Top Gear began life in April 1977, 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 thirty 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. 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. 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.
The BBC network took Top Gear and it became a weekly thirty 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 ten 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, Rippon continued as main presenter. 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, Noel Edmonds drove his Ford GT40 car round Silverstone. In 1980, Edmonds took over as presenter for two series.In 1981, William Woollard, formerly of BBC1’s science series Tomorrow’s World became the programme’s main presenter.
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, coming from Performance Car Magazine.
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.
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.” 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, Woollard, left the show. The autumn season of 1991 saw former used car dealer Quentin Willson join the team.
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. [Wikipedia]