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Tom Magliozzi dies at 77; co-host with brother of NPR's popular 'Car Talk'

Tom Magliozzi dies at 77; co-host with brother of NPR's popular 'Car Talk'
Brothers Tom, left, and Ray Magliozzi, longtime co-hosts of the popular NPR show "Car Talk," pose under an automobile hood in Boston in 1991. Tom, who was 12 years older than Ray, died Monday in Belmont, Mass., at the age of 77. (Susan Walsh, Asociated Press)

An imposing, gray-bearded figure with the fiery look of an Old Testament prophet, Tom Magliozzi took car problems as seriously as he took himself.

Which is to say: not very.

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To be sure, he and his brother, Ray, were professionally known as "Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers," who for more than 35 years dispensed frequently good advice on "Car Talk," one of NPR's most popular and least serious programs.

"It's only a car," he advised overwrought listeners. "Just turn up the radio and that noise'll go away."

Tom Magliozzi died Monday in Belmont, Mass., of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 77.

In a statement, Ray paid tribute to his brother's exuberance.

"We can be happy he lived the life he wanted to live; goofing off a lot, talking to you guys every week, and, primarily, laughing his ass off," said Ray, 12 years younger.

Though the brothers knew their way around engines, their show wasn't about bearings and bushings. It was about Kirsten from Needham, who heard oinking noises from her windshield wipers. It was about larcenous garages, which were beaten up regularly. "You can tell a good mechanic by the size of his boat," Tom liked to say.

After an hour of one-liners, sheer silliness, philosophical musings and occasional relationship advice — "Tell your husband you just can't live with a man who wants to drive around in a Sonata" — "Car Talk" ended with Ray's traditional caution to listeners: "Don't drive like my brother." Every week, Tom retorted: "Don't drive like my brother."

With 4 million listeners, the show helped public radio change its tweedy image, said its producer, Doug Berman.

Berman — known on "Car Talk" as Doug "The Subway Fugitive, Bongo Boy, No Slave to Fashion" Berman — talked about Magliozzi on NPR's "Here and Now'' on Monday, calling him "the friendliest anti-authority figure you'd ever meet."

Born June 28, 1937, to Italian immigrant parents in East Cambridge, Mass., Tom was a car buff as a kid. Growing up, he and Ray "picked up the uniquely Boston-Italian style of expressing affection through friendly insults and teasing" — a style reflected in their show, according to the announcement of Tom's death.

They weren't spared even by their aging mother. When they expressed some passing disappointment with the show, she said, "Don't worry. No one's listening."

Both brothers spoke with thick Boston accents. Both had degrees from MIT. Tom also had a doctorate in marketing. He spent several years in a corporate engineering job before he quit in disgust, gripped by visions of his mortality after a near-collision during his commute. At loose ends, he took out a bank loan to finance a period of leisurely contemplation.

"I became a bum," he told MIT graduates in a 1999 commencement address he delivered with his brother. "I spent two years in Harvard Square drinking coffee."

He also came up with a plan for a do-it-yourself auto garage that he started with Ray. The garage, which morphed into a more conventional business after a few rocky years, still operates.

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When the brothers were asked to join a panel of automotive experts on a local radio show, only Tom made it.

"I was a panel of expert," he later said.

Ray joined him the next week.

Over the next 10 years, they became fixtures on Boston radio. In 1987, they were picked up by NPR and were championed by the network's respected anchor, Susan Stamberg.

In the early days, they restrained themselves. But during an on-air difference of opinion, Ray underscored his point by resorting to French.

"Au contraire, piston-puss," he told his brother.

That marked the true beginning of their show, Tom told The Times in 1990.

After that, "it was downhill all the way, no brakes," he said.

That meant cracking each other up constantly in a process described by a writer for the New York Daily News as "infectiously sophomoric."

Tom's ever-present laugh was "a loud HAHAHA which sounds like a '74 Dodge Dart being jump-started in the snow," the writer noted.

The show gave rise to numerous spinoffs, including "Cars," an animated 2006 movie in which the brothers voiced the roles of the impresarios behind a balm called "Rust-Eze Medicated Bumper Cream."

In addition to his brother Ray, Magliozzi's survivors include his children, Lydia Icke, Alex and Anna Magliozzi; five grandchildren; a sister, Lucille; and his close companion of recent years, Sylvia Soderberg.

The brothers retired from "Car Talk" in 2012. After surveying listeners, the network chose to continue airing segments. "Funny is funny," an executive said at the time.

Twitter: @schawkins

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