Four-Wheel Expertise

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Nobody laughs as hard at Car Talk as its hosts. And not just on the air. As they enjoy a meal of salmon and Italian red wine in the lunchroom of the Boston public radio station where they've taped their show for the past 23 years, none of their co-workers come within 50 decibels of the laughter emanating from Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the brothers who go by the on-air pseudonyms Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers. In fact, if you listen closely, you realize that Tom laughs slightly louder at Tom's jokes and Ray laughs a bit harder at his own. These guys would do the show without an audience.

It's this infectious, just-shy-of-annoying sunniness--even more than the quick one-liners and freakishly detailed automotive expertise they dole out to callers--that makes Car Talk the No. 1 non-news show on NPR, reaching 3 million listeners through more than 500 stations. "Most people are miserable for no reason. We live in a world that's pretty perfect. You wake up every morning and your car starts and you're healthy," says Ray, 51. "We are just reveling in the misery of others," clarifies Tom, 63. "They call us and tell us their cars burst into flames, and we're just happy our cars didn't burst into flames." Not all the salmon stayed in his mouth after delivering that one.

With all this exuberance it's strange that the Magliozzis would write In Our Humble Opinion: Car Talk's Click and Clack Rant and Rave (Perigee Books; $20), a 268-page book in which the brothers take four-page turns complaining. They whine about car manufacturers, but also about Starbucks, the Founding Fathers and bottled water. Much of it is smart, but none of it works as well as the radio show. Mostly because you can't hear them laugh.

But it turns out that these kindly ex-hippies really do have some gripes--especially Tom. They almost never give interviews because, as Tom puts it, "we hate the media." He gets even more specific. "Especially the newsmagazines. Someone has been sending me a gratis copy of TIME. I already canceled my subscription to TIME because I don't like TIME." And TIME is one of the lucky ones they agreed to meet with.

The Magliozzis, who grew up in East Cambridge, went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Tom majored in engineering, Ray in humanities) and still live a few blocks from each other in the suburbs. They don't leave the Boston area much. "We did a book tour," says Ray. "We went to Worcester, downtown Boston and Brookline. Worcester was a schlep."

Like all long-term NPR folk, they don't care a lot about money. In 1973, Tom, sick of engineering for major corporations, quit his job and opened a do-it-yourself garage with his tinkering younger sibling, then a frustrated high school teacher. A few years later they were invited to be on a panel of mechanics on a local radio program; they soon had their own show. The brothers have been offered lucrative deals on commercial radio stations but turned them down because they seemed like a lot more work. "Most people have overestimated how much money they need and have miscalculated the work-to-play ratio," says Ray. "Except us." Tom, who is shooting rubber bands at the leftover brownies, nods in agreement.

But, for lazy guys, they put out a lot of product. In addition to the Wednesday-morning taping of the hour-long radio show, the brothers write the Car Talk section of as well as a syndicated newspaper column. And Ray still runs a Boston garage. Asked whether he overcharges his customers slightly because of his celebrity, Ray responds, "No, we overcharge them a lot. We get cars that have been to 20 other garages. It's a lot of pressure. I'm expected to perform." Even though he spends much of his radio show accusing mechanics of cheating their customers, Ray says most mechanics are no more crooked than any other professionals. "Your lawyer is double-billing you for everything, but you trust him because he wears a tie. That's why all my mechanics wear ties," Ray says. Tom loves this one. But not, of course, as much as Ray.

Despite their complaints, it's clear that they love cars. Even though they often drive swanky test models from car companies (10 of which Tom has dented), Ray adores his '87 Dodge Colt Vista and Tom is proud of his new red '52 convertible MG that he bought for $9,000--more than he has spent cumulatively for all the cars he has bought in his life. Cars, they insist, bond all Americans. "We can do a show about cars because everybody has cars," Tom explains, straightening his Home Depot hat and throwing his backpack over his shoulder. "We couldn't do a show called Brain Talk."