Clarkson and Wilman's pitch was successful, and less than a year after 'old' Top Gear ended its run, 'new' Top Gear debuted on BBC2.
The new Top Gear had a new day and timeslot - 8pm on a Sunday, and would run for a whole hour. With Andy Wilman as executive producer, Jeremy Clarkson would present along with two new faces - former local radio presenter Richard Hammond, and Jason Dawe, who would present an 'Insider Dealing' segment. The show would now have a studio base - but not just any old studio, it would be a former aircraft hangar at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, complete with a test track outside. And for the first time in Top Gear's history, there was a studio audience.
Although the tone of 'old' Top Gear had gradually shifted over the years from being a serious consumer programme to more lighthearted programme aimed at car enthusiasts, the new Top Gear would be very different in style - much more humorous and irreverent.
Studio-based segments were established, such as the 'News' and the 'Cool Wall', which gave the opportunity for banter between the three presenters. Road tests of mainstream cars would still sometimes feature (indeed, the first item on the first show looked at the Citroen Berlingo), but these were often done with a twist, which might involve racing the car against something other than a car, for example. However over time the show would shift to testing chiefly high performance cars, with the show's own anonymous racing driver, The Stig, taking them round the Top Gear test track to record their lap times.
During Clarkson's period away, he had hosted his own chat show, to no great success. With this having ended, the new Top Gear would incorporate a chat show segment - the 'Star in a Reasonably Priced Car' (known to some viewers as the 'toilet break'). The celebrity guests would also have a go at the test track to record a lap time, but in a small everyday hatchback, which would then be recorded on the show's leaderboard.
One of the few things that remained from old Top Gear was the theme tune, 'Jessica', though this appeared in re-recorded form by Christian Henson.
The new Top Gear did not arrive fully-formed, with some of the early shows including fairly pointless segments to find the 'fastest faith' and the 'fastest political party'. After the first series, it was clear that the team needed tweaking. Jason Dawe left the programme, to be replaced by somebody who had already had a brief spell on old Top Gear - James May. However viewers may not have recognised him, for in the intervening four years, May had let his hair grow quite considerably.
After a while, the format began to bed in. Viewers seemed to enjoy the bickering and banter between the presenters, and so there were more filmed items in which all three members of the team appeared together, and a number of popular recurring features and challenges became established parts of the show.
These included the Cheap Car Challenges where the trio would meet each having purchased an ageing vehicle, and take part in a series of challenges, encountering a number of hilarious mishaps along the way. The Races would see the members of the team race each other across cities, countries or continents, sometimes with one or more members using a form of transport other than a car, encountering a number of hilarious mishaps along the way. Most elaborate were the Great Adventures, lavishly filmed road trips in various parts of the world such as the North Pole, Botswana and Vietnam, with the team encountering a number of hilarious mishaps along the way.
Over time, the show's stunts and challenges became increasingly ridiculous - often they would involve transforming ordinary cars into something other than ordinary cars - such as boats, limousines and motorhomes. Some items were only tangentially related to motoring, for example when in April 2006 when the team took over the Drivetime show on BBC Southern Counties Radio (now BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey) - which Richard Hammond, being a former local radio presenter, was right at home with.
It was often noted that, seeing as the show was increasingly being built around the absurd antics of three overgrown schoolboys, Top Gear seemed to be turning into a latter-day Last of the Summer Wine - with Clarkson as Foggy, the tall one, the leader of the group, the chief buffoon; Hammond as Compo, the scruffy excitable short one; and May as Clegg, the quiet, thoughtful one.
In September 2006, Top Gear hit the headlines when Richard Hammond was involved in a serious accident when driving a drag car at over 300 mph for the show. Miraculously, he recovered, and the opening episode of the next (delayed) series included footage of the accident - an episode which it was decreed would never be repeated.
By this time, Top Gear's popularity was going into overdrive. The show had become a hit all over the world, and many countries began producing their own local editions. One version, Top Gear USA, made its way back across the Atlantic and received some broadcasts on BBC3.
However Top Gear was soon attracting more than its fair share of controversies, with Clarkson seemingly constantly on a 'final warning' from BBC bosses. In 2014, Top Gear recorded one of their Great Adventures in Argentina - unfortunately the number plate of one of the cars used in the trip was taken by the Argentinians as a pointed reference to the Falklands War, putting the production team in danger as they attempted to exit the country.
