This fall, we’re celebrating Car Talk’s 25th Anniversary--that’s the silver muffler clamp anniversary, in case you were wondering.
All fall long we’ll be sharing memories, embarrassing photos and more.
This week, we’re visiting Tom and Ray’s original garage in Our Fair City, Cambridge. It’s name? Hacker’s Haven-- because, unlike other shops, this one was a DIY affair. Car Talk Plaza's web lackey, Connie, found out a few rather unusual tidbits about this quirky Cambridge institution from days of yore. Here’s her report.
CONNIE: How did the garage get started?
TOM: I had the idea for a Do-It-Yourself garage when I was working as a long-range planner.
RAY: He was a long-range planner... can you imagine that? He can’t plan past his afternoon cappuccino.
TOM: Gotta love Corporate America! My job was looking for trends and new opportunities. I noticed that the cost of fixing your car was getting higher and higher, and thought there were lots of repairs that a car owner could do himself. Presto! Hacker’s Haven.
RAY: He recognized an opportunity that his fellow cheapskates wouldn’t be able to resist.
TOM: I mentioned it to my brother because he needed something to do. He had just been chased out of the state of Vermont for his abysmal teaching record.
Connie: It must have been exciting, starting a new business!
TOM: I regretted it immediately! I had a great gig doing odd jobs and bumming around Harvard Square, and starting a garage takes real work.
RAY: The real story is that Tommy was one step up from being a bum. Our mother called me and begged me to rescue him. We thought if we could get him working again, we could save him from a life of indolence and vagrancy. So, when Tommy suggested the garage idea, I jumped.
CONNIE: Did you guys have experience working on cars?
RAY: I remember watching Tommy take apart his cars when I was a kid. They were heaps of junk, just like today. But the real fun would start when he would desperately try to put them back together again.
TOM: The measure of success is whether the car runs. The cardboard boxes full of extra parts led me to discover one of our key principles: Most cars have a lot of unnecessary parts.
CONNIE: Your Principle of Superfluous Parts has been applied as far away as the Hubble Space Telescope!
TOM: Thank you for recognizing my genius.
CONNIE: A DIY shop was a pretty novel idea them. How did you attract customers?
RAY: We had to advertise at first but by the time we opened, we weren’t even the only DIY garage in town. In the end, though, we had plenty of business.
TOM: It was a different time back then. There were lots of hippies driving VW busses who wanted to do their own repairs.
RAY: People figured out that we offered a little bit more than the other guys, and we actually offered advice, what they didn’t offer. And laughs.
TOM: Lots of laughs! We had more fun than the other guys.
CONNIE: Was it just you two in the shop?
RAY: To start, yes. But, before long, we got our first employee, the great Nigel Rickarts. Nigel fit the place perfectly. He was a hacker. He lived in Mexico for a long time, where you couldn’t buy parts. So, he came to us with lots of training.
TOM: He could fix anything. With anything. He worked hard.
CONNIE: So early on you learned the value of hiring other people to do all the real work?
TOM: Exactly! I never wanted to work in the first place.
RAY: You still don’t!
CONNIE: Any memorable mishaps?
TOM: Plenty. I'll tell you, when you have that kind of a business, you attract the lunatic fringe.
RAY: We had two guys come in with a Karmann Ghia and they were attempting to put new brake calipers on. They installed the calipers upside down so they couldn’t bleed the brake lines. We weren’t watching, so we didn’t know what was going on. But we did notice that they kept coming to the window and asking to buy more brake fluid!
TOM: By the end of day two, there was pool of brake fluid the size of Lake Erie under the car.
RAY: They had used up all the brake fluid we had.
CONNIE: What other kinds of problems did you run into back then?
RAY: Well, Tom wasn’t meeting any girls, so that was a problem--for him! So we figured, what better way to meet some women than to run coed courses in car repair?
TOM: A lot of people came to take the course because they really wanted to find out how to get started on basic repairs.
RAY: It was at a time when women were getting interested in doing anything and everything. With the courses, we were creating our own customers!
TOM: Customers--and dates.
RAY: It was pure genius!
CONNIE: So what happened to Hacker’s Haven?
RAY: It worked well--for a while. But it was a constant evaluation process. People would come in with high expectations and we sometimes had to hold them down because they were about to start a project that was way over their heads.
TOM: At the same time you didn’t want to stifle business, but we also didn’t want people to come in with the expectation they’re going to rebuild the transmission on their car when, in fact, they didn’t know which end of the screwdriver to hold.
RAY: Over time, we realized we were doing all the work on the cars, anyway. It was too painful watching people botch jobs.
TOM: So, we were running a full-service garage....
RAY: Only not getting paid a dime for it. After a few years of doing that, we wised up.
CONNIE: In the end, it sounds like Hacker’s Haven was really just an elaborate ruse to get Tommy off the streets--and married.
TOM: Hey, one outta two ain't bad.