James May is a true gentleman in the world of automotive journalism. His floral shirts are infamous, his laugh is infectious, and he always likes to begin with “Hello”. Like Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, James’ global popularity is all due to Top Gear and we all know who he is because of it, but how did he manage to wing his way into one of the most popular shows in the world?
James Daniel May was born on the 16th January 1963, in Bristol, South West England. James’ parents, James and Kathleen, had a total of four children – two girls and two boys. In his own words, James didn’t grow up in just a single house. “I moved all over Britain. Home life was very happy. We all had food and shoes,” he says.
His love of vehicles and machinery blossomed from a young age. “The first toy I remember receiving at Christmas was the Corgi Routemaster Bus. I can’t have been more than three years old. It was a gleaming, bright-red objet d’art with jewelled headlights; a Fabergé egg to a small boy. I still have it, though it’s not quite as shiny as it was,” James says. “When I was a child I wanted to be… a fighter pilot because I like aeroplanes. Or a surgeon.”
Once he reached schooling age, James’ parents enrolled him into the Caerleon Endowed Junior School in Newport. Like most young boys, he was rather fond of bicycles. “The toy I wish I’d owned, but never did is the Raleigh Chopper bicycle. My parents didn’t really approve of that sort of thing. I never actually had a new bicycle anyway. I was encouraged to make them out of old bits,” he explained. “I learnt to be quite thorough from my dad and to do things properly. And I learnt to be quite nice from my mum.”
James spent his teenage years in South Yorkshire, where he attended Oakwood Comprehensive School in Rotherham and was a choirboy at Whiston Parish Church. It was here that he experienced a moment that changed him forever. “I punched a guy called Kenneth Ingram in the face after choir practice when I was nine. We had an argument over who would be head boy. It was a brutal arena, the village church choir,” he said. A keen flautist and pianist, he studied music at Pendle College, Lancaster University. After graduating, May briefly worked at a hospital in Chelsea as a records officer, and had a short stint in the civil service.
By age 18, James acquired his first car – a Mk1 Vauxhall Cavalier. “I got it because my dad ran a factory at the time which had a fleet of them for their sales reps. This was in the days when companies used to buy cars for staff, rather than doing all these leasing things that they do now. When they got to about 98,000 miles they sold them off, and they had become pretty worthless by then so he simply bought one of them and gave it to me. Technically it was my dad’s car, I did drive it on his insurance. I ran it until it got a bit daggy, so I sold it.. and then he got my another one!”
James’ foray into journalism began by working for Autocar magazine. By 1992, he was working as the sub-editor for the magazine, before being fired at the end of the year for putting a hidden message in one of the feature articles. The article in question was from a “Road Test Year Book” supplement, which contained 4 reviews to a spread, spanning across many pages. Each review started with a large, red letter – and it was these letters which May used to convey his hidden message.
“I had this idea that if I re-edited the beginnings of all the little texts, I could make these red letters spell out a message through the magazine, which I thought was brilliant, May says. “I can’t remember exactly what it said, but it was to the effect that ‘You might think this is a really great thing, but if you were sitting here making it up you’d realise it’s a real pain in the arse’. It took me about two months to do it and on the day that it came out I’d actually forgotten that I’d done it because there’s a bit of a gap between it being ‘put to bed’ and coming out on the shelves. When I arrived at work that morning everybody was looking at their shoes and I was summoned to the managing director of the company’s office. The thing had come out and nobody at work had spotted what I’d done because I’d made the words work around the pages so you never saw a whole word. But all the readers had seen it and they’d written in thinking they’d won a prize or a car or something.”
Since his dismissal from Autocar, James wrote for several publications in the 1990’s, including a regular column called ‘England Made Me’ in Car Magazine and articles for Top Gear magazine, as well as a weekly column in The Daily Telegraph. It was at this time that his foray into television came about, when he was added to the presenter line-up of Old Top Gear. James actually replaced Jeremy Clarkson, who decided to leave the show after foreseeing its impending demise. James presented several segments alongside Tiff Needell, Quentin Willson and Vicki Butler Henderson, before the show was cancelled due to low ratings.
When Top Gear was relaunched in 2002, James wasn’t part of it at all. At the time, the presenter line-up consisted of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and ex-used car sales champion Jason Dawe. By the end of the first series Jason Dawe had left, due to things “not working out”. The BBC weren’t sure about keeping Richard on, either, and were on the look out for two new presenters. Top Gear’s executive producer Andy Wilman eventually convinced the BBC to let Richard stay, and the search was on to find a young, lifestyle, trendy presenter to appeal to Top Gear’s young, lifestyle, trendy viewers. “Ever keen to assist, we searched high and low and eventually came up with just the man – James May,” Andy explains.
“James had a 14-year old Bentley at the time. At the audition he said, “I’ve found out if you spend £50 at Tesco, you get £5 of free petrol. Now I can drive anywhere I like; the problem is my house is full of rotting food!” Everyone in the room laughed, Jeremy laughed. That landed him the job.”