I’m one of those oddballs who regularly listens to Car Talk despite not owning a car. We all know the show’s about much more than cars, though! Its hosts Tom Magliozzi, who died Monday, and his brother Ray doled out advice on dozens of subjects in the hours they spent with their 4 million listeners. The warmth and clever puns of “Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers” quickly win you over, no matter whether you can distinguish a carburetor from a hub cap or not.
And they were early hackers! My own appreciation for them grew immensely when I learned that they were not just a couple of jokers on National Public Radio (NPR), but working mechanics, with a shop called the “Good News Garage” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they were both born and schooled all the way through to MIT.
Did you know the brothers built one of the first community makerspaces within their garage? Their auto mechanics’ shop began as a den of DIY called Hacker’s Haven. There, they shared tools and tips with all sorts of hands-on hippies who hauled in their hopeless heaps from throughout the greater Boston area.
You can hear Tom describe Hacker’s Haven in the brothers’ appearance on Fresh Air, much of which was rebroadcast Tuesday on a special memorial episode. Do go listen to that interview, as Tom’s delivery is great, but here’s how Ray described Hacker’s Haven on the Car Talk website, and it’s a good insight to keep in mind for anyone starting a space for do-it-yourself anything.
We decided to open Hacker’s Haven to save Tommy from a life of vagrancy. This was the time when everyone was working on his own car, so we thought, and our idea was to open a garage where people could do their own work and we’d rent space and tools to them.
We knew our idea was brilliant and thought we’d have wheelbarrows full of money to show for it. Of course, the do-it-yourselfers who came in were such klutzes that we felt sorry for them, and we’d end up working on their cars for $2.50 an hour, which is what they were paying to supposedly do their own work. So we ended up fixing all the cars that came in. I mean, if some poor chump is spending all day trying to change his spark plugs, you can’t help but give him a hand. Consequently, we ended up helping everyone all the time, and we made no money at all. We started hiring people to help out, and eventually the place just sort of evolved into what is now, Ray’s Garage. It was fun, though. We had some incredible laughs and we met some great people. We also met some weirdos, dingbats and screwballs. We somehow managed to attract the most incredible mix of characters to Hacker’s Haven. This was Cambridge in the early ’70s, and there were some real wacked-out people around then (still are, for that matter).
If you miss Tom Magliozzi already, as I do, you may also want to give a read of the transcript of the brothers’ typically hilarious 1999 MIT Commencement Address, in which they describe how they used the school’s motto “Non impediti ratione cogitatonis” (they translate this from the Latin as “Unencumbered by the thought process”) as a mantra throughout their lives. The basic message: don’t make yourself miserable in a pre-planned life that you don’t enjoy. (Tom had this epiphany while nearly being killed in his MG on his way to work, and when he got there he promptly quit.) Make your own way, and whether or not that leads you to any kind of “success”, at least take this cue from Tom Magliozzi — the best and most worthwhile thing you can do is to make us laugh.
(And, of course, whatever you do, don’t drive like his brother.)