One of Cambridge's funniest, most famous and most beloved residents died Monday morning. Thomas Magliozzi was 77 years old.
He was an international business consultant and a co-owner of an auto repair shop, but you probably know Tom from Car Talk, which he co-hosted with his younger brother Ray.
Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, got their start in radio 37 years ago in the studios of WBUR.
The humble, serendipitous origin of Car Talk is sacred lore in public radio. It was 1977 when the program director of WBUR, which was then a small community station at Boston University, called six Boston-area auto mechanics hoping they'd come in, talk cars and take calls.
"Ray answered the phone, decided it was a dumb idea," says Doug Berman, who would become executive producer of the show. "Tom, eager to get out of work, said, 'Sure, I'll go,' figuring maybe he'd bring a couple of customers into the garage. So he showed up at the appointed time and he was the only one who showed up, so he was a panel of one. And he did the show and took calls for an hour and the guy said, 'Hey, that's pretty good.' I guess it was better than most of what they had on at the time. 'You want to come by next week?' And Tom said, 'Sure. Can I bring my brother?' "
Click and Clack quickly became the nuts and dolts of Boston radio. Cars were just a vehicle for their slapstick comedy — a cross between the Marx Brothers and psychologist Joyce Brothers, a weekly prescription for what ailed listeners' cars and their owners.
Their success surprised even them. The Car Talk guys became local celebrities.
"One day we decided to ask them for $20 a piece a week," said Tom, recalling the first few years when he and his brother were unpaid volunteers at WBUR. "We agonized over it. 'They'll never give us $20 a week.' And they gave us $20 a week! And we said, 'We're in fat city.'"
A decade later, Car Talk went national on NPR. Doug Berman moved the offices of Dewey Cheatem and Howe to a third-floor walk-up in Harvard Square, Cambridge — their Fair City.
Within a few years, Tom and Ray could be heard by a weekly audience of more than 3 million listeners on 660 public radio stations.
“No one told them you’re supposed to sound like, ‘Hello, this is NPR.’ So, they just had a good time."Doug Berman, <em>Car Talk</em> executive producer
"Nobody told them how you're supposed to do radio," says Berman. "No one told them you're supposed to sound like, 'Hello, this is NPR.' So, they just had a good time."
Berman says it was almost impossible not to laugh or smile when you heard Tom laughing — and he was free with that infectious laughter.
"I remember hearing him the first time," Berman says. "I was in the newsroom at 'BUR, and I heard that laughter coming down the hall. Of course, three seconds later I heard it again. And again."
There were snakes in rear seats and goats on hoods, race car drivers who wouldn't let their wives drive, and Martha Stewart, who the car guys kept calling Margaret.
Tom Magliozzi also had a more serious side. He went to Cambridge High and Latin School, got his bachelor's degree from MIT, master's degree at Northeastern and held a doctorate in marketing from Boston University, where his thesis was titled: "An empirical investigation of regression analysis meta-strategies for direct marketing list segmentation models." He used his science background to answer car questions on the show. Sometimes, to his amazement, he even got the answers right.
"He was really a genius," says Berman. "Had a tremendous mind and a tremendous facile mind. He decided at some point that he could figure where a Catherine was from based on whether she spelled the name with a K or a C, and he figured out C was East Coast and K was Midwest."
"He had two sort of interesting qualities," says Berman. "One was, he was very honest. He sort of had a good BS detector. And when someone was skipping around an issue that needed to be talked about or needed to be said, he'd bore in on it. And the other quality was that he really didn't like authority."
Both of those qualities were in full display when Tom and Ray were invited to deliver the 1999 commencement speech at MIT, their undergraduate alma mater. Tom used the commencement speech to elaborate on his theory of life.
But the road to happiness was not without bumps along the way. Tom and Ray tried their hand at TV, a car cartoon called, "As The Wrench Turns."
A Boston Herald critic wrote, "Fans of Car Talk will be excited to hear that Tom and Ray Magliozzi have expanded to PBS. Until they see the show."
"We've had some really great flops," says Berman.
The animated program, lacking the spontaneity of brotherly love with a Boston accent heard on radio, lasted just one season. But Tom's quick wit was captured by TV's "60 Minutes."
And it will be Tom Magliozzi's comic timing, his infectious laugh and in-your-ear irrelevance that will endure in the hearts and minds of millions of Car Talk listeners.
"Some people ask if I spent my whole life in Boston," he once quipped. "And I say, 'Not yet.'"
Tom Magliozzi died Monday morning after a long illness.
Correction: An earlier version of this Web report misstated the Cambridge high school Tom attended. It's Cambridge High and Latin.
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