We take a look back over the last 45 years at the past presenters of the iconic motoring TV Show…
On the 22nd of April 1977 Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne presented the first episode of Top Gear, broadcast on BBC 1 Midlands.
On 13 July 1978, the BBC’s national network took on Top Gear. The 30 minute weekly show was broadcast on BBC Two, presented by Angela Rippon and co-presenter Barrie Gill.
For the second series, Angela and Barrie were joined by Mike Dornan and Judith Jackson, along with Noel Edmonds. Each week we saw Noel Edmonds test several new cars, including his very own Ford GT40.
In 1980 Noel Edmonds replaced Angela Rippon as the main presenter. Back in the early years of Top Gear, the show didn’t criticise cars as it does now, but when Noel commented that the Fiat Strada “wasn’t very good” it upset Fiat and they threatened to sue the BBC! Noel gained fame from his time at Top Gear, and when he stopped presenting it later that same year went on to present many shows, including The Late, Late Breakfast Show, Noel’s House Party, and more recently, Deal or No Deal.
The 80s saw several presenters and co-presenters: Judith Jackson, Sue Baker, Frank Page, Chris Goffey, William Woollard, Tom Boswell, Peter Burgess, Russell Bray, Malcolm Wilson, Tony Mason, Tiff Needell, Jon Bentley, Beki Adam and Jeremy Clarkson.
During the late 80s the show received repeated threats from the network to cancel the programme because of low viewing numbers. To increase the appeal to the audience we saw the show begin to cover more motoring topics and events, including the British Motor Show and the Lombard RAC Rally. With these changes we saw the well-known presenters Sue Baker and former F1 driver Tiff Needell take to the screens. Sue Baker presented at least 100 episodes between 1980 and 1991, and today Sue remains part of the industry as a motoring journalist.
Towards the end of 1988, Jeremy Clarkson, a columnist from Performance Car Magazine, became the face of Top Gear, bringing viewing ratings from a hundred thousand to millions!
The most famous presenter Jeremy Clarkson was joined by many of Top Gear’s most popular presenters, including Quentin Willson, Steve Berry, Michele Newman, Vicki Butler-Henderson, Julia Bradbury, Kate Humble, and James May.
The soaring viewing ratings made Top Gear one of the most watched shows on TV. The programme’s growing influence affected vehicle manufactures who realised negative reviews from the show could have a severe effect on sales.
In 1999, after much controversy, Jeremy Clarkson left the show and viewing ratings took a hit!
After several presenters in the first couple of years of the decade, the show was cancelled in the latter half of 2001 because of the dwindling viewer numbers since Clarkson’s departure. Tiff Needell, who had been with the show since 1987, and Vicki Butler-Henderson, who was a presenter with Top Gear from 1994, joined Channel 5 to launch Fifth Gear.
Tiff Needell is still very popular amongst the motoring community. He still contributes to the Top Gear magazine and has various columns in other car magazines. Our claim to fame is that he has also been a customer of CarTakeBack, and given us top tips on minimising the cost of car ownership, and understanding garage speak!
Vikki has got in with the CarTakeBack action, too, giving us advice on selling your old car!
After the first series of Fifth Gear, the BBC decided to relaunch Top Gear in 2002. Set in a studio, Jeremy Clarkson returned along with new presenters Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe. Jason was then replaced by James May, and Top Gear settled with those three presenters for a decade of successful series.
The show went from strength to strength, with regular use of Dunsfold Aerodrome as a test track by the famous, silent racing driver – The Stig.
In 2013, after several series full of destructions, stunts, and races around the world, the programme received a Guinness World Record for the world’s most widely watched factual TV programme.
Arguably still at its peak, in 2015, after an altercation with the producer, Clarkson was suspended and the fate of the show was left to the bosses of the BBC. This resulted in the trio’s sudden departure as they moved to Amazon Prime to launch The Grand Tour. Clarkson used this new show to promote using your old car to raise money with our fundraising venture, Charity Car. Another proud moment for us!
After 15 years with Clarkson, May, and Hammond running the show, in 2016 we saw the new faces of Top Gear: Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris, Rory Reid, Sabine Schmitz, and Eddie Jordan, along with The Stig, of course.
The first series with the new line up suffered low viewer ratings, and Chris Evans left the show, which led to the American Actor who was famously known as Joey in the US Sitcom – Friends, Matt LeBlanc, becoming the first non-British main presenter of Top Gear. While Matt was a popular presenter, after series 26, which aired in early 2019, Matt LeBlanc left Top Gear to spend more time with his family.
Patrick Holland, Controller for BBC Two, said:
“I want to thank the fabulous Matt LeBlanc for being a brilliant co-host on Top Gear. Matt has thrown himself into the show with real passion, revealing his extraordinary car knowledge and a willingness to get down and dirty. We were always going to be borrowing him from his day job as one of the top comic actors in Hollywood so I wish him all the very best. The next series of Top Gear (Matt’s last) promises to be something very special and we have great plans to welcome a new co-host to join the team for 2019 and beyond.”
Series 27 (which first aired in Summer 2019) saw cricket legend Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, and TV presenter Paddy McGuinness, join Chris Harris at the helm. While neither of these new faces for Top Gear had any professional automotive links, as massive car enthusiasts and natural presenters with a huge sense of fun, they refreshed the programme and quickly led to soaring viewing figures.
Sabine Schmitz, who had been part of the Top Gear presenting family in various roles since 2004, including features with the new team, tragically passed away in March 2021 aged 51. Presenters past and present united for a special programme to pay tribute to Queen of the Nürburgring.
Alex Renton, co-Executive Producer on Top Gear said:
“Sabine was part of Top Gear for over 15 years and it was no surprise that so many people who had worked with her over that period dropped everything to be a part of this tribute. She was so loved and will be greatly missed by us all.”
Despite the COVID pandemic, the success of the new presenting team meant the BBC found ways to safely keep filming. By using a larger studio and temporarily dropping popular segments such as ‘star in a reasonably priced car’ so they could maintain social distancing, this dream team is now available to watch in series 31! The antics and travels just get bigger and better every show… We can’t wait to see where the Top Gear team takes us next.