The Incredible Story Behind The Radio Show “Car Talk”

Car Talk is a Peabody Award-winning radio show that was broadcast weekly on NPR stations across America. As you can probably tell by the name, the subject matter usually flowed between automobiles and automotive repair which sounds like it could be dry content, but it was anything but that.

It was hosted by Tom and Ray Magliozzi who were known as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers”. The show was extremely popular because of the chemistry and humor that the two legendary radio personalities were able to bring week in and week out.

And So It Begins

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Facebook/Car Talk

In 1977, radio station WBUR-FM in Boston scheduled a panel of local car mechanics to discuss car repairs on one of its programs. The station, at the time, was basically just a campus radio station that would get static if there was even a hint of wind.

The only car mechanic to show up that day was Tom Magliozzi and he ended up doing incredibly well. He was so well spoken and entertaining that they ended up asking him back with his younger brother Ray.

They Were Master Mechanics

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Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Ray was more of a car repair expert and the brothers were soon asked to host their own radio show on WBUR which they continued to do every week.

By 1986, NPR decided to distribute their show nationally, and they were off to the races. By 1992, Car Talk ended up winning a Peabody Award because they “provide useful information about preserving and protecting our cars. The real core of this program is what it tells us about human mechanics, the insight and laughter provided by the brothers.”

They Went Out On Top

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They continued to be a huge hit for decades after. By 2007, the program, which had only been available digitally as a paid subscription became a free podcast distributed by NPR.

In 2012, it had 3.3 million listeners each week on about 660 stations which ended up being the last year that the brothers decided to continue the show. Ever since then, the show has been taking the best material from 25 years of broadcasting and repurposing it.

They Were Smart Cookies

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The show was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014, and it was all thanks to the brothers. Ray and Tommy were longtime auto mechanics. Ray had a bachelor of science degree in humanities from MIT, while Tom had a bachelor of science degree in economics from MIT.

The two of them were known for their crazy rants on all things automotive. There was nothing that was off limits to them.

Oh, The Evils

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Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

They would go back and forth on the evils of people talking on cell phones while driving, the horror that was the internal combustion engine, and women named Donna who all drive Camaros.

They both had a very relaxed sense of humor that was not only contagious with each other but the listeners as well. They gave their listeners an insider eye into the auto industry that no one else was offering in America.

They Walked The Walk

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What made them so popular was their unwavering commitment to environmentalism and defensive driving. They would consistently bash anyone in the auto industry who they thought was being irresponsible with their actions or rhetoric to the environment or unsafe driving practices.

The Magliozzis operated a do-it-yourself garage together in the 1970s which ended up transitioning into more of a conventional repair shop in the 1980s. This gave them the “walked the walk” and didn’t just “talk the talk” credibility on the radio.

Never Do “Actual Work”

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After Car Talk started taking off, Ray was the only brother who decided to continue helping out the family business. Tom would often go on the radio and boast about how he never has to go and do “actual work” anymore, he can just sit in a studio and complain about people doing actual work.

The offices were located near their shop in Boston, and also near an imaginary law firm to which they constantly referred to on-air.

The Fake Law Firm That Turned Into A Real One

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Facebook/Car Talk

They called this fake law firm the Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe law offices. As soon as the show started getting bigger, they actually established a firm under the fake name to actually look after the business side of their work.

The two brothers ended up being so popular that they were commencement speakers at MIT in 1999, their old alma mater. The show producer, Doug Berman has said that the Magliozzi brothers are culturally up there with Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers.

There Were Many Spin-Offs

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While that might be hard to believe, you should know that there were many adaptations of Car Talk due to its success.

It was the inspiration for the short-lived The George Wendt Show, which aired on CBS in the 1994-1995 season. In 2007, PBS announced that it had green-lit an animated adaptation of Car Talk to air on prime-time in 2008. The show, titled Click and Clack’s As the Wrench Turns was going to be a fictional spin-off of the brothers.

They Made Their Way To Theatre

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It was going to be based on “Click and Clack” who were brothers that hung out in a garage called Car Talk Plaza. They ended up milking ten episodes out before having to cancel it.

Then, Car Talk: The Musical!!! was written and directed by Wesley Savick and composed by Michael Wartofsky. The adaptation was presented by Suffolk University and opened in March 2011 at the Modern Theatre in Boston. The play wasn’t officially endorsed by the Magliozzis, but they participated in the production lending their voice to certain characters.

