Tom Magliozzi of ‘Car Talk’ dies

Millions tuned in to NPR for alumni brothers’ jovial banter

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: Correction from The New York Times: An obituary on Tuesday about Tom Magliozzi, one of the two brothers who hosted the NPR show “Car Talk,” contained several errors. The do-it-yourself car repair shop founded by Mr. Magliozzi and his brother, Ray, was initially called Hackers Haven, not Hackers Heaven. The “Car Talk” shows were recorded; they were not broadcast live. The astronaut John M. Grunsfeld called “Car Talk” in 1997 from the Russian space station Mir, not from the International Space Station. Mr. Magliozzi’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was in economics, politics and engineering, not in chemical engineering. And because of an editing error, the obituary misstated part of the history of “Car Talk.” It became a national show in 1987 — not 1977, which is the year it began as a local show in Boston.

Tom Magliozzi ’58, who with his younger brother, Ray Magliozzi ’72, hosted “Car Talk,” for years the most popular entertainment show on NPR, died on Monday at his home outside Boston. He was 77.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, NPR said.

The weekly hourlong “Car Talk,” which was broadcast for more than 30 years, was ostensibly about mechanical problems with cars, but the format was mainly an excuse for the brothers, known as Click and Clack, to banter with callers about the mysteries of life, as viewed through an automotive prism: Why does a car suddenly stop working? Should I give this clunker one more chance? Why won’t my husband pay for a mechanic to fix our car?

Callers would frequently reproduce a strange noise their car was making, and the brothers would offer an instant diagnosis. In a segment called “Stump the Chumps,” selected callers would be asked if the advice they had received proved to be correct.

At its peak, “Car Talk” reached more than four million listeners a week — more than any other NPR entertainment program, network executives said.

The brothers stopped producing new shows in 2012, but taped episodes are still heard on 660 stations, with an audience of 3.2 million. This weekend, Ray Magliozzi plans to use the show to offer a tribute to his brother, said Doug Berman, who has been executive producer of “Car Talk” since it went nationwide in 1987, 10 years after it was first broadcast in the Boston area. The show will be renamed “Best of Car Talk.”

On the air, the brothers were a team, swapping stories, chortling at each other’s jokes. Ray, who is 12 years younger, has a higher-pitched voice; Tom had the deeper voice and a laugh that tended to run away with itself. Both had unmistakable Boston accents.

When asked who was Click and who was Clack, “they said they didn’t know,” Mr. Berman recalled. Another favorite line, he said, was “that they shared one brain, and were each working with a half.”

Thomas Louis Magliozzi (pronounced mal-YOT-zee) was born on June 28, 1937, in a largely Italian-American section of Cambridge, Mass. (which the brothers always referred to as “our fair city”). He was the first in his family to attend college, NPR reported, earning a degree in economics, politics and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. His brother graduated from M.I.T. in 1972.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Magliozzi is survived by a sister, Lucille Magliozzi; three children, Lydia Icke, Alex Magliozzi and Anna Magliozzi; five grandchildren; and his companion of recent years, Sylvia Soderberg. He was married and divorced twice.

By his own account, after graduating from college, Mr. Magliozzi took a conventional path as an engineer until experiencing his “defining moment” after being involved in a close call on the highway.

He described the incident in 1999, when the brothers shared a commencement speech at their alma mater. Tom described driving on Route 128 to his job in Foxboro, Mass., in a little MG that “weighed about 50 pounds” when a semi-truck cut him off. Afterward, he thought about how pathetic it would have been if he had died having “spent all my life, that I can remember at least, going to this job, living a life of quiet desperation.”

“So I pulled up into the parking lot, walked to my boss’s office and quit on the spot.”

His brother chimed in, “Most people would have bought a bigger car.”

The two started a do-it-yourself car repair shop in Cambridge called Hackers Haven, but found that their clientele needed more than some work space, a few tools and occasional advice. So they changed the name and philosophy and opened the Good News Garage, a traditional auto repair shop, which is still in operation.

After appearing for 10 years on a local public radio station, WBUR, the brothers were invited to appear in 1987 on a new national show, “Weekend Edition Sunday,” hosted by Susan Stamberg. In an interview on Monday, Ms. Stamberg recalled how hard it had been to sell NPR executives on the idea of building a radio program around two mechanics talking about cars. But cars, she said, were beside the point: “What I loved was the relationship between them.”

Early on she would mention the garage as part of their introduction until they told her, “Stop using the name, we can’t handle the traffic,” Ms. Stamberg said.

Nine months later, “Car Talk” was its own national show. Mr. Berman said the calls were lined up in advance, without the brothers’ knowledge.

One of the most memorable calls came in 1997. Not unusually, it was from a man complaining about his vehicle.

“It’s rough for two minutes,” he said, “and after these rough two minutes there’s kind of a jolt, and then it runs smooth, but only for the next 6.5 minutes; after that, the engine dies.”

A few more details emerged: an odometer showing 60 million miles, a speed of 17,500 miles per hour.

“This must be a Dodge Dart,” Tom said.

Soon, however, the brothers deduced, correctly, that the caller was in space. As it turned out, he was John M. Grunsfeld ’80, an astronaut on the Russian space station Mir.

He mentioned that he had gone to a “small technical institute up the river.”

“Oh, that place,” Tom interjected.

Dr. Grunsfeld continued: “Around 1977, I used to have this green Sunbeam Alpine, and I would pay a few bucks an hour and some folks would help me fix it. I think they sound kind of familiar.”

1 Comment
Antonios Z over 9 years ago

Did he really have a Course 10 degree or a Course 14A as reported?