At some point over the course of the last 100 years, anglophone conceptions of manhood became inexplicably linked with a car’s ability to burn fossil fuel and make a loud noise. Or at least, that appears to be the case for Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May - as The Grand Tour is basically one long crisis of masculinity.
After a first season in which Richard Hammond argued that eating ice cream makes you gay, and in which traffic lights customised to signal transgender solidarity became a talking point, season 2 kicked off on Friday with the trio of presenters heading to Switzerland, seemingly on a mission to explain why electric cars aren’t for real men.
The premise of the film, which dominated the first episode, is that the presenters were comparing cars from the past, the present and the future in order to decide what was best. Clarkson was driving a petrol car, May was in a hybrid, and Hammond was driving (and then later crashing) the all-electric Rimac Concept One - which Clarkson repeatedly referred to as a “lady shaver”.
What’s unfortunate about the film isn’t the weird xenophobic garnish (as a Croatian car, it was apparently representing all of Eastern Europe), but that it falls into the ambiguous reality at the heart of my biggest criticism of the show: That though it dresses up as a factual show, it is written like a scripted one. That rather than show us a reflection of reality, it is constructed as long-planned set-pieces.
Thinking about it, the closest analogue is probably natural history filmmaking: When we watch a baby Iguana escape the grip of some evil snakes, we’re not watching something that actually, necessarily happened exactly as it is portrayed. What’s more likely is that the scene was constructed from dozens of shots of different iguanas and snakes, with the goal of the producers being that it should tell us a greater truth, about the way the animals live, or how natural selection has shaped their behaviours, and so on.
Obviously this sort of thing doesn’t work very well when translated to human men driving cars in Switzerland, as viewers have a much better sense of when a contrivance on screen doesn’t quite ring true - whereas by contrast, all iguanas basically look the same to our human eyes.
So with this in mind: Even if we don’t go in expecting The Truth (with a capital-T), we should surely expect that this ostensibly factual show was giving us a more universal truth - about the true nature of the cars involved, right?
This is why the Switzerland film particularly infuriated me. The artifice was right there on the screen - and the underlying claims about the problems with an electric car simply do not appear to reflect what driving electric in Switzerland would actually be like.
The Wellness Hotel That Serves Steak
The film started with the presenters checking into a hotel which - to their horror - was a health-oriented “wellness retreat”. May and Clarkson worry that they won’t be able to get any proper, heteronormative food. “Can we get a drink here?”, Clarkson asks. “No”, responds Hammond.
“I know the people who eat this”, says Clarkson later while staring at a salad: “Women”.
They stayed at Park Weggis - a luxury hotel just outside of Lucerne. But is it really a wellness retreat? The hotel’s website says that the hotel is currently closed for renovation, but TripAdvisor reveals that in reality, it has a restaurant called the Park Grill, and that it serves drinks. Here’s a picture of food and some of the drinks you can get there that has been uploaded to TripAdvisor.
Basically the claim that the hotel is a "wellness retreat" is now as thoroughly discredited as cupping, the the nonsense alternative therapy that Hammond is seen undertaking later in the film.
Anyway, would you really risk staying a hotel with Jeremy Clarkson where he can't get a steak?
Playing Fast & Lucerne With Geography
Okay, so the hotel is just a framing device - why should we care? But what about the actual driving?
According to the film’s narrative, the presenters were heading to the Swiss Transport Museum, but to get there they supposedly had to take their supercars through the narrow, 12th century streets of Lucerne.
The narrow bend that caused particular problems with was Werschlaubengassli, on the corner with a shop called PKZ Men:
In the episode, Hammond claims that it is quicker than taking a ring road in order to get to their destination. Let’s look at the map.
This is all of the historic core of Lucerne - and as you can see there are many other options than just this tiny road. But perhaps we should zoom out further, to put it in context with the location of the transport museum.
Wait! It appears that going into town was completely unnecessary after all. The transport museum, it turns out is further out of town and actually somewhere in between the hotel and the corner that they struggled to traverse.
So they got to the transport museum and parked up. Clarkson flexed his anti-intellectual muscles by decrying the museum as boring even though it clearly looked awesome. (I’m sure the museum’s press office were delighted they let the show film there).
While there, they made the point of showing Hammond plugging in his electric car for charging. Which is odd given it was only 17.7km from the hotel, where there was also a charger.
