BBC: Without Limits


Top Gear team photo at Ha Long Bay
One of the world’s most popular shows teamed up with Explore Indochina to make TV magic. Top Gear: Vietnam Special was absolutely legendary.


Without Limits

The BBC planned a two-part TV special highlighting how spirit and determination can overcome challenges for people with disabilities. Six brave amateur presenters from the UK were chosen to drive a jeep and ride motorcycles from Hanoi to Hoi An. Explore Indochina prepared the vehicles for them, and Digby led the bikers during the shoot.

Hanging out with the six presenters was great fun and rewarding. Aside from the challenge of negotiating their vehicles down Vietnam’s madcap roads, the team abseiled into a river cave, met with Vietnamese people who had lost limbs to unexploded ordinance, paddled bamboo boats out to see endangered Languor monkeys, watched live cluster bombs blown up, and visited many of Vietnam’s famous tourist sites.


one of the BBC No Limits cast members on his motorcycle
how we managed to get a drum brake operational by pressing a button
The shoot occurred during the middle of a scorching summer, which, apart from making it very uncomfortable for the presenters, almost resulted in a terrible crash when the jeep overheated and blew a gasket. The loss of hydraulics disengaged the steering wheel, and the jeep hit the roadside barrier. Only three kilometres down the road was an extremely steep descent above a very high cliff, which would have been fatal if the gasket had blown there.

On the same pass, the back disk brake on one of the presenter’s bikes broke off, and he was lucky to escape unscathed. In both cases, the root cause of the problem was the rushed schedule imposed on us to get the vehicles and motorcycles ready for the shoot.

The jeep, for example, had many special levers and pedals installed so that it could be driven by a man who was paralysed from the waist down and a lady who had lost her right leg in a horrific roller coaster accident. All this extra equipment inside the cabin blocked the oil temperature warning light on the dashboard, so they had no idea the engine was overheating. Later, the bonnet was partially opened to let air into the engine. To the driver’s horror, it flipped up while on a main road, but fortunately, there was no oncoming traffic, and they could brake in time.

The Problem With the Disc Brake

the BBC presenter we customised a Ural for during the filming of BBC: Without Limits
the special brake and clutch levers we attached to a Ural for No Limits
trying to figure out how to make a manual motorcycle work for someone with one arm during the filming of BBC: Without Limits
The problem with the disk brake was a little more complicated because in the days before the shoot, we had to rig the bike to be driven by a man who had lost his right leg in a skiing accident. He could not apply pressure to the back drum brake with his right leg, so a unique lever with two hydraulic tubes was installed on the left-hand side of the handlebars. Unfortunately, the bike did not have a hydraulic back disk brake, so we had to install one on the fly. It was the first time we had done this, and we did not make it strong enough.

The other two motorcycles were easier to prepare. One was ridden by a man who had lost his left arm when machinery crushed it. His bike was automatic, so he did not need a clutch on the handlebars’ left side. The other was ridden by a lady with an illness that caused her to lose most of her hearing. All we had to do was install three very loud horns.

They Made It!

the No Limits crew on their motorcycles
one of the team members from BBC's Without Limits riding across a bridge
Full credit to the six presenters who coped with problems such as phantom pain from their missing limbs and overt attention from local people. The man with a missing right leg went for a run each morning but admitted he often accidentally stepped on people’s toes while dancing in nightclubs. The man who used a wheelchair captained a basketball team, and the man missing his left arm holds the world speed record for riding a motorcycle with only one arm. The partially deaf lady was adept at lip reading and was particularly attuned to people’s body language. They were a great group of people and the result was an excellent, emotional, warm TV show Digby highly recommends.

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By Digby Greenhalgh

Digby Greenhalgh is the founder of Explore Indochina, and a recognized expert on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. All motorcycle tours are designed and guided by Digby.