Top Gear (BBC TV series 1977-2001)

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.

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Top Gear (1977-2001), title card (1977-1983)
TOP GEAR (1977-1978)
First broadcast April 22, 1977
The original Top Gear started as a monthly television series produced by BBC Midlands, based at the Pebble Mill Studios, Birmingham. The 30 minute programmes had a magazine format, and were transmitted at first to viewers in the Midlands region only.  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 BBC 1 Midlands at 10:15pm, 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.

Notable presenters

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Angela Rippon (1944-), pictured in 1983, presenter (1977-1978)

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Tom Coyne (1930-2015), presenter (1977-1978)

 

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Top Gear (1977-2001), title card (1977-1983)
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Top Gear (1978-2001), title (1983-1985)
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Top Gear (1978-2001), title (1986-1987)
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Top Gear (1978-2001), title (1988-1993)

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Top Gear (1978-2001), title (1994-2001)
TOP GEAR (1978-2001)
First broadcast July 13, 1978
The BBC network took Top Gear and it became a weekly 30 minute BBC Two programme on 13 July 1978. Angela Rippon continued 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 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.

There continued to be two series a year through the 1980s of between seven and nine programmes each.

From 1986 to 1991, faced with repeated threats 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. Despite enduring criticism that it was overly macho, encouraged irresponsible driving behaviour 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.

By the end of the spring season of 1991 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  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.

Notable presenters

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Angela Rippon (1944-), pictured in 1983, presenter (1977-1979)

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Barrie Gill (1934-2003), co-presenter (1978), reporter (1979)

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Noel Edmonds (1948-), reporter (1978), presenter (1980)

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Chris Goffey (1945-), co-presenter (1981-1997)

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William Woollard (1939-), presenter (1981-1991)

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Tiff Needell (1951-), co-presenter (1987-2001)

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Jeremy Clarkson (1960-), co-presenter (1988-1998)

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Quentin Willson (1957-), co-presenter (1991-2000)

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James May (1963-), co-presenter (1999-2001)
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