It's hard to watch Paul McGann without thinking of Withnail & I. A four-part history of British motoring evokes images of Richard E. Grant weaving in and out of the motorway traffic in his Mark II Jaguar. "What's going on?" demands "I" when he wakes up in the back seat. "I'm making time," shrieks a wild-eyed Withnail. So it was appropriate that the first part should be about speed – "like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane". Sadly, McGann is not lying in the bath eating saveloy and chips while presenting the programme The Petrol Age (Sky Atlantic, Thursday), but he gets to drive a lot of old bangers rather than eat them.
McGann says he spent his first week's wages from the film on the car he coveted from his childhood, a Rover P5B, which he still drives around – though he would never set any land-speed records in it. We learn that Britain was a long way off the pace in the early days of motoring because of a speed restriction of 12mph while there was no limit at all in France.
There were many deaths in the Continental road races, however, – not closing the roads probably didn't help. But S. F. Edge made his mark as the first British racing driver at the sharp left-hand turn of the century, and in 1902 he won the Gordon Bennett Cup, which sounds like an award for road rage in an altogether more decorous era.
Back in Blighty, not much seems to have changed over the past 100 years. The AA was formed in 1905 to help drivers avoid speed traps set by the police, and the matter was even raised in Parliament: "East Sussex has gone in for an elaborate electric timing apparatus that has earned its original cost many times over." The public's patience had reached its limit; they were ready to throttle the cops.
The only place where you could put your foot down in Britain – as opposed to the authorities doing so – was at Brooklands in Surrey, the first-ever racing track. It was built by Hugh Locke-King, but he kept running out of money to pay for what was then the world's largest concrete structure. Pothole gangs had to carry out running repairs during the actual races – with the emphasis on running.
"It's doubtless the biggest legacy of the last 100 years," says McGann of the rapid rise of speed. In the claims department it's a big one, but he may be right. It's a shame the standard of road repairs did not keep up with the cars. Some of those potholes are now so big you could actually go potholing in them.
The BBC are also offering a five-part series on motor racing, That Petrol Emotion (BBC4, Monday) relying on their outstanding archive of footage. It does without any presenters at all, which at least spares us the Top Gear gang.
Instead we are treated to the delights of Raymond Baxter in his early years. He was an accomplished driver as well as presenter for all occasions, and competed 12 times in the Monte Carlo Rally. We see him motoring through France "on a diet of tea, bottles of pop and the occasional glass of champagne". It's not exactly Jake Humphrey, who has left F1 behind and is now presenting Bedtime Live on Channel Four. Yet more noise and going around in circles. Still, he's been putting BBC viewers to sleep for years.