Car Life Nation

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

A silver 1964 Pontiac GTO is shown from a front angle.

I’m in Love with My Car: Cars That Inspired Music

When I used to DJ on college radio many years ago, I’d love to put together sets that were inspired by different subjects. Halloween would always feature scary songs, and I’d often program a block of summer sunshine music when the Massachusetts sky gave us a blizzard. But my favorite sets were the ones built around cars that inspired music. Since the folks at Chevrolet started offering their cars with an optional AM radio back in 1922, the connection between cars and music has been one that is unlike any other. Hip cats were getting their kicks on Route 66 with Nat King Cole while actually driving on that famous highway. Others were declaring I’m in Love with My Car while singing along to Roger Taylor and Queen. No, the great Freddie Mercury didn’t sing lead vocals on that song.

Whether you listen to the radio, stream your music from an app via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, or are still jamming an eight-track into your dashboard, chances are you don’t go out for a drive without some music playing. Chances are also pretty strong that at least one song on your playlist mentions an automotive brand by name or deals with driving. Here are some of my favorites.

Where It All Began: 1960s Hot-Rods and Drag Races

One of the first rock songs about cars is often credited as the first rock song ever. Recorded in 1951, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats is all about cruising around in a black convertible Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a V8 engine, picking up girls along the way. No wonder the infamous Ike Turner actually provided the music.

The car song genre would really hit the pavement in the 1960s. Even though the genre was surf music, many songs actually dealt with cars and driving. This is not surprising since the only Beach Boy who knew how to surf was drummer Dennis Wilson, while his big brother Brian Wilson was the one writing all the songs. I Get Around is all about cruising the streets of Southern California but getting tired of the “same old strip.” Although the specific car Brian and his buddies are driving never gets mentioned, he’d go one better with Fun Fun Fun, which is all about a girl who borrows her dad’s T-Bird to cruise around with her friends instead of doing her homework.

Brian Wilson would follow these hits with a string of songs about cars. The hit song Little Deuce Coupe was about a hot rod version of a 1932 Ford Coupe. 409 is all about a Chevy with a big-block 409-cubic-inch V8, while Shut Down features a drag race between a Corvette Stingray and a 413 Max Wedge. Surprisingly, Little Honda by the Beach Boys was actually inspired by Honda motorcycles since it wasn’t until 1969 that Honda exported its first car to America. Other acts also got into the car song scene, with Ronny and the Daytonas putting out the awesome GTO, all about the famed 1964 Pontiac GTO.

Brian went on to gift his friends Jan Berry and Dean Torrence the song Surf City, giving them their first hit. As expected, the gang in Surf City load up their ’34 Woodie wagon and head out to the fabled town that is “two to one.” Jan and Dean would have their own set of car hits as well. The Little Old Lady from Pasadena shocks her neighbors by driving a Super Stock Dodge hotrod. Meanwhile, Dead Man’s Curve would feature a drag race between two daredevils, one in a Jaguar XKE and the other in a Corvette Stingray. This song is about an actual curve in LA’s Sunset Boulevard just west of Doheny Drive, which was the site of many accidents over the years. Sadly, the song would prove prophetic as Jan would get into a near-fatal car crash in his Jaguar on nearby Whittier Boulevard.

Car Crash Hits

Sadly, one aspect of driving is the prevalence of car accidents. This gave rise to an entire subgenre of car songs, the teenage car crash death song. Tell Laura I Love Her by Ray Peterson deals with a race car driver who dies while trying to win prize money to buy an engagement ring. Mark Dinning’s Teen Angel is about a girl who gets killed trying to retrieve her class ring from a car that is stalled on a railroad tracks. Last Kiss by Wayne Cochran goes one step further, having the song’s singer being the cause of the accident that takes his girlfriend’s life. The Shangri-La’s Leader of the Pack replaces the car with a motorcycle accident. The song was partly recorded at Ultrasonic Recording Studios in my hometown of Hempstead, New York. The car crash subgenre would never go away, being parodied by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in Death Cab for Cutie and revived by Kiss in their hit song, Detroit Rock City.

Neil Young took this subgenre in a different direction with Long May You Run. This was about the death of his beloved 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse. Neil had given it the name Mort Hearseberg. This was a legendary vehicle, the first of many General Motors hearses he owned over the years. Neil and his pal Bruce Palmer drove a 1953 Pontiac Hearse from Ontario to LA, hoping to meet up with Stephen Stills. The vehicle’s uniqueness made it easy for Stephen to spot, and Neil joined Stephen’s band Buffalo Springfield and, later, Crosby Stills Nash & Young. The rest, as the saying goes, is music history.

