“Hi, I have a Datsun 510. It makes a chunk-chunk-chunk every time I turn left…”
It’s one of the many strange questions that you may hear, when tuning into WBUR on a given Saturday, followed by…“So, it is a ka-chunk, ka-chunk? Or a thud-uguh, thud-ug-uh?”
That’s a typical reply from Tom and Ray Magliozzi. You may know them as the Tappet Brothers, or the Car Talk guys, or Click and Clack, but every week for the last 35 years, Tom and Ray have been fielding automotive quandaries, and delivering their always comical prognosis. In the process, they have built an empire and a legacy that is unmatched in public radio.
No automotive content in print, web, or television, has ever captured as many followers, or for as long, as “Car Talk.” With 3.3 million listeners on 660 stations every week, it is the most popular national program on NPR. Consider that for a moment: The most popular show on National Public Radio is a car show. But ask anyone familiar with the program, and you’ll be reminded that it is so much more than figuring out why the radio turns off when you flip the turn signal. The show is about the people who live in a world with cars.
In October, Tom and Ray will record their last completely new episode at WBUR, but the radio show on NPR will continue, and their weekly newspaper column will be published here in the Boston Globe’s Automotive section every Saturday starting September 29. To grasp how a couple of Cambridge guys talking about cars could have ascended to such a place in our hearts, we should probably start at the beginning…so we shall.
It was 1977, and the Magliozzi brothers were already veterans of Hacker’s Haven. It was a shop they started where car owners could come and work on cars themselves. Tom and Ray, both MIT graduates, would provide the tools and the expertise. Before long, they had a garage full of cars and half the tools had been stolen. So the guys converted Hacker’s Haven to a traditional repair shop called the Good News Garage. That’s about the same time they received a call from WBUR, asking them to appear on a panel of wrench-turners to discuss cars.
“Someone had to watch the shop,” explains Ray, “so I let Tom go. He was the only one to show up.” After saying everything he knew about cars (which he says took about 15 minutes), Tom suggested that they take some calls, and “CarTalk’s” format was born.
The idea was a success and Tom was asked to return the following week; this time he brought along his little brother Ray. The pair arrived to a surprise, “The host had been fired, and left a note informing us that the whole show was now ours—just to watch our language!”
From the first recording, they chose the name “Car Talk,” as it followed up a show called “Shop Talk” in the schedule, which was about stereo equipment. The boys received a crash course in the world of radio, and never quite learned to sound like the typical radio hosts.
“I think that’s a good thing,” says longtime “Car Talk” producer Doug Berman. “No one ever told them to be serious, or use this kind of voice, so they were just themselves, and they goofed around and laughed a lot. So that’s why their show sounds like nothing else on the radio, and no one can ever copy it.”
That light mood, and ability to make the direst automotive situation seem humorous, even to the caller with transmission failure, is the foundation of the show’s success. That “lightning in a bottle” is recognized by the show’s “technical, spiritual, and menu” advisor, John “Bugsy” Lawlor, who joined the “CarTalk” team in 1987. According to Lawlor, those early years were splendidly wild. “Early on, the show was pure, unadulterated chaos—I would doze off in the middle of a show—it was better than a sleeping pill,” Lawlor spoofs. The practical jokes were rampant back then, worthy of the show’s humorous nature. “We would have water gun fights during the broadcasts, and the chief engineer would come in and scream at them for getting the equipment wet,” he recalls.
Based on Lawlor’s penchant for a free meal, the guys needle him on the show as John Bugsy “Free-Lunch” Lawlor, and usually end the show by documenting his fictitious, weekly appetite-related travels. One recent episode described him as just back from the “Tipperary, loganberry, stuffed canary, Rainier cherry, Bloody Mary, Ben & Jerry, confectionary, and low-fat dairy, free-lunch ferry…is John Bugsy Lawlor.”
It’s a staple that will not be missing from your weekend routine, at least anytime soon. While the guys are wrapping up new production this fall, they’ll be editing, repackaging, and distributing their 25 years of weekly, network hit shows. According to Ray, the new format offers a unique opportunity. “Every new show is going to be a Best of “Car Talk”…so it’s going to sound even better!” And while listeners will still learn something about cars, producer Berman, a.k.a. “The Subway Fugitive” (no one is safe from the nicknames), says the heart of the show is the guys’ humor and humanity. And that never gets old. “A good joke will always be a good joke, no matter when you hear it,” says Lawlor. “So will a bad joke!”
In addition to the repackaged shows, Tom and Ray will offer their automotive know-how to Globe readers in the form of a question-and-answer column. “The answers will still be tongue-and-cheek,” says Ray, “but when we’re writing stuff down, we actually get to think about it first.”
Tom and Ray will also continue to run their popular website, cartalk.com, where they post their thoughts and opinions and their current car reviews.
One of the great lessons to come from “Car Talk,” is that while automotive programming comes and goes, the Magliozzis have endured. They have done so because they do not attempt to flex their automotive knowledge merely for the sake of it. Rather, they make their know-how palatable to the masses, with more than a hint of humor thrown in. While the topic of discussion might be that there’s a robin’s nest in your heater box, they’re quick to remind their readers and listeners that “it’s only a car, so don’t let it ruin your life.” It’s a lesson worth remembering.George Kennedy is a freelance auto writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @gkenns101.