Farhad Manjoo on What Click & Clack of Car Talk Taught Him

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 8 2012 3:00 PM

Farewell Car Talk, and Thanks for the Good Advice

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In the fall of 2006 I fell, once again, into a car funk. I’ve owned three cars in my life, all of them the same—various models of the Volkswagen Jetta. I’m that kind of guy: sensible, unflashy, appreciative of German orderliness, and I’ve been that way since I was 16.

But every now and then I see an awesome car for which I’m totally unsuited and I fall madly in love. I’ll look for it in the classifieds, I’ll visit dealerships for test drives, I’ll sometimes go as far as rounding up a down payment. Over the years I’ve lusted after an orange Porsche (I didn’t care what model), a blue BMW Z3, a monster black Escalade (in my dreams I’d roll down the tinted windows and blast the rhymes of … Gillian Welch), and, in the fall of ’06, I was head over heels over a couple of European roadsters. What if I traded my Jetta for an MGB? Or how about an Alfa Romeo Spider, Dustin Hoffman’s car in the The Graduate?

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This was a fundamentally stupid idea. These two cars weren’t known for their reliability. Everyone I knew who knew about cars told me to forget about it. But I needed a definitive answer, and for that there was only one place to go. I called Car Talk.

I’ve been listening to Tom and Ray Magliozzi since I was a kid. Of course, in the early days it was under duress. NPR fans are made, not born. You start out hating the droning chattiness of the adult world, begging your parents to change the station to anything else. Then suddenly you’re 25 and you’ve got a job and a car and if you don’t live in the suburbs yet, you feel yourself heading there. On weekends you drive to the farmer’s market and when Click & Clack’s familiar cackles come on the air, you turn it up. These guys are kind of funny, you realize. They used to sound corny but now their jokes feel earnest and charming. So what if the show’s formulaic, if they’ve been repeating the same lines for 35 years, if you actually learn nothing about cars? Car Talk—along with A Prairie Home Companion—sometimes feels like the last honest bit of entertainment left in the world. If you’re entertained—and you’d have to be a churl not to be—that’s enough.

Today Tom and Ray announced that they’re retiring this fall. The show will continue in reruns, but their days of answering new calls are over. This means that one day soon, you may hear a call from Farhad in San Francisco. As expected, they told me to stay away from the MG and the Alfa. “Let’s give you the list of problems you’re not likely to have,” they said—the tires and the radio knobs were OK. “Other than that, it’s going to be a nightmare.” They found this very funny, of course, and because I couldn’t muster a single giggle, my call ends up as one of the more boring ones in the Car Talk canon. They told me to buy a Mazda Miata instead of one of the roadsters. I didn’t buy either—I got another Jetta—but I appreciated their time. And I will sorely miss the chance to ask them what’s so wrong, really, about getting an Escalade.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.