It was a difficult brief, given there were 20 rollicking seasons from which to choose. Yet no two writers selected the same moment, let alone the same episode – a testament to the gonzo creativity that has distinguished the programme since day one.
Without further adieu, and in no particular order...
Car of the Year: Ford Puma (Autumn Series, 1997)
Clarkson is in the passenger seat, scared for his life with veteran GP driver (and then co-host) Tiff Needell at the wheel. Tiff starts out with a reverse-one-eighty, throws the car in every direction but upside-down, and ends by rounding a corner, arse-first at 100mph. Clarkson’s reaction: “I hate every molecule in your body.” Somehow, everyone – including the car – survived. It was juvenile and dangerous and ensured that I’d watch every episode for the following 17 years. — Jason Cammisa, senior editor, Road & Track Magazine
Soviet holiday (Series 12)
Having demoralised cars from the Pacific Rim some series' earlier, Jeremy and James turned to automobiles built under Soviet Communism. James is deeply disenchanted by the value-per-pound argument of the crummy Moskvitch 408, while Jeremy finds no pleasure in the Lada Riva, except for the excuse it provides to don a ushanka hat while motoring. The takeaway from the Riva’s aluminium brakes? They have the same performance properties “as cheese". One of the few segments to lack Jeremy's clarion call, "Powerrrrr". — Jeff Jablansky, contributing writer
Bolivia special (Series 14)
It could have been Jeremy skirting oblivion along the “Death Road”, Richard taking a tumble down a sand dune or James lobbing insults at the near-6,000m volcanoes stealing his oxygen. But my favourite moment from this special – and my favourite Top Gear moment of all – is a relative snoozer. As the presenters coax their decrepit off-roaders up from La Paz to the 3,900m altiplano tableland, a rusty sunset consumes the horizon. James admires it from behind the wheel of his Suzuki 4x4, telling us it’s the nicest sky he’s seen in a long time. The Andean god of celestial miracles is appeased, and our friends motor on, having made an uncharacteristically subtle case for taking the occasional ill-advised road trip. — Jonathan Schultz, deputy editor, BBC Autos
Jeremy rolls a Reliant Robin (Series 15)
“How do you drive a Reliant?” Clarkson asks an enthusiast of the famously tippy British three-wheeler. “In straight lines,” comes the answer. Sure, Hammond and May’s later attempt to build a space shuttle out of the oft-maligned Robin was more dramatic, but to me, for sheer comic value, nothing in the Top Gear canon can beat Clarkson’s deadpan, “Oh no, I’ve crashed it. I’ve crashed it almost immediately. I mean, literally, 20 feet.” — Matthew Phenix, editor, BBC Autos
Channel crossing, take 2 (Series 10)
The second attempt to cross the English Channel in homemade car boats is among the best sequels ever made in a modern television docu-dram-edy. “You are effectively driving a car with a blender on the back,” spouts Clarkson about Hammond’s ultimately ill-fated Volkswagen. The stakes are higher at the Dover launch, but with a Honda motor powering Clarkson’s Nissan, the show’s leader seems better equipped to make a run at it. Side note: I have tried to recreate this challenge in a bathtub, at home with my son, using Hot Wheels. — Tamara Warren, Gotryke
Why I don’t watch Top Gear
Do you know what I love? Cars. Do you know what I don’t love? Standup comedy, talk shows, reality shows, “gotcha” journalism, straw-man journalism, unrepentant homophobia, unrepentant misogyny, racing, bad hair, inside jokes about the British automotive industry during the 1980s, inside jokes about the British automotive industry during the 1970s, beer, cider, boors, boobs and tomorrow’s physical or virtual water-cooler chit chat. Also, conforming to expectations and being needlessly oppositional. And Downton Abbey. — Brett Berk, automotive columnist, Vanity Fair
James May and the Citroën DS (Series 2)
My favourite Top Gear segment is the one from 2009 on the Citroën DS. In typical Mayvian style, James approaches the blackboard and systematically lays out the case: This is the coolest car of all time because it did everything that was ever cool 50 years before anyone else did. As he says, "There have been other groundbreaking cars ... but they only changed one thing at a time. The DS changed everything – construction, materials, control systems, gizmos, safety, driving, being a passenger, the lot." In so many words, he essentially tells us that our dads did everything we did, and looked a lot cooler doing it. — Eddie Alterman, editor in chief, Car and Driver magazine
A collection of Lancias (Series 14)
Americans don’t run into Lancias much, but this hilarious episode can make anyone appreciate their bizarre and wonderful history — even if the cars literally fell apart and caught fire when Jeremy and Richard drove them. Who cares? You’ll want a Fulvia, a Stratos or a Delta Integrale after you watch this. That’s what Top Gear does best. It makes people see cars as more than just a way to commute to work. — Patrick George, senior writer, Jalopnik.com
Veyron v Cessna (Series 7)
This race from northern Italy to a dinner in London had all the makings of an easy win for the plane. It’s a two-hour flight to London and that wouldn’t change regardless of how many rules the Veyron shattered at its launch. But the Bugatti’s gate swung wide open when, with a classic twist, James would actually be flying Richard. In a Cessna. The result was the perfect balance between product, entertainment, character plots, tension and hilarity. A benchmark piece to this day. — Michael Taylor, contributing writer
Is your favourite moment not represented here? Share it with us on Facebook, or sound off on Twitter. And be sure to catch the premiere of Season 21, airing 10 February on BBC America.