American radio personality, engineer, and professor Tom Magliozzi (1937–2014) became nationally known as a co-host of National Public Radio's Car Talk, a weekly listener call-in show focusing on auto mechanics. Magliozzi's booming laugh punctuated the offbeat delivery of advice he delivered in conjunction with his younger brother, Ray Magliozzi, for more than three decades. At its peak, Car Talk exceeded four million weekly listeners, and it remained among NPR's most popular shows even after it ceased airing new episodes in 2012.
Born Thomas Louis Magliozzi on June 28, 1937, in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, the future radio host was the eldest of the three children of Louis and Elizabeth Magliozzi. East Cambridge was home to a vibrant workingclass Italian American community, and Magliozzi's adult radio persona channeled neighborhood residents’ style of playful banter. He enjoyed tinkering with cars as a teenager, learning about auto repair from a practical perspective.
After graduating from Cambridge High and Latin School, Magliozzi became the first in his family to attend college, gaining admission to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, he studied engineering, politics, and economics and completed his undergraduate degree in 1958. Magliozzi had participated in the U.S. Air Force's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program during college, and completed his military requirements with a short stint in the U.S. Army, stationed mostly at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Magliozzi began his career as an engineer and consultant soon after leaving the army. He rose steadily through the corporate ranks, traveling to East Asia as an administrator for the Foxboro Company and serving in that company's planning department. During that time, Magliozzi also pursued a graduate education, studying business at Boston University and eventually earning a doctorate in marketing.
He still felt unfulfilled, however. While commuting to his office in a distant suburb of Boston, Magliozzi was cut off by a tractor-trailer and briefly faced the prospect of a fatal crash. Recalling the near- accident in a commencement addressed he delivered at MIT in 1999, he explained: “As I continued my drive, I said to myself, if I had in fact bought the farm out there on Route 128, how ticked off would I be that I spent all my life—that I can remember at least—going to this job, living a life of quiet desperation.”
Magliozzi immediately decided to quit his job, admitting to his MIT commencement audience that he “became a bum. I spent two years sitting in Harvard Square drinking coffee. I invented the concept of the do-it-yourself auto repair shop, and I met my lovely wife.” During this time, he got by doing odd jobs, consulting work, and teaching business courses for the International Marketing Institute, another position that allowed him to travel to far-flung places.
In 1977, Boston's public radio station, WBUR, invited a number of local auto mechanics to join an on-air discussion. Magliozzi and his brother were among those invited. When Magliozzi arrived at the studio, he discovered that he was the only mechanic to take the station up on its invitation—even his brother had begged off, claiming other commitments. He spent an hour on-air fielding listener phone calls and answering questions. As Doug Berman, Car Talk's executive producer, recalled in This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, “When the hour was over, the host said, “Gee, that was great. Want to come back next week?’ And Tom said, ‘Sure, but can I bring my brother?” ’
Before long, the Magliozzi brothers had their own weekly call-in program on the station. As a local program with little oversight from station management, the show allowed them to develop their own distinctive voices in a remarkably freeform manner. The Magliozzis dubbed themselves Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, although they never firmly determined which brother was Click and which was Clack. They took part in the show as volunteers simply for the fun of it, recording the program each Friday night at WBUR's studios. Discussions could last upwards of 30 minutes as the brothers delved deep into callers’ mechanical queries, taking time out for tangents and jokes. Over time, the show developed a regional following, and the wisecracking brothers kept their hands in by working at the Good News Garage.
At the same time, Magliozzi continued his career as a consultant and professor, teaching business at Boston's Suffolk University. “I realized the only teaching job for which there is no preparation is college professor,” he later told Andrea Adelson for the New York Times. “No one teaches Ph.D.'s how to teach. They've spent their whole lives learning a subject and can't put two sentences together.” His years as a university instructor led him to develop what he termed the “New Theory of Learning,” a rejection of the traditional classroom model in favor of a different style of pedagogy: an inductive method based on problem solving. Magliozzi, who gave up teaching after nearly a decade, sometimes referenced his theory as part of Car Talk and eventually published a write-up of his thinking that garnered national attention.
In 1987, the Magliozzis made the leap from local radio to a broader audience when they began appearing on segments hosted by Susan Stamberg of NPR's Weekend Edition. Their appearances were a hit, and business at the Good News Garage spiked so greatly that the brothers asked Stamberg to stop including its name in their introductions. Within several months, NPR offered the brothers the opportunity to do a weekly call-in program, and Car Talk debuted nationwide. In time, the program grew to reach more than four million weekly listeners on some 700 radio stations.
