YOU MAY think Jeremy Clarkson is a bit of a maverick, but Guy Martin — a lorry mechanic, motorbike racer, reluctant TV star and owner of one of the most famous sets of sideburns since George Best — takes things to a whole new level. His television career began when he appeared in a documentary about the Isle of Man TT, an annual motorcycle race fortnight that is as famous for deaths as for the 180mph-plus speeds that riders reach on closed roads. Martin has competed in it 11 times, achieving 15 podium finishes in various classes. In 2010 he was involved in a crash at 170mph, emerging from the ensuing fireball with several cracked vertebrae and broken ribs.
He went on to front a two-part show about renovating a narrow boat with his best friend, Mark “Mavis” Davis. It was a strange departure for a man who admits he is never happier than when tinkering with lorry engines, but he proved a natural in front of the camera. In 2013 he fronted a Channel 4 series, Speed with Guy Martin, which showed him attempting to beat four world speed records (including one on a bicycle and another on a sledge). His shows draw audiences of millions, and his autobiography topped the bestsellers list for weeks, despite little publicity and barely a review. He has that rare ability to be exactly himself on and off screen: an honest-to-goodness northern bloke (he’s from Grimsby), brimming over with boyish enthusiasm — Fred Dibnah crossed with Valentino Rossi.
Despite his newfound fame — a word that prompts grimaces and shudders — Martin holds down a full-time job fixing lorries for Moody International in Grimsby. Today he has made a rare venture into London in his Ford Transit: he has come to an Indian restaurant to do some typically low-key promotion for a new two-part show, Our Guy in India, which begins tonight on Channel 4. Viewers will see him riding 1,000 miles across the subcontinent on a Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Safe to say, this is not your typical Indian travelogue. Martin uses the trip to explore some of his personal passions — bikes, lorries, racing and a good cuppa. He buys the Royal Enfield (still the most popular brand in India, although British production stopped in 1970), visits a 250-year-old tea plantation (Martin often drinks 20 cups a day) and takes a tour of the largest lorry repair yard in Asia, before taking part in Rider Mania, the biggest race meeting for Royal Enfield riders in the world.
Back in London it’s 11.30am and we’re tucking into Indian-style spicy bacon butties on nan bread — a far cry from Martin’s usual routine: up at 5am, leave at 5.30am for the 20-mile bike journey (that’s push-bike, not motorbike) from his home in rural Lincolnshire to work, back home by 6pm for tea and a couple of hours’ tinkering on various engines in the shed before bed. “I work six days a week actually,” he confides. “It’s double time on Saturday mornings.”
The phrase “shunning the celebrity lifestyle” doesn’t really get close to the extent to which Martin feels uncomfortable in the glare of publicity. When he started being recognised, he felt he wasn’t coping well, and he was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. He’s not sure how useful the diagnosis was but now manages the fame better. “I try to stay away from crowds,” he says.
He couldn’t quite believe he has an Indian fanbase. “I get out there and every man and his dog knows who I am, and I’m, like, ‘How do you know who I am? I’m from bloody Grimsby!’ ” he says, incredulously. People seem to like his “strange way of looking at things”, he concedes. Does he think it’s unusual? “Nah, not really, not really. I suppose I can be quite . . . it’s not rude . . . but blunt. I don’t try to pretty anything up.”
Even the idea of being a Star in a Reasonably Priced Car on the Top Gear test track makes him screw up his face. “I’d never say never, but it’s not really my thing. It’s seen as the typical celebrity thing to do and I’m not a celebrity in any way.” He doesn’t even own a television, has an ancient Nokia mobile phone and doesn’t bother with the internet. “I’m a bit backwards. I couldn’t believe how many people had those fancy phones in India. I think more people have internet access in India than running water.”
Martin is happiest during those evenings in his shed, where he’s currently reworking a 1972 Triumph motorbike (for a hush-hush forthcoming TV show, possibly featuring a wall of death), building various engines for other motorbike racers and rebuilding the engine of his 1967 Volvo Amazon (a crazy, 788bhp souped-up version he bought from someone who works for the Swedish supercar maker Koenigsegg, which he has claimed is the fastest car in Britain).
In fact he loves his shed so much, he’s selling up and moving, not very far but “to the middle of nowhere, with a smaller house and a bigger shed”. He has a labrador puppy but otherwise lives alone, not far from where he grew up. He’s thinking about getting another dog, and maybe a goat. “I’ve got a girlfriend now, though, aye. She works for a book publisher in Dublin, so I only see her about once every month. She’s a good lass.” He met her at a moped race in Ireland and she has since got him contemplating George Orwell and Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) behind the wheel of his trusty Ford Transit: “I’m not that clever, but I find it fascinating. I’ll try to decipher it — I’ll try to take it [the book] apart and put it into order.”
These days, though, he tries not to get too distracted behind the wheel. Once the holder of 21 penalty points — only clinging on to his licence because his various employers pleaded for him in court — Martin is proud to say that, as of April, he should have a clean licence. He’s sanguine about speed cameras. “The proof is in the pudding, really,” he says. “I’ve had 21 points and now I genuinely drive like a saint. If you stick to the speed limit, you won’t have a problem.
“The only thing that annoys me is when you get coppers — you know, when there’s a change from 40mph to 30mph — with mobile cameras.”
Martin keeps his wild side away from the public highway. He had considered retiring from motorbike racing this year, but his team has switched to a BMW bike (from a Suzuki) so he’s decided to give the TT at least one last shot. Increasingly, he’s focusing on mountain-bike racing.
“I’ve already done some 24-hour endurance races, so now I’ve got this idea of doing this race in America called the Tour Divide: longest mountain-bike race in the world — 2,700 miles, 200,000ft of climbing, 200 miles a day at an average of 11mph, riding for 18 hours and sleeping for six. I’ve just found this love of trying to break myself. It’s just for the sense of achievement, because there’s no trophy, no prize money.”
He’s said it many times in interviews: he likes to get close to death. “I was like that at 20, but still now, yeah. I just want to try to get near it — I don’t want it — I just want to get near it and walk away, which I keep doing in certain situations, with motorbike crashes and building daft cars — just to try to go fast.”
Surely there’ll come a time when he’s had enough, though. Does the new house, the dog, the girlfriend, the talk of retiring, mean he’s slowly getting ready to settle down?
“I’m 33 years old. I’ve got a dog. That’s about my only responsibility. I think one day I will wake up and I’ll think, ‘I just want to grow up. I just want to . . . get old . . . have a f-f-family . . .’ ” He struggles with the word and then trails off unconvincingly. “Yeah, I think one day that might happen. But still now I just want to go all the time, get on to that next thing. One day I’ll grow up, but I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready yet.”
Our Guy in India airs on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4