Located in the heart of the New Forest on the Beaulieu estate, amongst the ruins of the abbey and the palace and gardens of the Montagu family, the National Motor Museum established formally in 1972 is a celebration and showcase of the nation’s automotive history from its origins to the latest vehicles. It’s a wonderful contrast between the historical and natural world, with amazing gardens in the summer to walk idly around and the mechanical with a variety of cars, bikes and transport, there is a harmonised balance in the experience quite often overlooked at other industrial exhibitions. In 2012 it provided the origins of the Bond in Motion exhibit with a showcase of the vehicles from this franchise before finding a permanent home in London’s Covent Garden. Today, another globally recognised franchise is preserved for prosperity with The World of Top Gear Exhibit paying tribute to the variety of cars and vehicles the show’s hosts have constructed and utilised on their various challenges and episodes.
Reflecting the changing and evolving nature of this series, what begun as an assortment of screen cars from the series most well known presenters who departed to create The Grand Tour saw a new and refreshed change to the exhibit in 2017 celebrating the revival and continuation of the brand. To date, it continues to showcase cars and vehicles from the latest series in addition to those featured in its earlier iterations from the indestructible Toyota Hilux, to the converted snowplough. It creates a cordial sense of detente between those who enjoyed the series before its cancellation and its revival today, and is a wonderful tribute to almost two decades of motoring adventures and escapades. As a show, the concept was and still is fairly British in its presentation and ethos, the use of run down and broken vehicles pushed to their extremes in a variety of challenging terrains, unlike how you might imagine other countries wishing to present themselves in the best possible light, the exhibit is truly a celebration of championing mediocrity presented quite often in stunning cinematography.
The exhibit acts to celebrate the 40 years of the shows history from its original incarnation as a more serious motoring show referenced in the timeline feature through its evolution to the more entertainment based product revered and enjoyed today. As an institution the museums ability to pay host to these vehicles is a remarkable pull for fans of this series, the level of access to these cars is amazing. Granted perhaps they hold only intrinsic value to a certain few, in contrast to the more expensive and luxury cars in the museum interior, nonetheless being able to walk around and get close to the screen cars is a must for any fans of this series. The exhibit functions in a way I lamented previously with the props and models from Star Trek and Star Wars being consigned to private collectors or temporary displays, here there is a permanent residency and home for these cars to find sanctuary. Each framed as with the Bond in Motion exhibit with an accompanying video montage of their use and appearance. It is a an embarrassment of riches where you could spend a considerable amount of time staring in wonder before moving onto the other areas of Beaulieu.
Your introduction to the exhibit takes places within a depiction of the studio environment of the show, the Enormodrome. Entry is on a timed basis but there is timeline of the show’s history to read whilst you wait in addition to a changing display of cars from one of the series adventures abroad. This has changed and evolved since its original opening, previously home to a number of vehicles within in addition to other studio features such as the ‘cool wall’ and the lap times from the guests on the show. One of the highlights in its original iteration was the inclusion of the 24 hour race car mounted on the plynth. Today it is primarily a theatre type environment with a highlight video looking back at the series past and its present. It’s a nice tribute that smooths over perhaps the transitory bumps in the road following its cancellation and resurrection in its current guise. I’ll readily concede to being a fan of this show, it was enjoyable to watch the original presenters but equally you do understand the desire to see the show continue and mercifully they do seem to have found a new presenting team who have some connection and resonance together.
As perhaps a reflection on the focus on more produced material away from the studio environment, many of these original features have been stripped away to allow the focus on the film, a shame as it was nice to imagine being stood inside the production hangar during the filming of an episode surrounded by the wall and the various cars. The exhibit is continually evolving however, you can assume if these features were to return at a later date they would feature once again. For now the opening presentation serves as a gateway into the wider exhibit, one which can be bypassed entirely if you so wish to enter the main area where the cars and vehicles are stored. There are a number of attractions before you enter including a driving simulator and model car racing which does charge an additional fee in addition to a number of the larger and less practical to display vehicles including the modified snowplough. Here you will also find the entrance to the screen star vehicles, those seen in popular culture which had a brief but interesting range of cars from film and television. The main attraction as a fan of both forms of entertainment was the stretched red limousine now converted into a bench from one of the shows challenges where it was used to drive the radio DJ Chris Moyles to a Brit awards performance.
