How James May rose to fame

How the former Top Gear star and friend of Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond went from car journalist to travel presenter.

James May: Our Man in India (Prime Video)
James May now hosts his own travel shows. (Prime Video)

James May is a successful TV presenter known for The Grand Tour and his own Prime Video travel series.

The former Top Gear was rocketed to fame taking part in stunts and road trips with pals Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond before they controversially left the BBC and signed a big money deal with Amazon. But how did May, 61, land the television role that would propel him to become the popular star of the small screen he is today? Here is May's journey from sub-editing car magazines to fronting his own shows.

James May Top Gear presenter.
James May claims he wasted his youth. (Alamy)

May studied music at Lancaster University and after graduating worked several jobs before starting out on his path to car show TV presenter. These included working in hospital administration and as a moulder in a metals factory. May previously told Yahoo UK he "wasted years" of his life in his youth before finding his purpose.

May started working as a sub-editor, checking copy, first on an industrial magazine and then on Autocar. But he was fired from Autocar for a prank in which he hid joke messages in the pages of the magazine's annual Road Test Yearbook. May capitalised random letters on different pages that spelt out "So you think it's really good, yeah? You should try making the bloody thing up; it's a real pain in the a**e."

LONDON - OCTOBER 31: 'Top Gear' presenters (L-R) Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond pose with the award for Most Popular Factual Programme at the National Television Awards 2007 at the Royal Albert Hall on October 31, 2007 in London, England. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, pictured in 2007, became a hit trio on Top Gear. (Getty Images)

Despite being sacked from Autocar, May's motoring connection eventually landed him a job as a present on hit BBC car show Top Gear. May joined the show in 2003 and became part of a celebrated trio alongside Clarkson and Hammond. Top Gear specials documented their road trips through locations such as the North Pole, Botswana, the Middle East, India and Africa. The camaraderie between the three men soon became as much the focus of the show as the cars they were driving. Their different characters complimented one another, and May was billed as the 'sensible one', who always did his seatbelt up and was ridiculed for driving so slowly. This earned him the nickname 'Captain Slow'.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: James May (L) and Oz Clarke (R) pose with their best documentary programme award in the press room at the TRIC Awards 2010 held at The Grosvenor House Hotel on March 9, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
James May enjoyed a glass of wine, or two, with Oz Clarke. (Getty Images)

Having gained a fan base on Top Gear, in 2006 the BBC made May part of a seemingly unlikely pairing - with gregarious and extraverted wine expert Oz Clarke. In Oz and James' Big Wine Adenture two men drove around the wine regions of France and California with May relishing the chance to travel drink a glass of wine, while Clarke attempted to educate him on the journey from grape to glass.

Read more: James May

Spin-off Oz and James Drink To Britain saw the couple travel the UK in a camper van enjoying beer, cider and local wine, while enduing the British weather. Like Top Gear, May's relationship with his co-presenter was as key to the show as the content.

Co-hosts Jeremy Clarkson, left, Richard Hammond and James May attend Amazon Studio's
Jeremy Clarkson Richard Hammond and James May were delighted to announce they had signed a deal to make a new car show for Prime Video after leaving the BBC. (Alamy)

In 2015 Top Gear derailed somewhat when Clarkson was suspended after he punched producer Oisin Tymon in an argument over food while filming on location.. Hammond and co-star James May decided to leave the show along with him, saying the trio came “as a package”, and they gleefully signed a deal with Amazon Prime Video to present new car show The Grand Tour. The new show played upon the popularity of the Top Gear specials - sending the trio around the globe on exciting challenges and entertaining viewers with dramatic stunts. After five series May has departed the show, along with Clarkson and Hammond.

The Grand Tour stars, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, sit at a coffee shop on the Main Square in Cracow, Poland, while on tour filming the show. The Grand Tour is a British motoring television series, created by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May, and Andy Wilman, made for Amazon exclusively for its online streaming service Amazon Prime Video which premiered in 2016. The programme was conceived in the wake of the departure of Clarkson, Hammond, May and Wilman from the BBC series Top Gear. (Photo by Vito Corleone/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Jeremy Clarkson and James May have exchanged jibes. (Getty Images)

Clarkson and May's relationship on screen has always based on exchanging insults. But May has claimed the chemistry between them is based on "mutual loathing". Clarkson hit back in The Times: "We’ve spent more time in each other’s company than our families’ over the last 25 years so I don’t think it would have lasted as long as it did if we’d hated each other as much as James likes to think." Clarkson has had huge success charting his farming failures in his own Prime Video show Clarkson's Farm. But May has dismissed the enterprise as "big gardening". And since they announced they would be leaving The Grand Tour, May has said he would not want to work with Clarkson and Hammond on any other show in the future.

James May plays with a train set at James May's Toy Stories Christmas Toy Fair in London.
James May enjoying playing with model trains. (Alamy)

On Top Gear and The Grand Tour May is taunted by Clarkson for being a science geek. But he has coined the reputation to present shows about topics that interest him. In 2009 he fronted BBC documentary series James May's Toy Stories exploring the history of some his favourite toys, including Etch-A-Sketch, Airfix model aeroplanes, Meccano, Top Trumps, Scalextric and Hornby model trains. James May On The Moon celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings. And James May's Man Lab explored skills that had been lost by modern man.

James May experienced the Holi festival during filming. (Amazon Prime Video)
James May has travelled to Japan, Italy and India for his travel show. (Amazon Prime Video)

Having moved from BBC to Prime Video May also landed his own travel series Our Man In. The first series of the documentary show saw May spend three months travelling around Japan, accompanied by a series guides and presenters. Subsequent series have been set in Italy and India. The show went viral in 2022 when viewers were convinced they had spotted a ghost in the background. But true to form, May insisted the answer was probably "more boring".

James May and Tom Kerridge mystory cooking bag   at Tom Kerridges pub in the park HIGGINSON PARK, MARLOW
James May claims he can't cook. (Alamy)

Playing to his strengths and weaknesses May began presenting a cooking show on Prime Video in 2020. A play on his catchphrase "Oh c**k!" the premise of James May: Oh Cook! was that he could not cook and was attempting to learn how to rustle up some basic, tasty dishes to make at home. But after two series and a successful recipe book, the show has reportedly dished up its last serving - because May has become too good at cooking.

The Grand Tour and former Top Gear presenter, television personality James May standing in front of a vintage Chevrolet in the sunshine while visiting the Chalke History Festival to give his talk entitled 'The Car: Did we get it wrong?' with James Holland. Credit John Rose/Alamy Live News
James May has hinted at retirement. (Alamy)

May has spoken several times in recent years about retiring from TV. He told the Today podcast he had been surprised by the longevity of his own career. May said: "We’ve done it for nearly 22 years - a lot longer than we thought we would. I thought, when I started doing it in 2003 or 2004, that this was a bit of a laugh. Maybe it’ll last a few years. And, here we are, grey and wizened and sagging. And we’ve only just stopped doing it. It’s quite remarkable.

And he said in 2022: "I simply want to have a nice life and contemplate the mystery and wonder of God’s creation."

James May: Our Man in... and The Grand Tour are streaming on Prime Video.