The Magliozzi Brothers: Motor Mouths

Tom and Ray Magliozzi rev up National Public Radio with 'Car Talk'

Ray and Tom Magliozzi Credit: Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Dave from Connecticut has this problem with his '85 Honda Accord. For help he has called Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of Car Talk, the most unlikely hit on National Public Radio. Dave explains that the Honda's wheels "make a rhythmic sound similar to the squealing of brakes."

Tom and Ray, in Unison: Eee-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee.
Dave: It's higher pitched than that.
Tom: Wait 'til I adjust my jockey shorts.
Ray: Your brake pads have a wear sensor to warn you that your pads are wearing out. If you were a dolphin, you would understand the sound to mean, 'Replace me, replace me.' If you don't, the next sound you hear
Tom: –will be the sound of $100 leaving your wallet.

***

Sure, Car Talk appears to be a show about automobile repair. In actuality, Car Talk is a meditation on the relationship between man and machine; it's a way to confront our helplessness in the face of technology; it's an explosion of the myth that Americans worship cars. It's Car and Catharsis. And the reason Car Talk transcends the advice-show genre is that at the wheel are Tom and Ray Magliozzi (pronounced "mal-i-OT-zee"), a pair of MIT-graduate brothers from East Cambridge with accents thicker than the sludge in Boston Harbor.

This is the age of camp send-ups of popular culture, and the Magliozzis themselves seem to find the idea that they host a car-repair call-in show faintly absurd. ("You've endured another hour of Car Talk" is a frequent sign-off.) But try as they might, they can't hide the fact that they are more nice guys than wise guys, or that they have logged more time under the hood than behind the microphone.

The brothers have been dispensing advice from what they call Car Talk Plaza (actually the decidedly low-rent studios of public radio station WBUR-FM) since 1976. Often calling themselves "Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers"–automotive humor for the noise a malfunctioning valve makes–they have been, until recently, local cult figures.

In the early Eighties, the station manager, Jane Christo, thought that with Car Talk she had a program all America was begging for. Not begging for it, she discovered, were the executives at NPR. "It was hard," she says. "I'd say, 'I've got this great show. It's a couple of Italian brothers talking about car repair.'"

Finally, Car Talk was saved by the Garrison Keillor phenomenon. Back in the Seventies, Minnesota Public Radio tried to persuade NPR to distribute an offbeat variety show called A Prairie Home Companion, hosted by a guy named Garrison Keillor. The NPR executives listened to the demo tape and concluded such an offering could never catch on outside of the Midwest. So the Minnesota station became part of a new network, and National Public Radio has been looking for the next Garrison Keillor ever since.

In 1986, NPR was creating a new Sunday-morning show for host Susan Stamberg when a tape sent by the persistent Christo made its way to some producers. Among them was Jay Kernis, then the executive producer of weekend programming, who is now with CBS's This Morning. According to Kernis, "A lot of people take credit now that Car Talk is a success. But I actually deserve enormous credit." When he heard the sample tape, he says his immediate response was "Let's not make another Garrison Keillor-type mistake. Let's put the car guys on with Stamberg." He adds that he had another stroke of genius: "One of my great decisions was 'Don't mess with it. Just put in on the air and don't ruin it.'"

He is not surprised by Car Talk's success. "It's a perfect public-radio offering," he says. "It has wit, intelligence and usefulness. On that first tape, there was a question, and one of the guys answered, 'It's time to change the fuzzy dice.' That is the existential answer to most of our problems."

***

"Hi. This is Jan calling from Ithaca, New York. I have a 1980 AMC Concord wagon."
Ray: Already I know one problem you have.

***

The brothers spent almost a year being the car-guys on the Stamberg show, Weekend Edition; then, in October 1987, NPR agreed to take a one-hour version of Car Talk national. Now hundreds of station managers had to be convinced that these two brothers talking about cars was the greatest thing since Lake Wobegon. Says Car Talk producer Doug Berman, "The stations said, 'Yeah, well, we've got the Pittsburgh Symphony on the air right now, and if they ever go out of business, we'll get back to you.'"

Car Talk debuted on 25 stations; within a year it was on 150 stations, and six months later, 210 stations. The show is now approaching saturation on the NPR network with 237 stations and has an estimated 750,000 listeners. In the strange world of public broadcasting, Car Talk is classified not as news and information but as an arts and performance broadcast. "It's our most popular arts program," says NPR's director of program marketing, Leslie Peters. "A lot of listeners don't even own cars. Even our classical stations are picking it up, though Vivaldi and Car Talk don't seem to go together. Like most hit things, it's just a phenomenon. It's driving the sales of our arts and performance package."

