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 email@example.com.
I miss Car Talk. It was one of the rare shows that could keep the interest of both the highly engaged car nerd and the casual car owner who could not care less about how it ran, until it wouldn’t. They never laughed at the folks calling for advice, but would laugh with them in working through the problem. And of course, those thick old-school Boston accents were always fun to those of us in other parts of the country.
I will always remember two things – how mechanics make their boat payments, and the 1963 Dodge Dart that was the endless butt of jokes.
“How do you know if you’ve got a good mechanic? By the size of his boat!”
“Mooove yah cah a little fastah!”, I once heard shouted in traffic 4th of July firework traffic on the Cape. Even though the majority of Bostonians do not possess the thick accent, it’s a very comforting sound for me, especially as it comes out in my mom’s voice in a few certain words.
Only because of shifting demographics since your mother was born. All of the older folks (50+ years of age) I know from the Boston AREA have the accent. Since they were born, most of the population has been not from Boston so they wouldn’t have the accent.
This was a great show, started listening in 1987…. they were funny and smart..Actually did some car repair work at their…Do-it-Yourself Garage, back in the early 70’s……( wow I feel old )
That’s awesome that you actually used their garage! What kind of car did you work on? Did they have any wise-crack remarks about it or your work?
I worked with a friend on his 1966 MG Midget, winter in New England is grim… this was a cool way to do some repairs and get out of the weather, the garage was big and drafty….BUT it was inside. You could rent tools,( we had are own ), lots of noise…..seemed like a neat concept. Lots of people walking around offering help…
I also worked in Harvard Square, and they had an office across the street, with the sign….Dewey Chetem and Howe….great memories…
This is news to me. This is the first time I’d heard about the passing away of Tom Magliozzi. I’ve been listening to Car Talk for over 20 yrs, and I’ve enjoyed Tom and Ray’s (Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers) brand of knowledge along with wit and humour.
Thanks for posting this article.
I’ve been listening to car talk for about 15 years now. I hope to keep the tradition alive by letting my young boys listen to the show as well.
Tom and Ray had a special relationship that made all of us listeners feel like we were sitting there in the recording studio with them and part of the family.
This is a great show and I’m glad that the Curbeside Classics family also interweaves with the CarTalk family.
Thank you, Mr. Niedermeyer, for this insightful take on what made the show great. Car Talk provided common ground for a car-crazed enthusiast like myself with all the other normal people in my family. They didn’t have very much else to talk about with me, as no one else shared my lifelong obsession. I was more single-minded as a boy. But my father did and does enjoy going to car shows with me. And we shared many a broadcast together.
You’re right about the perennially struggling “automotive media”. So many new car shows are launched, and so few succeed. Adam Carolla’s “The Car Show” only lasted one season, and I thought it had a least a fighting chance. He’s funny, but perhaps too angry. Ultimately, the problem was lack of chemistry between the guests. Same holds true for the US version of Top Gear. You either have it or you don’t, and it can’t be cultivated.
Tom and Ray were two-of-kind with a one-of-kind program. I’d love to find some of the early shows, back when it was just a local WBUR gig. Turns out, the Executive Producer Doug Berman has thousand of never before aired calls, so perhaps he can keep generating new remixes that we’ve never heard.
A little bit of Boston died yesterday. Actually, the end was a couple years ago when Tom felt the loss of his cognitive abilities and decided it was time to retire. But it became official on Nov 3, 2014.
” He’s funny, but perhaps too angry. ” I think that hits what made Car Talk so great. Of course car guys like us liked the “quasi-automotive” subject matter, but what really made it was the self deprecating humor – it was never, ever mean or angry. You just couldn’t help smiling for the rest of the morning after listening.
My oldest son had a t-shirt when he was a toddler that said “Help! My parents make me listen to Car Talk”. But in reality all three of my kids were happy to listen to “the guys who laugh” when out doing errands with their dad on a Saturday morning. Great memories for me. RIP Tom.
Thanks for this very nice tribute. It’s hard to write about someone millions of listeners feel like they know, and this is one of the few that I have read that strikes the right note.
I tend to ignore celebrity deaths, but this one made me choke up a bit. All summed up, I must have listen to thousands of hours of banter between Tom & Ray. I guess it’s only human to feel like you know someone whose voice has become so familiar. Doesn’t hurt that he seems to have been a genuinely good guy.
If you want to read or listen to one more thing about Tom Magliozzi, I recommend setting aside a few minutes to listen to this interview with Doug Berman from yesterday’s Here & Now: http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/11/03/tom-magliozzi-dies
‘sniff’ RIP, Click.
