Who Are Click and Clack: How ‘Car Talk’ Brought Mechanics to NPR
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For over three decades, Car Talk —and the Tappet Brothers aka Click and Clack aka Tom and Ray Magliozzi—was a fixture of public radio.
NPR syndicates dropped new episodes of the auto advice show every Saturday from 1987-2012—which dispensed a healthy serving of jokes peppered with some answers to call-in car maintenance questions. Despite its seemingly niche premise, Car Talk became an institution, attracting millions of ardent listeners and earning a Peabody Award in 1992.
With the recent announcement that Car Talk will switch to a podcast-only format starting in October 2021, we’re taking a look at how the radio program brought two Massachusetts mechanics to public radio and introduced a new audience to the joys of car repair.
How did ‘Car Talk’ start?
In 1977, Tom Magliozzi got a call from WBUR in Boston to be part of a panel of mechanics on a call-in radio show with weekly rotating subjects.
Though it was only supposed to be a one-week feature, Tom had such success as the only panelist that he was invited back the next week—with his brother Ray in tow.
For 10 years, they hosted the show pro-bono for the radio station, answering callers pressing car questions in their trademark meandering and slightly off-color manner.
As the show grew in popularity because of its unique voice and hosts, they set their sites on a larger listener pool. Longtime radio producer Doug Berman was brought in to create a national pilot.
Around the same time, NPR producer Susan Stamberg was looking for short segments that would augment their new show, Weekend Sunday Edition.
Berman sent in a clip, and Stamberg was immediately won over by the Magliozzi’s rapport, sense of humor, and accents. After 9 months as a short segment, NPR gave Tom and Ray their own show.
What is the format of the show?
When they started their show, the Margliozzi brothers hosted a loose-format talk show. Callers would pose their questions—unknown to Click and Clack before they were on-air—and they would troubleshoot in real-time.
Sometimes this meant some questionable solutions, but for the most part, Tom and Ray would get to some solution that would help the listener—but not without throwing some barbs at each other first.
In fact, it was their personalities and quirks that encouraged listeners to tune in week after week. Over time, the show found its groove and settled on the three-segment format that remained consistent through the rest of its run. The most popular of these segments was the weekly puzzler.
Each week, Click and Clack would present a riddle to the audience—often it was car-related, but sometimes it was about another topic entirely. The puzzlers became so popular that NPR released official Car Talk Puzzler books to capitalize on the show’s success.
The surprising legacy of ‘Car Talk’
Car Talk is credited for bringing humor and accessibility to NPR. It became a prominent touchpoint throughout pop culture. The short-lived George Wendt Show was based on the radio program, and PBS created an animated version of the show in 2008.
Ray and Tom also appeared in the hit Disney-Pixar film, Cars, as anthropomorphized Dodges who bore similarities to their real-life radio personalities. The film even made reference to their famous tagline, "don’t drive like my brother."
How is ‘Car Talk’ evolving?
Though they stopped making new programs in 2012—two years prior to Tom’s death due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease—The Best of Car Talk episodes have remained a mainstay on over 80 NPR affiliates. These "Best of" episodes include top moments from the show’s history and previously unaired material, including material from over 12,500 calls.
They launched a podcast in the last several years, which will become the only way to hear the show starting in October. In addition to the podcast, there is a robust, interactive website where people can write in with their various car-related questions.
Despite their claims to have "wasted an hour of your weekend," Click and Clack changed the face of NPR and brought car maintenance to the average listener.