Parkinsonism, as a gradually progressive disorder, has a prodromal interval during which neurodegeneration has begun but cardinal manifestations have not fully developed. A systematic direct assessment of this interval has never been performed. Since patients with idiopathic REM sleep behaviour disorder are at very high risk of parkinsonism, they provide a unique opportunity to observe directly the development of parkinsonism. Patients with idiopathic REM sleep behaviour disorder in an ongoing cohort study were evaluated annually with several quantitative motor measures, including the Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale, Purdue Pegboard, alternate-tap test and timed up-and-go. Patients who developed parkinsonism were identified from this cohort and matched according to age to normal controls. Their results on motor testing from the preceding years were plotted, and then assessed with regression analysis, to determine when markers first deviated from normal values. Sensitivity and specificity of quantitative motor markers for diagnosing prodromal parkinsonism were assessed. Of 78 patients, 20 developed parkinsonism. On regression analysis, the Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale first intersected normal values at an estimated 4.5 years before diagnosis. Voice and face akinesia intersected earliest (estimated prodromal interval = 9.8 years), followed by rigidity (4.4 years), gait abnormalities (4.4 years) and limb bradykinesia (4.2 years). Quantitative motor tests intersected normal values at longer prodromal intervals than subjective examination (Purdue Pegboard = 8.6 years, alternate-tap = 8.2, timed up-and-go = 6.3). Using Purdue Pegboard and the alternate-tap test, parkinsonism could be detected with 71-82% sensitivity and specificity 3 years before diagnosis, whereas a Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale score >4 identified prodromal parkinsonism with 88% sensitivity and 94% specificity 2 years before diagnosis. Removal of action tremor scores improved sensitivity to 94% and specificity to 97% at 2 years before diagnosis (cut-off >3). Although distinction between conditions was often difficult, prodromal dementia with Lewy bodies appeared to have a slower progression than Parkinson's disease (prodromal interval = 6.0 versus 3.8 years). Using a cut-off of Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale >3 (excluding action tremor), 25% of patients with 'still-idiopathic' REM sleep behaviour disorder demonstrated evidence of possible prodromal parkinsonism. Therefore, using direct assessment of motor examination before parkinsonism in a REM sleep behaviour disorder, we have estimated a prodromal interval of ∼4.5 years on the Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale; other quantitative markers may detect parkinsonism earlier. Simple quantitative motor measures may be capable of reliably detecting parkinsonism, even before a clinical diagnosis can be made by experienced movement disorders neurologists.