Years ago, I attended a brunch hosted by some University of Michigan grad students. Ann Arbor loves its Big Ten Conference football team and boasts the nation’s biggest collegiate football stadium. As we chatted over strong coffee, the hosts made an announcement: Time to find a seat and settle in. They flipped on the radio, and I waited for the chipper repartee of the sports announcers at the Wolverines’ latest matchup. Instead, I heard, “Hello, we’re Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers.” Thus began my love affair with the Car Talk guys.
Many assembled shared a devotion to Tom and Ray Magliozzi—the MIT-educated mechanics with surprisingly charming Boston accents—who hosted NPR’s Car Talk. Although a committed NPR listener during my weekday drive time, I’d never before stumbled across their inimitable automotive banter. I looked at all the smiling brunch guests and marveled that these jokesters could captivate so many 20-somethings on a brisk fall morning. It only took a few calls for me to delight in the playfulness.
When it first aired in 1977 on Boston’s WBUR, the Magliozzis’ show pulled in a small core of Boston listeners. Nine years later, it was the 3rd most popular show on the station, and over 11,500 residents—from the Back Bay to Harvard Square to Southie—tuned in each week to hear the brothers’ contagious laughter, self-deprecating humor, and dubious automotive advice. National Public Radio knew they had a hit and moved to distribute it nationally. Car Talk even won a Peabody Award in 1992, which I’m sure was an unending source of amusement to Tom and Ray. They always claimed their show was filled with answers “unencumbered by the thought process”.
When Tom—the older brother with the gleeful personality—died last week at the age 77, I was surprisingly downhearted by the news. It was not until that moment that I understood just how much joy I found in their weekly chitchat and razzing. Although Click and Clack discussed all things automotive, their show was really about us. Like them, we—their listeners—were imperfect, contradictory, and had lives chock fully of odd habits and routines. And they adored us for it.
For 35 years Tom Magliozzi doled out treasured, spot-on maxims. Among my favorites: “Life is too short to own a German car.” If only we’d heard that advice before we bought our eternally fussy VW van. I also am particularly fond of: “If it falls off, it doesn’t matter.” Once, while riding in a friend’s aging Fiat convertible, the front bumper spectacularly fell off. We ran over it. Then we backed up, threw the bumper in the miniscule backseat, and drove off again. Tom Magliozzi, I am certain, had dozens of these kinds of stories to tell. What’s the important take away for all of us? Hey, don’t sweat the small stuff, baby. Who really needs a bumper?
Tom was particularly gifted at candidly encouraging listeners to lead happier lives. Several weeks ago I heard a rerun of a show in which a mom complained about her grown daughter’s failure to rotate her tires; now she needed new ones. Tom listened, joshed around with the caller and his brother, and then kindly—but directly—asked her why she was in her daughter’s business. She paused, chuckled, and then conceded his point. He rounded out the call by announcing. “You’ll both be happier if you just butt out.”
His bluntness, combined with an abiding kindness of spirit, endeared him to so many of us, which is why those UMich grad students listened to Car Talk that day instead of wandering down to the gridiron. Tom always knew what really mattered. He’d say, “Kids: get away from the cell phones, get away from the computers, and mail someone a fish before it’s too late.” I’m off to the post office now.