Found at a Thrift Shop: The Origins of Car Talk

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald | Oct 15, 2015

This past weekend, my wife Lisa hit a couple of thrift shops in suburban Boston and came home with a bunch of stuff, including this book called "Think Small, What's So Funny About a Volkswagen," from 1967, which Volkswagen dealers handed out to its customers. Inside is a collection of New Yorker-style cartoons -- by the artists who made the New Yorker famous -- and a handful of essays from some of the heavy hitters of the era, when people actually read essays.

(Craig Fitzgerald)

The one that grabbed my attention was called An Essay on the State of the Internal Combustion Engine Enthusiasts Publications or There's a Fly in My Magneto, written by Lawrence Goodridge. In that essay, I think I've found the origins of Car Talk.

The essay complains about the state of automotive enthusiast magazines circa 1967, especially the Letters to the Editor sections.

"Here the editors attempt to answer probing questions posed by leading thinkers from coast to coast," wrote Goodridge. "You know the kind:

J.J.S. from Umpa, Pa., writes:

"Dear Sir:
I recently came across a 1924 Packard inline 16 engine in virtually mint condition. What special difficulties might I encounter in adapting it for my 1949 Crosley?

"I am left in total confusion by car magazines. What is rear spring windup? What is wheel hop? This pedantic jargon is blatant discrimination against the legions of sensitive, highly intelligent men and women who are indeed concerned about their cars, but in simple, less technical fashion. If my car doesn't run, being advised to have my conical frammis rebored is hardly enlightening.

"Arise friends! What we need is our own magazine, called, conceivably, The Befuddled Car Owner's Guide -- for the man who doesn't even know what an oscilloscope is, much less own one. No obtuse slang. No gutsy descriptions. Just plain, homespun talk about cars, and praise be, a readers' column that doesn't require English subtitles."

Goodridge then presciently goes on to describe letters to the editor in his proposed magazines that I swear on my grandmother's life I've heard phoned into Car Talk on at least six non-consecutive occasions.

(Editor's note: It's best if you read the responses in a thick, Boston accent, punctuated by loud cackling.)

Dear Sir:
Every time I hit the smallest bump there is an odd sound in the back of my car. It goes whunk-rrrbrbrbrbr-ka-chunk-slosh, followed by a faint ta-weeta-weeta. Am I in for an expensive repair job?

Dear R. C. Y.:
Nonsense. Simply open your trunk and remove that half-filled bottle of Chianti rolling back and forth between your fender and tool kit. Next, very carefuly inspect that pile of unsightly trash and rags behind your spare tire -- you will find a nest of baby starlings that would probably be happier (and safer) in a nice, quiet tree. (NOTE: This may void your warranty.)

And some advice for a Volkswagen owner in Peoria.

Dear Sir:
On my trips to my mother-in-law's home in Peoria, we use the flat open glove compartment door of our 1959 Volkswagen as a 'traveler's dinette table.' While detouring over a bumpy road recently, a pistachio milk shake overturned on my wife's wool plaid slacks. What should I do?
--J. H. M.

Dear J. H. M.:
It just so happens that I know a very good dry cleaner on the corner of 48th and Spruce in Peoria. Tell him I sent you.

Considering Volkswagen's current woes, it might not be a bad idea to commission a book like this again. To read more about it, and see photos of the great cartoons inside, visit

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