Top Gear (in its original 30-minute format) was a car-based BBC television series produced by BBC Birmingham, broadcast from 1977 to 2001. It consisted of 30-minute magazine format programmes presented by a number of people, including Angela Rippon, Noel Edmonds, William Woollard, and latterly Jeremy Clarkson. In 2002, the show was relaunched in a new one-hour studio-based format.
Originally, Top Gear was a magazine show reviewing new car models and other car-related issues such as road safety. Other features included classic car events and motorsport, the latter often rallying with Tony Mason, Roger Clark's co-driver. Between 1988 and 1991, the programme organised a competition each year to find a new rally driver with the prize being entry into that year's RAC Rally. In 1987, Jon Bentley (now a presenter on Channel 5's gadget show) became producer and editor. Bentley added former Formula One driver Tiff Needell to the programme, and then-Performance Car Magazine journalist Jeremy Clarkson in late 1988 and the programme saw a massive boost in its audience as it became a more humorous, controversial, and unashamedly more critical show. In 1991, William Woollard left the show. Around the same time, Quentin Willson, a former used car salesman, joined. The 1990s also saw the addition of a new female presenter, Michele Newman, who still appears on ITV's Pulling Power. Other presenters included Steve Berry, whose speciality was motorbikes, and racing driver Vicki Butler-Henderson, who joined in 1997.
Among the show's producers were Phil Franklin, Brian Strachan, Jon Bentley and Ken Pollock. Executive producers were Derek Smith, Dennis Adams and Tom Ross.
Despite enduring criticism that the show was overly macho, encouraged irresponsible driving behaviour and ignored the environment, under Clarkson's presentation the show pulled in huge audiences. 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 about 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." However, even more critical statements have not affected sales of the Toyota Corolla, and extreme praise did not help the Renault Alpine GTA/A610.
In 2001, Five 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 the entire production team moved from the BBC to Five to create Fifth Gear, Jason Barlow's involvement ceased. The name change was required as the BBC would not relinquish the rights to the Top Gear name (the corporation was (and is) still publishing Top Gear magazine). 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 show was again presented by Jeremy Clarkson, joined by Richard Hammond, and Jason Dawe. James May replaced Jason 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.
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 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 has become the UK's best selling car magazine (as of August 2006).
Since the early 1990s, the annual Top Gear J. D. Power Top 100 survey has consulted thousands of UK residents 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 Top Gear Video Game was not associated with the BBC TV series and the BBC won a court case blocking its creators from obtaining a trademark for it.
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 and BBC World's India's Wheels. Some of the presenters on Driven would go on to present Top Gear.
In 2002, Fifth Gear, a TV programme with a similar style was launched on Channel 5, after the original Top Gear was cancelled in 2001 due to low ratings. After the 2002 re-launch of Top Gear in its new 1-hour format, the two shows have been in direct competition, yielding frequent teasing comments from the shows' presenters.
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 1998, Skoda 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 marques - particularly Subaru, Toyota, Honda and Mazda - also received high ratings in Top Gear surveys. Similar praise went to the likes of BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Volvo. In contrast, many marques received heavy criticism in the surveys - particularly Lada, Fiat, Vauxhall, Peugeot and Alfa Romeo.