claimed by experts that the car would not have reached the Pole due to the damage it had done to the icecap, before stating that, after the time he had spent there, it hadn't "even scratched the surface of it". For the end credits, in homage to Sir Ranulph Fiennes, each person who had been involved with the filming of the episode had their first name replaced with the words "Sir Ranulph" (e.g. "Sir Ranulph Clarkson, Sir Ranulph Hammond, Sir Ranulph May").


The Hilux pickup used on the expedition by Clarkson and May.

The vehicles used in the special challenge to reach the Pole were two 2006 Toyota Hilux double cab 3.0l diesel pickup trucks and one Toyota Land Cruiser 120, all of which were heavily modified by Arctic Trucks, with a trailer on 38" tyres also used to carry part of the equipment and fuel ("A freeze-resistant mixture of diesel and AvGas", according to Jeremy) that would be needed. The choice of the Hilux was due to its exceptional durability, as was demonstrated by Top Gear when during a challenge across two episodes, they subjected a 1988 version of the Hilux to a series of tests. These included damaging it from reckless driving, setting it on fire, letting it be washed out into the Bristol Channel, and situating on the roof of an apartment block due for a controlled demolition. It not only survived, but was still able to be driven away after the engine was cleaned and had minor repairs to it without any parts being replaced.[4]

All three vehicles used for the expedition.

While one of the Hiluxs was used by the presenters and was fitted with camera and sound recording equipment, the other two vehicles were used by the film crew, two driver/repair experts, and one polar expert. All vehicles underwent the same extensive modifications to make them suitable for the Arctic conditions, with work beginning on them in December 2006 at the start point of the journey - Resolute, Nunavut. The complete refitting of all three vehicles that were to be used, took over 240 man-hours of labour, with testing of the refit for each vehicle beginning in February 2007. During testing, which continued until April 2007, further modifications were made to the vehicles and repeated cold start evaluations were conducted to make sure that the vehicles would start in all conditions.

The major modifications that were made to the trucks included the following:

  • The standard wheels and tyres were replaced with bespoke wheels and 38" studded, snow tyres. The tyres were able to run at pressures as low as 0.2 bar (3 psi) for better traction over snow.
  • The wheel arches were raised and extended, both to protect and accommodate the larger tyres that had been installed.
  • The standard 3.0-litre D-4D engine was modified to cope with the very low temperatures. Heaters were added to increase fuel and coolant temperature, a large heavy-duty battery was fitted, and the air intake was modified.
  • A 90-litre auxiliary fuel tank was fitted, along with an extra-thick sump guard.
  • The gearing ratio was lowered to 1:4.88.
  • Two winches that could be fitted either to the front or rear of each of the vehicles were carried, in case they got stuck in the snow.[4]

While the Hilux used by Jeremy Clarkson and James May became a major exhibit because of its achievement, the one used by the film crew was put into storage, until it was later re-used by James May in 2010, in his attempt to get close to the still-erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano and bring back a souvenir. The vehicle received further modification for the task, including a tyre cooling system which included environmentally friendly vodka instead of anti-freeze and a corrugated roof to prevent damage to the vehicle from ejected debris, and successfully allowed the presenter to collect a piece of lava that he later showed on Top Gear.


The episode was largely scored with compositions by Clint Mansell and performed by the Kronos Quartet, particularly the pieces "Lux Aeterna" and "Death is the Road to Awe", from the soundtracks of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, respectively. The episode also contained a segment from the soundtrack of John Carpenter's The Thing and a segment by John Barry from the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and also features the songs "The Killing Moon" and "Never Stop" by English alternative rock band, Echo and The Bunnymen.

DVD and Blu-Ray release[edit]

In 2008, the BBC released a twin DVD box set entitled Top Gear - The Great Adventures (also known as The Great Adventures: Polar and U.S. Special), which contained both an extended version of the Polar Special and a cut-down version of the US Special, while releasing the extended version separately on Blu-ray disc on 20 October 2008.[5] The "Director's Cut" of the extended version included an extra ten minutes of previously unseen footage, which included scenes of frostbitten extremities during the training in Austria, and Clarkson & May discovering the abandoned Isachsen weather station (left vacant since 1978), along with various other changes including new voice-overs and an alternative soundtrack to the original BBC broadcast release.


A scene depicting Clarkson and May drinking a gin and tonic while they were driving, was investigated by the BBC Trust to determine how suitable it was. Their conclusion was that it was not suitable for a pre-watershed family show.
Main article: Criticism of Top Gear

During the Polar Special, both Jeremy Clarkson and James May were shown to be drinking a gin and tonic whilst driving through an ice field in the Arctic. Despite the producer's claims that they were beyond the jurisdiction of drink driving laws in international waters at the time, and Clarkson stating on the programme that he was not driving but sailing - piloting a vehicle on (frozen) water as opposed to actual land - the BBC Trust found that the scene could "glamorise the misuse of alcohol", and that the scene "was not editorially justified in the context of a family show pre-watershed".[6]

In an article for the Daily Express, Emily Armistead, a speaker for Greenpeace, condemned the feature as "highly irresponsible". In the article, she stated:[7]

“The Arctic is one of the areas most endangered by climate change. Perhaps Clarkson and his cronies felt that climate change wasn’t destroying the Arctic quick enough, so they decided to do this. It’s quite astounding really. Unfortunately, Top Gear presenters and their producers represent your typical 4x4 driver. They are taking some of the most polluting vehicles on the road to spew out far more CO2 than is necessary in an area that is suffering the worst damage from climate change. We’re already seeing the impact on polar bears where the ice cap gets thinner and thinner every year. It does matter that Top Gear keeps on doing things like this. All right, they’re like naughty boys, we recognise that, but it is supposed to be on a public service broadcasting channel. You would expect a bit more responsibility. Top Gear doesn’t take seriously any of the issues facing us on transport. When you’re dealing with that sort of thing, I say leave them to it and let the world be their judge. But Clarkson is a problem because he has represented some climate-sceptic views and for someone to be on national television saying that is quite alarming."


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]