The boys 'n the hood car, that is

May 10, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Washington -- You know the NPR world, that place way on the left end of the band where slightly tweedy, vaguely amused announcers introduce simply sublime recordings of Chopin or earnestly impart the latest news from yet another unpronounceable republic to their small, but select, Chardonnay-sipping, Volvo-driving audience.

But, come 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, at least locally on WJHU-FM, this genteel hum is interrupted as noisily as badly shifted gears: It's time for Caah Talk, or, Car Talk to those who don't live in what Tom and Ray Magliozzi call "Our Fair City" (Cambridge, Mass.), one hour in which the nation's befuddled motorists can call to get the cure for whatever ails their vehicles. Or, at least, that rare commodity in the world of car repairs: a good laugh.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi (pronounced Mah-lee-OTT-zee), also known as "Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers," are car mechanics with heart, soul, advanced college degrees and an 800-number. Their call-in show, which began in Boston in 1977 and went national 10 years later, now airs on more than 300 NPR stations to 1.4 million listeners.

"I thought it would last a couple of weeks . . ." says Tom, 55, the taller, grizzly-bearded brother.

". . . And then we would really have to go to work," adds Ray, 44, the more Paul Simon-as Pillsbury-doughboy-looking brother.

Success hasn't spoiled the two -- they've always been, uh, jerks, would be the more printable epithet, says Doug Berman, invariably referred to in stories as their "long-suffering producer." He plays the adult to the brothers, who seem not to have gotten over the squabbling -- albeit friendly squabbling -- sibling stage, the one who juggles the thousands of calls every week and keeps live appearances like this one somewhere near schedule.

The Magliozzis and Mr. Berman were in town this weekend for the Public Radio Conference, an annual meeting in which affiliates gather to discuss such weighty matters as "Whither Objectivity and Balance?" and "Classical Music: Fund Raising Success Stories" as two sessions were titled. But then, NPR has always prided itself on its quirky side as well, and Tom and Ray drew a long line, spilling out the door of a Washington Hilton conference room, of station representatives such as WJHU general manager Dennis Kita, who wanted to get "mugged" with the brothers and their infamous 1963 Dodge Dart convertible. Or, rather, a two-dimensional cutout of the car, which Tom actually bTC owns.

"We flew here, though, because we don't have any cars that would make it this far," says Ray, who drives a pickup truck.

The most common question they get from listeners -- as opposed to reporters, who always ask, "What is the most common question you get?" -- is what car they should buy.

"Then we have to do a psychoanalysis," Tom says.

"You always just say Volvo," chimes in one of the next generation of Magliozzis who have come along on the trip.

Actually, they've been known to recommend any number of cars, including Dodge Caravans and Nissan Quests, and they've always been unabashed fans of those big ol' American cruisin' cars -- even when everyone else was recommending small, foreign imports. But now American automakers are starting to prove them right, they say.

"American cars are a lot better today," Ray says.

"And we can single-handedly take credit for that. Both of us can take single-handed credit," Tom says. "Actually, the Japanese are responsible for that."

"They taught Americans . . . not to accept crap," Ray says. "They taught Americans how to make better little cars."

"Big cars are safer," Tom says. "Our listeners should drive big cars, and everyone else should drive little cars, and soon, they'll all die and only our listeners will be left."

All this, of course, is punctuated by the brothers' trademark HAHAHAHAHAs, their uncontrollable guffaws, the laughter at their own jokes that is at least as prominent on their show as any sort of, say, actual advice.

Ray still works half-days (meaning, 12 hours, according to Mr. Berman) in their shop, the Good News Garage, while Tom teaches business at Suffolk University in Boston. They're popular figures for NPR promotions -- although they don't really like doing press interviews -- and they appear at events for listeners avid enough to make the trip to Cambridge for sock hops, the Olympics-like "Ancient Games of Grease" and, this June, the company picnic of their law firm, Dewey, Cheatem and Howe. No doubt, other staff members, such as the equally fictional Kay Sera Sera, might also be there.

Despite their just-guys talk, these are not your typical grease monkeys: Both graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- Tom has master's and Ph.D degrees as well -- but seem none the worse for it. They're still just the Car Guys (or rather, the Caah Guys, as their particular brand of Bostonese, more Fenway than Hahvahd, would have it).

Also distinguishing them from their grease-stained brethren are the kinds of awards they've picked up -- most recently, a Peabody Award, broadcasting's most prestigious honor, more often given to the "Nightlines" and "Frontlines" of the field.

Which means they'll be honored in a future ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York with the rest of broadcasting's finest -- and the Guys are less than thrilled with the seating arrangements: Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold on one side and Larry King on the other.

"What about Seinfeld? Why can't we sit with him? How about Kramer? I want to sit next to Kramer," Tom whines. "I don't like Roseanne."

Ray offers to sit next to Roseanne, if Tom pays him $200.

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