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'Richard Hammond's Workshop' was a harsh reality check

Maverick Life

What we’re watching

Welcome to the wheel world – Richard Hammond’s new TV show was a harsh reality check

Richard Hammond. Image: courtesy of Total Exposure

Hammond’s newest venture is a high-end restoration business for vintage cars. We spoke to him about the origins of the show, the sobering realities of starting a business, and his controversial take on the environmental impact of the industry.

Anyone with even a remote interest in cars would probably recognise Richard Hammond, easily the most likeable of the daredevil goofball trio of Top Gear. While Jeremy Clarkson spent the past two years of intermittent lockdowns mucking about in tractors for his new TV show, Clarkson’s Farm, Hammond’s new show (coming to Britbox on 23 July) is keeping with his car obsession and that of his fans – a high-end restoration business for rare classic automobiles. 

We asked him where it all started. 

“Really it came about because of Neil and Anthony, the father and son who are at the heart of the workshop. They’d been restoring my cars for years; they were just the workshop down the road. I’d take the car along to them and say, ‘lads, can you do this?’ And they did an E-type, a Bentley, all sorts of cars, for me.

“I used to go in on a Friday with a fish and chips and we’d sit and have a chat. And I arrived one Friday and Neil said, ‘bad news mate, I’m losing the workshop. They don’t want to rent it to me, they’re developing it,’ and he wasn’t in a position to fund a new one, so that would’ve been it, they’d have had to maybe go and see if they could work for somebody else.

“And I said, well that’s a disaster. I’m not Jay Leno – I can’t afford to just employ you, and even if I could, that’s not very dignified when you’ve run your own show for years and years, so why don’t we set up a new business together? I’ll fund us into a new workshop and help us get the work, and you do all the work!

“And then after that, I thought, well, that might make a TV show, but the workshop came first. So that’s why the business is genuine, because it’s got to work. The TV show is about the workshop – I didn’t set the workshop up for TV. It is my genuine passion,” Hammond says.

Neil Greenhouse and Richard Hammond
Neil Greenhouse and Richard Hammond. Image: courtesy of Total Exposure

While Top Gear’s popularity rode primarily on insane, scripted, high-budget stunts, this reality TV series focuses more on the practical side of the industry. The advantages of the business in terms of television appeal are the satisfaction of seeing rare classic cars returned to their past grandeur and that the marketing involves going to posh car events where all the wealthier enthusiasts are. 

The workshop also seems to have been born out of the coronavirus, which saw Hammond spending more time with his family in Herefordshire, England. Starting a venture close to home means being able to keep it that way. “I’m 51. Is it time to stop living out of a suitcase?”

The show gets far more involved with Hammond’s personal and family life than any of his previous ones, which fans of his will enjoy and is less boring than you might expect because they’re as witty and fun as he is, and the production value is so good that picnics and day-to-day banter are somehow an entertaining part of the series. In the first episode we find ourselves sitting with Hammond’s parents in the lounge paging through the family albums.

Richard Hammond with his family
Richard Hammond with his family. Image: courtesy of Total Exposure

Hammond has been commentating on cars and other people’s efforts for 25 years, but he’s craved a more hands-on involvement in the industry, looking up to his grandfather who was a coachbuilder. The series is a way for him to have a bunch of cakes and eat them too – he gets to work with cars hands-on, work from home during the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic, see more of his family and put Neil and Anthony in the spotlight. But the workshop was a more ambitious project than Hammond realised, involving a learning curve and a fair bit of risk, so the show quickly became focused on the business.

“I didn’t realise how big a deal that was cause I’m naive and an idiot. It’s been terrifying sometimes. As you see in the series, we run out of money and I do actually have to make some… adjustments to my own collections of cars, which hurts. So it’s been a bit of a rude awakening. I feel like somebody who comes out of being institutionalised for years and years and suddenly has to deal with real life,” he explains.

“For example, I’ve been to South Africa many times, but let’s be honest – I just get on an airplane when somebody tells me to, and then I go where I’m told and it’s great fun. This is kind of the real grown-up world where I would have to buy the plane ticket and find out where I’m going at the other end. That’s what’s been a learning curve. But hey, I do get to play with cars.

“Obviously, we’re still going. It’s a real business which has carried on. We’ve got some exciting cars coming in this week so we’re still bumbling along trying to make it. But it’s a real world – I can’t just make things be the way I want them to be. We’re not staging anything here. This is what actually happens when we try to set up a new business.”

Richard Hammond, Neil Greenhouse and Anthony Greenhouse
Richard Hammond, Neil Greenhouse and Anthony Greenhouse. Image: courtesy of Total Exposure

Hammond named the workshop The Smallest Cog, which is apparently not a lewd pun but alludes to the detail with which they promise to tend to their clients’ vehicles, right down to the smallest cog. It might have made sense for the show to be named after the workshop but it would have been too cryptic, and as the main drawcard for viewers, Hammond’s name had to be in the title, partly to draw publicity to the workshop itself.

“There are pros and cons to making a TV show about the business. People see the business on TV, so they know who we are – great! But because we’re making a TV show alongside doing the work, sometimes it’s even harder to get work in. If you’re filming stuff, it tends to take longer to do, so my guys sometimes complain, ‘I’ve just tightened that, I’ve just put that gearbox in, why would I do it again?’ That can be frustrating,” he adds.

