We owned one good car when I was growing up: a mid-’80s Volvo 240 turbo wagon, white, with a roof rack and a five-speed manual transmission. My mom put 300,000 miles on that car while spiriting my brother and me across several states and half a dozen elementary schools. It was a do-anything machine that made owning a car feel easy.
Every vehicle she owned after the Volvo died—and it really did feel like a death—made owning a car feel like a punishment. We started with another wagon of a provenance I can’t remember; it broke a few days after we brought it home. Then there was a Toyota Tercel, a Buick Skylark, a Chevy 1500, and finally, a Ford Escort that we got for $500. All of these cars were a decade or older when we acquired them. The last was a four-speed manual with a broken speedometer, no air conditioning, no radio, and no power steering. Between those four vehicles, we spent a lot of time talking to mechanics. We would have spent a lot of money, too, if it hadn’t been for Click and Clack.
From 1977 to 2012, brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi could be heard on the radio, first in Boston, and then nationally, talking about cars. Tom, whose death NPR announced today, had the low voice, Ray the high one. They were loud and mischievous, and they both had thick Boston accents, which made them delightfully odd to listeners like my mother, brother, and me, born and raised in rural Florida. And if you are, or ever were, one of the 25 percent of Americans who can’t afford a major repair, Tom and Ray weren’t just funny, or just entertaining, they were very close to necessary.
When I told my mother that Tom had died, we had a quick back-and-forth email about our sorrow, as well as the empowerment Ray and Tom provided. “I cannot tell you the mechanics I’ve seen twitch when I told them, ‘Well, maybe so, but the Tappet brothers said…’ ”
Car Talk did not pioneer consumer advocacy. Many local newspapers and TV stations employ columnists and on-air talent who will hound service providers accused of fleecing people. But most consumer protection journalists aren’t experts, and they certainly aren’t philosophers. Tom Magliozzi—a grease-monkey with a degree from MIT—was both. Which is why what you got from Car Talk wasn’t just a first or second opinion on your car problem, but counsel and succor.
Some of the people I heard call into Car Talk were anxious and more than a few were borderline frantic. They did not trust their own car knowledge and they certainly didn’t trust their mechanics. Ray and Tom, in turn, invited these listeners to replicate the weird sounds their cars made, or, based on a description of the problem, made the weird sounds themselves. They made anxious callers laugh, and gave them room and time to talk about how their troubled car fit into their lives. Tom and Ray knew that for many of the people who listened to them, a car was not a luxury; they knew that millions of Americans need their cars—to get to work, to transport their children, to buy groceries. So they didn’t stop at diagnosing your about-to-break CV joint or a bad power steering pump, and they didn’t stop at coaching you on how to stand up to your mechanic. They wouldn’t let you off the line until they knew that you knew that there was a solution to your problem.
At least, that’s how it felt as a listener. We never actually called in to Car Talk. But we listened to Tom and Ray the way some people listen to televangelists, waiting for nuggets of divine wisdom that applied to our exact situation. We always hoped that Click and Clack would tell us we didn’t need to spend as much money as we’d been quoted, or, better yet, that we didn’t need to replace the part at all.
Today, everything you want to know about your car’s many ailments is available online, including how to negotiate with mechanics who insist that every part on your vehicle needs to be immediately replaced if you want to make it home alive. But once upon a time, we only had Tom and Ray. They debuted at the dawn of the fuel injection age, when Americans first began ceding knowledge of their cars to experts, and they continued right on through the diagnostic age, when the experts began to cede their authority to computers. They were a shelter in the storm for anxious car-owners. If you could not see their lantern, you could at least hear their cackling.
The Secret Genius of Car Talk
Farewell to Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi, and Thanks for the Good Advice
How Car Talk’s Tom and Ray Magliozzi Became Click and Clack