Mud, Sweat and Gears is BBC America’s new competitive car show hosted by Jonny Smith and Tom ‘Wookie’ Ford. It’s an unapologetically fun series where lifelong civilian gearheads modify cars to compete in outrageous stunt challenges along with lifelong TV gearheads. The prize is to not have your car blown up, which is hard to endure especially after all the hard work teams put into their creations. We were most pleased to chat with the show’s hosts and discover that they’re not just cool dudes on TV but in real-life as well.
MLAS: What are your parameters for the cars you choose?
Wookie: Generally there are a few things we learned from doing: we have to get a car that fits all the occupants, for a start. We had situations in the series where we couldn’t go three-up for safety reasons, and other times we had to do some serious chopping to get everything to fit. We could have made it easier for ourselves.
Most important is probably budget: spend too much on the car and we have less money for mods, so there’s always a balancing act – one of the reasons we use scrapped or broken, unloved or rubbish cars. Plus there’s the fun stuff of trying to make something unloved or rubbish into something with a bit of attitude. Jonny made a limo into a pickup rally car, for instance (a challenge), and I had a Toyota Tercel that needed serious upgrading to make it acceptable. Now I come to think of it, every car needed serious work. Also, one tip if you ever find yourself doing this yourself: don’t hit CraigsList with cash while drunk on red wine. Just sayin’.
Jonny: I take a back door approach to a lot of the car choices. By that I mean think of a vehicle that on the face of it might be completely inappropriate, but actually packs some hidden talents (be that a specific engine, trans or suspension layout). After all it’d be a bit dull if all we did was pick clearly brilliant cars for all the challenges. I chose a lot of hated stuff that we made good.
MLAS: Of course it’s always fun to see an underdog (undercar?) win. Have you ever regretted any of your choices and why?
Jonny: My limo was silly long. I should have gone for a stretch rather than a super stretch. That hindered me on some of the Delivery ep challenges. Like, all of them. On Truck of War my Grumman ice cream truck on the one hand had an amazing turning circle and interior space for mods, but on the other it was higher than a house. Ultimately that was its downfall. I loved both of those cars. I still have the Grumman bonnet badge on my desk at home.
Wookie: The Minivan in the Delivery Episode. I thought I was being clever, but minivans are actually just really damn boring, no matter what you do. I wanted to fit a small pulsejet engine, but it would have been too dangerous. It wasn’t joyously bad, or funny… it was just … crap.
There was nothing to talk about. The thing that saved that build were the people: Kim and Rich were bloody extraordinary.
MLAS: Which has been your favourite episode so far?
Jonny: Tough question. Carcade (Arcade themed cars) was probably the funniest because me and Wook couldn’t stop cackling all the way through. The mods were extreme in that we literally cut the entire body off our cars (mine was a Ford Aspire, which is a rebadged Kia Pride) and turned it into the spawn of Mario Kart and Indycar. Turns out a front wheel drive Aspire likes to drift when you leave the suspension standard and remove all weight. On the final challenge that thing was a widow maker.
Carlympics is a fun one. I picked my fastest car of the series and we really went for it.
Delivery was epic because of the Limo Camino’s sheer ridiculousness. The final challenge of Demolition and bog crawl in Off Road were both extremely close calls.
Wookie: I did like Delivery, simply because seeing a glittery limo drift around a cliff was incredibly amusing. But I’ve loved every single one – each episode had us in stitches. From having to admit to breaking the Suburban’s AWD system in Carmageddon, to making a 10ft axe in Demolition, to making a Geo Metro unrecognizable in Arcade. They were all excellent fun. The PoliceCops Firebird probably looked the best, but that car was totally pre-ruined before we got it, and it barely made it through the show…
MLAS: On the flip side, which is the one you couldn’t wait to put behind you?
Jonny: For some reason I stupidly kept designing my builds where the rear door access was removed or restricted. Basically I remember tearing my clothes or getting stabbing back pain every time I climbed in or out of the Demolition Camry, the Carlympian BMW, Truck of War ice cream van or Off road Suzuki X90. Anyone would think I’m into S&M.
Wookie: Truck of War had so many issues: the weather in the location was super-windy, and we couldn’t weld or grind, so the builds had to be moved and we lost time. And when we filmed Carlympics, it was 45-degrees centigrade. That’s proper hot when you come from rainy Lincolnshire in the UK. My forehead looked like old wooden floorboards.
MLAS: Whoa, that’s 113 degrees Fahrenheit and proper hot for anybody! Do you guys have any input into the challenges featured on the show?
Jonny: Not really, no. We helped produce the show but our input was restricted to the theme or each episode and what mods they might entail. In other words, during ‘off road’ we had no idea how off-roady or where it would be. The premise was to build your car to cope with any extremity of that subject. The cars surprised us frequently with what they were capable of, even when put in completely ill-suited situations.
Wookie: We do come up with ideas for challenges, but we never actually know which ones the producers pick, and exactly what we have to do. So yes, if we’re say, doing an offroad challenge, we might suggest hill-climbing or rock-crawling, but until we’re on the start line, we just don’t know.
It’s one of the reasons the cars end up so bizarre – we’re constantly trying to make them work for any situation. Which sometimes makes them fit for no situation. We’ve spent hours making mods that we end up not using at all. That’s tough.
MLAS: What kind of stunt is just too darned crazy for you guys?
