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Friday, January 27, 2023

Obituary of Sue Baker: motoring journalist, author and broadcaster who presented ‘Top Gear’ for 11 years

Sue Baker, who has died aged 75, was a motoring journalist and broadcaster who presented the television programme Top Gear for 11 years from 1980, appearing in 113 episodes; a far cry from the testosterone-rich lads’ show of later years, it was at heart, she recalled, a straightforward consumer service — “which new cars are coming on the market, and what we think of them”.

Top Gear had been launched by BBC Midlands, who ran an initial nine-episode series in 1977, presented by Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne. The following year it went national, and by 1980 it was so popular that BBC Two began commissioning two series per year.

Sue Baker was recruited in 1981, along with Chris Goffey; they were soon joined by Frank Page and William Woollard, and other presenters such as Tiff Needell and Quentin Willson followed — as well as Jeremy Clarkson, whom she groomed to take over from her.

Though the Top Gear of the 1980s was a more sober affair than the Clarkson and Paddy McGuinness eras, Sue Baker travelled the world — though usually with a less exotic brief, as she recalled recently in an interview with the BrownCarGuy YouTube channel: “Now they’re doing these mega-fun programmes with adventures. We were going to the places where the cars were available — Japan, Korea, wherever — and driving the new cars before they came on the market here.”

The show was intended to provide all-round coverage of the subject, and she would also report on such features as heated rear windows, anti-theft devices and the new-fangled idea of paying for parking by credit card. But when it came to the road testing, she recalled, “I had to fight my corner not to get all the little shopping cars.”

Leslie Susan Baker was born on May 9, 1947, in Chislehurst, Kent, to Dora and Frank Baker; her father was employed by a bank, working on mechanisation. He was not a car fanatic, but would bring home bits of new kit for Sue and her sister to figure out. “I always wanted to know how things worked,” she said, “and love of all things technical led me to love of cars.”

After leaving school she studied journalism at Harlow College in Essex. She secured a job on her local paper, and with motor racing having been a passion from childhood, aged only 20 she set up the Motor Racing News Service at Brands Hatch, 16km down the road from her home town.

​She managed to persuade her paper’s motoring editor to let her write pieces when he was on holiday, and as he had no interest in motor sport she was able to bag the Brands Hatch beat after going to Le Mans under her own steam and presenting her boss with a paper-ready report.

On her first car launch, in Italy, she was one of only two female reporters but found, to her dismay, that the other woman considered her a deadly rival.

She moved to the Evening News in London, rising to motoring correspondent. She went on to cover Formula One, and had particularly fond memories of reporting on the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

In 1982 she became motoring editor at The Observer, where she stayed until 1995. She also had a stint freelancing for Saga magazine.

Sue Baker also relished racing herself, and competed both in rallies and on the track. On one occasion she drove an 1899 Benz on the London-Brighton rally.

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She was a vice-president and former chair of the Guild of Motoring Writers — the first woman in the post. In 1991 she published Complete Motoring Guide, and in 2000 The Glove Box Guide for Women Drivers.

Asked if she enjoyed the modern incarnation of the programme that made her name, she replied, diplomatically: “Ish.”

Sue Baker, who in later life suffered from motor neurone disease, married John Downey, who worked in naval intelligence. He died in 2019 and she is survived by their daughter and son.

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