Some men try to keep it under the radar, but Richard Hammond is happy to admit that his latest project has almost certainly sprung from a gigantic mid-life crisis. ‘I’m sure I’m having a massive one,’ he laughs.
‘Listen, I’m not embarrassed about it. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life, but you get to 50 and you kind of want to prove yourself somehow. So I want to prove that I’m not just lucky, but that actually maybe I do have a good idea occasionally.’
The viewers can be the judge of that: the results of this mid-life introspection can be seen on screen in Richard Hammond’s Workshop, a six-part series that chronicles the Top Gear-turned-Grand Tour presenter’s attempts to start a classic car restoration and repair business near his Herefordshire home.
It’s far from a TV gimmick either, but what Richard calls ‘the real deal’: there’s a large, newly built workshop half an hour from his home to which he commutes every day, and bona fide business partners in the form of cheerful father and son restorers Neil and Anthony Greenhouse. There are even a few rather knotty financial problems.
Richard Hammond, 51, (pictured) chronicles his attempts to start a classic car restoration and repair business near his Herefordshire home in a new series
‘I know it’s got my name on it, but actually it’s a sort of anti-celebrity show,’ he insists.
‘This is about reality – in the sense that it is about real life, about the pitfalls of starting and running a business and people doing a real job. The idea was there before the cameras came along.’
Richard, now 51, would be the first to admit that his presenting job has largely never fallen into that category.
While his love of cars is ‘in the blood’ (his maternal grandfather was an apprentice cabinet maker turned coach builder), he managed to turn his passion into a globe-trotting, well-paid job envied by men (and some women) the world over.
Running parallel in recent years, however, has been a desire to do something hands-on. ‘I’d become increasingly conscious that my involvement in cars work-wise had been travelling the world and being sarcastic and funny about other people’s creations,’ he reflects.
‘So I was ready to turn it into something material and get meaningfully involved.’
Quite how and what to do had proved a conundrum until in a feat of good timing the Greenhouses, who ran a garage and restoration workshop frequented by Richard, confided in him shortly before last year’s first lockdown that they were going to have to close their business.
Richard said he spoke to his family about featuring in the show and wouldn’t have pushed them into taking part. Pictured: Richard with wife Mindy and daughters Izzy (far left) and Willow
‘I knew them well,’ he says. ‘They’d restored an E-Type Jag, an old Bentley and another Jaguar for me.
‘I used to go every Saturday just to hang out, but then they told me they were losing the workshop. And I suppose you could say that from there a plan was cooked up to go into business together.’
The idea was that Richard would provide the funding – and some cachet – but also learn skills on the job, while the Greenhouses would provide the expertise. First though Richard had to get the idea past Mindy, his wife of nearly 20 years.
‘Weirdly I went home thinking she’d say, “Oh don’t be ridiculous, you spend enough money on cars”, only for her to say it was a great idea.’
THE CARS ARE THE STARS
Car buffs are likely to be delighted by some of the vehicles on show during Richard’s new series, from a 70s Bond Bug three-wheeler and a classic 50s Alvis to Richard’s own E-Type Jag.
There’s also the chance to moon over a 1970 Mark II Jensen Interceptor, a grand touring car which was hand-built at the Kelvin Way Factory near Birmingham, purchased by Richard with his own money and which he plans to restore to factory specification as a showcase project.
In one episode a Ford Escort RS2000 (pictured) is fully restored
In another episode, car restorers Neil and Anthony Greenhouse turn their skills to a classic Mini, and also fully restore a Ford Escort RS2000 – known for its zippy speeds despite its age and which they hope can raise £60,000 at auction.
The cameras also follow Richard and his business partners when they attend classic car rally the Goodwood Revival, driving there in a Jaguar XK150 – a model produced by Jaguar between 1957 and 1961 – decked out in full 50s fancy dress.
Indeed, Mindy features prominently on the show, alongside Richard’s parents and his daughters Izzy, 21, and 18-year-old Willow, all proving a sardonic counterpoint to his enthusiasm. In fact, viewers are likely to fall a little bit in love with the no-nonsense Mindy, who comments on the unfolding proceedings with the affectionate but long- suffering air of someone who takes everything in her stride.
Overall it’s quite an intimate portrait of family life. Did that worry him? ‘We’re not the Kardashians,’ he laughs.
‘Obviously, I did talk to the family about it and I would never have pushed them but I’m lucky in that my wife and daughters aren’t at all fazed. My daughters have grown up with it, it’s what I do, so they’re not bothered at all.’
