James May: A Meticulous and Thorough Look at the Life and Career of Captain Slow

James Daniel May, generally known as James May is a famous British television presenter and motoring journalist. While James May has appeared on numerous British television programmes, he is best known for his time as a co-presenter of the BBC’s superhit car show Top Gear. Between 2003 and 2015, James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond took the ‘pokey’ motoring show to hitherto unknown heights of popularity and success. In 2015, when Jeremy Clarkson was fired from Top Gear by the BBC for punching a producer, James May, along with Richard Hammond and former show producer Andy Wilman, left the show as well. The trio of Clarkson, May and Hammond made a triumphant return to the world of motoring based TV shows with the high budget Amazon Prime show, The Grand Tour. The series has been an incredible success and has re-established the trio as the prima donnas of the motoring journalism world.

Known as the ‘cultured and sophisticated one’ of the trio, James May has also presented numerous shows based on themes such as toys, science and technology, wine culture and the downfall of manliness in the modern world. James May also penned a weekly motoring column for The Daily Telegraph between 2003 and 2011.

James May: Life before Top Gear

James Daniel May was born in the English town of Bristol on January 16th, 1963. James May has a brother and two sisters. James May’s initial schooling was done in Newport’s Caerleon Endowed Junior School. Later on, he attended the Oakwood Comprehensive School in Rotherham, spending his teenage years in South Yorkshire. James May was also a choirboy at the Whiston Parish Church.

James May showed an innate proclivity to music from a young age. He went on to take a formal music education at Lancaster University’s Pendle College. During his time at the Pendle College, James May learned how to play the flute and the piano. However, James May didn’t take up a career in music upon graduation and worked as a records officer in a Chelsea based hospital. He also worked for some time in the British Civil Service.

During the initial stages of the 1980s, James May started his work in the field of journalism. He was employed as a sub-editor for Autocar and The Engineer. Unfortunately, he was fired from Autocar for performing a prank.

In 1992, James worked as the Features Editor at Autocar, one of the world’s oldest and most influential automotive publications. At the end of each year, the magazine published the Road Test Yearbook, a retrospective of car reviews throughout the last 12 months that rounded up the year’s new vehicles in one place. May’s job was simple: compile it.

According to May, it “was extremely boring and took several months.” In order to keep from killing himself due to boredom, May decided to play a little game.

Each article began with a large red initial, and some of the spreads spelled things like “YEAR” and “BOOK.” May cleverly began each article with letters that spelled out the following:


The joke ended up going a little too far, as readers, thinking the acrostic was some sort of puzzle or challenge that they had discovered, began calling in to Autocar, assuming that they had won a competition or that there might be a prize. May’s editors didn’t think it was funny, and promptly let him go; but as far as ways to get fired, this had to have been one of the most satisfying.

Since being fired from Autocar, James May regularly wrote for Car Magazine and the Top Gear magazine. A collection of his published articles was released in 2006 and it was called May on Motors. James May also co-wrote the Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure along with Oz Clarke in 2006. The book was based on the TV series which carried the same name.

James May’s first Top Gear appearance

If you’ve read some of the other posts on this site (specifically the ones about Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond), you must know that Top Gear didn’t start in the year 2002. The modern version which everybody knows and loves did, but it was more of a rebirth than the actual genesis of the world’s favourite car show. However, the original version of Top Gear started back in the year 1977 with Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne as the hosts. Even Jeremy Clarkson, the name most synonymous with Top Gear, only came on board 11 years later.

However, the young and curly haired Clarkson left the show after ten years and the search was on for a new presenter. Co-incidentally, that vacated spot was taken up by none other than James May.

Yes, contrary to the popular opinion that James May made his Top Gear debut alongside Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond during Season 2 of the re-launched version, he actually made his debut on the old Top Gear itself. While the first ever clip of James May on Top Gear isn’t available, this is the earliest we could dig out of YouTube. We must admit, it’s definitely strange to see a ‘young’ looking James May reviewing a car. Oh, and let’s not even go to the sunglasses:

James May returned to Top Gear after not being involved in the first season of the re-launched version. During the first season, Jason Dawe served as a co-host alongside alongside Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson (back then, Top Gear still gave out practical car-related tips, unlike the ‘powerrrr’ days which were about to follow). James May replaced Dawe from the second season onwards, and his first film on the show was focussed on his Bentley and how it cost the same as a Ford Mondeo.

James May and the Reassembler

Perhaps there is no presenter in the history of television who is more suited for a certain show than James May is for The Reassembler. James May is the embodiment of the slow, thoughtful and meticulous personality and The Reassembler is a show which is basically built on those ideas and principles. Jeremy Clarkson has often mocked James May for arranging his tools by size and in an almost OCD level of order during certain Top Gear. These traits come in really handy on a show like The Reassembler. If you aren’t like James May, you won’t be able to re-assemble.

The Reassembler is by no means a show for everyone to watch. In fact, most people would struggle to watch such a slow and methodical program on a medium which is meant for ‘entertainment’. However, James May’s idiosyncrasies and quirks can make even reading the ingredients list off a box of cereal more entertaining than it should ever be.

Speaking to the Radio Times, James May talked about how he got into the business of taking things apart and putting them back together. He also spoke about what that activity meant to him as a person.

“It began for me around the age of five, and my first reassembly experience was the one that many of you will have suffered since, even in adulthood. That is: it didn’t go back together.”