The exhibit, itself situated in a large white tent, is divided between the past and the present, the main attraction from a personal bias the vehicles and cars featured in the shows most popular and successful periods when it was one of the BBC’s few overseas commercially viable brands. On entering you are witness to the one of the shows more imaginative endeavours, the conversion of three road vehicles into amphibious cars and their attempt to cross the channel from Dover to Calais. As mentioned, each section for the most part has a contextual video which has a shortened concise version of the particular challenge, here the cross the channel attempt and the partial success of the three presenters. Having visited on a prior occasion these were roped off before but now more openly accessible which does allow you more freedom to walk around and view the cars from various angles.
As noted in the attractions website, these cars were provided, rubbish and all and there is a rustic or perhaps even rusty charm in seeing these vehicles on display in the state they found themselves after filming. These aren’t expensive or necessarily glamorous cars on show, nor were they designed or tested to undertake these types of challenges. In this particular endeavour, the presenters adapted a Toyota pickup truck, a herald and campervan to undertake a channel crossing with only the former succeeding to some degree. They are presented in a beach type aesthetic with the gravel stones and taped on blue background, it feels rudimentary but Top Gear was and has always had that welcoming basic charm, you feel you can relate and imagine turning your own budget car into a boa
Despite being known as a car show, there have been a variety of forms of transport depicted across the years including the epic road trip up Vietnam’s east coast completed on a variety of motorbikes, all on display including the somewhat infamous American decorated bike. Other notable inclusions include the motorhome which was converted into a Bond type inflatable flying craft, a trio of mobility scooters in an uphill challenge and finally the converted train Jaguar and rear carriage which today serves to allow visitors an opportunity to climb aboard and take a well timed photograph. These forms of transport are in a slightly better condition principally as they weren’t sunk or exposed to the elements to any great degree, the bikes and converted amphibious cars all show the tell tale signs of rust and water corrosion but for now still enjoyable to see.
Taking away the signs and videos, viewed from the end it does have the appearance of a strange eclectic and almost dangerous assortment of homemade cars and bikes. In truth, the presentation is a little haphazard and chaotic by design however arguably, part of its charm and appeal to fans of the series. Each vehicle, from the converted old people’s car to the airship, the bikes, the amphibious cars or even the mini taken to Norway that completed the downhill rocket stunt, each is well known to its fan demographic and tells its own particular story you can forgive the lack of polish and finesse in its presentation. Consequently you are afforded such incredible freedom to get up close to these cars that graced the screens, certainly one of the main attractions of the exhibit.
The second section is dedicated to the newest iteration of the series and some of the vehicles that have graced our screens including the converted pleasure craft and the three taxis from the cross country challenge. From a content perspective this area does look more impressive with a darkened aesthetic and more digitised display, but conversely lacking a bit of that chaotic charm of the opening portion of the exhibit. Certainly, the most memorable cars, bikes and trains can be found from the episodes and adventures in the original presenters era but over time and with a newly resurgent and successful series, you can see this exhibit evolving and expanding to include cars from the new team. Selfishly, I would personally enjoy seeing the area improved somewhat as the tent structure does look a little cheap or temporary in contrast to the amazing stonework permanent museum. On a windy day you do feel you are going to get blown away slightly standing inside.
As an attraction, the museum itself is some distance away from any central transport links and for those without access to a car can be a little difficult to get to. The appeal of Top Gear and indeed cars in general of this nature in an era of climate concern and change is questionable, the museum itself is a fascinating showcase of our automotive history but hidden away in the New Forest certainly its location reduces the potential for a wider audience to discover and enjoy this facility. As a fan of the show, when I discovered these cars were available to see following filming it was a must see attraction but on my first visit in 2014 I was saddened to see a number sitting in the test track area exposed to the elements. Thankfully today they have their own purpose built and designed area, not as glamorous as other areas of the museum but still a draw and appeal of its own.
The demand to see this show recorded during its prime period was immense, with waiting lists of years if you were lucky. Today, with the abandonment of the traditional studio format and seemingly no intent to bring any of the cars from The Grand Tour to Beaulieu, the sole focus and change of the exhibit will come from the vehicles in the latest series, and as a fan, there are a couple I would be curious to see. But if you’ve ever watched the odd episode of this long running show, and wondered to yourself what happened to that car, that truck, that bike when the cameras stopped filming, well you have your answer and for a modest entry fee you can enjoy the day seeing your favourites. Beaulieu is a stunning location to visit, from the beauty and peace of the abbey ruins and palace gardens to the mechanical. A little out of the way, but a great attraction to see.
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