Even before the opening credits had rolled, this particular edition of Top Gear (BBC2) was a cut above the rest, writes Carl Jones.
Firstly, all the cars in the spotlight were going to be James Bond movie cars, and as anyone who has met me will testify, I am rather partial to a dose of 007.
And secondly, the cocky, coarse and childishly arrogant Jeremy Clarkson was nowhere to be seen.
This was the Richard Hammond show, a labour of love for a childhood Bond fan who wanted to not only get behind the wheel of some of cinema’s most iconic vehicles, but also – in true Top Gear fashion – try out a couple of bonkers theories at the same time.
Lovingly, lavishly created, it took us through half a century of the secret agent’s cars, blending facts with footage of the classic Aston Martins and Lotus Esprit to less exotic choices, like the first Bond car, a Sunbeam Alpine, which the producers of Doctor No had to hire for a princely 12 shillings per day.
Hammond explained how the silver Aston Martin DB5 nearly never appeared. Back in 1964, Aston’s bosses initially rebuffed an approach to use the car in Goldfinger, and were it not for an 11th hour change of heart, Sean Connery’s ejector seat could have been fitted to a Jaguar, a Jensen or a Chevrolet.
If the DB5 was Connery’s signature Bond car, then Roger Moore’s iconic motor moment came in The Spy Who Loved Me, when he raised more than just an eyebrow by taking his white Lotus Esprit underwater.
In the movie, that was just smart camerawork – there never was a fully functional waterproof, Lotus submarine.
Daredevil Hammond can’t resist a crackpot challenge, and the man who cheated death in that notorious high speed dragster crash in 2006 set out to discover whether, 35 years on, you really can drop a white Lotus into the water, and operate it as a submarine.
His climactic experiment in a Derbyshire lake, teased throughout the show, was a fitting and fascinating end to a well crafted tribute, which included interviews with Bond stars Roger Moore and Daniel Craig, plus other big-wigs from the 007 family.
They included Ben Collins, the man sacked and ridiculed by Mr Clarkson for revealing his identity as the original Stig, and branded a ‘greedy ****’ for revealing the show’s secrets.
Collins has since had the last laugh, becoming a 007 stunt driving double and working on the latest film, Skyfall, and Hammond showed there were no hard feelings by greeting him as a long lost pal on the set – even though he was still mocking Top Gear with a T-shirt saying “I am the Stig”.
Hammond rounded off his journey by testing the theory behind one of Bond’s most maligned cars – the Aston Martin ‘invisible’ Vanquish given to Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day. Crudely, and comedically, he smeared cameras and TV monitors over a Transit van, showing that, in theory, a car could indeed blend in with its surroundings by filming, and broadcasting, what it can see.
The only surprise in last night’s show was that petrolhead Hammond resisted the temptation to see if he could match the world record set by Casino Royale’s Aston Martin DBS for most number of rolls in a high speed stunt crash.
Perhaps he’s learned his lesson. After all, you know what they say . . . you only live twice, Mr Hammond . . .