Richard Hammond: 'I couldn't earn a living' before Top Gear

The TV presenter looks back at his life and career with Yahoo UK

Watch Richard Hammond share his Origin Story:

When Richard Hammond first began pursuing his career in car presenting it was a struggle, with The Grand Tour star admitting to Yahoo that he "couldn't earn a living" when he worked on radio before landing a job on Top Gear.

The TV presenter always knew he wanted to work on Top Gear, and his lifelong ambition finally came to fruition in 2002 where he formed an unshakeable bond with Jeremy Clarkson and James May. It was Clarkson and show producer Andy Wilman who hired Hammond for the BBC series back in the day, an opportunity that Hammond, to this day, is "forever grateful" for.

Clarkson, Hammond and May became icons of the British TV industry, and went on to create The Grand Tour with Prime Video. The show continued to cement the trio's legacy and now they are ready to go out on a high and end things on their own terms with two specials.

Ahead of releasing their penultimate episode of the Prime Video show on 16 February, titled The Grand Tour: Sand Job and which sees the trio travel to Mauritania, Hammond sat down with Yahoo UK to share his Origin Story.

Cars, presenting and Top Gear

RICHARD HAMMOND Top Gear Presenter Motoring Portrait Studio pix November 2004
Richard Hammond, pictured in 2004, told Yahoo UK that when he first began pursuing his career in presenting car programmes on radio he was 'starving to death' and realised he needed to make a change. (PA Images)

What first sparked your interest in cars and motorbikes, and what drew you to speaking about them in a public sphere?

Cars were an obsession, I'm not particularly unusual like that, as a kid growing up in Birmingham. I mean to be fair, my grandfather worked in the car industry and built cars, he was a coach builder —Mullins in Birmingham and the Jensen, they did that— so it was always in my blood, always loved cars. When I was about five sitting next to my dad's armchair, I remember we were working out how many days until I could learn to drive a car, and then we worked out it was 365 fewer days until I could ride a motorcycle.

So although nobody in my family rode a motorcycle, I became obsessed with motorbikes. By the time I was 16, I had said it so much that my parents couldn't turn around and say 'no, you can't have one'. So I'd got a job by then, my part time job I was at school, was at a chicken farm and I'd saved up enough to buy a little second-hand 50-CC bike, which was in the yard outside my house.

Richard Hammond during the Clarkson, Hammond & May Live show at the National Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto) (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Richard Hammond's love of cars and motorbikes began at a young age, with him deciding he wanted to ride motorbikes from the age of five. (Getty Images)

By then we were living in North Yorkshire, I'd had to go to the library to get a book to learn how to ride a motorbike because there was no internet then and nobody in my family could ride a motorbike. So I learned from a book, and on my 16th birthday started practising and took myself out on my little motorbike.

Then journalism was my natural calling as a career, I suppose that doesn't make it sound so exciting but it's what I fell into and combining it with the love of cars and motorbikes was kind of inevitable.

You, Jeremy Clarkson and James May have been an iconic trio for decades, when you look back how would you describe your experience working together?

Top Gear presenters, Top Gear presenters (l-r) James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson at a press conference in Tower Hotel, to launch Top Gear going live (with debut at the MPH Prestige and Performance Motor Show, Earls Court in October), St Katherines Way, London.   (Photo by Matt Crossick - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson during their time on Top Gear, they presented the show together from 2002 to 2015. (Getty Images)

It's been incredible, it is an amazing thing to get to do. I wanted to make car TV shows, I started off in radio, local radio, as a presenter, I was starving to death and realised I just couldn't earn a living, but I wanted to get to do car shows.

I wanted to do Top Gear, really, I landed a job in PR for Renault UK thanks to a guy called Tim Jackson with a view of getting to know the editors of the car shows. I did, I got to know a guy called Pete Baker, he ran all the car programming on Granada Men & Motors. He gave me a bit of work, so I did that for 8-9 years, and then I auditioned for and got the job on Top Gear.

