The history of Top Gear

Sam Bisby

By: Sam Bisby

Originally started as a half-hour motoring show in 1977, Top Gear has evolved with its audience and the relaunched Top Gear has proved so popular that it is watched in 214 countries.

The one hour essential viewing stint on Sunday nights pulls an average of seven million UK viewers; but with the suspension of key man Jeremy Clarkson, the show’s future is in doubt, so we’ve looked at how it all began and its journey up until now.

1977: Top Gear started

Started 38 years ago, Top Gear initially reported on motoring issues ranging from new car reviews to driving conditions and speeding informative segments. The 30 minute programme was transmitted only on BBC1 Midlands at first and presented by Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne. The original opening music were instrumental versions of the Allman Brothers Band’s "Jessica". 

1978: Move to national TV

Top Gear moved from being a local show to a national show on BBC2 in 1978, where Angela Rippon was joined by new co-presenter Barrie Gill. The show’s content widened to cover the likes of the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, driving on holiday and drink driving.

1980: Noel Edmonds

A precursor to his House Party days, Noel Edmonds joined as Top Gear’s main presenter in 1980, taking over from Angela Ripon. Other reporters featured on the show, including Sue Baker and Chris Goffey. One highlight of the latest format saw Noel Edmonds driving his Ford GT40 around the Silverstone track circuit.

1981: William Wollard

In 1981, William Wollard became the main presenter of the programme and remained on the show until 1991.

1988: Jeremy Clarkson

In 1988, the man you love to hate or hate to love, Jeremy Clarkson, joined the the show and presented until 2000 in his first Top Gear stint. Clarkson was hailed as a straight-talking, abrasive presenter and helped gain a new audience for the programme. Some might have seen him as too macho and outspoken, but many others loved watching his sharp presenting. Through Clarkson’s involvement, new cars would be made or broken by his harsh reviews, with the Doncaster born presenter once commenting how he would rather have bird flu than drive a Corvette Z06.

1991: Quentin Wilson

Adding a touch of class to Top Gear, Quentin Wilson joined the show as a co-host with Clarkson in 1991, and as a specialist in used cars, he appeared on the show for a decade.

1993: Top Gear expands its horizons

Primarily thought of as a bit of a boy’s club, 1993 saw Michele Newman join as only the show’s second female presenter, and was joined by Vicki Butler-Henderson in 1997.

1999: James May 

James May joined the Top Gear presenters for the first time in 1999.

2001: Top Gear cancelled

The show’s viewership dived from six million to three million following the departure of popular presenters from 1999/2000, including Clarkson, leading to the BBC to cancel the programme.

2002: Fifth Gear launched

To fill the void left by Top Gear, the show’s producers set up Fifth Gear on Channel 5 in 2002 and was initially presented by Quentin Wilson, Vick Butler- Henderson and Tiff Needell. All of whom previously presented Top Gear and the show achieved relative success in the absence of TG.

2002: Top Gear relaunch

In 2002, Clarkson, along with good friend and executive producer Andy Wilman, pitched the idea of an up-to-date Top Gear to the BBC. The show was made into an hour long show and was to be based at the Dunsfold Aerodrome in Guilford.  New boys Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe joined Clarkson on the first series.

Enter the Stig

To thrash the most exciting new cars on the market around the test track, the Stig was created and became the show’s mascot. The new format also added segments such as ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ and ‘The News’.

2003: James May returns

James May replaced James Dawe in 2003. May quickly became known as Captain Slow on the programme for his conservative and cautious driving style.

2003: First Stig killed off

The original Stig was revealed as racing driver Perry McCarthy in his autobiography and was subsequently killed off in a comedic segment in series 3 after being fired off a aircraft carrier in a nitrous-powered Jaguar XJR.

2003: Stig No. 2

With a change of outfit from black to white, the second Stig made his first appearance in 2003. Such highlights included a London bus ride during a race across the capital and riding a snowmobile off a ski-jump, as well as a false reveal with Michael Schumacher.

2006: Richard Hammond’s crash

Whilst filming a feature on a jet-propelled car near York, Richard Hammond was seriously injured driving at 314 miles per hour in the Vampire turbojet drag racing car for the series in September 2006. Hammond sustained major head trauma that left him unable to recognise his wife, among other issues that he eventually recovered from. Coming back for the ninth series of Top Gear, the opening episode was used to welcome Hammond back in a less than modest style and also air the crash for the first time to a record amount of viewers.

2006: Top Gear specials

In 2006, the Top Gear team started to make specials. The first was the Winter Olympics edition which showed the team taking part in events such as off-road slalom and ice hockey in cars. The US Special followed in 2007 and became the model for the other Top Gear specials of travelling across countries in a vehicle bought from a limited budget. The Polar, Botswana, Vietnam, Bolivia, India, Africa, Burma and Patagonia specials followed with every new year the show was in production.

2008: Top Gear Live

Top Gear Live was introduced in 2008, which allowed an audience to witness live car stunts, special effects and driving sequences featuring the three presenters, the Stig and other guests. There have now been 344 performances stages and 1.9 million fans have witnessed the live event. This year’s tour is still to visit Belfast, Sheffield and London.

2009: Criticism

Top Gear’s series 14 received criticism due to the programme’s predictability and forced humour receiving a segment on BBC’s Points of View, with some viewers asking for a new format.

2010: Stig No. 2’s identity revealed

The second Stig’s identity was eventually revealed as racing driver Ben Collins in 2010, following widespread speculation over the identity of the Stig since his first appearance, ranging from Tiff Needell to Michael Schumacher. 

2010: Stig the Third

Utilising the Middle East special, which was a re-enactment of the journey the Three Wise Men took to Bethlehem, the third Stig was ‘born’ to represent as Clarkson would say, ‘the baby Jesus’.

2010: Mexican comments: controversy kicks in

Richard Hammond offended Mexicans on the show by describing them as "lazy, feckless and flatulent". The Mexican ambassador complained describing the comments as inexcusable. Ofcom, the UK watchdog, remarked it was reinforcing stereotypes, but did not breach guidelines.

2011: India special

Provoking outrage with the Indian High Commission, Clarkson built a toilet on the back of his Jaguar and stated that people suffer from diarrhoea whilst visiting India.

2014: Burma special

During the Burma special, Clarkson was accused of using racist slur describing a bridge as having a "slope". Ofcom stated that the programme breached broadcasting regulations.

2014: Eeeny, meeny, miney, moe

Clarkson was deciding between two cars and was accused of using a racist word in the children’s rhyme by the Daily Mail. Jeremy Clarkson defended himself by stating he had never used the word, but was later forced to apologise through a self-made video.

2014: Patagonia special

2015: Jeremy Clarkson suspended

Jeremy Clarkson was suspended on 10 March after a “fracas” with a producer. The remaining three episodes of the current series 22 will not be aired according to the schedule. The BBC will not discuss when the show will return.

Is this the end for Top Gear, will the BBC bring the show back or will Clarkson and his crew take their show to another channel?

Photo credit: Top Gear Series 8 Episode 5 "News"