Turnabout Is Fair Play: Car Talk's Auto-Related Practical Jokes

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 12, 2010

Some practical jokes, like plastering an entire car with Post-It Notes, take perseverance. (Scott Ableman/Flickr photo)
Some practical jokes, like plastering an entire car with Post-It Notes, take perseverance. (Scott Ableman/Flickr photo)

Here's my favorite automotive practical joke, and its from Diner, the movie. It's the 1950s, and the Kevin Bacon character has one of those little MGs that Americans owned before they discovered that the Japanese actually make pretty good cars.

Well, one night he's out with his buddies at the diner, acting kind of out of control, and they're worried about him. He takes off at a high rate of speed and they follow, rounding a corner to discover....The MG on its side, Bacon lying on the ground covered with blood. They approach and he...gets up laughing maniacally. "I worked on that for weeks, WEEKS," he says.

Car Talk's loyal listeners like to laugh--why would they be listening to our show if they didn't? And they've responded to Tom and Ray's request for classic stories with a bumper crop of car-related pranks. And you thought it stopped with a potato in the tailpipe? That's just the beginning. Here's a few favorites, culled from our enormous repository. You can find a lot more of them here. Warning: A few of these are a trifle mean-spirited, if not actively dangerous:

Windows of the Soul

A bunch of us met one night at a theater to see a movie. Some of us got out to the parking lot first and noticed that one of our friends had parked next to a bunch of broken window glass. Knowing that he never locked his car, we opened his door, rolled down the window, and stuck some of the broken glass between the rubber and felt to make it look as if his window had been broken out. (Did I mention it was winter?)

When he came out, he was devastated, but relieved to see his stereo was still there. The next day, he put a piece of cardboard there in an attempt to keep out the cold. Of course, it blew out half way to work. Then he had to sit at his desk and watch out the window as rain and snow blew into his car. (Hey, we're not meteorologists!) At lunch, he took the car into a shop and was met with confused looks from the glass guy, who came to him in the waiting area to tell him there had been a window in there the entire time.

--Laura Douglas

A variation on this story comes from Jason Curtman, a former Missouri police officer, and he played it on a fellow cop:

"I unrolled his driver's side window and spilled broken auto glass that I had gotten from a junkyard around the door and some on the seat. I then put a large rock with a note attached to it that read "PIG" in big black letters, on the driver's seat. I waited down the street...." After explaining the prank, his buddy "cussed me out pretty good, but I bought him a bag of doughnuts and everything was fine."

Terrible Gas Mileage

Men are obsessed with their cars, and there's nothing wrong with that. I've had a few cars that broke my heart when the time came to say goodbye. But when the guy isn't as bright as he thinks he is, and really just wants to show off how shiny his car is, well, a girl can't ignore an opportunity. Especially if the guy is her brother.

My older brother, actually knowing very little about cars, would set the trip odometer at the filling station after each fill-up of the tank. Then he would do the math of dividing the trip odometer by the amount of gas he had to add. Pretty standard, and he would dutifully report his mileage to our father who would judge by the numbers whether or not this car was being abused.

A word to the wise, regarding proper use of packing tape. (Dan Dickinson/Flickr photo)
A word to the wise, regarding proper use of packing tape. (Dan Dickinson/Flickr photo)

One day, my brother was picked up by friends, so the car was home. The trip odometer read 23 miles. I drove the car about 50 miles, reset the trip odometer, then drove around until it read 23 again. No witnesses. The next time, I drove to visit a friend of mine who was in college, 114 miles. Same reset of the trip odometer and no witnesses. (Boy, my parents were never home, were they?)

It never occurred to my brother to check the car's odometer, which would have clearly revealed the extra miles traveled. By the time he left for school, he was more than happy to let his sister have the "badly performing" car. Dad was thrilled that his daughter was such a careful driver.

Note: In variations on this story, the joker surreptitiously ADDS fuel to the car, thus creating a "miracle 70-mpg" vehicle that never existed before.


Snakes in the Car

My father tells of someone he knew who actually experienced this. The friend was giving a party when a guest showed up who was a real practical joker. He'd hide a glass jar containing a live rattlesnake under the seat of his car, ask a friend to retrieve it for him, then would sit back and watch the fun. The party host, wanting revenge, went out and got the exact same jar, snuck out to the joker's car, removed the snake, put the replacement jar in its place, then smashed it with a hammer. Sure enough, the jokester asked somebody to retrieve a package from his car, but his victim came back to say the only thing he found was a broken jar.