But none of us had any idea it would become what it became, we were all experienced car journalists onscreen and in print and that's what we set out to do. We set out never with any grander aim than making the best car show we can, that's all we've ever done.

What do you feel you have learned from your time presenting with them?

(L-R) Top Gear presenters, James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson collect the Most Popular Factual Programme award at the 2011 National Television Awards at the O2 Arena, London.   (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
Reflecting on their many years working together, Richard Hammond (pictured in 2011) said: 'We've had an influence on each other because we spend an immense amount of time together'. (Getty Images)

Good and bad, we have learned a lot from each other. We've had an influence on each other because we spend an immense amount of time together when we're travelling, when we're filming. People often ask, 'do you hang out a lot outside of work?' well, back in the day, when we were making 14 shows a year, sometimes more on Top Gear, we never were apart, so yeah we have learned from each other.

The Grand Tour: Sand Job special

James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson are reuniting for a new The Grand Tour special where they travel through Mauritania. (Prime Video)
James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson are reuniting for a new The Grand Tour special where they travel through Mauritania. (Prime Video)

This recent special of The Grand Tour saw you have more problems than the others with your Aston Martin, how did you find driving through Mauritania?

I was really excited, we were all excited to get there because of the association with the Paris-Dakar, the Dakar race which, like the Baja 1000, it's a rally race. It's about powerful, fast cars going really fast off road so we're looking forward to that, and it's an incredible place to visit — big and almost empty. We're always at our best when we cast adrift somewhere remote, slightly hostile climate and terrain.

So it was an absolute joy to make, it's an incredible place to go and it's wonderful to visit these places taking with us a crew that we know are so good at capturing it and delivering it to your sitting room via your television. Which sounds old fashioned, I suppose it is, but they are incredibly good at it, so it's a real joy to be back making those films.

You’ve all spent years travelling around the world for this show and Top Gear, was there anything that felt different about Mauritania?

Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May return in The Grand Tour: Sand Job. (Prime Video)
Looking back at their time in Mauritania, Richard Hammond said that 'trying to stay hydrated and still functioning was hard, and it punished the cars beyond belief'. (Prime Video)

It's hot, my God, it's a very dry heat and we're experienced travellers but trying to stay hydrated and still functioning was hard, and it punished the cars beyond belief. It had been a while since we've really been able to get out somewhere remote because of Covid and lockdown, and all the rest of it. So to be able to take our familiar, talented crew somewhere and unleash them on somewhere that people wouldn't have seen, and weren't have been, was a real pleasure.

It's a real satisfaction, even when you're exhausted, and hot, and dehydrated, frustrated with your car because it's not working. You've got hours of driving ahead and it's punishing but [you're] looking outside and thinking 'that looks incredible and I know there's a crew over there who are going to be capturing it, and it's gonna look amazing' and that'll translate through the television, then it keeps you going.

What was your favourite moment of making the show?

Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May return in The Grand Tour: Sand Job. (Prime Video)
Richard Hammond felt moved on the first day filming The Grand Tour: Sand Job because it was 'like we've stepped into a version of ourselves that's always out there somewhere wild'. (Prime Video)

My favourite moment was probably the first [day], because it always is for me after all the planning and preparation and getting everybody there. If you imagine just getting our film kit into another country, that's a huge mission, but everybody's finally there and finally set, and this is the moment.

When the director calls action and we look up and there's a familiar sea of faces holding cameras and I look across and there's the other two idiots, it is like we've stepped into a version of ourselves that's always out there somewhere wild, doing what we do, and we inhabit that version of ourselves and it's wonderful. I love that stepping off moment when you just say, 'here we go, back into our world'.

There’s only one more special left, what’s next for Clarkson, Hammond and May? Did it feel like it was time to say goodbye?

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 15: Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May attend a screening of 'The Grand Tour' season 3 held at The Brewery on January 15, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
The Grand Tour will end with its next special, releasing later this year, but Richard Hammond admits it's not the over yet for the trio as they're still hard at work on it. (Getty Images)

We've worked together a very long time and been lucky to share some simply incredible experiences that none of us ever thought would come our way, and not just share them with our mates but share them with a global audience which, again, we never thought we'd have the opportunity to do.

