Fifth Gear actually owes its very existence to its rival, Top Gear. Or, to be anal about it, it owes its existence to the original version of Top Gear, which was brutally (if rather sensibly) axed by the BBC quite some years ago now. For the benefit of any toddlers reading this, the original, pre-axing Top Gear was a conventional magazine-style show that was high on facts and low on exploding caravans.
Unfortunately, even the dads had got a bit bored with it by 2001 and the Beeb – sensing that big changes were needed – cancelled the show. The crafty execs over at Channel 5 promptly poached the cast and crew to create a new series, Fifth Gear. This cheeky upstart of a show proved so successful that the BBC hastily resurrected Top Gear as the stunt-packed romp we know today. So you could actually say that Top Gear created Fifth Gear which in turn created Top Gear. Now that's some beautiful symmetry right there.
Now, we know what Top Gear's got in its favour: stupidly big movie-style setpieces, tasteless gags, the aforementioned exploding caravans and the occasional near-fatal car smash. But what about Fifth Gear? Well, what it lacks in wacky antics, it makes up for in sheer class and expertise. Just take a look at some of the presenters it's had over the years. Vicki Butler-Henderson isn't just a rare example of a famous female petrolhead, she's also an experienced racing driver herself. How experienced? Well put it this way, she was an instructor at Silverstone at the unfeasibly young age of 17. Oh, and she's an experienced power boater as well. Can you imagine Clarkson racing a power boat? Didn't think so.
Former presenter Quentin Willson discovered his knack for cars back in uni, when he had a nice sideline in doing up second-hand motors and flogging them for obscene amounts of beer money (in his final year he sold a Jag for £750 profit). He then became a motoring journalist before being recruited for telly. Tiff Needell, meanwhile, is a former racing driver who once came third place in the legendary Le Mans race. In other words, he has the gob of a Clarkson and the skills of a Stig. And speaking of the Stig (if we can? Please don't sue us if we can't), none other than Mr Ben Collions himself, aka the Second Stig, had a tenure on Fifth Gear, showing his face and everything. How's that for some impressive petrolhead A-listdom?
While there's been a good deal of rivalry between Top Gear and Fifth Gear – much of it stoked by us, for the sheer cheap joy of it – the fact is they sort of complement each other in a yin-yang sort of way. While you'll never get the presenters going on big-time odyssey-type missions on Fifth Gear, what you will get is actual, useful info on cars you might actually go out and buy. And not in a dry way either. After all, Fifth Gear has its famous shoot outs – like the Porsche 911 Carrera vs the Lotus Exige 240R. Or, less glamorously, the Ford Focus vs the Renault Megane. Thus combining fun with proper learnin', and with arguably less chance of being set upon by angry Bible Belt Americans like the Top Gear boys were on THAT road trip. (Although that was quite funny to be honest.)