Soon afterwards came the controversy that proved to be Top Gear's undoing - faced with being served a cold meal after a day's filming, Clarkson punched the show's producer Oisin Tymon. Clarkson was suspended, and the current series, that was currently being broadcast, put on hiatus.
The BBC was left with a dilemma - raking in millions in worldwide sales, Top Gear was too valuable a property to lose, but then again Clarkson couldn't be seen to get away with his behaviour. On 25th March 2015, the BBC announced that Clarkson's contract would not renewed.
In the wake of this effective 'sacking', executive producer Andy Wilman resigned, and Richard Hammond and James May confirmed they would also be leaving the show. Two items that had been recorded for the current series but yet to be shown eventually turned up in June 2015, in a rather odd show presented by May and Hammond (and an elephant) from Dunsfold, without a studio audience.
Speculation was rife as to where Clarkson, Hammond, May and Wilman would go to next - many were surprised when they were signed up by Amazon Prime to present three series of Top Gear-esque exploits. This eventually debuted in November 2016 as The Grand Tour. More eyebrows were raised when around the same time May became Prime Minister, appointing Hammond as the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Meanwhile, what next for Top Gear? It seemed hard to imagine the programme without the threesome - yet the programme was too valuable in international sales to bring down the curtain on. And so the search was on for a new Top Gear team.
Radio 2 DJ and car enthusiast Chris Evans had previously claimed he would never present Top Gear - but after being practically begged to head up the new-look show, he agreed. Joining him was the unexpected and leftfield choice in the form of US actor Matt LeBlanc.
Unlike the outgoing Top Gear team, however, neither Evans nor LeBlanc had journalistic credentials. To balance out the team, former Autocar magazine journalist and YouTube star Chris Harris, joined the show, along with Rory Reid, who was discovered through a nationwide audition to find presenters for the show. Completing the line-up were racing driver Sabine Schmitz, who had already made various past appearances on the show, and motorsport boss Eddie Jordan.
There would also be a spin-off show, Extra Gear, containing extra unseen footage, available via the online-only BBC3. A broadcast showing of this programme on BBC2 appeared in some listings but was pulled before transmission for unknown reasons - though later series of Extra Gear would go out on BBC2.
Taking to the air in a blaze of publicity in May 2016, the new series of Top Gear was never going to be given a chance. The new look was savaged by critics and Top Gear fans alike (though it has be said, there are those hardcore fans who were always going to criticise any form of Top Gear that didn't have Clarkson, Hammond and May in it, regardless of what it was like).
Many found Chris Evans's presenting style hard to take to, and the reformatted 'Star in a Rallycross Car', which now featured a pair of celebrity guests, came in for particular criticism for being overlong, including a tedious section where the audience had to decide which of the two had owned the better car. Ratings dropped, and at the end of the series Evans resigned, saying that he had given it his 'best shot'.
He wouldn't be replaced - instead, the next series, broadcast in spring 2017, saw Matt LeBlanc become lead presenter, with a main trio focused around LeBlanc, Harris and Reid, while Schmitz and Jordan would make more occasional appearances. 'Star in a Rallycross Car' returned to something resembling its old format, and became 'Star in a Reasonably Fast Car' - though it was clear that (American) Matt LeBlanc, now on interviewing duties, would often have little idea who many of the (British) stars were!
The new series of Top Gear retained the familiar mix of fast cars, road trips and challenges, but was more quietly assured than the Evans series, and the same team continued into a further series broadcast in spring 2018. But it wasn't long before Top Gear found itself about to face yet another shake-up - in May 2018 Matt LeBlanc announced he would be leaving the show after recording one more series. With Rory Reid finding himself sidelined, two new recruits, comedian Paddy McGuinness and cricketer Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff would join Chris Harris for its 27th series in 2019.
The new trio was well received by critics and viewers alike, and following an upswing in viewing figures it was announced in February 2020 that the programme was to be promoted to BBC1 - a move that Clarkson and co had always resisted - later that year. And thus Top Gear returns to the channel where it all began, more than forty years ago!
From our YouTube channel, two compilations of Top Gear opening title sequences, from the 21st anniversary programme in 1999, and from UK Horizons' Top Gear Ex-Files.
Top Gear official site
Top Gear: Extra Gear official site
Top Gear (original series) at BBC Programmes
Top Gear at BBC Genome
Top Gear (1977) Wikipedia entry
Top Gear (2002) Wikipedia entry
Extra Gear Wikipedia entry
Top Gear BBC Studios site
Flop Gear at DMTV