We're still right now in the process of doing that, these films are enormous, and they are films really. We're an enormous crew, it's a huge combined effort to make that so when we bring back the thousands of hours of footage, when we call wrap at the end of the shoot, that isn't the end of the job. It's still a huge process to get it assembled and made before it's done, so we're still in that process.

We're delivering this one [as] it's all come together and finally the voiceovers [are] down and the picture is graded, locked and delivered. Then for a while we're gonna be sitting back, desperate to see what do people think, did it work? Did we capture the spirit where we went? So that'll occupy us for a while yet.

Discussing the decision behind ending the show, Richard Hammond said: 'we all wanted to be the ones —and I don't just mean us three, all of us— to decide when and where and how we landed it'. (Prime Video)
Discussing the decision behind ending the show, Richard Hammond said: 'we all wanted to be the ones —and I don't just mean us three, all of us— to decide when and where and how we landed it'. (Prime Video)

We're still in the process of making the next one, we've shot it but we're gonna [finish] it. That will occupy us, so really our attention hasn't turned to anything that follows until we get there. The key thing on that whole issue, [is] we had decided years ago that we wanted to be in control.

Having set off on this incredible adventure that none of us thought would ever come our way, we all wanted to be the ones —and I don't just mean us three, all of us— to decide when and where and how we landed it, and we have done. But that isn't uppermost in our minds yet because we haven't finished.

Richard Hammond: Quick fire questions

TH Dukes of Hazzard TV Series 1979 - 1985 USA Created by Gy Waldron Catherine Bach , Denver Pyle , Byron Cherry , Christopher Mayer
The Dukes of Hazzard TV Series was a personal favourite for Richard Hammond. (PA Images)

Movies you loved growing up: I loved Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and anything with cars in it, literally anything with cars in.

First cinema trip: The first time I went to the cinema as a kid was to see Star Wars. I didn't understand a damn thing about it, but I liked it because the spaceships were a bit like cars, so I was happy.

TV obsessions growing up: You won't be surprised: The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team, Top Gear. Daktari, when I was very young, basically my life.

First single or album: The first single was Adam and the Ants' Kings of the Wild Frontier.

If you could choose one song to define your life, what would it be and why? It would be on the one hand Iggy Pop's Lust for Life because I love it, I love the sentiment of it. But also I am by nature quite a light-touch person, I don't wanna make a big impact, so a song by JJ Cale called Call me the Breeze.

I love the idea of being just that, just a brief coalescence of atoms giving rise to a consciousness that drifts across the planet, interacts gently, and then drifts away again.

Final Thoughts with Richard Hammond

The Grand Tour: Eurocrash (Prime Video)
Richard Hammond admitted he will be 'forever grateful' to Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Wilman for hiring him for Top Gear all those years ago. (Prime Video)

Were there any mentors in your life or career you would say had a defining influence on you and who set you on your career path?

Oh yea, loads. A guy called Alan Greeveson, who took me under his wing when I started in radio in 1988 and taught me the basics of radio broadcasting... Tim Jackson who gave me my job at Renault UK when I left radio and got into the car industry briefly to try and get to know the editors of the car shows. Tim gave me the job as the press officer because I had shoes with laces and buckles on them, and they were fascinating. He was a gentleman to the core, I loved him and we lost him a few years ago, sadly. Pete Baker gave me my break in Granada Men & Motors, obviously.

Also I have to say it, and it makes me feel a bit sick to do it, but Andy Wilman and Jeremy. You know, I auditioned for the job on Top Gear and they gave me the job, so thank God, I'll be forever grateful to them.

If you could go back in time and give young Richard any advice to change his origin story - what would it be?

I wouldn't go so far as to say don't worry, it'll all be alright because then I wouldn't try and I had to try, we all do. But I would say keep trying and it will work out, but keep trying.

The Grand Tour: Sand Job premieres on Prime Video on Friday, 16 February.

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Watch the trailer for The Grand Tour: Sand Job