This morning, Tom and Ray Magliozzi announced that this fall they will stop making Car Talk, the auto-advice/comedy show they’ve done for NPR for 25 years — pretty much, I realized, my entire adult driving life.
I haven’t always had a car all that time — I ditched the wheels for most of the ’90s after moving to New York City — but even when I didn’t, I listened to Car Talk. Coming to the city was a transition, and maybe because I’m from Michigan, living without a car, without the ability to just grab the keys and go, was one of the toughest aspects to get used to. Maybe for that reason, sitting in my apartment and listening to Tom and Ray guffaw about the mendacity of mechanics or recite the Puzzler connected me to my recent past life, driving around southeast Michigan and listening to Car Talk while doing errands on Saturday morning. Later, I got kids and more practical reasons to drive again, and when I bought my current car, a used Scion XB, one of my first thoughts would be how Tom and Ray would laugh at it if I ever called in to the show. (Their dead-on term for the car, if I recall correctly, is “Soviet ice cream truck.”)
Car Talk was NPR’s most popular show (“as much as NPR executives [extreme reaction here] when they hear us say it,” as the brothers liked to say), and I can see why. It’s not just that it was funny. (I will except, and for their sake forget, the unfortunate PBS cartoon sitcom they tried a few years ago.) I’m not sure that it was useful — I mean, I’m sure it was to people who called, and to people who listened and took the advice to heart, but I’ve listened for years and can’t do much with my car beyond change the windshield wipers.
It’s also that the show understood — even among the public-radio audience, which may be more amenable to public transportation than most radio listeners — that people have a personal identification with their cars that they simply don’t with most other possessions, not even their houses. Your car is in many ways an extension of you, your external expression. It’s the vehicle (literally) with which you engage the world, at least if you live in a part of the country where one is necessary. It is your helpmeet and your enemy. And Tom and Ray’s style — snorting, sneering, laughing at their own jokes — really captured that love-hate relationship.
NPR says it’s going to continue the show, somehow, as a collection of past clips from the archives plus unspecified new material. I can’t imagine how that’s going to work or for how long; sure, the material may be timeless, but car models are specifically timely. But I don’t begrudge the Magliozzis for taking a break after all this time. Thanks, Click and Clack, for driving us to distraction.