Top Gear

Say the words 'Top Gear' to most people today, and it will conjure up images of three middle-aged men messing about in cars. However Top Gear was to begin in very much more inauspicious circumstances - in the Midlands, on BBC1 - and with a presenter line-up that was two thirds female. Not only that, it actually used to be motoring programme!

In the 1970s and 80s there were two weekly half hour slots on BBC1 for English regional programmes, one in an early evening slot on Tuesdays (later Mondays), and the other late on Fridays. The programmes could be on any topic - they might be documentaries, music shows, discussion programmes, magazine shows etc. It was into the Friday late slot that BBC Pebble Mill in the Midlands (an area usually regarded as being the centre of Britain's car industry) decided to launch a monthly magazine for road users. The first programme was broadcast on 22nd April 1977.

It wasn't the BBC's first motoring magazine - Wheelbase had aired on BBC2 between April 1964 and April 1974, with presenters including Cliff Michelmore, Gordon Wilkins and Barrie Gill.

Top Gear was introduced from the studio by Midlands Today's Tom Coyne - see a video clip of the opening of the first programme on YouTube uploaded by BBC News. Filmed reports came from Judith Jackson, who had also appeared on Wheelbase, and a name better known to national viewers, in particular to the Nine O'Clock News, Angela Rippon.

The programme's opening theme was an instrumental track, 'Jessica', by the Allman Brothers Band, which survives to this day as the programme's theme, albeit in re-recorded form. The closing theme was an edit of Elton John's 'Out of the Blue'.

The first edition included an item where Rippon drove from BBC Television Centre in London to Pebble Mill in London, sampling some motorway service station food on the way.

In September the programme was promoted to the Tuesday early evening slot. Top Gear continue to chug along, with 12 episodes broadcast, on average, once a month from April 1977 to March 1978.

Despite not setting the world alight, the programme came to the attention of the BBC bigwigs, in London who must have liked what they saw, because just a few months later, Top Gear made its national debut, on BBC2 at 8.05pm on 13th July 1978. For the new series Angela Rippon was joined by former Wheelbase presenter Barrie Gill. The programme continued to be produced at Pebble Mill.

Top Gear would cover all aspects of motoring, including road tests of new cars, reliability, safety and consumer items, industry news, traffic issues, classic cars, and motorsport. In the first national edition, Angela Rippon went on another long drive, this time a night drive to Cornwall, while Barrie Gill tested the new Toyota Starlet. The remainder of the series included items on police driver training, the MOT test, motor caravans, the effects of alcohol on driving, the Peugeot/Chrysler merger, Formula One, a search for 'girl' rally drivers, the Le Mans 24 hour race, and a competition for four-wheel-drive vehicles. The series concluded with a trip to the Motor Show at Birmingham.

The second series began at the start of May 1979, which saw Angela and Barrie joined by some new recruits, including Gill Pyrah and Mike Dornan, along with somebody who had recently ended a spell presenting another popular BBC programme starting with the word 'Top' - Noel Edmonds. Noel's role on the programme was to road test the latest new cars, and in this series he tried out the Fiat Strada (which he described as 'not very good'), Toyota Corona, Chrysler Sunbeam, Renault 5 Gordini and Datsun Cherry. Also this series, Noel's Radio 1 colleague Dave Lee Travis was interviewed about his passion for drag racing, a clip of which is available on YouTube. This series saw Top Gear move to a much later timeslot, now airing no earlier at 10.15pm.

Angela Rippon and Barrie Gill departed from Top Gear after the second series, and so for the third series in 1980 Noel Edmonds was promoted to become the main presenter. For the first time, two series of Top Gear were broadcast in one year, one in spring and one in autumn, and this would continue to be the norm for the next twenty years.

The autumn series covered two major new car launches, the Austin Metro and Ford Escort. Then at the end of the series, Noel Edmonds stood down from the programme. His final show was a special edition, Top Gear Turns Back the Clock, which followed the Veteran Car Club's Golden Jubilee Rally.