He clearly adores his family and after 25 years of ‘living out of a suitcase’ – sometimes with barely even the opportunity to unpack his washbag between one overseas trip and the next – the advent of lockdown and his decision to start the restoration business near home has meant he’s spent more time with his wife and daughters than ever before.
‘It’s grounded me. The last year and a half has made me see the pleasure in just being at home wandering around the garden or walking the dog or being able to have breakfast with my wife and daughters,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen trees in blossom in my garden that I didn’t even know existed.’
Solihull-born Richard moved to Herefordshire more than two decades ago, and made a conscious decision to stay there rather than decamp to London or the Home Counties when his media profile started to grow.
‘Mindy and I decided many years ago before the girls were born that we wanted them to come from somewhere – because my job’s a bit of a weird one, and I wanted them to have some roots,’ he says. ‘And I’m so glad we did. We’ve never regretted it.’
The night before we speak, he and Mindy had thrown a 21st birthday party for Izzy in a marquee in the grounds of the family home, filled with people they’ve known for years.
‘They were all local friends, friends she’s grown up with and known since she was two, and their parents, and that’s absolutely wonderful,’ he says.
‘We absolutely love it out here. It’s genuine and real, and my friends are not all in TV and banking and politics, they’re in a huge range of jobs. They’re auctioneers, farmers, agronomists.
‘And parallel to that, with the new business, it’s really nice to think I actually live and work here as well like a real local.’
Richard has come close to death twice in two separate car crashes, in the last 15 years. Pictured: Richard in hospital after his 2017 crash
Mindy must certainly be relieved. While she affectionately grumbles in the first episode about the fact that she’s used to her husband being around a bit less, car restoration is a lot less risky than some of Richard’s television work: in the last 15 years he’s come close to death twice in two separate car crashes.
The first came in 2006 when he was filming an episode of Top Gear and his jet-powered dragster crashed at 319mph, leaving Richard in a coma for two weeks. The second came 11 years later when, now filming for The Grand Tour, his electric supercar skidded off a Swiss hillside, rolled down a hill and caught fire. He needed ten screws inserted in his knee.
‘That last phone call I had to make while they were strapping me to a spine board next to a helicopter as the electric supercar burned was not nice,’ he says.
In the car world they’re waiting for me to fail
‘I had to tell her, “Look I’ve had a bit of an accident. I haven’t hurt my head. Don’t worry. I’ve broken a leg and some ribs, and things, but they’ll all mend, and I’ll be home soon.”
‘I don’t want to make that call again, it’s not very nice for Mindy; she’s been through it more than I have, and I wouldn’t want to put her through it again.’
In the wake of this last episode, Mindy issued a warning: three strikes and you’re out, although it turns out it’s largely redundant. Today Richard insists it’s unlikely he’ll stare danger in the face in the same way again.
‘I must say I’m less inclined to hurt myself these days. I probably don’t bounce as well as I did,’ he laughs.
‘That said, they were always calculated risks. I’ve never wanted to flirt with danger, I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t want to leave my wife without a husband and my daughters without a father and it would be disrespectful to do anything that even risks that happening. But I’ve honestly never been foolhardy.’
Richard (pictured) said his Grand Tour co-stars tease him, but they know that restoring old cars is very important to him
If you don’t count setting up a car restoration business from scratch during a pandemic, that is. ‘People will know I’m doing this in the car world, and they’ll be waiting for me to fail,’ he laughs.
Surely he doesn’t mean his Grand Tour co-stars James May and Jeremy Clarkson, who have both had successful solo projects recently.
James hosted a well-received cookery show for novices, complete with accompanying cookbook, while Jeremy’s series about his not- altogether-successful attempts to run a farm has been a big hit.
‘This isn’t my answer to his farm show by the way,’ says Richard.
‘And of course, the guys do tease me. But they also know that restoring old cars and the skills around that industry are very important to me, so they won’t be surprised.’
What with all these solo projects, Grand Tour fans might be forgiven for feeling unease. Could this be the death knell for the trio? Happily, the old partnership is far from over yet.
‘Listen, I’m not kidding myself. I’ve got the best of both worlds at the moment. I’ve got the new business which I’m really enjoying but I still get to go off and do The Grand Tour and other shows,’ he says.
He’s also added another string to his bow. ‘My welding is really coming on,’ he smiles.
Richard Hammond’s Workshop, from Monday, Discovery+.