I started listening regularly in 2003, that show changed my attitude towards the cars that we come to this website over. The cars discussed often sounded almost used up, they definately aren’t trailer queens. When i met my wife, who is a die hard Republican, in 2008, i got her listening to this show even if it’s on NPR. I am missing Tom. We may watch Disney’s “Cars” this weekend.
+1 on Cars – may have to do the same… Like your wife, Car Talk was the only show I’d listen to on our local NPR station after they ditched all Classical programming in favor of an all talk format.
I agree. Click and Clack, aren’t they so much like Luigi and Guido?
More like Rusty and Dusty Rust-Eze, especially since they actually supplied the voices and owned the Dodges.
We watched “Cars” here just last Saturday. Weird how these things play out.
If I hadn’t gone to that farmers market early one Saturday last year I would still not know about Car Talk. I heard it one other time going to the same farmers market but did not know it was in reruns.
Like Prairie Home Companion the Magliozzis invited you to sit a spell and take your shoes off. Edward’s point about how they helped everyman and everywoman bond a little more with their cars is spot on and definitely part of the charm for me. What a unique program.
Cars have changed a lot since ’77 but I bet this show hasn’t one bit. Nice tribute.
Another Boston icon’s passing in recent days 🙁
Yeah, I wasn’t as familiar (or as fond) of Mumbles, but recognized him as a Boston icon. He was well-liked, for sure. Tough week for Boston.
I really entertaining program. I hated to see them retire, now this. R.I.P.
This must have been a good radio program, but, unfortunately it was never broadcast in the NY Metropolitan area. I would loved to have heard them . Rest In Peace.
You can get the Car Talk app or subscribe to the podcast, Phil. It’s even better than the radio. In fact, all the shows that are reruns to us will be new to you.
A truly terrific program. Several years ago, the local library had a compilation of CD’s released by NPR with some of their more memorable calls. Just don’t listen to it while driving.
Rest in peace, Tom.
Even my wife, who wouldn’t give a rodent’s behind about the cars was listening to Click and Clack because their banter was so funny.
Boston just lost two Tommy M’s, the other being 5-time mayor Menino. Loved C&C and miss hearing the new shows. Still listen to the reruns, tho, as recently as last Saturday. I lived in Their Fair City until a few years ago, a few blocks from their studio. Loved to look up and see “Dewey Cheatham & Howe” on the second floor window overlooking Hahvahd Squayah. I’ll bet the letters never get taken off the window. I hope Tommy is now reunited with his beloved ’63 Dart convertible.
I loved Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers.
Wow, MFred, never thought of that! Two Tommy M’s!
I listened for many years and always loved the show. The Saturday time slot was always good for me as i was able to listen.
One thing I noticed about their advice and how it morphed over the years is this: In the early years they were all about keeping the old cars running. Their thesis was that it was much more environmentally responsible to use what had already been manufactured than create all the pollution making new steel, glass, rubber, etc. for a new car. Later, perhaps in the past 10 years or so, they shifted to pushing safety. They advised many people to get rid of older cars as the newer ones were so much safer. It seems to me that this was excellent advice as their typical listener was pretty much an average motorist.
I sure will miss Tom and I do hope that NPR will continue reruns for a while. However that can’t last forever. Surely at some point someone will take the place of Click and Clack. I would not be surprised if it was someone from the Curbsides Classics world.
Truly a landmark show; warm, humorous, helpful and ……human. For most, cars are perplexing mysteries when out-of-repair, Click and Clack made them less so and funny in the process.
RIP Tom, we’ll never forget your infectious laugh, you gave us so many reasons to laugh with you. And that poor hapless ’63 Dodge “Daaart” convertible!
My wife has less than zero interest in cars (opposites attract), but when we lived in Boston, many years ago, she made sure we always tuned in to Car Talk. Their easy-going humour and robust advice made for a great listen every week.
A few years ago, the BBC broadcast a programme about the Car Talk phenomenon, which brought it all back again. Very sorry to hear that this chapter has closed.
I caught sporadic episodes on the radio when I was younger, but have listened to the shows on podcast regularly since 2008. My favorite way to listen is to do multiple shows in a row while driving on trips. “Tommy” was definitely my favorite of the two, very much the comic relief while still being knowledgeable and humble. I can’t imagine one without the other, and wonder if it will be hard to listen to reruns of the show after his passing.
The local NPR station plays a lot of jazz, and it was through tuning it in on Saturdays that I got an occasional chance to hear Car Talk. “Don’t drive like my brother!” will never sound the same….
I live in Tacoma, Washington, where we listen through 88.5 KPLU. It’ll be interesting to see what Car Talk will be like without Click to accompany Clack.
what is the car located on the bottom left below the Malibu station wagon? My guess would be a 1965-70 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight.
It’s a Chrysler Newport, a 1973 model I believe.
It’s a Chrysler Newport, a 1973 model I believe.