Much has changed since 1977, when the first episode of “Car Talk” aired on Boston’s WBUR, but the automobile’s central role in American life is not one of them. For all the auto industry’s fears of fading relevance with young people, cars remain one of the most important aspects of our material culture. And yet, with the exception of “Car Talk” itself, there have been few popular forums for the discussion of cars. With yesterday’s passing of Tom Magliozzi, half of the radio show’s beloved Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, that absence is even more keenly felt.
The genius of “Car Talk,” which became one of National Public Radio’s most popular shows, was its recognition of the ubiquity of the car in American life. While the traditional auto media divided itself into either enthusiast-oriented “buff books,” heavy on horsepower figures and glossy pictures of performance cars, or more business- and industry-focused coverage of automakers, “Car Talk” recognized that the audience most in need of information about cars was precisely the audience that understands cars the least.
To this audience — namely, the vast majority of Americans — cars aren’t objects of desire or business units but mysterious and often temperamental machines. Partnering with them to fulfill our everyday transportation needs requires expertise, patience and, above all, humor. Bringing these skills, especially the latter, to our automotive relationships was the great work of “Car Talk.”
Certainly the Magliozzis brought expertise to their automotive advice: Both educated at MIT, the brothers operated one of the first “hackerspaces” decades before the birth of the maker culture, eventually converting it to an auto repair shop. Their on-air diagnoses were astounding to listeners long accustomed to the bill-inflating runaround they got at most shops, and the show encouraged listeners to call back to confirm whether the recommended repair had done the trick. The Magliozzis turned the information imbalance between car owners and mechanics, long a source of frustration and expense for consumers, into both a service and entertainment.
Had “Car Talk” simply been an advice show, it would likely never have become the success it still is (new episodes stopped airing in 2012, though NPR continues to air reruns). But thanks to the Magliozzi brothers’ effusive personalities and infectious chemistry, “Car Talk” elevated America’s prosaic car problems to the level of comic art. Their banter, offbeat interactions with advice-seekers and hilarious expositions on the most unexpected of automotive topics made “Car Talk” a show that was about humans first and our relationships with cars second.
This is perhaps the most important legacy left by the Magliozzis, and one that the perennially struggling “automotive media” would do well to learn from: Only in our everyday human interactions do cars become more than just hunks of steel and plastic. Indeed, because they play so central a role in our lives, examining cars can teach us as much about ourselves as it can about that strange noise coming from under the hood. Of course, it also helps if your guides are as irrepressibly wise and humorous as the Tappet brothers.
To contact the writer of this article: Edward Niedermeyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.