That car sat there for weeks. Note: WEEKS!

--Tom Fisher

They're Playing My Song

I was working in customer service at a Toyota dealership in Maryland. So one day, the technical service manager received a service bulletin generated from the computer advising of a problem 1991 Toyota Camry Station Wagons with AM/FM/cassette stereos and roof racks were encountering on braking. It seemed that a resonance could set up a vibration through the roof rack which would then enter the passenger department and refract off of the glass panels and rear hatch, producing tones amazingly like "Rhapsody In Blue" (west of the Mississippi) and "Love Me Tender" (east of the Mississippi). The fix was to install a roof rack static suppressor.

The service manager shook his head, read it again, then showed it to another service manager, who declared the author(s) to be tripping. But when the poor guy next drove his '91 Camry Wagon, he hit the brakes only to experience the first notes of "Love Me Tender" wafting through the car and the third brake light flashing rhythmically. His reaction to this can only be imagined.

What we did: A musical chip had been implanted by one of the techs (his son) in the rear hatch, powered by the brake light wiring. My contribution was to access the computer, generate the tech bulletin on the computer, and have it delivered like any other. One of the most pleasing aspects of this was that it was performed on a man who claimed never to have been the victim of a practical joke, ever, due to his superior intellect and powers of observation and logic.

--Bernie Walsh

The Wail of a Dying Cat


I worked for a huge toy store in Eugene, Oregon, and I had a boss who drove me nuts. He drove a brand-new BMW and would whine about how he had to stay at work because the rest of us "couldn't eat a banana without directions." A co-worker and I decided that there needed to be a little friendly payback.

After brainstorming, we stopped at a local convenience store on our way to work and bought a half-dozen plastic harmonicas and some super glue. We glued the harmonicas UNDERNEATH the car, so when he reached about 45 mph, his car would rise in a high-pitched whine that played a melody like a dying cat. It took him two weeks of scratching his head and checking his tires before he took his beloved BMW in. After realizing he had been fooled, he never brought up his precious car again. I still get a huge smile whenever I think of that prank!

--Scott Donaldson


OK, as a reward for getting this far, here's a car-related prank on video that a guy pulled on his wife. And they're still married! At least I think they are:

Where's the Juice?

In high school we had a couple of super mechanics that not only spent a great amount of time perfecting their cars, but thought it was hilarious to steal the rotors off of someone else's car. One Saturday night, we noticed one of their cars parked unattended, so we opened the hood, removed the battery terminals, and put a bit of plastic wrap over the post, carefully trimming off any that showed before we reattached the cables. Probably easy to spot in the day, but on a dark and rainy night, it kept them busy for hours.

--Bob Oenning

Who Moved My Cheese?

I have a joke starring my friend John's bright red '51 Chevy convertible. This was in 1958, in the school parking lot at Downey High School in Modesto, California, the actual school and town George Lucas fictionalized in American Graffiti. John had been driving behind me with his top down and complained in front of friends that my '47 Studebaker Champion stunk. (Technically, this was true since it was before the ring job). I decided to show John what stinky was, so I bought some limburger cheese and smeared it on his cylinder head and manifold during a break. You know the rest, but my theory that limburger redolence improves when heated was confirmed by John.

--Doug Davies

Weather Report

We had a teacher in high school that was very tough on all his students. One day after school, he found several of us had taken a surplus weather balloon and inflated it inside his car. These balloons are extremely large, very pliable and will expand into and around anything in the car. He finally got in by hacking his way in. Funny thing is, he turned out to be my favorite and best teacher in high school.

--David Wilkins

There you have it. Those are a few of our favorite automotive practical jokes-- "favorite," at least, in the sense that we loved reading about them. Would we enjoy the thought that a live rattlesnake might be curled up under dash, waiting until we got up to 75 mph to sink his fangs into our thigh? Not so much. We're sure we missed a few classics, too. Got a favorite automotive practical joke or prank that's circulated around your friends and families for years? You can share it right here. Thanks -- and don't forget to check under the seat.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One