WITH DIPLOMATIC relations between Britain and France at their worst since Trafalgar, Jeremy Clarkson’s latest column explaining the rationale behind the upcoming Grand Tour special “Carnage a Trois” is a timely piece.
Writing in The Sunday Times Magazine yesterday, the star of Amazon hit series The Grand Tour and Clarkson’s Farm said that the original title of the programme, “What’s the matter with the French?” was an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of our closest continental neighbours looking through an automotive lens.
Until co-star James May’s recent purchase of an Alpine, none of The Grand Tour’s hosts had ever owned a French car, and so the trio sought to explore French automotive culture and the country’s often idiosyncratic cars for their latest special.
They did not realise, however, that by the time the episode would reach viewers, Britain and France would once again be engaged in a diplomatic spat.
“That’s just a coincidence,” Clarkson said, “like H982 FKL”, referring to the controversial incident when Clarkson and his Top Gear co-presenters were forced to flee Argentina after it was deemed by locals that the registration plate of Clarkson’s Porsche was a dig at the Argentinians over the 1982 Falklands War.
As the team was researching the show, they quickly came to the conclusion that not only are the French not much like Britons, but they also stubbornly refuse to be like anyone else in a world of increasing global homogeneity.
“Ketchup, for example, is banned in school dining rooms,” Clarkson wrote. “Work emails may not be sent at weekends. Pre-Covid, no one was allowed to eat at their desk. You must, by law, go out and do it properly, in a restaurant.
“They’re watching all the iron filings that make up the people of the world being drawn slowly towards the magnet that is America, with its burgers and its Budweiser and its 24/7 way of thinking, and they’re simply not playing ball.”
Despite their apparent difference from the British, Clarkson nonetheless expressed considerable admiration for the French.
“I should make it clear that I have an abiding respect for the French. I admire their almost total disregard for the feelings of others and I much enjoy my time in their country. I even like eating their buntings. But I will admit that they are a bit weird. And you can see this in the cars they make.”
French cars have over the years, Clarkson reminds us, tended towards the odd. Citroën’s hydro-pneumatic suspension system is one such example, as is the propeller-driven Léyat.
“Renault,” he said, “made a car that was completely back to front. Matra made a two-seater sports car that had three seats. And Citroën — again — gave us a car with the stereo mounted vertically between the front seats so all the crumbs from your pain au chocolat would fall into the cassette slot.”
One of the key differences between the British and French lies in our respective attitudes to resale values, Clarkson goes on to argue. While the British, he says, are concerned with muted colour schemes and maintaining cars in their most saleable condition, the French will happily run their cars into the ground and park not by eye, but by ear.
“This is the French way. One of our researchers — a French woman — said that her parents have never sold a car, and none of her friends have either. They all just buy something small and cheap and then literally run it into the ground. And this seems to be the case no matter how successful they become. The French Premier League star N’Golo Kanté drives a Mini with a stoved-in wing, last time I looked.”
While praising French hot hatchbacks as “hilariously fun to pedal hard”, his favourite French car, he says, is the “beautiful to look at” and “sumptuously comfortable” Citroën SM, despite its myriad shortcomings.
“It was powered by a Maserati V6 engine and this blend of French and Italian brittleness made it one of the most unreliable cars ever made. It was also very difficult to fix thanks in part to the fact that all of the wiring in it was black, so you could never tell what wire did what or even where it had come from.”
“I’d very much like to use one on our next Grand Tour adventure, wherever that may be,” he said. “I just wouldn’t want to bring it home with me afterwards.”
The Grand Tour Presents: Carnage A Trois will, judging by the trailer, feature a range of cars from pricey metal such as the Citroën SM and Panhard 24 to humbler models like the Citroën Berlingo, 2CV and Renault Scenic being respectively admired, respected, smashed and even dropped from helicopters.
The special releases on Amazon Prime Video on Friday. Watch the trailer here:
- If you enjoyed reading about Jeremy Clarkson’s upcoming Grand Tour special, Carnage a Trois, you might also enjoy his video showing a ‘crashed’ tractor at his Diddly Squat farm
- This summer, Jeremy Clarkson found driving in Cornwall so slow he had time to count the hand stitches in his Bentley Continental GT Mulliner
- And don’t miss what Clarkson had to say about the Land Rover Defender Hard Top