The 1981 spring series was introduced by Judith Jackson, and the programme continued with its earnest look at the world of motoring, including tips for driving on motorways and an item looking at the pros and cons of hatchbacks versus saloons. A regular weekly item, 'Back to the Drawing Board', looked at design faults in current cars, with one edition running an investigation into the Renault 18 boot mechanism.

For the autumn series in 1981, Top Gear returned to an early evening slot, with a new anchor presenter - former Tomorrow's World presenter, William Woollard. Together with motoring journalists Sue Baker and Frank Page, who had started on the programme the previous year, and Chris Goffey who had joined earlier in 1981, they formed a new Top Gear team that would remain the mainstays of the programme right through the 1980s.

Each week's Top Gear would now be recorded entirely on location. Woollard stood at the helm of the show, introducing it each week from a different location, the first being the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. He would link each of the filmed reports, presenting some items himself, and close each edition with the words 'drive safely'.

One edition of the series covered the Lombard RAC Rally, something which would become an annual fixture on the programme and, by 1984, spin off into its own series, Top Gear Rally Report. In 1987, Tony Mason joined the series, who would report primarily on rallying and racing.

Top Gear continued to report from motor shows, not just Britain's annual shows, the International Motor Show at the Birmingham NEC, which alternated with London's Motorfair at Earl's Court, but also from the equivalent shows across Europe, such as Geneva and Turin. Each autumn there were also additional non-Top Gear broadcasts from the British motor shows, which often made use of a wider team of presenters such as Janet Ellis and former Top Gear host Noel Edmonds.

Unlike in more recent years, it was rare in the 1980s to see members of the Top Gear team interacting with each other - reports and items were almost exclusively presented solo. One exception was the last edition of the spring 1987 series, in which the four main presenters, Woollard, Goffey, Baker and Page, visited North Wales in British sports cars to try to recapture the joys of 'wind in the hair' motoring. The item culminated in a lively discussion at Portmeirion.

This series also saw the debut of a new presenter, Formula One driver Tiff Needell, who would bring a new dynamism to the presentation of Top Gear, which had remained somewhat staid up to now. His reports would focus primarily around sports and performance cars.

The autumn 1987 series included a weekly 'Car of the Decade' feature, examining nine cars with 'a claim to be the most significant designs of their decade'. They included the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, Ford Model T, Austin Seven, Citroen Traction Avant, Volkswagen Beetle, Citroen DS, Mini, Alfa Romeo Alfasud and Audi Quattro.

During the 1980s and 1990s, with William Woollard still at the helm of the show, various presenters and reporters would come and go from Top Gear, however one curly-haired young man would go on to make quite an impression on the show. Recruited by new producer Jon Bentley, the 28 year-old Jeremy Clarkson made his debut on the show on 27th October 1988, looking at customised Rolls-Royces. His next item two weeks later was, appropriately enough given his height, looking at letters from viewers who had difficulty fitting into their cars.

After a decade on Top Gear, William Woollard left the programme at the end of the spring 1991 series - other long-time reporters Sue Baker and Frank Page had also gone by this time. From now on, there would no longer be an anchor presenter - instead, the opening menu was voiced out-of-vision by one of the show's presenting team.

That team would now be centered around Jeremy Clarkson, Chris Goffey, Tiff Needell, and another new recruit - former car dealer Quentin Willson whose speciality, at least at first, was presenting items on secondhand cars.

Newly reinvigorated, Top Gear's popularity grew during the 1990s. The series lengths were extended, often running 14 or more episodes long, meaning that Top Gear was on our screens for more weeks a year than it was off. In 1993 it gained its first ever Radio Times cover, and the next year launched its own monthly magazine.

