BBC to give Top Gear a full service and overhaul

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It's as embarrassing as a red Cortina with go-faster stripes. It touched the 90s "new lad" in the right places. But Top Gear has become a rotting old banger with less sex appeal than your granny.

Thus might BBC managers have rationalised their decision to remove Britain's most popular, and famously politically incorrect, motoring show from the schedules. Top Gear, which has run for 23 years, will be taken off the air this October for a "full service and overhaul".

Everything about the programme, which made stars of Jeremy Clarkson and Quentin Wilson, will be subject to a complete review, and while the BBC was insisting yesterday that a return journey was still possible, it has not ruled out abandoning it for good.

Ominously, two new BBC motoring shows, one bearing the Top Gear name, have already been scheduled for next year, suggesting the original will struggle to return.

For two decades, since 1978, the BBC2 programme has been made at the corporation's Pebble Mill studio, in Birmingham. Clarkson's childish sexism and love of foreign stereotypes may have offended liberal sensitivities but in his nine years as a presenter, ratings rose from a few hundred thousand to a peak of 6 million. He turned laddishness into an art form and MPs condemned the obsession with speed and acceleration.

Car makers, meanwhile, were infuriated by the delight presenters expressed in attacking cars they disliked. The programme earned a reputation for honesty not always found in motoring journalism.

Both Clarkson and Wilson have now left the programme and the new presenters have not managed to achieve the same profile. Audience figures declined to 2.5million and although they have been climbing again, they have not risen above 3.1million.

The BBC denied yesterday that ratings or style were an issue, but the suspicion must remain that Top Gear was seen as a programme overshadowed by its past. The BBC says that the programme had been put "on the blocks while we give it a full service and an overhaul". A spokeswoman said: "It has not been axed. It's been given a rest as we look at what format will suit car enthusiasts in the future."

The BBC magazine of the same name will continue. A spokesman for its publishers, BBC Worldwide, commented: "All our magazines stand and fall on their own editorial merits. The brand is still there. And it is the best-selling general motoring monthly."

The strength of the brand was given as the explanation for naming one of the two new programmes Top Gear: Car Jack. The spokeswoman said that Car Jack would concentrate on new and used cars, which would be reviewed by the public. The other show, called Panic Mechanic, involves "radical car design and tough physical challenges".

She refused to comment on who would present the new shows, but the Top Gear presenters, Vicki Butler-Henderson, Tiff Needell, and Adrian Simpson, reportedly have not had their contracts on the programme renewed.

Jason Barlow, who moved away from Channel 4 last year, – saying Top Gear was "part of the fabric of the nation" – remains on contract to BBC2 and he is expected to stay involved with the BBC's motoring programmes.

Top Gear's top moments

"The automotive equivalent of a quail's egg dipped in celery salt, and then served in Julia Roberts' belly button." Clarkson on the Ferrari 355

"We spent most of the time filming it from the back so as not to frighten viewers." Clarkson on the Ford Scorpio, judged the ugliest car he had driven

"It's a complete rip-off and ... anyone thinking about buying it should flush the money down the loo instead. It would be more rewarding." Clarkson on his own book about Ferrari

"I was speeding and it is indefensible." Wilson after being fined £800 for driving his Mercedes at 98mph on the M40

"I do Top Gear." Clarkson to the supermodel Kate Moss, who had asked him at a party who he was and then promptly fled, thinking he was a drug dealer