We lost a great Troubleshooter yesterday when Tom Magliozzi, co-host of the venerable Car Talk radio program, died of “complications to Alzheimer’s disease.” If ever there was a shoo-in for the Troubleshooting Hall Of Fame, the “Tappet Brothers” would be on the top of the list. As one-half of the famous and funny pair of sibling problem-solvers, Tom was an inspiration to me and my work.
The Magliozzi brother’s venerable show went off the air in 2012, after more than 30 years of belly laughs and problems bested. If you have never heard of the program and read this blog, you must take a listen. Soon. It’s mandatory. Growing up, I vividly remember their show, awed by their ability to diagnose problems on the spot. Tom and Ray were really funny too, never taking themselves, or the people who called into the show, too seriously.
In every episode of their program, the principles I write about are endlessly repeated in an unending variety of forms. Today, while composing this tribute, I listened to show #1444 (“His and Her Trailers”). Here’s Tom being polite but skeptical, asking for additional evidence before making the same leap as the caller:
Caller: “I’ve had the valve covers off of it and, as close as I can tell, it pretty much has a worn out cam in it. It’s got 225,000 miles on the original motor.”
Ray: “Oh, what do you expect!?”
Tom: “225, that’s good. How did you determine that it has a worn out cam?”
I have always been amazed at the ability of Tom and Ray to diagnose a problem remotely and verbally, just by asking the right questions. If you’ve ever done phone-based tech support, you know how difficult it can be to separate the wheat from the chaff, extracting those few meaningful bits of information that will lead you in the right direction.
Tom’s detective skills were combined with deep knowledge of how things work, with cars specifically and the world in general. In addition to working as a mechanic, solving people’s real-world problems, he also had a wide-ranging education: a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from MIT, an MBA from Northeastern University, and a PhD in marketing from Boston University. Now that’s a diverse background!
Of course, what made the show appealing to a broader audience was the interplay between a caller’s personal life and what was going on with their vehicle. In parallel to the investigation of someone’s car troubles, the Magliozzi brothers also uncovered personal details as fodder for their sharp wit, reminding you that human and machine problems are deeply interconnected.
Ray: “What is a leaving or a ditching?”
Caller: “No, she moved out.”
Tom: “That’s ditching.”
Caller: “Okay thanks, now I really feel great.”
Tom: “Well, you still got the ’79 Chevy!”
Are they really discussing this guy’s broken camshaft, or his wounded ego in the aftermath of his girlfriend dumping him? Tom’s exuberant sense of life implicitly communicated that the most effective way to face our problems is the same in either realm. This is the reason why the show appealed to both grease monkeys and those who rarely lift a wrench.
When I published my book, I sent Tom a copy. Even if he used it for a doorstop or kindling, I just had to get it in his hands. In fact, I would have been flattered if he made fun of it, because it was a gift to a man who made me laugh, inspiring me and Troubleshooters everywhere.