Top Gear spawned imitators in the form of Channel 4's Driven and Channel 5's The Car Show. Top Gear always had the advantage, that, being broadcast on the licence fee-funded BBC, it didn't have to worry about keeping potential advertisers happy. Famously, after a poor review of one of its new models, the head of one French manufacturer declared that all their advertising should be pulled from the BBC!

Despite being predominantly a programme about cars, Top Gear would also feature motorbikes from time to time. In 1993 Steve Berry joined the team as Top Gear's bike specialist - he would also present a radio version of Top Gear, which aired on BBC Radio 5 Live from September 1994 to March 1998. Other presenters around the mid-90s included Janet Trewin, who mainly presented consumer items, Michele Newman, Andy Wilman and Russell Bulgin. Producer Jon Bentley would also present items himself on occasion. One of the most popular presenters in the 90s, Vicki Butler-Henderson, made her debut on the programme in autumn 1994. Chris Goffey, by this time Top Gear's longest serving presenter, left in 1997.

Further spin-offs launched in the 1990s, such as BBC2's Top Gear Motorsport and Top Gear Waterworld, looking at aquatic transport. Meanwhile, on the newly-launched UK Horizons, Top Gear GTi combined highlights from recent episodes with additional footage, and Top Gear Ex-Files featured items from the Top Gear archives.

In September 1995 Jeremy Clarkson reported on the new Vauxhall Vectra, an item that has gone down in Top Gear history when Clarkson spent six minutes unable to think of anything worth saying about the car. By now, Top Gear's road tests, and in particular Clarkson's opinions, had become so influential that it was believed that a poor review could have a detrimental impact on sales. Vauxhall were furious and complained to the BBC, demanding that the road test be redone properly. It wasn't.

Clarkson was clearly tiring of his job of road testing everyday mainstream cars. He stepped down from the programme at the end of 1998, feeling that 'he'd taken Top Gear as far as he could'. He left a very large gap that Top Gear would struggle to fill.

Motoring journalist and former Driven presenter James May was recruited to present on the spring 1999 series, joining other new presenters Julia Bradbury and Steve Coogan's brother, Brendan. The latter had a very short Top Gear career, his contract being ended after he was found guilty of drink driving. By this time, the classic Top Gear theme tune, 'Jessica', which had remained a constant since 1977, had been replaced by a markedly inferior re-recorded version.

In 1999, James May and Julia Bradbury both departed Top Gear after just one series. The autumn series that year was introduced by Kate Humble, not known for her motoring credentials, and Quentin Willson. During this series, Top Gear celebrated its 21st anniversary (ignoring its first year as a Midlands-only programme).

The Clarkson-less Top Gear continued to struggle, and viewers were deserting the programme in droves. Autumn 2000 saw another change in the line-up, as Willson and Humble departed, and Jason Barlow and Adrian Simpson joined Tiff Needell and Vicki Butler-Henderson to present the final two series of Top Gear in its 'classic' format.

The last series was to be very long, running for 36 episodes from February to December 2001. But ratings continued to fall, and in August 2001 the BBC announced that Top Gear was to be rested, to give the show 'a full service and an overhaul'. The show bowed out with Mini Cooper racing, and a comparison between the MGF and the Mazda MX-5.

Immediately, Channel 5 snapped up the Top Gear production team and most of the presenters, including producer Jon Bentley and presenters Vicki Butler-Henderson, Tiff Needell, Adrian Simpson and the returning Quentin Willson. They would also have snapped up the 'Top Gear' name except the BBC insisted that this was not for sale, leaving Channel 5 to instead use a similar name for their new weekly motoring programme, Fifth Gear, which launched on 8th April 2002. Top Gear with Jason Barlow broadcast one more edition in February 2002, an awards special.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Clarkson, along with his friend, former Top Gear presenter Andy Wilman, were busy cooking up a formula for an entirely new format Top Gear to pitch to the BBC...


Next page: 2002-date


Text copyright © Robert Williams, images copyright © British Broadcasting Corporation