Unlike the serious news and cultural programming typically associated with the broadcaster, Car Talk took a lighthearted approach, and amid the brotherly banter was practical automotive advice. Each program was prerecorded with questions vetted by producers, and the brothers made a true effort to get to the bottom of listeners’ concerns, whether the problem was with their vehicle or some other matter. In a 1999 Washington Post profile, Frank Ahrens asserted that the Magliozzis “have effectively tapped their top-notch educations to hilariously, disarmingly dispense advice about car repair, a topic that intimidates many listeners.” As Magliozzi later acknowledged, the show was as much about life as it was about cars.
Over the years, listeners tuned in to the brothers’ show seeking more than just automotive advice, turning to them for entertainment and companionship. The Magliozzis traded quips with callers, invited family members to call in, and waxed poetic on philosophies of life using the language of automobiles. In order to diagnose car problems, they invited callers to imitate the sounds of their vehicles and took part in the practice themselves. Both brothers spoke with strong Boston-area accents and engaged in the friendly teasing they viewed as part of their Boston-Italian heritage. They dedicated part of each show to a bit called the “Puzzler,” a logic problem or riddle that sometimes had nothing to do with cars. Another segment allowed callers who had previously appeared on the show to follow up and share whether their advice had proved to be true.
The brothers’ advice was not limited to a radio audience. A weekly national newspaper column, “Click and Clack Talk Cars,” began publication in 1989, eventually growing to reach more than 200 newspapers. The brothers published a book on the workings of automobiles, Car Talk in 1991, and a collection of the show's puzzlers, A Haircut in a Horse Town, in 1999. The following year, the Magliozzis published a collection of far-ranging essays titled In Our Humble Opinion: Car Talk's Click and Clack Rant and Rave. A 2008 book, Ask Click and Clack: Answers from Car Talk, collected 100 questions and answers from their long-running newspaper column, tackling topics from the best car for a pizza delivery driver to determining the right time to replace a car battery, all with signature humor.
As Car Talk enjoyed lasting popularity, Magliozzi and his brother became celebrities. They first appeared on latenight television in 1988 as guests of Jay Leno, then a guest host on the Tonight Show and a car enthusiast. In 1999, MIT invited the brothers to serve as commencement speakers, an opportunity Magliozzi used to encourage graduates to take risks and think with their right brains. The brothers voiced animated versions of themselves on a 2002 episode of the PBS children's series Arthur, and later starring in a short-lived PBS series, Click and Clack's As the Wrench Turns. In 2006, they had cameo roles in the Pixar animated movie Cars.
Car Talk ceased recording new shows in late 2012, as the elder Magliozzi, then 75, struggled with the effects of Alzheimer's disease. In an announcement posted to the show's website, brother Ray told fans: “Don't be sad. We've managed to avoid getting thrown off NPR for 25 years, given out tens of thousands of wrong answers, generated lawsuit threats from innumerable car companies, and had a hell of a lot of fun talking to you guys.” The program continued to air weekly on NPR using segments from earlier years. Its popularity did not wane with a shift to reruns as some three million listeners tuned in weekly in the months that followed. Although the brothers did not appear in the production, a theatrical show inspired by their program called Car Talk: The Musical!!! was staged by a Boston troupe during the 2012–13 season.
Magliozzi died on November 3, 2014, from complications of Alzheimer's disease. Twice married and divorced, he was survived by son Alex, daughters Lydia and Anna, and his romantic partner, Sylvia Soderberg. Ray Magliozzi hosted a tribute to brother Tom on a special segment of Car Talk as media outlets and radio listeners around the nation mourned the loss of a distinctive personality. “I think the body of work he leaves will definitely be held up with great American humorists like the Marx Brothers and Mark Twain,” longtime producer Berman noted in an obituary posted on the Car Talk website. “He was a genius. And he happened to use that genius to make other people feel good and laugh. I suspect, generations from now, people will be listening to Car Talk and feeling good and laughing.”
Roberts, Cokie, and other, This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, Chronicle Books, 2010.
Boston Globe, November 3, 2014.
New York Times, November 10, 2002; November 3, 2014.
Washington Post, August 21, 1999.