Entertainment & Arts

James May takes on new car challenge

James May on the Mini production line
Image caption James May on the Mini production line at the Cowley car plant in Oxford

He may have left Top Gear, but James May is back on TV screens next week in two live specials showing how cars are made.

May is joined by Kate Humble and car designer Ant Anstead for BBC Two's Building Cars Live programme, which will broadcast from BMW's Mini plant in Oxford.

The massive factory - which has its own fire and ambulance station and rail terminal - produces a car every 67 seconds.

"It's difficult to think of a subject that lends itself better to live TV," says May.

"We're not going to be driving around in cars very much - mainly we're looking at stuff being conceived and being put together."

He says that, unlike the pre-recorded Top Gear, the pace of this car show will be dictated by the "beat" of the car factory.

"If I talk for a minute on the assembly line, in that time a whole car will have gone through."

Image caption Building Cars Live presenters Ant Anstead, Kate Humble and James May

What if the production line grinds to a halt during the live show?

May says such events are rare, but he adds: "If that happens, that is part of the reality of live TV - we'd have to film it and watch them sort it out.

"They always do sort it out one way or another. In some ways - but I wouldn't wish it on them - that would be an exciting bit of the programme because you would see this massive, complicated machine deal with a crisis."

Building Cars Live comes just days after May started filming an Amazon Prime motoring show for 2016 with former Top Gear colleagues Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond.

The trio left the hit BBC Two show earlier this year after Clarkson's contract was not renewed following a "fracas" with a Top Gear producer.

Round-the-clock robots

Viewers of the BBC Two live show will follow the journey of a car from being welded by robots in the body shop to when it is driven off at the end of the production line.

In the body shop - a building the size of 16 football pitches - hundreds of robots work almost round the clock.

One section is nicknamed Jurassic Park because "one of the robots looks like a dinosaur running up and down", explains one Mini employee.

About 30 human technicians keep the robots functioning smoothly, riding on scooters so they can move quickly around the vast space.

Next up is the assembly hall, where the cars are painted and fitted with doors, seats, wheels and engines by teams of skilled workers.

Mini factory facts

  • The first classic Mini rolled off the production line at the Oxford plant on 8 May 1959
  • Output reached its peak in 1966-67, when 94,889 cars were made
  • There are more than 4,000 people currently employed at Plant Oxford
  • Each Mini is made up of 4,000 different parts
  • More than 1,000 robots are used on the production line
  • Pepper white is the favourite car colour

Guide: Why do we love the Mini?

Image caption Kate Humble: "These aren't sherbet lemons."

Each car is marked with a barcode so the robots can build the vehicle to the exact specification requested by the new owner. It's unlikely that any two cars on the production line are the same.

"When you say, 'Production line,' you do think of boiled sweets," says co-presenter Kate Humble.

"But these aren't sherbet lemons. Every single one is different to the one behind it and as bespoke as the person who's ordered it."

She says the whole point is to show what happens in real time.

"People will get a sense it is happening now. Yes, you could package it up and make a glossy documentary about it - but it wouldn't be as exciting."

"It's a show about manufacturing and design and human desire," adds May.

"The car is one of the most desirable things humanity has every produced."

Building Cars Live is on BBC Two on Tuesday 20 and Wednesday 21 October at 19:30 BST

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