“It’s great from my point of view, because there’s a familiar aspect to it. Weirdly, I’m familiar with TV crews hanging around all day and asking me to do things twice, which comforts me a bit in what would otherwise be a terrifying and unfamiliar commercial environment in which all I’m aware of is money leaving my bank account constantly.

“I am very concerned that [the show] is real and that it remains real. Obviously it’s slightly affected when you’ve got a TV crew hanging around, but it’s only a tiny crew and I know them so the lads are not self-conscious about it… We wouldn’t change the way we react to stuff. Quite a lot of the time on TV shows about cars, they’ll say, ‘this car costs us this, and we’ve bought these parts and we’ve made this much money on it’. Well, you haven’t if you factor in the hours spent on it, cause you’ve probably put in 20 grand’s worth of hours.”

Hammond explains that “other people in the industry quite like to see that reality.” He adds: “When a car comes in and ends up taking twice as long as you quoted for it, you can’t turn around to the owner and say it’s going to cost twice as much cause they won’t stand for it. So, sometimes I have ended up actually having to sell my own to pay to restore their car, which becomes a bit painful, but it’s a good lesson to learn.”

At this point in the interview, Hammond looks forlorn for a moment, but then suddenly pipes up: “And I get a truck, so that’s a massive plus!” Hammond’s lighthearted demeanour and his ability to turn failures into comedic relief are assets which viewers of his past work will already be familiar with, and which his family shares.

“I’m going to write a book about business and you’ll be able to buy it in airports!” Hammond jokes in the series. “It won’t sell,” mutters his sarcastic, worrying wife Mindy. Hammond’s report with Neil, his gruff, working-class moustachioed head mechanic, is even more entertaining. 

Richard Hammond and Mindy Hammond
Richard Hammond and Mindy Hammond. Image: courtesy of Total Exposure
Neil Greenhouse.
Neil Greenhouse. Image: courtesy of Total Exposure

Neil is even more charming than Hammond, and he’s the real deal. As the show progresses and work comes trickling in, it becomes more about the jobs themselves, and Neil provides brief explanations of how the restorations are done. Hammond says he’s learnt a lot from running the workshop.

“It has changed my view of the industry. It’s allowed me to be a lot more realistic. A lot of the people I talk to are now more from within the industry than just the PR side. I’ve been talking to people about synthetic fuels, about the possibilities there – the idea that the need to get around is never going to go away, we just need to address it in different ways. And I do love when somebody brings in an old car and we keep it going. The carbon footprint of that car is 20, 30, 40, 50 years old. My electric car is going to have to do about 190,000 miles before it offsets its own carbon footprint compared with running my 50-year-old Mustang.

“We’ve got to be clever and sensible about it though, and not just become impassioned in one direction or the other. You’ll hear people who hate anything with an internal combustion engine or who hate anything that isn’t a V8 – no, hang on, it’s a bigger picture. It will be quite a complicated patchwork of ways we get about, and one patch on that patchwork will be classic cars, but it has its place – you can’t use it every day. It’s quite nice being part of that. I look at it differently now because I’m part of the industry. 

“It’s also worth thinking that the business of classic cars in the UK is something like £14-billion. It’s tens of thousands of jobs and it’s worth preserving. I run an electric car for my day-to-day – but I still love my classic cars. And for most people, whose classic cars do less than a thousand miles a year, their classic car has the same carbon footprint as half that of their mobile phone. So it’s actually quite green to be keeping things going. There’s no reason this business shouldn’t continue into the future.”

There’s definitely a little acrobatic logic happening in Hammond’s argument, but it’s interesting to consider that the production of new electric cars, particularly their batteries, uses quite a lot of resources. Though there’s scarce justification for the production of new gasoline-chugging cars, there might indeed be a case to be made for the restoration and reuse of already existing ones rather than piling them on the scrap heap and using additional resources to create new, greener cars.

Hard Hammond, Neil Greenhouse and Anthony Greenhouse.
Hard Hammond, Neil Greenhouse and Anthony Greenhouse. Image: courtesy of Total Exposure

With a second season of the show on the way, Hammond showed us a sneak preview of his workshop, which was scattered with a fair number of handsome cars.

“I think we’re getting some momentum going now. It’s growing up as a business. I’m still having to put money into it, we’re still not breaking even, but we’ve thought of a clever way of drilling out more business, and I’m learning that the long-term restorations really are long-term and sometimes you just need fast jobs coming in to turn around quicker money. I don’t want to dilute the business to just repairing hatchbacks that have backed into bollards in supermarket car parks, so we’ve had to walk that line between quality jobs and jobs that you can achieve and get money in… I’m sounding like a businessman, aren’t I, it’s ridiculous! Sometimes it bites me. It’s terrifying, but I don’t regret doing it.” DM/ ML

Richard Hammond’s Workshop is available in South Africa on Britbox from 23 June.

You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

In case you missed it, also read ‘The Northman’ – Vikings reinvented

‘The Northman’ – Vikings reinvented

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  • How about taking something like a Messerchmitt Kabinenroller and making it electric, to, give a really economical, easy-to-park small vehicle? I don’t have one to offer, and I can’t afford to pay you anyway!

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