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Top Gear (1977 TV series)

Top Gear
1993–1998 title–card
Presented by
Opening theme"Jessica" – The Allman Brothers Band
Ending theme"Out of the Blue" (from Blue Moves) – Elton John
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
No. of series45
No. of episodes515 (list of episodes)
Running time30 minutes
Original networkBBC2
Picture format
First shown inBBC West Midlands
Original release22 April 1977 (1977-04-22) –
17 December 2001 (2001-12-17)
Preceded byWheelbase
Followed byTop Gear (2002)
Related shows

Top Gear is a show that started in April 1977, as a half hour motoring programme on the BBC in the United Kingdom. The original format ran for 24 years up to December 2001. A revamped format of the show began nearly one year later, in October 2002.


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 the end of 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.[2] 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.[3][4] 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.[2]

The BBC network took Top Gear[5][6] and it became a weekly 30 minute BBC Two 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 10 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 10 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, 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 four main co-presenters Sue Baker, Frank Page, Chris Goffey, and Judith Jackson. Other reporters included Gill Pyrah, 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, the Lombard RAC Rally, and the Border 100 trials. Its coverage of rallying was the only sport not controlled by BBC Sport in London for many years.

Top Gear titles in 1978 (Series 2 onwards)

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.

In the five years, Tom Ross ran the programme first as executive producer and then as editor[7] 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 to 1991, faced with repeated threats from various channel controllers from the BBC 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.

Towards the end of 1988, Jeremy Clarkson was introduced to the presenting list by producer Bentley,[8] coming from Performance Car Magazine.[9]

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.[10]

Despite enduring criticism that it was overly macho, encouraged irresponsible driving behaviour[11] and ignored the environment, the show pulled in huge audiences regularly becoming BBC Two's most viewed programme with audiences over five 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."[12] However, even more critical statements never affected sales of the Toyota Corolla, and extreme praise did not help the Renault Alpine GTA/A610.

By the end of the spring season of 1991, the editor Tom Ross and the main presenter, William Woollard, left the show. The autumn season of 1991 saw former used car dealer Quentin Willson join the team, and later Michele Newman, who had previously 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 second series in 2003.

Demise and relaunch

Following many well-known presenters' departures during 1999 to 2000, the Top Gear audience fell from a peak of six million to under three million.[citation needed] In January 1999, following the departure of Clarkson, the programme was jointly presented by Quentin Willson and Kate Humble, who ran an ongoing test[clarification needed] throughout the programme between reports.[13] In July 1999, Brendan Coogan, who had joined a year earlier, left the show after being convicted of drink-driving.[14][15]

In 2000, Jason Barlow, from Channel 4's Driven, joined the existing line up for the final 53 episodes.[16] The programme ran almost continuously between September 2000 to 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 special of Top Gear with Jason Barlow being the only remaining presenter was broadcast in 2002, with coverage of the 2002 Birmingham Motor Show from the NEC.

In December 2001, the show was cancelled by BBC bosses in London, and in April 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. The name change to Fifth Gear was required, as in November 2001, the BBC would not relinquish the rights to the name of Top Gear (the corporation was publishing Top Gear Magazine).[17]

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.

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.[10] 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 soon became the United Kingdom's best selling car magazine. 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.[18] In 1991, when joyriding among British youths was at its peak, Top Gear featured a Joy Riding special.[19]

It included an interview with Tyneside woman Joan McVittie, who was actively involved in campaigns against joyriding after her sixteen 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 residents within the United Kingdom 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 television series, and the BBC won a court case blocking its creators from obtaining a trademark for it.[10] 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.

Theme music

The show's opening theme music from the very first programme in 1977 was the Allman Brothers Band instrumental "Jessica" from the album Brothers and Sisters (1973), although remixed versions were used after 1999. For much of the series' lifespan, Elton John's instrumental "Out of the Blue" from the album Blue Moves (1976) played over the closing credits.

The opening and closing titles music were suggested to executive producer Derek Smith by his son Graham, who had the two albums at home. He played the tracks to his father and was asked to write down the details, so they could be sourced from the record library in the BBC.

Presenter line-up

Car of the Year

Each year, Top Gear announced its Car of the Year. Winners have included:

Note: The BMW Z3 M Coupé was voted "Driver's Car of the Year", and the Mercedes-Benz S500 was voted "Executive Car of the Year" for 2000.