Wookie: I can’t think of anything. But the producers stop us, they seem to have this thing about actually getting hurt too badly. I didn’t much like getting sprayed with raw meat and brown ‘liquid’ in Carmageddon – in the desert, you start to smell very quickly…
Jonny: Not a lot really. We had to ensure stunts were professionally devised and co-ordinated for safety reasons, but if we do a second season of MSG we’d like to ramp up the stuntage, if you excuse the pun. Many years ago I did a General Lee jump without much safety planning and it hurt my neck for almost 10 years. I’ve learnt from that. I’d still like to jump a car again though.
MLAS: It’s interesting that you often let the guest builders drive for challenges. How important is it to give them the spotlight?
Wookie: They always get to drive. Why come on the show if you don’t get to have a go in the car you’ve built? MSG is about friends messing with cars – without the camaraderie, the show is nowhere. Plus, that’s the scary/fun bit for us: we literally have no idea whether or not the people who come on the show can drive or not until we’re actually in a challenge….
Jonny: Wookie has probably said this before but the contestants are the real spirit of Mud Sweat and Gears. They are real car people from every walk of life, with stories to regale and it’s them who keep things fresh. We never know how talented or mad they are with tools or driving skills until it’s too late. That’s the buzz!
MLAS: Have you ever had a build where everything went wrong?
Jonny: I know Wookie has. In the Spy car episode my Chevy had a dastardly cunning compressed air tank full of oil that we were going to drop as an oil slick. Only thing was, we forgot where the button was to activate it. Silly really. I miss my Spy car. It rocked.
Wookie: In Demolition, the axe we made failed on the only challenge it would have been useful on. And the car kept stalling out for no reason. It was driving us mad with an intermittent electrical fault – one of those things that can take you days to sort out.
MLAS: Your onscreen rivalry has occasionally been not-so-friendly, and the guests don’t come to lose. So what do you do when the competition gets out of hand?
Wookie: Do what everyone else does: go for a beer and laugh about it. That or cover each other in olive oil and wrestle.
Jonny: The film days are long and the weather is always challenging, but any heated moments usually simmer down as quickly as they flair up. It’s usually pent up frustration more than anything. All is forgiven if I find Wookie a nice tall girly Coffee Latte and shield his forehead from the Ozone Layer…
MLAS: ‘Mud, Sweat and Gears’ airs on BBC America after the granddaddy of British motoring shows, Top Gear. Is that a dream come true or makes your nervous?
Wookie: Neither, really. We love TOP GEAR (I’m the Associate Editor of TOP GEAR Magazine), and nothing can replace it. It’s more of an honour to share a bit of airtime.
Jonny: I see it as a huge privilege. We have both worked in the car magazine and TV industry for a few years so it’s fantastic to be billed as a sort of support act for Jeremy, Richard and James. There’s no need to be nervous – me and Wook just behave the way we always do. Pick fun at one another, drive hard, go home and share a beer. Not actually sharing the same beer bottle though.
MLAS: What are your goals for the show?
Jonny: My hope is that people will enjoy watching the experience and go away wanting to come on and do it themselves. The builds are fast and frantic as opposed to beautiful, but the boundaries are wide. The cars get punished for 3 days solid and we encourage our contestants to really uncork their inhibitions. I suppose ultimately my goal is for both car and non-car enthusiasts to appreciate Mud Sweat and Gears as a slice of roots level auto entertainment hosted by weird foreigners.
Wookie: There’s quite a lot we would change, so we’d like to do more driving, and get more build time. And I’d really like to do a professional version, where we get NASCAR engineers vs INDY or F1. And give them exactly the same car – that would be massive fun. And another series, obviously.
MLAS: I’m quite sure we’ve got some My Life at Speeders who would love to be on your show. How do they get in and will tasty baked goods smooth the application process?
Jonny: Are you offering me cake? I’d do anything for cake, so yes absolutely. People apply to MS&G from all sorts of angles. It would be cool to hear what Life at Speed people honestly think of our show. Do they like seeing BMWs perform a steeple jump? Do they appreciate a Pontiac Aztek with metal horns that can jump? Do we like seeing Wookie scream like a hysterical old thespian? Yes we do. I think.
MLAS: Indeed, winning is great but should always be accompanied by cake. Jonny for the Fifth Gear fans out there (myself included), did you ever try drifting again?
Jonny: Yes. I have tried to drift several times and i’m still average. I entered a drift contest in Norway against pros with one day’s training. It all went well until the final….
MLAS: Better luck next time, buddy, and Wookie, I must ask, what exactly did you do in the circus?
Jonny: I’ll let him answer that, but it involved swords and sometimes hooks attached to body parts. I didn’t know him then, but I love the fact he was a performing circus animal. It explains a lot! I wish I had done something that mad for a job. I worked in an aquarium shop once, and won several cake decorating competitions as a teenager. We stole my best friend’s Dad’s Porsche 911 once to pay homage to Ferris Bueller. Stupid idea.
Wookie: This is a family environment. So probably best not to ask. It involved swords.
A Final Word
Don’t forget to tune in or DVR Mud, Sweat and Gears on BBC America on Monday nights at 10:00pm EST after Top Gear. In case you’re on the road, the show is available on iTunes and Amazon. Feel free to join the conversation on social media with #MudSweatAndGears, and via the following:
Jonny on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Carpervert (We’re not making this up.)
Wookie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tomwookieford
BBC America on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bbcamerica
BBC America on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BBCAmerica
BBC America on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/BBCAmericaTV
Official Show Website: http://www.bbcamerica.com/mud-sweat-gears/