I love cars. More specifically, I love to drive cars. As a native Southern Californian — and a second-generation one at that — most likely it’s in my DNA.
But what I actually know about fixing cars would, as the cliche goes, fit on the head of a pin. Preparing for the winter the other day — which is what out here, a day or two of rain or drizzle at the most — my wife bought some new wiper blades for our family van, and asked me to install them. After futzing with the task unsuccessfully for about 10 minutes, I drove over to a local gas station and garage and asked them to do it. I’ve been able to add a quart of oil every now and then to one of our cars, but I’ve never changed a car’s oil. You get the idea.
Yet, like millions of others, from the first time I heard “Car Talk” many years ago on my local National Public Radio station, I was hooked. And I could not care less about car repair. What hooked me is that the show — which featured two brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, answering car questions from listeners who called in — was so damn funny. Especially the brother with the higher pitched voice and the infectious laugh. I would soon learn that was Tom, who was 12 years older than his brother, Ray. Tom died this week at age 77 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Tom and Ray actually stopped making new episodes of the show in 2012, but many public radio stations continue to broadcast reruns. And millions of us still tune in.
We don’t tune in to hear how to fix a certain problem on some 1990s or 2004 model car, which many of us no longer own anyway.
We tune in because it’s such a fun and funny show about people. “Car Talk” is the perfect name for the show, because, for most of us, our experiences in our cars, from some of our initial messing around with sex to some deep personal discussions on long road trips, are so intimately intertwined with our lives.
On the Car Talk website this morning I found this:
Along with the solid car advice he dispensed on the radio show with his brother, Tom often took on the additional roles of philosopher king, life advisor, moral scold, and family counselor….
“He and his brother changed public broadcasting forever,” said Doug Berman, the brothers’ longtime producer. “Before ‘Car Talk,’ NPR was formal, polite, cautious … even stiff. By being entirely themselves, without pretense, Tom and Ray single-handedly changed that, and showed that real people are far more interesting than canned radio announcers. And every interesting show that has come after them owes them a debt of gratitude.”
“I think the body of work he leaves will definitely be held up with great American humorists like the Marx Brothers and Mark Twain,” said Berman. “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.”
Twenty-two years ago, Tom and Ray and the show won a very special award. Here’s the citation that went with it:
“Perhaps more appropriately named ‘Zen and the Art of Automobile Maintenance,’ this entertaining and informative show takes us simultaneously under the hood and into the mind of its vast listening audience. Each week, master mechanics Tom and Ray Magliozzi provide useful information about preserving and protecting our cars. But the real core of this program is what it tells us about human mechanics. It teaches us that we all need to change our oil regularly, flush our cooling system, and keep our wheels in balance. The insight and laughter provided by Messrs. Magliozzi, in conjunction with their producer Doug Berman, provide a weekly mental tune-up for a vast and ever-growing public radio audience. To ‘Click,’ ‘Clack,’ and the pit crew and ‘Car Talk,’ a Peabody Award.”
In an interview with his hometown Boston Globe in 2000 Tom said, “Somewhere along the line we decided that cars were boring. But they provide an entree into life, so we can talk about life philosophy. Which is more interesting than talking about valve clearances.”
If you’ve never tuned in to “Car Talk,” thinking “Zeesch, why would I want to listen to a show about cars,” listen to a podcast on the internet, or, preferably, give it a shot this weekend, listening on your car radio while you are driving around.
And for God’s sake, if you remember nothing else, remember this: Don’t drive like my brother.