We know how you like voting so Motor Trend OnDemand is letting you pick the next new show. It’s Pilot Showdown Week with Junkyard Gold vs. Forbidden Drives. Watch both pilots (for free) on MTOD. You can even make your feelings about each show known on the new comments section. On Junkyard Gold, hosts Steve Magnante and Thom Taylor nerd out in parts yards (find out more about that here), and on Forbidden Drives, English racers and hosts Tiff Needell and Jonny Smith travel the world to track down and drive rare cars rarely seen on American streets.
From the descriptions, you might think that we’d be solidly in the Junkyard Gold camp, but we have met Jonny Smith, and he is as Roadkill as they come, heck, he drove a 1968 Charger in the rain to come meet us in England. So who to vote for? Honestly, we’re hoping they make both shows!
Watch the shows for yourself to decide, but in the meantime, read on to get to know Jonny.
How many cars do you own?
Currently I am on 10, I think. Chevrolet Volt is the daily hack, 2017 Merc C-class estate (wagon) 350e hybrid, ’64 Impala SS, ’68 Charger 383 4-spd, Honda S600 Coupe, Austin Allegro, Nissan Figaro, Volvo 262C Bertone, ’67 Beetle 1500, Polski Fiat 126P. Two of those are my wife’s. I like a bit of variety, as you might be able to tell.
We’ve seen your Charger and it’s awesome. Is it hard to own American cars in England?
I suppose the quick answer is yes. Owning classic American stuff here is seen to be quite eccentric and you have to be committed. Britain is a small island so finding garages that fit American tin in the first hurdle. The second is stomaching the cost of parts if you need to import anything. If the dollar is weak then happy days, but bringing big stuff like a full Impala rear quarter panel over via air freight? That’s enough to make you cry. I’ve owned quite a few American cars, the first I think was a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. I was living in London and cycled to work, but thought it was a neat idea to buy a 500cui Cadillac from a film studio that had been roller painted with household emulsion. It was £100 and had had opera windows – no one in Britain knows what opera windows are.
There’s a small but staunch gang of American car enthusiasts in the UK. We have a Mopar club, a fins-and-chrome gang, and even a dedicated (though small) lowrider community. The UK guys do own some rare cars. I know of some Hemis and winged warriors for example. There’s also a good drag racing community. I think I’m still classed as the world’s fastest street legal passenger, having ridden shotgun three times in 7-second street legal drag cars, as well as Rod Saboury’s 6-second Corvette. I like street legal drag stuff. I want to do HOT ROD Drag Week so bad. I also like controversy, hence my 9-second Flux Capacitor electric drag car www.flux-capacitor.co.uk.
Do you think driving a Charger in England means something different than driving one in the states?
I think it means that you are committed, and that you like the escapism. Because that’s what old cars are. They are rolling history and they are escapism. I climb into the Charger and it is the raw, analog experience that I adore so much. It is that harsh contrast between a lot of the new, advanced cars I test for my other job. The Charger commands your attention. No radio, no bluetooth, no power steering, no servo, no disc brakes.
It is a wonderfully addictive thing to drive, but in the UK villages and rural roads it barely fits between the white lines. I like seeing people’s expressions when you drive it here. People either grin or they are positively bemused why anyone would want to inconvenience themselves by driving a 50-year old battered muscle car that does 20 mpg.
You get 20!? Maybe we need a 383, 4-speed.
Yeah, fuel. That is expensive in Britain. About 3-4 times more expensive than the US. So when you head to a car show here and some bloke rocks up in a 454 or, in the case of my friend Mark Todd, a 7-second street GTO with 582ci and over 2000 horses, that’s a pretty major investment. I’m not exactly hardcore compared with some of the other guys here.
Have you ever been beaten by a car?
I bought a 1964 Impala SS back in 2003 and have still never finished the restoration, started it or driven it. This car is a traditional lowrider project that spiraled way out of control and has ended up almost bankrupting me. I still love it, but that car has tested my limits.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Somerset, which is south-west England. The south west coast is probably our equivalent to California. It is where people come on holiday and there’s good surf coastline. I grew up in a rural village where there were lots of tractors and windy lanes to practice rally driving.
How did you get into cars?
The usual clichés apply here, like A-Team, Dukes, Knightrider and Fall Guy, but also I loved watching the Herbie Films. The TV shows exposed me to American cars that looked and sounded different to what I saw day-to-day. I probably got into cars through a combination of Tamiya radio controlled kits (Sand Scorcher, Vanessa’s Lunch Box, etc.) and my family always driving something old and obsolete. This was before the internet, so finding parts involved rummaging around old scrap yards owned by chain-smoking guys with no teeth or personal hygiene out in the middle of nowhere. I loved those old stacked up cars. My Mum and Dad bought a Hillman Avenger estate new in 1976. You guys called it the Plymouth Cricket–it was a micro Mopar. They sold it in something like 1999. We learned to drive in that thing. I watched Dad and my older brother Greg maintain and repair it. I enjoyed seeing how things worked.