As successful as Car Talk has been, it has also backfired in a few places. For instance, the entire South Carolina Educational Radio Network seceded from Car Talk. "The show only ran for a few months," says Shari Hutchinson, network deputy director. "Listeners who were interested in a car show found the people who did it very condescending and obnoxious. Maybe the problem was our listeners didn't get their sense of humor."

But the Magliozzi brothers have been given another chance: The show was reinstated in South Carolina in October.

***

Something unfortunate happened to the '84 Mazda GLC owned by John of Port Neches, Texas. "I was driving it, and the left front end was hit pretty hard by a road barrier."
Tom: Wait, wait, wait What do you mean, 'It was hit'? You hit the road barrier. Call a spade a spade.
John: I didn't really have it all repaired, but I had the front end realigned and new tires put on, and now when I go over 55, the car shakes violently.
Ray: You Texans are used to the John Wayne philosophy–just tie a tourniquet on it, and you're all set. You didn't have your tires balanced properly.
Tom: You also need to thoroughly check out your front end. There's a lesson here. If the car is in good shape, then the person working on it feels an obligation to be careful and do a good job. When you show up with a heap, as you did, they don't care, because they figure you don't care about your car, either.

***

The Car Talk callers who get on the air are screened in advance; Tom and Ray are not. About 2,500 calls a month are logged on the show's answering machines, and an equal number of letters come in describing tales of automotive woe. From these, producer Berman lines up about a dozen callers for the Sunday-night taping. (Berman advises letter writers not to include a self-addressed stamped envelope. "Tom peels off the stamps and uses them to pay his bills," he says.)

Berman looks for geographic diversity, an equal male-to-female ratio and a range of problems. The brothers' pre-broadcast preparation seems to consist of showing up. To keep Car Talk spontaneous, they are given no information on the questions they will be asked.

A crucial part of the show is known officially as the "R and R" segment. This stands for Rant and Rave, and during it one or both brothers take off on topics near and dear to their spleen, topics often having nothing to do with cars. (Sample from Tom: "We were discussing what has happened to the world as we know it today, and the two problems are the proliferation of lawyers and finance people. Both of whom give people the feeling that you can make money doing nothing."

The Magliozzi brothers did not intend to become radio phenomenons, nor did they intend to become automobile mechanics. Then again, long-term planning does not characterize their approach to life. The sons of a home-heating-oil executive and a housewife, Tom, 52, and Ray, 40, both attended MIT. This fact has colored their recent success–at least, as they tell it, in the eyes of their mother. "My mother keeps saying, Where did I go wrong?'" says Tom. "'Everyone else is making high-tech stuff; my sons are on the radio, making fools of themselves.'"

After graduation, Tom played it straight for about 12 years, working as a marketing and engineering executive for a manufacturing company, until one day in 1971 he decided he'd had enough. He quit his job and started hanging around Harvard Square with no plans to do anything else. Ray, who had served as a Vista volunteer in San Antonio, was by that time an unsatisfied junior high school teacher in Vermont. He took it upon himself to rescue his older brother ("From my happiness," as Tom puts it).

The two had been tinkerers since childhood, with a special affinity for cars. They decided to do something they loved and so opened Hacker's Haven. The idea was that for a fee, they would provide tools and space for skilled amateurs like themselves to repair their own cars. The problem was that the customers would come in and disassemble their cars for two hours, at the end of which they would come up to Tom or Ray and say, "Can you show me how to fix this?" In due course, the brothers were no longer amateurs. They renamed the business the Good News Garage, got rid of the do-it-yourselfers, hired some other professionals and found they had become mechanics.

But again Tom became itchy. "You had to show up every day, work all day and hurt yourself," he says. He left the garage to Ray, went on to pursue a Ph.D. in marketing and now teaches business at Suffolk University. Ray is content. "I enjoy the garage–and I wouldn't know what else to do," he says.

***

Jean from Austin, Texas, is not happy with her '82 Cadillac. The clock won't keep the right time, and the radio keeps switching from FM to AM. She adds, "Maybe I ought to tell you this. One day the car started smoking, and I shot a chemical fire extinguisher down the hood."
Ray: Jean, buy a glue-on digital clock and get yourself a Walkman.

