Richard Hammond is perhaps the world’s most famous short bloke. Well, aside from midgets anyway. Like Jeremy Clarkson and James May, his global popularity can be attributed to the success of Top Gear. We all know who he is because of the show, but how did he reach such an enviable position? Well, let’s delve into his past and find out…
Richard Hammond was born on the 19th of December 1969, in Solihull, West Midlands, England. In many ways, Richard was destined to have a close association with the motor industry – it was in his blood. His paternal grandfather, George Harry Hammond, taught Polish airmen to drive during the Second World War; his maternal grandfather, Leslie Albert Dunsby, worked in the automobile industry for most of his career; and his maternal grandmother, Kathleen Shaw, was employed in the Colmore Depot, part of the Morris Motor Company. Richard has said, “I guess the car thing was always there – my mother’s father was a coachbuilder and my dad’s dad loved cars. He was in bomb disposal in the war and very good with his hands. I had a happy childhood, and most of it revolved around bicycles, moving on to motorbikes and cars.”
“My grandad moved to Weston-super-Mare and a typical memory is of driving down with my parents and two brothers – I was the eldest – in our Ford Anglia, which had that strange smell of sour milk that all childhood cars used to have,” Richard explains. Apart from squabbling and singing songs, I’d watch the back of my dad’s head as he drove, wondering what magic he did at the controls, and what the machinery under the car was up to. I remember one trip there was a car show on the seafront. I was dazzled by the colours, the chrome, the shapes and forms. I thought, this is for me”
Richard’s brothers were his best friends – a gang growing up with two years between each of them. “I was always Batman, though – they were the Joker and Robin,” Richard says. “We’d belt around on bikes until we fell off – usually from a ramp we’d built over some toy cars. We had mates at school and on the same road, but we three were very tight – we still are.” Richard attended Blossomfield Infant School in Shirley from the age of 3 to 7, and later studied at the fee-paying boys’ Solihull School.
Richard’s love of cars and motorcycles also came to the fore as a young boy and he started building his own bicycles at age 11, right through to 14 or 15. “I’d have boxes of spare parts and Dad would help. He always let me lead, though, which I now think is quite significant. Other dads might have wanted to take charge; to do it their way. I remember building a Chopper-style bike out of a smaller racer with a tiny wheel on the front. It was a disaster. The first time I braked, I went straight over the handlebars,” Richard says.
“I remember Dad and me working out when I was five how many days it would be before I could ride a motorbike. I didn’t stop badgering him about getting one. I had motorbike wallpaper; knew every bike on the road,” Richard said. “On my 16th birthday, they handed me my first set of keys – to a 49cc Honda – and off I sped. It was incredibly brave of them to let me have one. That bike was everything to me. It also meant I had a set of keys so I could stamp around the house like a grown up and say, “Where are my keys?” It was wonderful. My eldest daughter, who’s 13, loves riding with me on my bike, so I guess I’ll have to do the same when she’s old enough to ride one herself.”
In the mid-1980’s, when he was a teenager, Richard and his entire family moved to the city of Ripon, where his father Alan ran a probate business in the local market square. Richard’s schooling continued at Ripon Grammar School, before he attended Harrogate College of Art and Technology from 1986 to 1988. For Richard and his friends, the roads from college back to his home in Ripon were their race track, “It’s where we drove dangerously and irresponsibly – as young males do.” He apologises now for the recklessness which he attributes to the “impossible arrogance and sense of immortality” of being 17.
Perhaps he concentrated more on driving, instead of his studies. Looking back, Richard says he can’t have been a very good artist, because his first proper job was in radio. “I started work at BBC Radio York in 1989 as a programme assistant on the mid-morning show. Mostly, I made tea and got to drive about the county interviewing farmers who had found a turnip shaped like an elephant and blacksmiths who had made gates for someone who once met the Pope. My very first interview, in fact, was with a local Hammond Organ Appreciation Society,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I made so many jokes in it about Hammond Organs that it was censored and never broadcast. I was disappointed time and time again when girls failed to respond in quite the fevered way I had anticipated to my arrival in a three year old Ford Escort with ‘BBC Radio York’ emblazoned down the side,” Hammond recalls. “I was fired from BBC Radio York in 1990 and went to work at BBC Radio Leeds. Then BBC Radio Newcastle, Radio Cumbria, Radio Cleveland and Radio Lancashire. I don’t want you to think of me as a sort of romantic, wandering radio gypsy moving from county to county wherever the work and love took him – although you can believe that if you prefer. But I think in fact, it was just cos I wasn’t very good and the work kept drying up.”