Their Humor Was What Captivated Audiences

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Twitter / @CarTalk

The most popular part of the show was the humor that the brothers were able to bring day in and day out. Tom and Ray are known for their self-deprecating humor and they often joked about the “poor quality” of their advice and the show in general.

One of their famous outros’ was that they commented at the end of each show, “well, it’s happened again — you’ve wasted another perfectly good hour listening to Car Talk.”

The Fake Celebrity Outrage

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Twitter / @CarTalk

At some point in almost every show, usually, when they were addressing fan mail, Ray would mention Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Tom would chime in with “our fair city”.

Before every break in the programming, they would mention a celebrity and talk about how much they hate when the brothers mention NPR. For example, “and even though Roger Clemens stabs his radio with a syringe whenever he hears us say it, this is NPR Radio,” which would be followed by a commercial.

There Was Lots Of “Marge Innovera”

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Twitter / @CigarAficMag

The ending credits of the show started with thanks to the colorfully nicknamed actual staffers that are working on the show. They’d say “thanks to producer Doug ‘the subway fugitive, not a slave to fashion, bongo boy frogman’ Berman, and John ‘Bugsy’ Lawlor” etc.

They would follow up with pun-filled fictional characters and sponsors such as statistician Marge Innovera (margin of error), customer care representative Haywood Jabuzoff (hey would ya buzz off), meteorologist Claudio Vernight (cloudy overnight) and a whole list of others.

Pixar Ended Up Picking Up Some Of Their Lines

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At the end of the show, Ray warned the audience, “don’t drive like my brother!” to which Tom would reply, “And don’t drive like MY brother!” The original tag line was “don’t drive like a knucklehead!”

These tag lines were so popular that Pixar ended up picking up similar ones that could be heard in the movie Cars, in which Tom and Ray voiced anthropomorphized vehicles with personalities similar to their own on-air personae. That’s pretty sweet.

Can You Stump The Chumps?

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Twitter / @WNYC

The show originally featured two segments with a break in between but was changed to three segments for a better listener experience. Their segments opened with a short comedy segment, typically jokes in by listeners which were followed by eight call-in segments.

A recurring feature on the show was Stump The Chumps in which the hosts revisited a caller from a previous show to determine the accuracy and the effect, if any, of their advice.

They Had Some BIG Name Fans

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The brothers also had an official Animal-Vehicle Biologist and Wildlife Guru named Kieran Lindsey. She answered questions like “how do I remove a snake from my car?” and offered advice on how living in cities and suburbs could reconnect with wildlife.

They also featured celebrities as “callers” which appeared quite often. People like Ashley Judd, Morely Safer, Martha Stewart, and Jay Leno. Leno was a massive fan of the show and was honored to be featured on it.

They Even Went On The Tonight Show

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In 1988, they appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Leno was the guest host. That’s when they met and found out that Jay was, in fact, a big grease monkey too.

By 1989 the two brothers launched a twice a week newspaper column called Click and Clack Talk Cars. They were seen in more than 200 newspapers across the world, including the Riyadh Times in Saudi Arabia which always confused Tom and Ray.

An Out Of Orbit Request

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They’ve had some wild moments on air that made their show so unpredictable and fascinating. The brothers once received a call asking advice on winterizing an electric car. When they asked what kind of car, the caller said it was a “kit car”, yes, a $400 million “kit car”.

It ended up being a joke call from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory concerning the preparation of the Mars rover for the oncoming Maritan winter. Pretty crazy stuff.

Could They Survive Today?

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Twitter / @CarandDriver

Even though the talk show was raking in nearly 3.3 million listeners in 2012, the brothers really don’t know if a show like theirs would work anymore.

Tom spoke on whether the show could start up today and if it would be as successful. He said, “the early days of Car Talk was a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and people actually worked on their own cars. We answered questions like, ‘I’m stuck with my left arm in the transmission, how do I get out?'”

It Wasn’t Just The Right Time Right Place

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Twitter / @mashable

The days of people actually fixing their own cars are over so it’s up in the air if it was a “right time, right place” kind of thing. If you asked their fan base, I’m sure they would tell you that the structure of the show, mixed with the personality and humor of the brothers and the sprinkle of the automotive talk was what kept their viewership.

Tom passed away in 2014, but Ray still wanders around garage thinking of the best puzzler quizzes he can think of.