With the first episode of The Grand Tour just weeks away, one could be forgiven for overlooking a rather important date which passed us by just a few days ago – October 20th to be precise. Because it is on that day 14 years ago that a certain pokey motoring show launched on BBC2.
After the original incarnation died in 1999, a newly updated & rebooted version of Top Gear was broadcast on BBC2 with Jeremy Clarkson at the helm. The New Top Gear was completely different to ‘Old TopGear’ in almost every way. For those who didn’t get a chance to view the previous version, it mostly consisted of men with beards standing around discussing vehicle boot luggage capacity and delving balls-deep into MPG figures and fuel economy discussions. To make things worse when they actually drove cars, they did so in the most boring manner possible.
Now before we go any further, for some readers it will be necessary – to address the Elephant in the room – Jason Dawe. That’s right – the entire first series of new Top Gear featured a presenter lineup of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and Jason Dawe.
Jason’s role in Series 1 mostly revolved around discussing how to get the best deals on new cars, along with what to look for when buying a used car. Towards the end of the first series, he famously admitted to ‘buying £900 cars and driving them until they died’ – at which point he’d simply by another one and repeat the process. Frugal motoring indeed, but this obviously didn’t sit well with New TopGear’s ethos.
By the end of the first series Jason Dawe had left, due to things “not working out”. The BBC weren’t sure about keeping Richard on, either, and were on the look out for two new presenters. Top Gear’s executive producer Andy Wilman eventually convinced the BBC to let Richard stay, and the search was on to find a young, lifestyle, trendy presenter to appeal to Top Gear’s young, lifestyle, trendy viewers. “Ever keen to assist, we searched high and low and eventually came up with just the man – James May,” Andy explains.
“James had a 14-year old Bentley at the time. At the audition he said, “I’ve found out if you spend £50 at Tesco, you get £5 of free petrol. Now I can drive anywhere I like; the problem is my house is full of rotting food!” Everyone in the room laughed, Jeremy laughed. That landed him the job.”
It was at the start of Series 2 where TopGear really started getting into the swing of things – with James May joining the team and creating what we now know as the TopGear Holy Trinity – the boys. In his first segment, James showed viewers his old Bentley T2 which he bought for “Mondeo Money”. In typical James May fashion, he finished off the segment by stating, “Yes, it’s um… For the money you spend on a basic Mondeo, you could buy an old Bentley like I did. Don’t!”
The past 14 years have been quite a journey, and we’ve all enjoyed seeing the friendship and camaraderie between the boys grow each year. As someone who has watched Top Gear from the very beginning right through to the end, I’ve always been one to say that all true Top Gear fans should watch the show starting at Series 1. Doing so will help you appreciate where Top Gear has come from and how it grew to become the most popular TV show in the world. But if you haven’t got the time or patience to do this, we’re here to help.
So what we’ve done is hand-pick 10 Top Gear episodes from Series 8 or earlier which are definitely worthy of your time. If you’re a true Top Gear fan, at the very least you have to watch these!
This is perhaps one of the most famous Top Gear episodes of all time. Jeremy Clarkson purchases a 13-year old Toyota Hilux diesel which had done 190,000 miles, for just £1,000. He then takes it to Bristol, and subjects it to a series of tests to find out just how tough it is. This includes driving down stairs, grazing it against buildings, ramming it into a tree, drowning it in the ocean, hitting it with a wrecking ball, dropping a caravan on it and then setting it on fire. Did it still drive after all that? Watch it and find out!
This episode contains Top Gear’s first ever Cheap Car Challenge. Jeremy, Richard and James are asked to buy road-legal cars for less than £100 and see just how much car they can get for their money. Jeremy buys a Volvo 760 with 141,000 miles on the clock, James opts for an Audi 80 1.8E which a suspected crash history, while Richard went for a Rover 416GTi. The cars are then subjected to a number of challenges, to find out who got the best deal.
Jeremy, Richard and James test a BMW 645Ci, Jaguar XK-R and Porsche 996 Carrera 2 on Pendine Sands in the rain, enjoying some spectacular but wild handling due to the low grip and high, rear-wheel drive power.
In this episode, we’re introduced to Sabine Schmitz for the first time, as she attempts to help Jeremy lap the Nurburgring in a diesel Jaguar S-Type in under 10 minutes.
This is one of Top Gear’s most influential Cheap Car Challenges, when the presenters find out how much Porsche can you get for £1500. Richard buys a Volkswagen van-engined 924, James buys a 2.5L 4-cylinder 944, and Jeremy buys a slightly broken 928. What follows can be described as a series of rather hilarious break downs and shenanigans.
This episode contains one of Top Gear’s most epic early races, from Heathrow Airport in London to Oslo in Norway. For the tiring 1,320-mile (2,120 km) drive, Jeremy selects the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren because it was both extremely fast and completely comfortable. Meanwhile, Richard and May race against him by flying to Newcastle upon Tyne, catching a 17-hour long ferry ride to Kristiansand, and then travelling via speedboat for the remainder of the journey.
Jeremy, Richard and James try to explain the point of supercars. They each pick their favourite supercar – a Pagani Zonda, a Ford GT, and a Ferrari F430 – and then embark on a trans-France road trip to the recently completed Millau Viaduct in France.
Should you buy a used supercar for less than £10,000? Jeremy, Richard and James find out buy purchasing a used Italian supercar for less than £10,000 and drive from Bristol to a strip club in Slough, with challenges along the way, including a lap around Castle Combe raceway trying to beat the Stig’s 1:35 laptime in a diesel Vauxhall Astra, the measurement of lost horsepower from their worn engines, an insurance estimate, a DIY tune-up against the clock involving an oil change and replacing spark plugs, and trying to park in a tight space in Marlborough town square.
Top Gear’s original amphibious car challenge! Jeremy, Richard and James each buy a car and are then tasked with the job of turning it into an amphibious vehicles that would work on land and water. Each presenter would make their amphibious vehicles separately, not knowing what vehicle the other presenters had or what challenge the vehicles would be tested in.
Are there any other Top Gear episodes from Series 1 to 8 which you think should be added to the list? Let us know below!