Top Gear began life in 1977 as a half-hour motoring show on the BBC in the United Kingdom. The original format ran for 24 years and was then transformed into a revamped format starting in 2002 mainly built around the everyman persona of Jeremy Clarkson, and a further incarnation in 2016 with Chris Evans. The programme generated a number of spin-offs over the years. As well as selling to many countries in its own right it spawned domestic versions in places such as the United States and Australia.The original Top Gear started as a monthly television series produced by BBC Midlands, based at the Pebble Mill Studios, Birmingham and ran in its original format until 2001. The 30-minute programmes had a magazine format and were transmitted at first to viewers in the Midlands region only. Top Gear and its title were conceived by executive producer Derek Smith. The programme covered motoring-related issues such as new car road tests, fuel economy, safety, the police, speeding, insurance, second-hand cars and holiday touring.
The first programme was broadcast on 22 April 1977, on BBC 1 Midlands at 10:15pm. It was presented by Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne, who was front man of the local evening news programme, Midlands Today. In the first edition, Angela Rippon drove from Shepherd’s Bush in London, to the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, reporting on driving conditions en route. Other items covered in the first programme were speed traps, fuel economy, strange new road signs and an interview with the transport minister. There were nine programmes in that initial series.
The BBC network took Top Gear and it became a weekly 30-minute BBC2 programme on 13 July 1978. Derek Smith remained as executive producer, as did Angela Rippon as presenter along with co-presenter Barrie Gill. In the first network series, seven of the ten programmes were sub-titled Rippon On The Road, featuring items such as holiday driving, police driver training, the MOT test and a search for a female rally driver. Other items in that series covered drink driving, traffic jams, rust and corrosion, tachographs in lorries, the Le Mans 24 Hour race and the Motor Show.
For the second network series, again of ten programmes, Angela Rippon continued as main presenter. Reporters included Mike Dornan, Judith Jackson and Barrie Gill. Subjects covered included child car safety, tyres, CB radio, weighing lorries and junior grass track racing. Each week Noel Edmonds tested new cars, while Alec Jones, chief instructor of the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) set a driving problem. In one of the programmes, Noel Edmonds drove his Ford GT40 car round Silverstone.
In 1980, Noel Edmonds took over from Angela Rippon as presenter for two series. From 1980 on, a variety of reporters were regularly used in addition to the three main co-presenters Sue Baker, Frank Page, and Chris Goffey. Other reporters included Gill Pyrah and Julia Bradbury. In 1981 William Woollard, formerly of BBC1’s science series Tomorrow’s World became the programme’s main presenter. Phil Franklin and Brian Strachan joined the production team at this time.
The Top Gear team was also responsible for a number of other special programmes including coverage of the bi-annual British Motor Show, London Motorfair, and the Lombard RAC Rally. Its coverage of rallying was the only sport not controlled by BBC Sport in London for many years.
Top Gear titles in 1977
There continued to be two series a year through the 1980s of between seven and nine programmes each. In 1986, after Phil Franklin and executive producer Dennis Adams left the programme Tom Ross took over. Sadly Brian Strachan died that year while preparing for the 1986 Lombard RAC Rally.
In the five years Tom Ross ran the programme first as executive producer and then as editor Jon Bentley (more recently a presenter on the Channel 5 technology show The Gadget Show) and Ken Pollock became the show’s producers.
From 1986-1991, faced with repeated threats from various BBC Channel Controllers to cancel the programme, Top Gear embarked on subtle changes designed to raise its profile, increase its audience and cover a much wider range of motoring topics. In this period many new presenters were added including former Formula One driver Tiff Needell, Tom Boswell and rallying’s Tony Mason.
In late 1988 a young Performance Car Magazine journalist, Jeremy Clarkson, was introduced to the presenting list.
Top Gear Rally Report followed the Lombard RAC Rally each November presented by William Woollard with Sue Baker, Barrie Gill, Steve Lee, Alan Douglas and Tony Mason. Between 1988 and 1991, the programme organised a Rally Quest competition each year in conjunction with Radio Times to find a new rally driver with the prize being entry into that year’s RAC Rally.
Despite enduring criticism that it was overly macho, encouraged irresponsible driving behaviour and ignored the environment, the show pulled in huge audiences regularly becoming BBC2’s most viewed programme with audiences over 5 million from 1988. New features introduced in these years were consumer issues, classic cars, motorbikes and a wide range of motorsport.
It became hugely influential with motor manufacturers, since a critical word from the Top Gear team could have a severe negative effect on sales. One such example is the original Vauxhall Vectra, of which Clarkson said, “I know it’s the replacement for the Cavalier. I know. But I’m telling you it’s just a box on wheels.” However, even more critical statements have not affected sales of the Toyota Corolla and extreme praise did not help the Renault Alpine GTA/A610.