The film then shows that during the next day, Hammond decides to take the team to another museum: A chess museum, that only boring-snoring nerds would like, amirite?
“And then the penny drops”, James May says on voice over. They ask Hammond where they are going tomorrow: A pencil museum, he claims. There is not a pencil museum in Lucerne. Or anywhere else in Switzerland. The writers were presumably thinking of the one in Keswick, which is actually really good (I’m not saying this ironically).
“Do you keep bringing us to this town because it is the only one within 100 miles of our ‘wellness centre’ because it is the only one with a fast charging point for your car?”, asks Clarkson.
This is particularly infuriating. Why? The implication is that Lucerne only has one fast charger, so Hammond would only be able to drive to one place. But here’s the weird thing:
The chess museum is actually miles away from the transport museum. So it isn’t like they’re going to the same destination anyway.
But what if he did want to charge up? Well, here’s some of the chargers in Lucerne. And we know that they are compatible with his car as according to EV Charging Europe, the Park Weggis charger was a Type 2, which this map is filtered for.
Okay, fine, but what if they wanted to drive a little further? Let’s zoom out.
Looks like plenty of chargers to me. But still - what about a longer trip?
Switzerland, it seems, is basically drowning in compatible chargers.
The last section of the Switzerland film was the presenters taking their cars to participate in a “hillclimb” event, which is exactly what it sounds like: A race in which cars are timed to see who can drive up a hill the fastest.
As Clarkson and May are driving along the motorway, Hammond turns up driving a flatbed van with his car on the back:
Why isn’t he simply driving? The problem, Clarkson points out, is that the hillclimb event is “200 miles” from where they were staying in Lucerne and Hammond’s electric car wouldn’t have the range.
Except… according to the manufacturers the Rimac Concept One has a range of 330km - which is about 205 miles. But yes, this would be very tight. But this doesn’t matter anyway, because in actual fact, the hillclimb event - in the town of Hemberg - is only 102km from the hotel.
This means that if the range of the Concept One meets Rimac’s boasts, the car could in fact drive there and back with 100km to spare. According to the event’s website, the track is 1758m long, so that would certainly leave enough capacity to do the hillclimb numerous times over - even if you assume the incline will use more energy and that the car will have to drive back to the start (I mean, assuming you don’t crash the car at the end of the race).
In any case, as we’ve previously established, Switzerland has quite a lot of chargers. So let’s imagine Hammond had really floored it and needed to charge up, what could he have done?
Hemberg is quite rural, so there aren’t as many chargers. But here’s a map of compatible chargers in the local area - with Hemberg in the middle:
Yeah, but there are no chargers in Hemberg itself, right? Well, actually there are no petrol stations either. Here’s a map of the nearest petrol stations, showing drivers would be going back to the main road as it is.
So basically it turns out that almost everything in the film was bullshit. Even when Clarkson and May get to the hillclimb and are delighted to see a hot dog van you’re left wondering not just “Did Amazon hire a food truck just for this shot?” but also “Wouldn’t they be a bit full up from all of the meat available at the Park Weggis?”.
Why does this matter? Why have I spent 1500 words systematically unpicking The Grand Tour?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely questioning my own life choices, but also I think that this matters. The Grand Tour is one of the highest profile shows on TV, and is watched by millions of people. Particularly car nerds and people at least casually interested in automobiles. And yet its representation of electric cars is misleading.
We all know cars have to go electric as soon as possible if we’re going to be able to do anything about climate change. We know that the combustion engine must be destroyed if we want to live on a sustainable planet. (We also know that banning cars from cities and building cycle lanes is vital, but that’s another argument.)
So despite trying to be little more than jesters dancing a tune for King Jeff Bezos, Clarkson, May and Hammond actually have a responsibility here. Their words matter, as it is Grand Tour viewers who are the early adopters, who will drive opinions about what makes future vehicles desirable. Grand Tour viewers are the fragile men who will need to be convinced that going electric won’t somehow destroy their masculinity.
To be fair, during a drag race segment, Clarkson does express shock and surprise at the speed and acceleration of the Rimac - but this is offset by sneers about the lack of noise and the hysteria about range anxiety.
This Switzerland film may have celebrated the past and the present: But perhaps it is time for The Grand Tour to get a grip and start worrying about the future too.
James O'Malley tweets as @Psythor.
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