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7 Questions with… Richard Hammond: ‘The most disgusting thing you can do in France is to clean your car on a Sunday morning’
The Grand Tour presenter talks exclusively to BT.com about Carnage A Trois, the show’s love letter to the bubbling casserole of genius and wilful lunacy that is the French motor industry.
The Grand Tour is back with another special, and while Covid-19 restrictions have forced Clarkson, Hammond and May to dial down the grandeur of their latest tour, the trio have cast a wistful eye across the English Channel at how the French character has defined the country’s car designs and driving habits.
Ahead of the launch of The Grand Tour Presents: Carnage A Trois on Prime Video on December 17, Richard Hammond told BT.com about his admiration for French attitudes towards motoring, who he'd take on his French road trip and what it was like to drive one of the country’s most bizarre vehicles.
1. What inspired you to take a closer look at the French and their cars?
As car geeks we all kind of knew in the back of our minds – the French, yeah they’re quite weird about cars. It set off to say “ah, the French and their ridiculous ideas about cars...” but then as you move through the film it becomes quite an affectionate look at it and we realise “hang on a second, the French could be on to something here!”
Their cars have design flair and some wilful lunacy thrown in, but it’s also about their attitude to cars, the way that to them they’re a tool to be used, as evidenced by the piece where we say they’d never build a 4x4, a big off-roader, because you don’t need one. A French person would think “I want to go up zat big ‘ill in my car, I’ll use my car and zat’s going to 'appen” and it does, and it’s brilliant!
All three of us found it very liberating – as soon as you stop caring about dents and scrapes you just get on with it!
2. Would any of you admit to ever having owned a French car?
I don’t think we have. There aren’t that many and French cars fit in with the French way of life. The most disgusting thing you can do in France is to clean your car on the driveway on a Sunday morning. That would be appalling behaviour, they’d die of shame!
Again it’s the opposite of us, who get really obsessed with “ooh I don’t want to take my car out and get it muddy”. Just use it! It’s not actually about the car, it’s about what it’s taking you to do. It made for quite a happy film.
Also this is the second one we’ve made during Covidy-type times when we had to curtail some of our travelling ambition but as a result dial up the content, the story, the investigative bit, which is why it’s quite a densely packed little show. It was great fun to do because there were lots of little stories to follow up, which is where our hearts lie.
3. What was the propeller-driven Helicron car like to drive?
It’s deadly but it was great fun to drive. It was peculiar to operate but there’s a joyfulness in that that permeates the show. I got to drive it, and it was utterly terrifying with this big blender proceeding down the road ahead of me. Saying that, being inside it was probably safer than being outside it.
It had been built by a guy who’s built load of weird cars, and it was built for sale: they took it to a French motor show and said: “This is what you need, a car with a big propeller on the front”. And a few hundred people ordered it!
4. What’s the best and worst design features you’ve seen in a French car?
The worst? Those old Citroens with the non-self-cancelling indicators. I ride motorbikes so I’m used to having to turn indicators off but most drivers aren’t used to that so you have to turn them off. It makes life more difficult.
As for the best, the Citroen DS and its incredible suspension. Also it’s a beautiful thing, that for me would be the ultimate French car, the Citroen DS Décapotable, that’s a stylish car.
5. What do you like most about driving in France?
I like the devil-may-care attitude of driving in Paris. If there’s a gap that your car will go in – more or less – throw it in there and see what happens. But also those tree-lined avenues in the Midi, further south, that’s just beautiful. From a driver’s point of view you forget how big France is, it’s enormous!
6. Which three French people would you take on a road trip around France?
Oof. Probably Sacha Distel, Claude Monet and Estelle Skornik, who used to play Nicole on the Papa/Nicole adverts.
I worked at Renault briefly, the only time I’ve had a proper grown-up job. I’d been working in radio for many years and I was slowly starving to death so I applied for, and got, a job in the Renault UK press office. It was around the time of the Papa/Nicole Renault Clio adverts so we got Estelle over to do some PR. She was so beautiful I could barely speak! So she’d definitely be on the journey.
7. Is there another Grand Tour lockdown special to come?
No, we’re hoping to be able to go back out into the world next year, all being well. The name ‘Grand Tour’ does suggest there’s going to be no difficulty while travelling. This is the longest my passport has stayed in my bag for 25 years.
The Grand Tour Presents: Carnage A Trois launches on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, December 17