MotorWorld by Alex Taylor III Column archive
Last Updated: April 15, 2008: 10:29 AM EDT
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Click and Clack go to Hollywood

The stars of public radio's Car Talk make their TV debut in a new cartoon series.

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor


NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Tom and Ray Magliozzi are not what you'd call an overnight success story. The two MIT-educated car mechanics first started offering car repair advice over the air on a local Boston station in 1977. A decade elapsed before National Public Radio picked the show up and distributed it on its national network. Since then Car Talk has gone on to become the most highly-rated and financially-successful program on public radio.

Now, more than 30 years later the Magliozzi brothers are moving into television They are starring in a new series, on car repair, "Click & Clack's As The Wrench Turns," which debuts in primetime on PBS in July. Ten 30-minute episodes have been produced of what will be the first primetime animated series ever broadcast on PBS. As the brothers are the first to admit, their faces were meant for radio. So while they will record the dialogue for the show in their distinctive Boston accents ("car" is pronounced "ka"), they will be represented on the air by cartoon characters.

Except for Consumer Reports magazine, Car Talk, with 4.5 million listeners, may be the nation's most influential independent arbiter of automotive opinion. For an hour each week, Tom and Ray field questions from listeners around the country about matters ranging from simple repairs - does a 23-year-old Volvo really need a muffler? - to more complex issues dealing with human relations. Recent example: How a husband should tell his wife that her heavy key ring is damaging the ignition of their Honda Accord, when she has threatened to move his mother-in-law into the house if he does so.

Although the brothers' fictional personnas - Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers - are portrayed as cynical, lazy and mostly interested in having a good time, the advice they dispense is knowledgeable, pungent, and unbiased. Did I mention funny? When asked to provide do-it-yourself tips for home mechanics, they advise that the first goal is to walk away at the end of the day with all digits intact, the second is to not to blow anything up, and the third is to not break anything that isn't already broken. Not until they got to the fourth goal did they mention actually fixing the car.

Tom, 71, is retired from his day job at the Good News Garage in Cambridge, Massachusetts , but Ray, 59, still puts in three days a week there. Ray also does most of the heavy lifting on the radio program by providing the technical advice; Tom laughs at his brother's corny jokes as well as his own, while putting in some additional repair tips. In discussing the problem of teen drivers who talk or text on their cell phones recently, Ray advised raising the prospect of imminent bodily harm -- "As a parent, you have to threaten to kill them." Added Tom: "What also works are punishments that disrupt their social lives. I found, with my son, that writing 'LOSER' on his forehead in permanent marker was somewhat effective."

The brothers appeared at a breakfast in Manhattan recently to announce their TV project. If their imminent rise to celebrity status is going to change their lives, it wasn't immediately apparent. Ray showed up in a Hawaiian shirt with the tails hanging out while Tom wore something equally relaxed. Although Car Talk has taken on substantial commercial baggage over the years along with its growing audience - its Shameless Commerce division sells items like baseball caps and coffee mugs over the Internet, while, a car-buying service, sponsors their Web site -- the two remain spontaneous and irreverent. Over the course of the breakfast, they sent several barbs PBS' way about its lackluster marketing of the program. Taking themselves seriously doesn't appear to be an issue. The brothers have revealed that the name of their show, "As the Wrench Turns," was suggested by a listener. Among the runners-up: "Click-and Clack-sterpiece Theatre, " "Ken Burns Presents Car Talk," and "Transmission Impossible." Says Ray: "We probably won't last the season." To top of page

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