At the end of the spring 1991 season, the editor Tom Ross and the main presenter William Woollard left the show. The autumn 1991 season saw Quentin Willson, a former used car dealer, join the team. The 1990s also saw the addition of a new female presenter, Michele Newman, who appeared on ITV’s Pulling Power. Other presenters of the era included Steve Berry, whose speciality was motorbikes, Janet Trewin, who typically presented hard hitting safety and consumer affairs pieces, and racing driver Vicki Butler-Henderson, who made a one-off appearance in 1994, and started presenting the show full-time from 1997.
In 1999, journalist James May was introduced and presented the show for its last two years before transitioning to the new format for its 2nd series in 2003.
Demise and relaunch
Main article: Top Gear (2002 TV series)
Following many well-known presenters’ departures in 1999/2000 the Top Gear audience fell from a peak of six million to under three million. Following Clarkson’s departure in 2001, the programme was jointly presented by Quentin Willson and Kate Humble, who ran an ongoing test[clarification needed] throughout the programme between reports. Brendan Coogan (who had joined in 1998), left the show a year later after being convicted of drunk driving. In 2000, Jason Barlow, from Channel 4’s Driven, joined the existing line-up for the final 53 episodes. The programme ran almost continuously between September 2000 and October 2001, and despite regularly being the most watched show on BBC Two, the channel decided the format needed to be dramatically refreshed. However, a Top Gear special with Jason Barlow being the only remaining presenter—Vicki Butler-Henderson, Tiff Needell and Adrian Simpson having moved to Fifth Gear—was broadcast in 2002 with coverage of the 2002 Birmingham Motorshow from the NEC.
In 2001 the show was cancelled by BBC bosses in London only to be relaunched in a new one-hour-long, studio-based format made by the BBC in London one year later.
Meanwhile, in 2002, Channel 5 launched Fifth Gear, a car show featuring many of the former Top Gear presenters including Tiff Needell, Quentin Willson and Vicki Butler-Henderson. The show was produced by former Top Gear producer Jon Bentley. While most of the production team moved from the BBC to Channel 5 to create Fifth Gear, Jason Barlow was still under contract to the BBC and went on to front the new programme Wrong Car, Right Car, which ran for two series and 23 episodes. The name change to Fifth Gear was required as the BBC would not relinquish the rights to the Top Gear name (the corporation was publishing Top Gear magazine).
After the first series of Fifth Gear was completed, the BBC decided to relaunch Top Gear, but in a new studio-based format as opposed to the magazine format used until the cancellation. The idea came from producer Andy Wilman and Jeremy Clarkson, who presented the relaunched show with Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe. James May replaced Dawe from the second series onwards of the current format. The pre-cancellation show is referred to as “Old Top Gear” when mentioned on the new show due to the differences in style.
Top Gear was a title sponsor of the 1987 and 1988 Formula One “Winter Series”, the 1990 and 1991 Historic Rally Championships and the 1992 and 1993 British Rally Championships.
Due to the success of the main show, other motoring shows on the BBC also carried the Top Gear name including coverage of the British Motor Show, a show dedicated to motorsport, presented by Tiff Needell, Top Gear Motorsport and the Lombard RAC Rally highlights show, presented by William Woollard, Sue Baker and Tony Mason, Top Gear Rally Report. In September 1993, a spin-off magazine, Top Gear Magazine, was launched, featuring articles and columns from the presenters and additional contributors. The magazine has become the UK’s best selling car magazine (as of August 2006).
During the 1990s, Top Gear had a radio spin off, the Top Gear Radio Show, presented by Steve Berry, and available on BBC Radio Five Live.
In 1991, when joyriding among British youths was at its peak, Top Gear featured a Joy Riding special. It included an interview with Tyneside woman Joan McVittie, who was actively involved in campaigns against joyriding after her 16-year-old son Mark Wren was killed when the stolen car in which he was passenger crashed in October 1990.
Since the early 1990s, the annual Top Gear J. D. Power Top 100 survey has consulted thousands of UK residents on their car-ownership satisfaction. For legal reasons concerning the non-commercial nature of the BBC, the actual consultation is now restricted to the magazine format, although the results are still used on the show. The survey is now conducted by Experian.
The video game Top Gear, developed for the Super NES, was unrelated to the BBC TV series and the BBC won a court case blocking its creators from obtaining a trademark for it.
After Top Gear’s success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of competing programmes were introduced, including Channel 4’s driven, ITV’s Pulling Power, Granada’s Vroom Vroom and BBC World’s India’s Wheels. Some of the presenters on Driven would go on to present Top Gear.