The photographs are surfacing on social media. Speculation is running hard and fast. The internet is abuzz. Though no longer living under the richly frilled umbrella of the BBC, and stripped of the “Top Gear” franchise name, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May will once again be plumbing new depths of automotive buffoonery. Despite what Chris Evans might wish, it seems the new Jeremy Clarkson will be Jeremy Clarkson.
But what if the much ballyhooed, adequately-bellied and bellicose host was just a copycat? (Albeit one equipped to describe the original Porsche Cayenne as having the sex appeal of “a gangrenous wound or a camel with gingivitis.") What if the original Jeremy Clarkson was none other than Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man of the twentieth century? Well, we’ve got the video evidence.
Before he was anchor of the CBS Nightly News and American’s favorite baritone, Walter Cronkite was an amateur racing driver. In the Fifties, he went wheel-to-wheel against Brock Yates at Bridgehampton in Long Island. Cronkite was part of a team that successfully raced in the “Little Le Mans” series at Limerock, in Connecticut. One year, he finished third overall in an appropriately dependable Volvo PV444.
As his career blossomed, Cronkite merged vocation and hobby. In 1959, Old Ironpants co-drove a Lancia Appia Zagato in a field that included Formula 1 Champion Phil Hill, the great Dan Gurney and Sir Stirling Moss, filing CBS radio reports in between shifts. Cronkite followed Moss closely as both journalist and friend, interviewing him several times and reporting on his stunning win at the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix.
Once Cronkite became a fixture and precious commodity, CBS all but disallowed him from racing. That limited excursions to dinners with the oil-smelling elite at Manhattan restaurants like Sardi’s and Le Chanteclair, and nights with the near-mythical Madison Avenue Sports Car and Chowder Society—good fun, several doses down on adrenaline.
You can hear Walter Cronkite try to sooth his racing soul in this video review of a 1962 Triumph TR4. Reporting on the trend of sports car ownership in America, he notes that several thousand owners race or rally. Still, the man continues, “the thrill of sports car driving is just… day to day driving, from office to home, home to office.” That pause, eking its way between the measured words of man known for dispassion, is everything.
Walter Cronkite loved cars, loved racing, but gave up the juiciest parts to serve as America’s Uncle and tell us soberly what needed to be told. And, without any of the bluster or the epithets, he knew how to turn in a soulful car review.
Jeremy Clarkson, we love your shtick, but Cronkite we respect. That’s, forever, the way it is.