Motoring TV: Old Top Gear

Classic Cars

In no way did it resemble the current format and style, the original Top Gear did prove that people were interested in learning more about cars on TV.

To look at the statistics, the UK might not seem like the most likely country to have spawned such a massively popular car show. We in North America own far more cars per capita, and the UK doesn’t even have a particularly high rate of ownership for Europe, trailing France, Germany and coming in well behind Italy. But thanks to the fact that BBC’s funding isn’t quite so closely tied to ratings, it has been willing to take more chances, one of which that paid off big time was Top Gear.

Top Gear was not always the reigning king of automotive shows, and today’s version bears virtually no resemblance to the show in its original format. There was an official format change back in 2002, but the original version went through quite a few changes as well, and had been headed in this direction for several years. The show was first broadcast in 1977 as a monthly 30 minute program made by BBC Midlands just for viewers in the Birmingham area. It was presented by Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne, both of whom were also local TV news presenters as well.

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The content was exceptionally dry in comparison not only to the current version, but even when compared to later years of the same format. The show featured safety advice, information about changes to driving laws and car reviews which now seem almost depressing in their determination not to be at all fun in any way. The presenters on the original show would even report on the traffic conditions on their commutes into the studio. Pretty boring stuff, but the show was nonetheless picked up for nationwide broadcast by the BBC for its second year, at which point it was also made into a weekly show.

The cast was grown significantly, and it became something like a news show, with presenters in a studio interspersed with segments from reporters elsewhere. The segments continued to follow such riveting topics as licensing regulations, fees and rust prevention. But there were now also segments covering rally racing and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Not a major shift, but at least somewhat more exciting. The first big shift in the show’s format started in 1987, after it had been on for 10 years. Top Gear in that year got two new producers, who in turn brought in several new presenters, including one Jeremy Clarkson.

The show at this point became more irreverent, including much more humor, criticism of boring cars and in the eyes of many, machismo. Complaint letters poured in from the incredibly serious people who had previously been the show’s demographic, but these were ignored as new viewers flocked to the show. By 1988, Top Gear had become BBC Two’s top-rated show, and viewers who cared passionately about serious conversation concerning lug nuts lost their first of several battles. This format proved successful for quite a few years, but things started to break down after a while. In 1999 and 2000, several of the show’s presenters left for a variety of reasons.

Some replacements were found, with Jeremy Clarkson’s spot being filled by a former Autocar writer and presenter of the show Driven named James May. But this wouldn’t save the show, and the exodus ended up causing a huge drop in viewership, eventually leading to the show’s cancellation in 2001. The show was revived in its original format, and with several of its original presenters in 2002, now under the name Fifth Gear, which remains a popular show. Later in 2002, the BBC would decide to also bring back Top Gear in its more irreverent form, using both the original name and the original theme song ("Jessica" by the Allman Brothers Band) which has remained the same since 1977.

The new Top Gear and Fifth Gear will each get their own articles, but it’s important to know that the current state of automotive TV owes so much to a local Birmingham show which explained the meanings of new street signs.

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