Route 66 is shown painted on a highway.

Cadillac Ranches and Sports Cars Galore

Certain makes and models would have a big influence on music. It seems like there are more songs about Cadillacs than any other model. Whether this is because musicians love the brand or the prevalence of Bruce Springsteen name-checking the maker of the Escalade is up for debate, but it seems like so many songs feature a Cadillac. One of the first was Brand New Cadillac by Vince Taylor and His Playboys, an obscure B-side from 1959 that found new life when The Clash decided to cover it for their classic LP, London Calling. Bruce Springsteen wrote Cadillac Ranch about the installation on Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas. It features ten old Cadillacs buried nose-down in a field. The Boss would also write Pink Cadillac, which would become a hit for Natalie Cole, the daughter of Nat King Cole, who recorded Get Your Kicks on Route 66. Yes, this is all connected.

Speaking of a pink Cadillac, this was Aretha Franklin’s preferred vehicle. The Queen of Soul drove one with a vanity license plate, “RESPECT.” She even sang about it in her hit song, Freeway of Love, while Don Henley mentioned a “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” in his hit song The Boys of Summer.

Glam rockers T. Rex also had a thing about cars, with singer Marc Bolan mentioning a Cadillac in Bang a Gong/Get it On and a Jaguar in Jeepster. It is unclear if he gets credit for mentioning Jeep in the latter song.

Speaking of sports cars, several classic models have been featured in great songs over the years. Wilson Pickett sang about Mustang Sally, a girl who liked to speed around in her ’65 Ford Mustang. Commander Cody was driving his daddy to drinking by driving around in his Hot Rod Lincoln. Geddy Lee sang about driving his uncle’s two-seat sports car in Rush’s Red Barchetta. This was written by drummer Neil Peart, who was quite the gearhead and long-distance motorcycle adventurer. Janis Joplin pined for a car produced by German automaker Mercedes-Benz, even though she and her friends all drove Porsches. And who can forget Prince’s Little Red Corvette? This ranks as one of the greatest car songs of all time, with the classic opening line, “I guess I should’ve known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last.” I guess Tracy Chapman was right. There is something about a Fast Car.

Like a Rock

The only brand that might rival Cadillac when it comes to the overall number of car songs is Chevrolet. Elton John reminisced about his “old gold Chevy” in Crocodile Rock. Don McLean used a Chevy pickup as a reference point for innocence lost in his classic American Pie. “Drove my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry.”

Back in the 1970s, Chevy vans were the rage. Sammy Johns’s Chevy Van remains a staple, with numerous cover versions by rock and country artists. Today, the Chevy Express is the only classic American-style van still in production, with Ford and Ram switching to models designed in or imported from Europe. I guess folks will never forget the days when a famous bumper sticker said, “If the van’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’.”

Detroit’s own Bob Seger would seem to be a natural when it comes to writing songs about cars and trucks. Night Moves deals with Bob remembering his days making out in the backseat of a 1960 Chevy. Like a Rock became the theme song for Chevy trucks for many years, one of many great truck tunes. The Eagles’ Take It Easy mentions a girl in a flatbed Ford in Winslow, Arizona. The line was Glenn Frey’s only addition to a song written by Jackson Browne, who had his own driving songs like Running on Empty.

Truckers would get plenty of their own anthems over the years. Life is a Highway would become a hit twice, first for Tom Cochrane and then for Rascal Flatts. Eddie Rabbit was Driving My Life Away, while Jerry Reed was headed Eastbound and Down in the classic car movie Smokey and the Bandit. Don’t ask what the Grateful Dead were Truckin’, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive “rented a truck and a semi to go travel down the long and winding road.” Later, the singer lamented, “I’d like to have a jet, but it’s not in the song.” That’s right. Because we were only covering songs inspired by cars and trucks.

The Future of Car Songs

Where will the future bring the car song genre? Who knows. Maybe the next ones will be about battery-electric vehicles. Trends and vehicles may change, but it seems like car songs will always be with us. One of my favorites is by the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. He wrote a song called One Piece at a Time about a disgruntled employee at the Cadillac factory (yes, another Cadillac song) who decides to get back at General Motors by stealing one piece of a car each year. What does he end up with? Let’s hear Johnny Cash describe it:

“Well, it’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58, ’59 automobile. It’s a ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70 automobile”

What are some of your favorite songs inspired by cars? Tell us if you think we missed any in the comment section below.

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