James’ first reassembly project was his parents’ alarm clock, and for those youngsters that might be reading, we don’t mean a digital alarm clock that you might find in a hotel today (and definitely not like the alarm clock in your smartphones. Not that long ago, ‘digital’ stuff was mostly experimental and still in a state of development. Back then, the alarm clocks were analog and featured moving parts such as gears, ticking hands and a giant bell on top that rang when it was time for you to wake up.

As per James May, he set himself on the mission to take the alarm clock apart. Armed with a flat blade screwdriver, James May’s efforts were going on smoothly until the alarm clock’s main spring exploded out of its casing and disappeared under the floor boards.

One of the most famous Reassembler episodes features James May re-assembling an electric guitar, one of the sexiest instruments of all time. There are no riffs and solos in this video, but there are a lot of James May idiosyncrasies for the superfans to enjoy.

James May’s Cars of the People

Whatever your thoughts on the current episodes of The Grand Tour, it’s always a treat to find out that there’s more stuff Top Gear to watch. James May’s Cars Of The People is technically its own show and not a Top Gear Special,  the show’s cinematography, cars, writing, and presentation makes it pretty much indistinguishable (that’s a compliment). It’s like a James May test drive without Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond crashing into things and being loud and shouty.

Cars Of The People is a three-part miniseries in which James May examined the cars that have contributed the most towards advancing car culture and integrating automobiles into the society to the degree they are now. In everything but its name, Cars of the People is a three-hour Top Gear Special about classic cars that might as well be on DVD like The Perfect Road Trip, but for people who want more classics than just a pair of old, unreliable and impractical Italian cars.

James May on The F Word

On Gordon Ramsay’s famous cooking show, the F Word, Ramsay challenged James May to cook a dish to be judged against his own creation by a table of unbiased, and uninformed restaurant patrons.

However, in typical James May fashion, the clip started with James May opening a bottle of wine and explaining the mechanics of operation of his bottle opener. According to James May, his bottle opener had two steps in its opening process which somehow ‘made a difference in engineering terms’.

As the cooking progressed, both Gordon Ramsay and James May explained how they were making their dishes – the former sounded a little more professional compared to the latter, and a little less drunk. The shocking and uncharacteristic level of unprofessionalism shown by James May suddenly took a back seat as he began shredding his greenery.

A surprised Gordon Ramsay soon remarked: “I think I’m the first person in Britain to see Captain Slow go fast.”

This surprise quickly dissipated as James May went on to mispronounce ‘raux’ with a particular dose of finesse.

After watching James May constantly chugging down wine, Gordon Ramsay asked him if he always drinks like this during cooking. James May came up with a very cheeky reply to that question. According to him, drinking so much while cooking is good as “it dulls the horror of the food that I’m going to eat later on.”

James May’s Toy Stories

James May’s keen interest in science and technology is well renowned as a result of his presentation of such programmes as James May’s 20th Century and James May’s Big Ideas. James May has credited a lot of the inventiveness of humans to its love of playing with toys. James May has also credited many technological developments to the simple act of men playing in sheds. James May has shown his intense passion for toys in certain programmes that he has presented including James May’s Top Toys and James May: My Sisters’ Top Toys. James May has also discussed his desire for children to get away from games consoles and play with real toys instead. Playing with those toys along with their parents will be even better. James May was quoted as saying:

For too long now we have regarded the great toys as mere playthings. It’s time to use them to bring people together and achieve greatness. And I bet it’ll be a right laugh as well.”

From the month of October in 2009, James May presented a six-part TV series showcasing some of his (and Britain’s) favourite toys from the past and whether they scaled up and utilized in the modern world. The toys that were featured in the show included Airfix, Plasticine, Meccano, Scalextric, Lego and Hornby. In each episode, James May attempted to take each featured toy to its limits. As a secondary goal, the activities during the episode also fulfilled several of his boyhood dreams in the process. Astonishingly, in August 2009, James May May built a full-sized house out of Lego bricks at Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey. There were plans for Legoland to move it to their theme park. However, those plans fell through in September 2009 as a result of the insanely high costs to deconstruct, move and then rebuild the house. A last ditch appeal for someone to take the house via Facebook failed and the house was demolished on 22nd September 2009. The millions of Lego bricks were donated to charity.

In the other episodes of the series, James May recreated the banked track at Brooklands using Scalextric. James May also made an attempt to create the world’s longest working model railway along the Tarka Trail between Barnstaple and Bideford in North Devon. Sadly, the attempt was foiled due to theft of certain parts of the track and coins placed on the tracks by vandals, which caused a short circuit.

In December 2012, BBC aired a special Christmas Episode of James May’s Toy Stories called Flight Club. James May and and his team built a gigantic toy glider that flew over the sea for 22 miles (35 km) from Devon to the island of Lundy.

In the year 2013, James May created a life-size, 1:1 scale, fully functional motorcycle and sidecar completely out of the popular construction toy Meccano. James May was joined by Oz Clarke who sat in the sidecar as they completed an entire lap of the Isle of Man TT Course, a circuit which is 37.75 miles long.

James May At the Edge of Space

This is another British documentary in which James May came extremely close to fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. James May achieved that by flying almost to the edge of the stratosphere while flying in a Lockheed U-2 spy plane.

The documentary followed James May’s three days of training with the United States Air Force at Beale Air Force Base. As a part of his training, James May practised safety drills and learnt how to use a space suit correctly. Once James May successfully completed his training, he went  on a four-hour long flight which reached an altitude of over 70,000 feet (21,000 m) above sea level. The plane was piloted by veteran instructor pilot Major John “Cabi” Cabigas.

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