On the corner of JFK St. and Brattle St., over one of the busiest intersections in Harvard Square, there is an incongruous window. In the midst of a commercial center that includes Urban Outfitters, Starbucks, and the world’s only Curious George Store, a painted pane of glass displays the unfamiliar names of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, ostensibly the partners of a law firm perched 30 feet above the Square.
But if you enter the building and take the cramped, trapezoidal elevator up, you’ll find that the law firm is imaginary. The office instead serves as the headquarters of “Car Talk,” the beloved radio show that aired on public radio for 25 years and combined automotive advice with a witty humor that became the program’s trademark. With its office located in the epicenter of Harvard Square and the childhood home of its hosts just down Cambridge Street, “Car Talk” will forever have a special connection to this part of town.
Throughout its 35-year run—from 1977 to 2012—“Car Talk” was hosted by the Magliozzi brothers, Tom and Ray, a pair of MIT-educated auto mechanics and Cambridge natives. Since Tom’s passing last week, fans have reminisced about the show and the jocular banter that the brothers Magliozzi sent across the airwaves to millions of listeners each week.
“Car Talk” began as a local Boston-area show, broadcasting on WBUR, a National Public Radio member station. While its hosts altered some of its shorter segments over time, the program remained at its core a call-in show. Listeners dialed in with any and all car-related troubles, from mysterious engine noises to the perils of running through a bridge toll to the proper way to remove a boa constrictor from a back seat. By the time the last original episode aired in 2012, the show had fielded about 12,500 calls.
Tom and Ray quickly became known as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.” Their advice frequently helped listeners out of automotive anxieties, but, keeping themselves grounded, they always ended episodes with some variant of the self-deprecating, “Well it’s happened again, you’ve wasted another perfectly good hour listening to ‘Car Talk.’”
In 1987, “Car Talk” began to air nationally, significantly broadening its weekly listening audience. Despite their growing reach, the show and its hosts were still very much products of the Boston and Cambridge communities. Click and Clack delivered their wisdom in thick and easily identifiable Boston accents. They joined local Red Sox fans who sat outside Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe to watch games on the TV that used to sit in the deli’s window. They continually referenced Cambridge, their base of operations, as “our fair city,” a tradition that reminded listeners of the town they called home.
While recording of the show took place at WBUR studios in Boston, its staff was housed in the office of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe. The office, otherwise known as Car Talk Plaza, is an unassuming space in a bustling neighborhood that is likely only recognized by those who look for it. When devoted fans and tourists find it, however, they discover a space that is a sentimental tribute to the show.
The front room of the office, open to the public, is a mini-museum of Click and Clack mementos that help keep alive the brothers’ characteristic on-show humor. Immediately past the office’s door is a poster labeled “Car Talk Visitor Map (or, How Far Did You Come to See This Dump?)” Push pins dot the United States, indicating drop-ins by tourists from nearly every state, and Post-It notes with country names have been left by some non-American visitors.
Other pieces of memorabilia are either tributes to the Magliozzis or references to running bits on the show. The brothers appear in two large Muppet-style dolls as well as in a pair of life-sized cardboard cutout photos. A bookcase houses items mailed to the show at Tom and Ray’s prompting (they encouraged fans to send in answers to weekly puzzle questions on non-traditional postage). Based on the hosts’ suggestion, many listeners sent in 21-dollar bills, hand-drawn or home-printed. One Arizona couple delivered their answer on a seashell, while another fan wrote his response on a lunch cooler shipped as Priority Mail.
In the days since Tom Magliozzi’s death, critics and listeners alike have spent time remembering the program and questioning what exactly drew so many millions of listeners with little interest in car mechanics to a show about automotive repair. Many have come to the same answer: that “Car Talk,” of course, was never really about cars. It was about all the moments that come out of the often menial and automatic task of driving. A file cabinet in the office displays a magnet of a two-lane street, labeled in honor of the Robert Earl Keen song: “The Road Goes On Forever.”
“Car Talk” was also about two brothers who were undoubtedly products of this city. On the way out of Car Talk Plaza, on the inside of the door, there’s a single sign reading: “Boston and Vicinity: Of Tom and Ray’s Youth.”