'The Grand Tour' proving to be good fun

Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May (from left) are having fun with their new show, "The Grand Tour." Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto/Getty Images

It's known as "The Grand Tour," though maybe the spiritual successor to the popular car show "Top Gear" should have been called "Overdrive."

But that's a word that carries negative connotations when it comes to cars and driving, and negativity is something that Jeremy Clarkson and his cohorts Richard Hammond and James May want to put in the rearview mirror.

Clarkson's long tenure with the BBC ended suddenly and with rancor in March 2015 when he allegedly punched a junior "Top Gear" producer who failed to arrange for a hot meal at the end of a long day of filming. Technically not fired (his contract was not renewed), Clarkson was soon joined in support by his co-hosts May and Hammond, and one of the BBC's top-rated shows was left scrambling to reinvent itself.

Despite the public humiliation that marked his departure, Clarkson did a remarkable job of landing on his feet. He, along with his trusty mates Hammond and May (plus producer Andy Wilman), have essentially taken a bootleg version of "Top Gear" on the road -- a real-life grand tour. And they've gotten Amazon to foot the bill.

While "Top Gear" lurched on, fronted by English disc jockey Chris Evans (since departed) and Matt Le Blanc (yes, the guy from "Friends") along with a handful of newcomers, the familiar trio of Hammond, May and Clarkson took what many perceived as "their" show and changed the way it is delivered to the viewer. The first season of a dozen new programs already has four shows in the can, with new episodes released every Friday on Amazon Prime.

This new delivery mechanism -- video on demand -- will be the key to the success of "The Grand Tour." But it's not the first time that these stars were at the forefront of a sea change. While Hammond came from a broadcasting background, May and Clarkson made the transition to television from the world of car magazines -- and in the process, changed the dynamic of how we learn about cars.

Now they are pioneers again, taking content distribution away from a traditional TV network and trusting it to Amazon, which is featuring "The Grand Tour" as one of its marquee attractions as it tries to increase its presence in the video streaming market.

"We don't sit there saying, 'Hey, good morning, trailblazer, how are you?' " Hammond said in a recent telephone interview with ESPN.com. "But we're definitely doing something new. It's great for three middle-aged men to be reinventing the medium they've worked in for years and years.

"Cars are a universal subject," he added. "Everybody is affected by cars, whether they love them and are, as you call them, gearheads, or someone completely the opposite. People can hate them, or they use them to parade and display and tell the world things about themselves. Which makes them for us, as a subject, very enjoyable and interesting. If we can make it fun as well, that's the best gift you can give somebody."

All the hallmarks the trio made famous on their former show are present on "The Grand Tour." It's a big-budget affair, with top-notch videography and audio production, on an even more ambitious scale with a portable studio that will be set up in locations around the world. The first three studio segments were filmed in the United States, South Africa and England.

What really set "Top Gear" apart from other motoring programs was the way it made the subject of cars entertaining. Much of that was thanks to the vivid personalities of Clarkson, Hammond and May -- as well as Wilman, the brains behind the operation and a key figure in devising many of the famous car-related challenges for which the show gained renown.

With "Top Gear," even the simplest road test of a Ford Fiesta could turn into a military-level operation.

"It's very, very easy to just get a car and say what you think about it," Clarkson said. "But today, almost all cars are identical. So there's no point to doing that because a Kia is fine, a Chevy is fine, a VW is fine.

"It's what you can do with them that makes it more interesting," he continued. "Can you drive them to the North Pole? Can you drive a car across the middle of Africa? That's much more exciting -- what can you do with a car, not what is the car like."

They're making the new show the same way they always did, but with its more ambitious scope it's a time-consuming process. Fourteen months of work have already gone into the first season, and filming continues, with the most recent studio session taking place Nov. 21 in Nashville.

Production is similar to that of Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," with a loosely defined outline and very little actual scripting.

"As John Coltrane once said about jazz, it's preconceived, but sometimes only a second or two before it happens," May said.

With two of the 12 shows recorded predominantly in the U.S., "The Grand Tour" is putting slightly more emphasis on the American audience. The most obvious thing viewers will note is that veteran NASCAR racer Mike Skinner ("The American") has replaced "The Stig," a never-identified "tame racing driver" whom "Top Gear" used to track-test cars.

"We thought it would be tactful to have an American driver -- we do have American paymasters," Clarkson said. "He was a good find -- exactly what we wanted. I know he's from California, but we wanted a proper Southern NASCAR racer.

"But it's not Americanized, because there are 6.75 billion people in the world who aren't American," he added. "It's much less like a village now -- we do it for the whole world. We just happen to be British."

"Also we used to present it from Britain and now we're British people wandering the world - slightly witlessly and not necessarily understanding everything about where we are," added May. "So that's a part of the material itself, and we have to be conscious of that."

Apart from a bit more cursing, the new show hasn't really explored the potential freedom that comes from being away from a traditional television network, with censors at the corporate and governmental level.

That's because the hosts -- the often controversial and outspoken Clarkson excepted -- generally do a good job of policing themselves.

"The restrictions naturally come from us, to be honest, because we're middle-aged men who wouldn't want to go too far with it," Hammond said. "It's far funnier for us to say 'Gentleman's Sausage' than a ruder word for the same thing."

Nearly 15 years since they came together on "Top Gear," all three hosts still share a love of cars -- though if you press them, they will admit that they often enjoy driving old bangers more than modern machines.

"If it's got a slipping clutch and some very weird smoke coming out of the top of the cylinder head, I'm much happier than if I am in a new Ferrari," Clarkson said. "Much happier."

They often grouse about the advent of hybrid and electric cars, but the significant changes on the horizon for the auto industry could turn into tremendous fodder for a program like "The Grand Tour."

"I think there's pleasure to be derived from the fact that there has never been a more exciting time," Hammond said. "We said earlier the problem is that all cars are generally the same and they all work. The fun to be had is in finding massive flaws and faults.

"Because there's this sort of reinvention of them, with changes in resources and new forms of engines, etc., that means people are going to make mistakes. All of a sudden there will be cars that come along with huge and hilarious problems."

Clarkson and his cohorts have signed on for three years with Amazon, which is good news for car enthusiasts around the world. The name of the show has changed, but just about everything else is comfortable and familiar. You just have to look somewhere else to find it.

"James still doesn't drive fast, Richard still doesn't get stuff, and I still say things which are inappropriate," Clarkson said.

Confirmed Hammond: "We're still us. We can't change who we are, or our outlook on the world."