Stuck in reverse
For fans of television and cars - and let's face it that's all of us - the year 2001 was a dark, dark time. Forget the war on terror, something equally dramatic was occurring on home soil with the Beeb's decision to send Top Gear to the proverbial scrap yard after 24 years of loyal service. If you listen closely enough on a clear night you can still hear the echoes of men sobbing into their What Car? magazines.
Fortunately the right-thinking people at Channel 5 (how's that for a sentence you never thought you'd see?) heard the nationwide roar of despair caused by this decision, and decided to step into the breach with ninja-like speed. Pushing aside documentaries about Hitler, and scenes of Keith Chegwin which will forever haunt a generation like the mustard gas of the trenches, they restored hope to car-fans.
What's in a name?
Channel 5 wanted to move the Top Gear brand lock stock and smoking exhaust pipe but the Beeb aren't ones to give up a good title. After a bit of extensive blue-sky thinking, and possible divine inspiration, the in-no-way-similar 'Fifth Gear' was decided upon as the show's new moniker. The nation's car-lovers breathed a sigh of relief – not only would they be getting a new fix of mechanical wonderment with their tea but they only had to remember one new word.
Don't I know you…?
As well as taking a few notes on Top Gear's name the people at 5 had been paying close attention to the brains behind the show too. Former producer Jon Bentley was recruited to breathe life into this fresh-from-the-showroom programme, and very sensibly it didn't take long for him to go on a mission to reunite some familiar faces. When it comes to putting together a tip-top motoring show, his is the contacts book you'd want, after all.
All in the presentation
Brilliant (and brilliantined) Quentin Wilson, speed-freak Tiff Needell and princess of petrol Vicki Butler-Henderson all dusted off their driving gloves and signed up to get Fifth Gear's engine running, bringing with them the whiff of Top Gear to help reassure those mourning its loss. This was no rehash though; same faces but new format. It was a bit like splitting up with someone only to get back with them a few months later, to find out they'd lost weight and stopped stealing. Ace.
You'll know Quentin Wilson is a natty dresser and a wily car-fanatic with encyclopaedic knowledge of anything on wheels, but you may not know where his Rain Man-esque genius stems from. If we were to tell you Quentin cut his auto-teeth on a car lot you'd probably need smelling salts. It's true though; this prince amongst motorheads was once a car dealer. No wonder he knows what to avoid, what to look for and how to charm the knees off the bees.
(Car) lover's Tiff
We love Clarkson as if he was our new-born bushy-haired baby, but the truth is he's got nowt on Tiff Needell when it comes to driving. This is a man who once came third at Le Mans – an endurance test second only to sitting through a minute of Kerry Katona's fly-on-the-wall gawkfest. He's not just a first-rate driver; he's got brains to match his three-point turns thanks to an engineering background. So a mix of suave, sage advice and daredevil risk-taking – why's no one made this man Bond yet?
What the Butler saw
An attractive woman on a car show may bring out the cynic in some, accusing them of trying to attract the sorts of viewer who tuck shirts into tracksuit bottoms and has a scrapbook called 'babes' under the bed. Luckily Vicki Butler-Henderson is no token slice of femininity. Coming from a family with oil in their veins (not literally, that'd be a serious medical emergency) Vicki's raced karts and worked as an instructor at the home of British Racing. No, not the straight near McDonalds in Dartford. Silverstone.
I love it when a plan comes together
With the experts back on our screens and the sort of breath of fresh air which comes from overhauling an old motor and souping up the engine Fifth Gear proved an instant and unsurprising hit. Top Gear had died because even the nerdiest car-nut was being put off by its slightly po-faced approach – Fifth Gear was an upstart and made its mark with a more light-hearted look at the world of wheels.
To carry on our break-up analogy it didn't take long for the bosses at Television Centre to see Fifth Gear thriving in its new home, leaving the Beeb crying down the phone at all hours about what a fool it'd been in ever letting it go and begging for a second chance. Top Gear's death had created Fifth Gear and before long Fifth Gear's success saw Top Gear born again, now with added frivolity and explosions. Turned out nice again.