After a ten-month absence, Top Gear returned last Sunday for the 19th season of its modern incarnation with the usual mix of fast cars, mayhem and utter silliness. Jeremy Clarkson tried to build a car even smaller than the Peel P50, James May took the new Bentley Continental GT rallying and Richard Hammond tested the new Pagani Huayra, which proceeded to break the programme’s test track record. Pretty much par for the course, then. To celebrate their return, let’s have a look at their iconic intro.
Top Gear (original format 515 episodes, 1977-2002, new format 148 episodes 2002-, including last Sunday’s episode).
A factual motoring magazine series primarily about cars. Originally produced as a conventional 30-minute motoring show, it was revamped in 2002 into a more entertainment-based hour-long format.
Although the Top Gear theme is instantly recognisable even among non-viewers of the show, its origin is less widely known. The song used is an instrumental track called Jessica, originally released by the rock/blues Allman Brothers Band in 1973. Check out the hats and the facial hair:
The original Top Gear series used a faithful reproduction of the song played over its opening credits right up until 1999. (Another instrumental track, Elton John’s Out of the Blue, was played over the closing credits for many years.) In recent years, remixed versions of Jessica have continued to be used as the show’s signature theme.
The current intro has remained essentially the same since the show’s 2002 relaunch. A high-energy version of Jessica plays over a sequence of three-part action montages from previous shows and silhouette images of each of the three presenters. Mid-sequence, this cuts to a short preview of narrated highlights from that specific episode. Here’s a version of it from a few years back:
It is a compact intro, which communicates both what the show is about and the quirky, irreverent personality which continues to make it BBC2’s most-watched programme, watched by car lovers and non-lovers alike. Jessica has also embedded itself into the wider social consciousness, becoming synonymous with cars and the open road. It is rare for a factual series to have such a memorable intro – Top Gear is just such a beast.
The original Top Gear series was presented by a number of household names over the years, including Angela Rippon, Noel Edmonds and William Woollard.
The current, revamped version of the series is filmed at the former BAe Systems site at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey.
Although it is well-known that Jeremy Clarkson was a long-serving presenter on the original Top Gear (he featured between 1988 and 2000), James May was also briefly part of the line-up in 1999. May subsequently replaced Jason Dawe after the first season of the relaunched series.
Top Gear‘s anonymous ‘tame racing driver’ was named the ‘Stig’ after an old tradition at Repton boys’ school (which Clarkson and series producer Andy Wilman attended together). ‘Stig’ was a nickname for new boys at the school.
There have been three main permanent Stigs. Ex-Formula 1 driver Perry McCarthy was the ‘Black Stig’ (on account of his black racing suit) for the first two seasons after the show’s relaunch. Former racing driver Ben Collins was the first ‘White Stig’ until season 15, when he was fired for revealing his identity. The identity of the current (second) ‘White Stig’ is unknown. A number of other drivers have donned the Stig’s persona for individual stunts or challenges, and are generally referred to as ‘Stig’s cousin’.
A modified Boeing 747 is frequently visible in segments filmed at the Dunsfold test track, The aircraft was used in the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale. The airport sequence for the film was shot at Dunsfold.
All three presenters of Top Gear have won Heat magazine’s ‘Weird Crush Of The Year’. Richard Hammond won in 2006, James May in 2007 and Jeremy Clarkson in 2008. The Stig has also finished in the top ten.
One of the show’s most popular segments is ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’, where celebrities attempt to set the fastest possible time around the track in an everyday car. A Suzuki Liana was used for the first seven seasons of the show, with the fastest time set by yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur (1:46.7). This was replaced by a (slightly more powerful) Chevrolet Lacetti for seasons 8-14, with Jamiroquai front-man Jay Kay recording a best time of 1:45.83. Since the start of season 15, the current ‘Reasonably Priced Car’ is a Kia Cee’d. Actor Matt LeBlanc holds the current fastest time at 1:42.1 (as of the end of season 18 in 2012).