***

After a recent taping, the brothers go for dinner at one of their favorite Chinese restaurants with producer Doug Berman and a couple of staff members. "We should just order our regular–the waiter can tell what that is by looking at our shirts," says Ray. Berman scans the menu, then asks, "Have you ever had the Chinese leeks?" Ray raises an eyebrow. "Yeah," he replies, "that's what I was having a minute ago when I excused myself from the table."

Although on the radio the brothers blend into a unified front of snappy asides and maniacal laughter, it shortly becomes clear that they have tapped different aspects of their gene pool. Tom is the cynic, given to sweeping pronouncements; if he could, he would turn the whole show into an hour of "Rant and Rave." Ray is the voice of reason, the calming influence; Berman counts on him to remember to take the next call.

At dinner, apropos of nothing, Tom announces, "What we need is a philosopher-king. I nominate myself." Ray responds, "They made the last guy who had that job drink hemlock."

A discussion of fellow mechanics reveals their different worldviews. "Mechanics have a bad image because they're covered with grease and they've got tattoos that say, Fuck You, and Mother," says Ray. "They look like stereotypical sleazeballs."

"Because they are," responds Tom. "I attribute more mistakes to stupidity," says Ray. "I don't think people are getting ripped off so much as the people who are working on the cars don't understand what they're doing."

This doesn't convince Tom. "Every time someone does an investigative report on car mechanics, they find mechanics rip them off," he says. "They are sleazeballs." 

Then again, car owners often bring their misery on themselves. One guaranteed way to amuse the brothers is to reveal that you possess an AMC of any model or year. "Nerds used to drive AMCs," Tom says. "Now that AMCs are gone, it has left a gaping hole in nerd-dom."

Another is having a friend work on one's car. To a caller with transmission trouble who said a friend worked on the car, Ray once said, "Oh, a friend. Does this guy install rugs on weekends and thought he'd like to get into transmissions?" Tom's advice on the subject of mechanical friends is to remember, "This is your life!"

They are also astounded by the dangers people will risk in order to put off that trip to the mechanic. "So many people call in and say they have horrible vibrations," says Tom. "You ask for how long, and they say six months. Their wheels could drop off!" Adds Ray, "The typical NPR listener is not impetuous. They like to conduct a survey first and call 20 people before they conclude their wheel can fall off."

But to really get the brothers going on the irrationality of car owners, just ask what's in their driveways. "I own a Dodge pickup," says Ray. "When I was in Texas, everyone had one. So I always wanted one, even though I have nothing to haul around and it only seats three and I have four in my family. Got anything you want moved?"

Tom's 1974 Chevy Caprice is the subject of much discussion on the show. Regular spore counts are taken from the car's interior, and the progress of the family of raccoons living in the back seat is monitored closely. "I had a Toyota once, but it was too reliable," says Tom. "With my '74 Chevy, I never know if it will get there. If I do, it's a cause for celebration."

***

Susan from Washington, D.C., has a Job-like tale concerning the thousands she has sunk into her '81 Olds Delta 88. Now the dealer is telling her she needs a new carburetor and new kingpins.
Tom: Your car doesn't have kingpins, that's how bad your luck is! You don't even have them, and they have to be replaced!

***

It is Monday morning at the Good News Garage, in Cambridge. While the glamour of show business is close to nonexistent at the WBUR studios, it is completely absent here. Yet the garage is remarkably clean and airy, and Ray, dressed in dark-blue work clothes, sings along to the radio. Up to his elbows in car innards, he seems utterly comfortable. There are nine cars awaiting attention, everything from a VW bug to a Cadillac. It takes about three weeks to get an appointment at Good News.

While the show does draw customers, the business has been successful for a long time. Ray's celebrityhood, in fact, has made it harder for him to earn his living–callers track him down from around the country to ask for free advice. A doctor drives in with her ailing Volvo and tells Ray to do whatever he has to do. "My husband found these guys when he was a student here eight years ago, and he's loved them ever since," says the doctor, Linda Emanuel. "They do great work. They're honest. That's like gold." Ray listens, embarrassed. "We paid her off," he says.

The brothers have recently branched out from broadcasting to writing a nationally syndicated newspaper column. Under discussion are car-repair videos and other projects. Does Ray ever think of putting down the wrench for good? "This is my livelihood," he says, looking around the garage. "Sooner or later, the show will end. And the way we do it, it may be sooner. But I know when I come in in the morning, there will always be cars to fix."