Richard’s work at these various radio stations continued through the 1990’s, before he managed to get a get a spot on the British TV channel “Men & Motors”. While his projects on the channel might have been a little dull, it was essentially a “My First Motoring TV Show” experience for Richard, and you could see it helped pave the way for his role on the relaunched Top Gear in 2002.
It was around the time that Top Gear was kicking off that Richard married the love of his life, Amanda “Mindy” Etheridge in May 2002. They live together with their two daughters in a mock castle in Herefordshire, dubbed ‘Hammond Towers’. In his spare time, Richard plays the bass guitar, a skill which was shown during Top Gear of the Pops for Comic Relief in 2007. Richard likes to ride his bicycle in the city, for which he is mocked mercilessly by Jeremy Clarkson.
Richard’s time on Top Gear has allowed him to indulge in a particular passion of his, the Porsche 911, of which he has owned several models. He once owned a 1982 Porsche 911 SC, and later purchased a 2006 Porsche 911 (997) Carrera S. In 2004 he also purchased a Porsche 928 to use as a daily driver. Unlike Jeremy and James, Richard has a keen interest in American muscle cars, having owned a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, a 1967 Ford Mustang GT 390 and a 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT-8. He is also a keen on Morgan vehicles, and owns a few different models including an Aeromax, in which he had an accident. But that was hardly the biggest accident he’s ever had, and we can’t really detail who Richard Hammond is without mentioning the big one.
On 20th September 2006, Richard was severely injured when he crashed a jet-powered dragster he was piloting, called Vampire. The Vampire once held the British land speed record at 483.3kph (483mph) and was powered by a single Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus after-burning turbojet engine, producing 10,000hp. Some say the accident occurred during an attempt by Richard to break the British land speed record, but a report following accident found that Top Gear producer Andy Wilman vetoed the idea, due to the risk involved.
The accident happened whilst Richard was completing a 7th and final run to collect extra footage for the segment, when his front-right tyre disintegrated, and according to witness and paramedic Dave Ogden, “one of the parachutes had deployed but it went on to the grass and spun over and over before coming to a rest about 100 yards from us.” The emergency crew quickly arrived at the car, finding it inverted and partially embedded in the grass. During the roll, Richard’s helmet had embedded itself into the ground, flipping the visor up and forcing soil into his mouth and damaging his left eye. Rescuers felt a pulse and heard the unconscious Richard breathing before the car was turned upright. Richard was cut free with hydraulic shears, and placed on a backboard. He was then transported by the Yorkshire Air Ambulance to the neurological unit of the Leeds General Infirmary.
Richard’s family visited him at the hospital along with Jeremy and James. Jeremy wished Richard well, saying “Both James and I are looking forward to getting our ‘Hamster’ back”. Speaking of the accident, Richard said “It was a defining time of my life and the sense of family and belonging together came to the fore. But that solidarity did work the other way too – it was quite difficult, as all my family wanted and needed to be near me. I didn’t know anything about it at the time as I was out of it.”
During an interview in February 2008, Richard described the effects of his brain injuries and the progression of his recovery. He reported suffering loss of memory, depression and difficulties with emotional experiences, for which he was consulting a psychiatrist. Returning to Top Gear also gave Richard an unnatural platform from which to observe his own mental state, which he found exhausting. “For a time I lost the ability to connect emotionally. I began picking away at my own personality and that was dizzying. It was a lot to deal with. I had a pretty tricky few years,” Richard said.
He says the accident changed him and is now filed away “under the major events of my life, along with passing 40, getting married, having my daughters.”