In November 1987, the Audi Quattro officially became the Top Gear Car of the Decade.[20]

Car survey

From 1994, the magazine conducted a customer satisfaction survey that was published every April, to reveal how satisfying certain cars were to own. The results were announced on the programme, though the full details were only included in the magazine. The Toyota Corolla was winner of the first four surveys, with the Subaru Impreza winning the survey in 1998 and 1999, and the Subaru Legacy in 2000 and 2001.

The lowest ranking cars in the surveys were the Vauxhall Frontera in 1994, Ford Escort in 1995, Lada Samara in both 1996 and 1997, Vauxhall Vectra in 1998, Ford Galaxy in 1999, and the Vauxhall Sintra in 2000 and 2001.

In April 1998, Škoda was rated as the most satisfying brand of car in the survey, and these findings made the headlines — just a few years earlier, the brand had been the butt of many jokes about the sub standard design and quality of earlier cars. The Japanese manufacturers — particularly Subaru, Toyota, Honda and Mazda — also received high ratings in surveys of Top Gear.

Similar praise went to BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Volvo. In contrast, many marques received heavy criticism in the surveys — particularly Lada, Fiat, Vauxhall, Peugeot, Ford and Alfa Romeo.

CD releases

  • Top Gear Classics – Turbo (1995)
  • Top Gear Classics – Baroque Busters (1995)
  • Top Gear Classics – Open Top Opera (1995)
  • Top Gear Classics – Motoring Moods (1995)

VHS releases

  • 1994 – Super Cars. Presented By Jeremy Clarkson And Tiff Needell (62 min).
  • 1994 – Classic Cars. Presented By Quentin Willson (65 min).
  • 1997 – Fast & Furious. Presented By Jeremy Clarkson And Tiff Needell (77 min).
  • 1998 – Classic Cars: Aston Martin. Presented By Jeremy Clarkson (45 min).
  • 1998 – Classic Cars: Porsche. Presented By Tiff Needell (45 min).
  • 1998 – Classic Cars: Ferrari. Presented By Chris Goffey (45 min).
  • 1998 – Classic Cars: Jaguar. Presented By Quentin Willson (45 min).
  • 1999 – Top Gear: 21 Years. Presented By Kate Humble, preproduction/promotional release (29 min).
  • 2000 – Fast & Furious II. Presented By Tiff Needell, With Clarkson, Willson And Butler-Henderson (72 min).

See also


  1. ^ Vicki Butler-Henderson made a one-off appearance in 1994, and started presenting the show full time from 1997.
  2. ^ a b Scheduled, Kvatch (23 March 2015). "Top Gear creator Derek Smith - who created multi million pound show from his Birmingham office - dies aged 87". Birmingham Mail. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
  3. ^ Birmingham Post 5 April. 1977.
  4. ^ " ". Radio Times Midlands Edition. April 1977.
  5. ^ 21 Years of Top Gear, presented by Kate Humble, BBC Two 2000
  6. ^ Savage, Mark (21 September 2006). "Top Gear's Chequered Past". BBC News. Retrieved 28 December 2010.
  7. ^ "'Was Jeremy Clarkson trouble from the start? He sure was'". The Guardian.
  8. ^ []
  9. ^ "Jeremy Clarkson". IMDb.
  10. ^ a b c "Application to register the trademark Top Gear" (PDF). Retrieved 28 December 2010.
  11. ^ "Top Gear too fast for MPs". BBC News. 9 November 1999. Retrieved 28 December 2010.
  12. ^ "Series 34 Episode 2". Top Gear. 28 September 1995. BBC Two.
  13. ^ "Clarkson slips out of Top Gear". BBC News. 22 January 1999. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
  14. ^ ICM Presenters:Brendan Coogan Archived 11 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ "Top Gear host quits after conviction". BBC News. 14 July 1999. Retrieved 28 December 2010.
  16. ^ Emap Automotive Appoints Jason Barlow as Editor of CAR Archived 22 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ "Top Gear Team Switch Lanes". BBC News. 15 November 2001. Retrieved 28 December 2010.
  18. ^ "Top Gear". Top Gear. Series 37. Episode 09. 27 February 1997. 28:50 minutes in. BBC Two.
  19. ^ "Old Top Gear 1991 - Joy Riding (Part 1)". YouTube. 23 December 2010. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
  20. ^ "TopGear 19 Nov 1987 19th November 1987 507 BUO". Retrieved 2 April 2016.

External links