In September and October 2014 the three presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May and a crew of 29 people were recording the Top Gear Christmas Special in Argentina featuring three cars—a Porsche 928 GT, a Lotus Esprit and a Ford Mustang Mach I. They had started in Bariloche on September 19 and travelled southward on the trans-Patagonian Route 40, about 1,000 miles (1,600 km). On October 2 they had arrived in Ushuaia, at the southern end of Tierra del Fuego. The plan was to film for three more days, and then to continue in Chile. But then nothing went to plan, did it!
During filming, Twitter comments alleging the number plate “H982FKL” on the Porsche was a reference to the Falklands War began to appear and the number plate “H1VAE” was substituted. Andy Wilman, executive producer for the show, said on October 2: “Top Gear production purchased three cars for a forthcoming programme; to suggest that this car was either chosen for its number plate, or that an alternative number plate was substituted for the original is completely untrue”; Clarkson tweeted: “For once, we did nothing wrong.” The plate in question has been registered to the Porsche since its manufacture in May 1991. DVLA records seem to support this assertion as the following excerpt reveals:
- Vehicle make PORSCHE
- Date of first registration 30 May 1991
- Year of manufacture 1991
- Cylinder capacity (cc) 4957cc
- CO₂Emissions Not available
- Fuel type PETROL
- Export marker No
- Vehicle status Tax not due
- Vehicle colour GREY
However, the Central Police Division in Tolhuin allege that a third set of plates (BE11END) were found in the Porsche after it was left in their compound. One would need to ask (if the use of the original plate was as innocent as the Top Gear production team assert), why was there two other sets of plates in their possession, Surely operating a vehicle on false plates is just as illegal in Argentina as it is in the UK.
In a recent interview with James May, it was suggested that the chance of this number plate being acquired by Top Gear was about 1:13,000,000. May suggested more realistically that as Clarkson wanted a Porsche 938 GT V8 for the special and there were only two available for sale in the UK at the time, the odds were actually 1:2. They bought the Porsche in question as it was the best of the two.
In a poll conducted by www.carscoops.com, 47% of respondents believe the plate was used intentionally.
But Top Gear is known for its “stunts” between presenters and a general attitude that “anything goes” and nothing is beyond ridicule. For example, the trio pass through Bariloche, a town which they note was a “haven for Nazi war criminals” in World War II. Comments such as Clarkson saying “we are here to mend fences, not to destroy them…..and the Falklands are British” and then there is May stating “I claim this land for Norfolk, and I name this Lotus Beach!” These comments seem to be inappropriate, given the anti-British sentiment in Argentina, especially in relation to the Falklands/Isla Malvinas. The Mirror reported that Clarkson had been warned to behave himself while in Argentina – a charge he denied. Is Mr Bombastic going to take any notice anyway…..? The show has a long history of being controversial with many complaints being received by the BBC ranging from the minor to the serious.
In the evening it is alleged that Malvinas veterans and other Argentinians entered the hotel lobby to confront the team. Clarkson later wrote he “had to hide under a bed for a mob howling for his blood“. Really? Given the hostile atmosphere the team decided to leave Argentina. Believing that the presenters were the main targets of the controversy, it was decided to send Clarkson, May, Hammond and the female crew members to Buenos Aires, while the rest would drive the cars and their equipment to the border into Chile. May later stated that, prior to flying back to England, he and the other presenters had assisted in planning possible airlifts if the journey to the border became too dangerous. The main Route 3 by which they had arrived in Rio Grande a day earlier, was closed to them because the ringway was filled with people. They drove to the border at Radman by tertiary roads, about 250 km. In Tolhuin, after 100 km, the caravan was stopped by an intimidating crowd. The team decided to abandon the three show cars with police, and reached the border with Chile later that night. They had to find a tractor to ford the camera cars through the border river. Pictures show that the abandoned cars had been attacked and damaged with stones. However, from photos and vision seen the damage appeared to be minimal, with broken mirrors, windows and the like. The Porsche had the number plate “HIVAE“. It is thought by many commentators that the team were never really at risk. In fact it was reported to Maria Fabiana Rios, the governor of Tierra del Fuego, that the team were protected at all times. Who to believe?
On 31 October 2014, it was announced that the Argentine ambassador Alicia Castro had met BBC Director of Television Danny Cohen to demand a formal apology, but the BBC refused to do so, making it clear that they intended to broadcast the special as a “fair” representation of the events that occurred.
Of course controversy always guarantees ratings, doesn’t it?