How The Grand Tour star Richard Hammond rose to fame

The presenter loved bikes and cars from an early age

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 8: Richard Hammond attends a Service of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Sir Stirling Moss at Westminster Abbey on May 8, 2024 in London, England. The former motor-racing driver died on 12 April 2020, during the Covid pandemic, in London at the age of 90. (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)
Richard Hammond is best known for Top Gear and The Grand Tour. (UK Press via Getty Images)

Richard Hammond had his first real taste of the limelight in 2002 when he bagged a presenting slot on Top Gear.

But while he was new to fame, he certainly wasn't new to cars. With one grandad who built coaches and another who was an automobile enthusiast, wheels were his thing growing up.

It was all bikes to start with, until one exhibition on a childhood holiday changed everything. “I remember one trip there was a car show on the seafront," Hammond previously told The Guardian. "I was dazzled by the colours, the chrome, the shapes and forms. Thought, this is for me.”

So how did he get from there to being a presenter on the UK’s biggest motoring shows? We have a look at Hammond’s rise to fame.

As a child, Hammond started building bikes from spare parts and while he was still at school he got a job on a chicken farm to earn money to buy a second-hand 50-CC bike. But it would be a while before he got the idea of turning his hobby into a TV career.

Motoring correspondant and TV Presenter Richard Hammond with his new old Volvo estate December 2006
Richard Hammond has always been keen on cars. (PA Images/Alamy)

He actually attended art school, once telling the Daily Mail: “I wasn’t a natural performer though, being quite shy, and as the years went by my ambition was to write, paint or do photography, so I left school to do media studies at Harrogate School of Art and Technology.”

Art didn’t pan out careerwise, but Hammond’s interest in the media side grew and his first real job was in radio. He worked for several BBC stations, including Radio Cumbria and Radio Newcastle, and a friendship that he formed during his time on the airwaves ended up being instrumental in what came next.

Richard Hammond with his Vauxhall project April 2006
Richard Hammond worked on several radio programmes. (PA Images/Alamy)

He got friendly with motoring journalist Zog Zieglar when he appeared on his show, and Zieglar urged him to think about reviewing cars on TV, thus merging his two passions.

Like his co-stars Jeremy Clarkson and James May, it was Top Gear that proved to be Hammond’s big break. He previously told Yahoo that he "couldn't earn a living" when he worked on radio before landing the job, and when he tried out for it he knew he wanted it.

Speaking on his DriveTribe channel, the TV star said he had to do a review and also test with Clarkson for his audition, but he was convinced he wasn’t going to get it.

Prague, Czech Republic. 27th June 2014. Team of BBC prepares for Top Gear Live show in Prague, Czech Republic on June 27, 2014. From left: Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson, James May. (CTK Photo/Katerina Sulova/Alamy Live News)
Richard Hammond was worried he wouldn't get the Top Gear job. (CTK Photo/Katerina Sulova/Alamy Live News)

“I went home quite sad because I thought, 'That show is going to be amazing and they are going to have an incredible time and I won't be part of it, because I’m not going to get the job',” he said. But months later he got the call telling him he’d been hired.

“I burst into tears and opened a bottle of champagne!” Hammond said.

He joined the series in 2002 when it was rebooted with its now famous line-up of Clarkson, Hammond, May and racing driver The Stig. He remained there until 2015, when Clarkson was dropped after an altercation with one of the show’s producers. Hammond and May left alongside him, explaining that the three stars came “as a package”.

Hammond found himself in hot water in 2011 when he made a comment about Mexican cars during an episode of Top Gear. The TV star was discussing the Mastretta sports car when he said: "Why would you want a Mexican car? Because cars reflect national characteristics don't they?

Photo by: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx201712/7/17Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May at a promotional event for 'The Grand Tour', with a new season about three middle-aged men rampaging around the world having unusual adventures, driving amazing cars, and engaging in a constant argument about which of them is the most annoying.
Richard Hammond was in hot water over his Mexico remarks. (Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx201712/7/17)

"Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat."

His comments sparked complaints, with the Mexican ambassador writing to the BBC about the “outrageous, vulgar and inexcusable insults”.

The BBC apologised but said the comments were not meant to be vindictive. “Our own comedians make jokes about the British being terrible cooks and terrible romantics, and we in turn make jokes about the Italians being disorganised and over dramatic, the French being arrogant and the Germans being over-organised," the corporation said in a statement.

In 2006 Hammond was seriously injured after crashing a Vampire dragster while filming for Top Gear. He had been shooting at a site near York and was driving the jet-powered dragster faster than 300mph when he crashed.

Police officers examine the car that Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond crashed in, at Elvington airfield near York.   (Photo by Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Richard Hammond suffered serious injuries in the accident. (PA Images via Getty Images)

The father-of-two suffered a head injury and spent two weeks in a coma. There were reports that he had post-traumatic amnesia after the accident.

Last year he said on The Diary Of A CEO podcast that he still struggled with memory issues and suggested the injuries he suffered could mean he has an increased risk of a condition linked to memory loss.

"I have to consciously write memories down and work hard to recall them sometimes," he said. "It might be because I'm 53, it might be because I'm working a lot and I'm tired, it might be the onset of something else,"

Sixteen years later the TV star got back into the Vampire, and admitted on Good Morning Britain that it gave him chills to climb behind the wheel of the vehicle once again. “I didn’t tell Mindy, my wife, I was going to do it,” he said. “We snuck off and filmed it.”

When their Top Gear adventure came to an end in 2015, Hammond, Clarkson and May weren't ready to park up for good and The Grand Tour was born. All eyes were on the new series when it was released on Amazon's Prime Video in 2016 and luckily it didn't disappoint, with Top Gear viewers quickly invested in the trio's new motoring exploits.

The Grand Tour: Eurocrash (Prime Video)
Richard Hammond went onto The Grand Tour after Top Gear. (Prime Video)

The show was a success and Hammond and co hit the road everywhere from the Mekong Delta to Madagascar for further series. However, rumours it was ending started to swirl and in 2023 it was confirmed that the programme was set to wrap up with two final specials.

Discussing it coming to an end, Hammond told Yahoo: "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."

This year, Hammond took a step in a new direction and teamed up with his daughter Izzy, 23, for a podcast. Entitled Who We Are Now, it sees the pair chatting to celeb guests and touching on everything from polar bears to motor racing and psychology.

When he announced it, the presenter - who is also dad to 20-year-old daughter Willow - explained that it was partly to do with his car crash.

"After my accident in 2006, I spent a lot of time looking out of my hospital window, questioning my emotions, thoughts, life decisions, you name it," The Sun quoted him as saying. "Ever since I’ve been on a pretty big journey of self-discovery."