From there we built go-karts, bought old field motorbikes like Hondas and then I saved for a British BSA Bantam trials bike. I bought my first car at 16– the 1967 Beetle–and I still have it. My brother now restores and maintains pre-war cars, especially Bentleys. We both still get turned on by old ride-on lawn mowers or mopeds that fold into a car’s boot (sorry, trunk).
My family never had fast or exotic cars, but they were always interesting.
What automotive activities do you enjoy most?
I’ve never really gelled with F1 because of its aloofness and constantly changing rulebook. I like hillclimb, rally, touring car, drifting and drag racing. To be honest I like a lot of the weirder stuff too. Dad used to take us to the banger racing [demo derby] occasionally, where you’d see old stuff being nailed around the short oval until destruction. There’s a lot of really fascinating historic circuit racing going on these days, so I appreciate that as much as drifting or drag. Drag racing here is seen as ultra niche. I spend my life convincing people that it is technical and interesting. Tractor pulling? Now there’s a thing.
What car would you like to own?
There’s always something to lust after. I feel fortunate to own several of my dream cars, but I continue to mold them into how I want them. When I worked on a TV show in America back in 2013 we visited a few movie ranches and I spotted a Ford Pinto. It had this faded green patina paint and early slim chrome bumpers. The guy would have sold it to me for $1000 and for some idiotic reason I didn’t bite. I would love to put a Ford V6 Ecoboost twin turbo in one to make a naughty sleeper. Other dream cars? A Panther Six (’80s Top Trumps car), something called a Rover P6 Estoura, split rear window Beetle, an early Porsche 356 and an electric AMC Pacer.
Did you always hope to have a gig with cars or did that come later?
I’m a pretty determined person, so I followed my interests and ambitions. At school I loved writing and English, as well art. At college I studied these and spent most spare cash either on my car or car magazines. I suppose it was inevitable that during my uni degree I’d hassled enough people to get work published that I was offered a staff writer job on a classic and custom aircooled VW mag. The rest, they say, is history. I worked my way up through the ranks of several car mags (modified and mainstream), then totally fell into TV by accident when an editor put my name down to be a talking head on a documentary called Movie’s Greatest Cars. I nattered on camera about Bullitt, Herbie, Two Lane Blacktop and then went home.
18 months later I’d been made redundant, gone freelance and been offered a job talking about cars on a terrestrial TV channel. Most TV work has been about reviewing cars or buyer’s guides for secondhand stuff. I am still waiting to unleash my inner car pervert on the classic and custom world. The Roadkill vids really struck a chord with me, because me and my friends have done similar stuff over the years. We have bought cars for £50 for a lad’s weekend away. We’ve modified stuff and it’s gone wrong. We’ve ventured on a bold roadtrip without the right tools or wad of cash. My job has taken me all over the world so I’ve been lucky to meet a huge spectrum of motorheads. For me it’s the people who are almost more fascinating than the cars.
Got a claim to fame?
Blimey, dunno. I once sold a 1950s bubble car to a British comedy star who, at the time, was on trial for murder. Turns out he loved quirky cars. Had a 1959 Dodge Royale and WWII BMW motorbike with a side car mounted machine gun, from memory. What else? I still hold the world record for the quickest street legal EV. 9.86 @ 121mph on street tyres.
I once interviewed Dirk Benedict (Face man) whilst driving him around London in a GMC Replica A-Team van. He insisted I shared a cigar with him at lunchtime. I don’t smoke but who could turn down Face?
We should talk about your new show! What’s Forbidden Drives about and what sort of stuff are you hoping to do?
Ha, I’m sort of scared that we’re pitched against junk yard explorers, I love that stuff too, but Forbidden Drives is a series where me and an ex-LeMans, ex-F1, ex-Top Gear, ex-British Touring car chatterbox (aka Tiff Needell aka #UncleDrift) taste and showcase the “forbidden fruits” of the automotive world; cars that America was denied. There are dozens of models, editions and derivatives that – for various reasons – were never sold to North America. Me and Tiff hand pick cars that we reckon deserve (or deserved – we’ll cover older stuff too) to be sold to U.S driving enthusiasts.
On Forbidden Drives we will cover cars that turn us on for design, tech, groundbreaking engineering, build quality, brute horsepower or maybe just sheer value for money. Every episode brings a pair of cars, a pair of British car nuts with a pretty broad spectrum of vehicle appreciation, a sh**load of arguments and tire delamination. We’re hoping Forbidden Drives strikes debate, brings depth of knowledge and encourages some petitions to be sent to car manufacturers. Who knows, it may spur some personal imports.
Feel inspired to debate? Get started now in the comments section on Motor Trend onDemand.