The Subversive Genius Of Tom Magliozzi And Car Talk


Tom Magliozzi

The car is a singular expression of American ambition. The right make and model can efficiently signal your status, style and personality. Yes, homes are generally more expensive. But they remain stubbornly fixed in place. A car can broadcast your success to the world wherever you go. 

Car Talk, the public radio show hosted by Tom Magliozzi, who died on Monday from complications from Alzheimer’s disease, and his brother Ray, cheerfully subverted this dynamic. Car Talk did not celebrate the latest and greatest automobiles. Instead, the stars of Car Talk were the heaps, the clunkers and the jalopies — preferably with audible creaks, squeaks and groans for the brothers to diagnose.

Callers were generally encouraged to fix their car in the cheapest way possible or, if safety wasn’t an issue, just live with various imperfections. Tom and Ray had a special affinity for cheapskates who would do anything to avoid buying a new car. “If money can fix it, it’s not a problem,” Tom said. 

At its heart, of course, Car Talk was not about cars. Tom and Ray celebrated — and laughed at — the imperfections of people, especially themselves.

Tom frequently made light of his two marriages, both of which ended in divorce. Tom, Ray and their callers all seemed to have kids who couldn’t get jobs, partners that wouldn’t listen to reason and plans that were always half-baked. They incessantly described the show as a giant waste of time, even as they knew millions of people were listening. 

If their self-depreciating humor frequently veered into false modesty, that was the point. In the world that they created aimless mediocrity was a virtue, even if you had to fake it.

More than anything, Car Talk gave its listeners permission not to try so hard. For Tom, the show itself was his way of not trying so hard. A graduate of M.I.T., majoring in chemical engineering he spent most of his 20s in “research and consulting jobs.” He returned to MIT in 1999 as commencement speaker and explained how he “became a bum“:

TOM: I was once trapped by the scientific, logic, left brain life. I graduated from here and I went to work as an engineer. And I will tell you about my defining moment. I was driving — I lived in Cambridge at the time — I was driving from Cambridge to my job in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and I was driving in a little MG. It weighed about 50 pounds and on Route 128 I was cut off by a semi and I almost, as they say, bought the farm. And 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 quite desperation. So, I pulled into the parking lot, walked into my boss’s office and I quit, on the spot.

RAY: See, now most people would have just bought a bigger car.

Instead he stared a “fix-it yourself” auto repair shop, where people could solve their own problems. The radio show began not by ambition but by accident, when Tom was asked to join a panel of mechanics on public radio and he was the only one to show up. 

The show was on the air for 37 years, recording its last new episode in 2012. (Reruns continue to attract millions of listeners.) As the culture embraced lifehacks, smart phones and “7 Habits Of Highly Effective People,” they also hung onto Tom and Ray, a window into a world where it was OK to be ineffective and still have a good time.

The subversive nature of the show was not lost on its longtime producer, Doug Berman who called Tom “the friendliest anti-authority figure you’d ever meet.”