Wielding his unmistakable laughter as ably he would a wrench, Tom Magliozzi hosted NPR’s “Car Talk” for 35 years with his brother, Ray, instructing and entertaining millions of would-be mechanics, puzzled car owners, and lots of listeners who tuned in simply because the weekly show was an hour of uninterrupted fun.
Mr. Magliozzi, who was 77 and had lived in Cambridge, died at a family residence in Belmont Monday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, about two years after he and Ray stopped broadcasting new shows.
Cars were the focus of their program, but only to a point. Mr. Magliozzi and his brother spent as much time popping the hood of their callers, tuning up their perceptions about the vehicles they drive and the lives they live.
“Somewhere along the line we decided that cars were boring,” Mr. Magliozzi told The Boston Globe in 2000. “But they provide an entree into life, so we can talk about life philosophy. Which is more interesting than talking about valve clearances.”
Tossing off memorable one-liners such as “life is too short to own a German car” and “it is better to travel in hope than arrive in despair,” Mr. Magliozzi was the older of the two siblings known as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers. With his curly hair and heavy beard, he also was — as the Magliozzis reminded listeners — the taller and handsomer brother.
Beginning in 1977 on WBUR-FM, the brothers built “Car Talk” into a cultural phenomenon. After NPR began broadcasting the show nationally in 1987, the audience grew to more than 4 million, airing on nearly 700 stations. PBS created an animated series “Click and Clack’s As The Wrench Turns” in 2008, and a theatrical adaptation, “Car Talk: The Musical,” debuted in 2011.
Most fans, though, knew Mr. Magliozzi and his brother as voices on the radio – or more precisely, as laughter spilling from speakers.
Doug Berman, the longtime producer of “Car Talk,” said he would miss most how Mr. Magliozzi “could make everybody around him feel better and smile. It’s just an amazing gift. You would hear him before you saw him because he would be laughing with somebody. You’d find your face turning into a smile before you had any contact with him.”
Over the nearly four decades since the first show aired, Berman added, Mr. Magliozzi did that with millions of listeners – “an amazing legacy.”
“The show is a way to talk to people about stuff,” Mr. Magliozzi told the Globe in 1988, and it became the stuff of legend, something even retirement didn’t put an end to. NPR has broadcast archived “Car Talk” shows since the Magliozzi brothers retired two years ago and will continue to do so, Berman said, with the name soon changing to “The Best of Car Talk.”
More intellectual than he let on while discussing carburetors, Mr. Magliozzi had a degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught at the Boston University School of Management.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he said in a 2005 Globe interview, placing his finger to his lips in an exaggerated shush, “but this show is more fun than anything I do all week.”
The oldest of three children, Thomas Louis Magliozzi was born June 28, 1937. His father, Louis, worked in the home heating oil business. His mother, Elizabeth, would years later become a star of a “Car Talk” CD called “Maternal Combustion: Calls About Moms and Cars” (she called into the show, too).
Upon graduating from MIT in 1958, Mr. Magliozzi worked for Foxboro Co., which produced industrial controls and instrumentation. Responsible for international marketing and strategic planning, he traveled extensively in the Far East but found the job too predictable after a dozen years. Commuting to work one morning in 1971, he decided to quit.
“I was driving down Route 128 and thought to myself how ticked off I would be if I were hit by a semi and all I had to show for my life was working for Foxboro,” he told the Globe in 1988, laughing at the memory. “I pulled into the parking lot, walked into my boss’s office, and quit. Nobody could believe I didn’t have another job lined up, but I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was going to do. I have a theory that says: Something will happen. And when you don’t care, everything happens.”
He took odd jobs painting and fixing cars, ran management seminars, and taught at Northeastern and Suffolk universities. In 1973, he and Ray opened Hacker’s Haven in Cambridge, charging do-it-yourselfers a couple of dollars an hour to use tools and the shop. That venture became Good News Garage, which Mr. Magliozzi left several years later, and which his brother still runs.
In the mid-1970s, WBUR invited Mr. Magliozzi to be part of a radio panel of mechanics to talk about cars. He was the only one who showed up. Invited back the following week, he brought his brother, and “Car Talk” evolved from their radio presence, which was as unmistakable as it was unconventional. NPR host Susan Stamberg began including a segment with the Magliozzi brothers on her weekend program and the network picked up “Car Talk” nationally in 1987.
“He was really such an original,” Charlie Kravetz, WBUR’s general manager, said of Mr. Magliozzi. “It’s hard to remember any person whose laugh changed an entire industry.”
The Magliozzi brothers “basically liberated us – WBUR and public radio – from its kind of stodgy, some might say stuffy persona,” Kravetz said, and “Car Talk” opened public radio’s doors to shows such as “This American Life,” “The Moth,” and “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!”
“All these programs explore what it’s like to live in America in a tapestry of ways, and it all began with them,” Kravetz said. “Everybody in public radio would tell you there’s a line in the sand: There was everything before ‘Car Talk’ and after ‘Car Talk.’ We all owe them an enormous debt.”
Teasing each other and their listeners, the Magliozzi brothers coined lasting nicknames and phrases. They called Berman the “benevolent overlord” and said the show’s lawyers were in the firm Dewey, Cheetham & Howe, a name they later incorporated, with offices in Harvard Square.
In the world of public radio, “Car Talk” was “this little miracle,” Kravetz said. “So much of it was Tommy’s laugh: Tommy’s willingness to laugh at his own jokes, to laugh at Ray, to laugh at other people. Everybody loved him for it.”
In addition to his brother, Mr. Magliozzi leaves his first wife, Julia; his second wife, Joanne; his close companion of many years, Sylvia Soderberg; three children, Lydia Magliozzi Icke of Weston, Alex of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Anna of Boston; his sister, Lucille of Cambridge; and five grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. Paul Church in Harvard Square in Cambridge. Burial will be private.
A dozen years older than Ray, Mr. Magliozzi was in his teens when he began bringing along his little brother to most places he went.
Ray followed his older sibling to MIT, too, and they jointly delivered the commencement address at their alma mater in 1999, concluding their speech with the patented ending they used on air each week, trading off with the admonition: “Don’t drive like my brother.”
“We’ve been close since I was 5 years old,” Ray said Monday. “Quite honestly, ever since he was in high school he was dragging me all over the place. We had a heck of a lot of fun together and we were just as close as you can possibly imagine as brothers, and that’s what makes it so hard to lose him.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.