Top Gear’s Website Runs Full Throttle

[show=topgear size=large]It’s one thing to rely on a network for your online presence; it’s another to take ownership of it yourself. And in the case of Top Gear, which has an international following and brand recognition beyond the BBC, they don’t just own their online presence — they pwn it.

A BBC institution since 1977, Top Gear brings together elements of Mythbusters and late-night talk shows to produce a unique spin on the automotive industry. All aspects of car culture are up for examination, experimentation and dry British ridicule — each episode features discussion of the latest auto innovations while also inviting unlikely celebrities to take a spin around their test lap. The show is insanely popular with car fans and non-fans alike, and hosts Richard Hammond, Peter Jeremy Clarkson, James May and The Stig are cultural icons in Britain (to the extent that a rude comment by Clarkson about Prime Minister Gordon Brown is headline news there).

And the show’s passion for car mechanics has apparently translated into an overall appreciation of technology, because the Top Gear site is tuned up for optimum performance. The web site isn’t just the show’s home online, but a tribute to the very culture that it’s documenting.

While launching Top Gear via an American ISP kicks you immediately to the U.S. version of the site, which is tailored to promoting Top Gear as it airs on BBC America, the Australian and UK versions aren’t geo-blocked — which is great, because the UK video archives are a bit more complete (not that I was looking for Patrick Stewart’s turn behind the wheel or anything).

And all three sites are creating original, web-only content — an approach perfectly matched to the tone of the show. In keeping with similar experiments done in the UK, the U.S. site’s editorial team launched a “Build a 70-mpg Car” challenge this week, which will address both economic and environmental concerns by attempting to transform a 25-year-old Volkswagen Scirocco into a high-octane, fuel-efficient monster. One video has already been released about the process, which will involve journeying from New York to Canada and back down to Los Angeles to enlist help from various experts. The car’s name will be determined by site viewers, with options including Were-Rabbit and Bailout Bunny (I voted for Jackalope).

Top Gear episodes are structured in 5-10 minute segments, which makes them easy to break down for online consumption, and the site runs full throttle with that: there are videos linked on every page, both in sidebars and within relevant site content. For example, on Clarkson’s bio page, there’s a link to a video in which he rhapsodizes about whether or not a car can be art — 6 minutes of video that works better than any paragraph of text might in illustrating Clarkson’s sense of humor and point of view.

What “the world’s greatest car TV show” captures perfectly is the good that comes with pure, uncompromised obsession; the show is completely unapologetic about its passion for the automobile, but channels that passion into a complete and thorough exploration of the topic, inviting viewers to understand the love that powers this now-troubled industry. And as the show’s online voice, the site and its videos offer that same experience for the Internet. I don’t know much about cars, but I know a lot about web sites. And this is the way to do it.