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Car Songs and Movies

By Jeff Zurschmeide

There was a defining moment in the history of the automobile in the 1950s. Actually, there were a bunch of defining moments for automobiles in the 1950s, but the one we’re talking about today is that musicians starting singing songs about cars--in a big way. It was part of a broad cultural shift that also included the rise of the Teenager as a distinct cultural segment of western society and the birth of the Rock and Roll style of popular music. At the same time, as a nation we got rich enough for many adolescents to afford cars and have some spending money in their pockets.

OK, so enough with the academic analysis ­- what we care about is that the cars we love became the stars of songs and movies. Every old car enthusiast has his or her favorite song, and car-themed gatherings from pizza parlor cruise-ins to the swankest concours d’elegance always feature music from the golden age of cars. Similarly, every one of us keeps a personal collection of our favorite car movies. It’s just part of the car hobby.

The Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) maintains a fantastic collection of car songs back to 1902--and you can even listen to them! Similarly, cars have been playing starring roles in movies since before the talkies, with the race car driver as a perennial favorite hero: Car Tunes at AACA.

But the car song really came into its own in the 1950s, and the car movie followed shortly thereafter. With songs like “Maybellene” recorded by Chuck Berry (and then copied shamelessly by Elvis Presley) and “Devil’s Hot Rod” by Johnny Taylor, the notion of the car song really took hold. It wasn’t long after those tunes that Elvis appeared in a whole string of car-themed movies like Speedway and Spinout.

By the 1960s, the car song was a staple--the Beach Boys sang more often about cars than about sand and surf! With hits like “409,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “Shut Down,” the Beach Boys led the way for acts like Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve” and Ronny & The Daytonas’ “Little GTO.”

In the 1970s, the car song seemed to lose some of its youthful enthusiasm, but the decade still gave us a number of great car songs. In particular, “Hot Rod Lincoln” by Commander Cody and the iconic “I’m in Love With My Car” by Queen are memorable. The decade also saw the rise of Bruce Springsteen, whose songs often use cars as metaphors for life, love, and even death in the case of his well-known hit, “Cadillac Ranch.”

After 1970s, retro bands picked up many of the old hits from the 40s and 50s and gave them new life. David Lindley remade “Mercury Blues” and Alan Jackson gave us a country take on the same tune. Brian Setzer, both in the Stray Cats and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, has recorded a double-handful of car songs in the last 20 years.

The car movie has had its ups and downs. In my opinion, the animated feature Cars that came out in 2006 is among the best car movies ever made. But also high on the list would be Grand Prix with James Garner and Toshiro Mifune, and Le Mans with Steve McQueen. For car films that take place away from a race track, there are choices like Driving Miss Daisy and even the B-horror flick Christine where cars are central to telling the story. And there’s the ever-popular Herbie franchise, with the lovable and magical little VW bug.

In the world of short films, the top of any list includes Rendezvous, a 7-minute one-take shot of a screaming drive through downtown Paris. The director bolted a camera to the front bumper of a Ferrari and had a driver run it across the city at maximum speed without stopping for lights, traffic, or anything. When the film was shown, the French police arrested the filmmaker! Another must-see is the Sound of Speed by Bruce Kessler, an inside look at Formula 1 racing with Lance Reventlow and the revolutionary Scarab team.

As long as cars remain part of our world, there will be car songs and car movies -and there’s always more to mention and more to learn. There are far more tunes and films that I could mention here, so let me ask you to continue the conversation in our forums-­ tell us what we’re missing!

Dos and Don'ts
Thumb up  DO
  • Play your favorite car songs while driving your restored classic
  • Sing along with gusto - especially at stoplights with the windows rolled down
  • Imagine you’re the lead character in your favorite car movie

Thumb down  DON’T
  • Don’t play air guitar while driving
  • Don’t lose track of how fast you’re going - that’s embarrassing to explain to police
  • Don’t forget that movie stunt drivers are better than you, and get as many takes as they need to pull that bootlegger turn

Dean Case - Car Guy Extraordinaire

By Jeff Zurschmeide

Dean Case is the media relations for Mazda Motorsports. He’s also one of the most devoted fans of music in the world, and has been collecting car songs for decades.

PR: You have the best car song playlist of anyone in the world. Is that right?

DC: I’ve got about 1300 car songs, and that’s just on my iPod. I have some more on vinyl, but I need to find a turntable that will allow me to pull them off that medium.

PR: How did you get started collecting all these songs?

DC: It’s kind of funny. I’ve always enjoyed music, and some songs were obvious, like the old Beach Boys recordings. But what did it for me was a George Harrison song called “Faster” in the late 70s. I bought a picture disc single of that song, and that started me collecting car songs. I just started finding more and more, and going out of my way to find them.

PR: Some songs are obvious, as you said. What about the unexpected songs?

DC: I’ve got some really obscure songs. I’ve found that in the 50s and 60s, for dealer meetings, it was not unusual for the automaker to hire a music group to compose original songs about the brand. Ford did it, Chevy did it, even John Deere tractors!

PR: Give me an example of a funny car song?

DC: “In My Gremlin” by the Rave Ups.

PR: What about racing songs?

DC: Mark Knopfler’s “Speedway at Nazareth” on the Sailing to Philadelphia album. He took some liberties with the schedule, but hey, it’s a great song. Also, Mojo Nixon and Steve Roper recorded the Ballad of Wendell Scott, about the first African-American driver in NASCAR back in the 60s.

PR: What makes a good car song?

DC: Like any other song - does it move you? Most car songs are upbeat, fun songs. Richard Thompson of the Fairport Convention is amazing, and he has two of the best car songs you’ll ever hear. One is called “My MGB-GT” and the other is “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” which is a motorcycle song. Paul Revere and the Raiders did a couple, but they were GM promotional items that never made it to their commercial records. They recorded songs like “Corvette Baby,” “SS396,” and the “Pontiac GTO Judge Breakaway.” Those were commissioned songs that were released on 45 RPM singles only.

PR: Where do you find all these songs?

DC: Before the Internet, I used to go through bins of used records. A lot of times, I’d spend 50 cents or a buck to buy a used record. Some of them I wasn’t sure, because the song was called something like “Mustang” and I didn’t know if it meant the car, the horse, or the airplane.

PR: Where do you look to find car songs today?

DC: I like iTunes, because you can listen before you buy and you can just buy the songs you want, not the whole albums.

PR: Have you ever thought about getting the rights and publishing these collections?

DC: I contacted Rhino Records once. I sent them a mock-up of my idea of a 4-CD set and they loved the idea. Eventually, they produced a 4-CD set that came in a model car box. It was nominated for a Grammy for best packaging in 2000. I’m probably the only automotive engineer turned PR person who has a Grammy nomination.

Click on any item below for more details at Amazon.com

The Beach Boys
Greatest Car Songs
Capitol Records, Audio CD
Includes “I Get Around,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Shut Down,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “This Car of Mine,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “409,” “Then I Kissed Her,” “Little Honda,” “Custom Machine,” and “Spirit of America.”

Various Artists
Car And Driver: Greatest Car Songs And Other Lost Treasures Of The Road
Peter Pan, Audio CD
Includes “No Particular Place to Go,” “On the Road Again,” “Highway 49,” “Rocket 88,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Ballad of Thunder Road,” “Hot Rod Race,” “409,” “Little G.T.O.,” “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Shut Down,” “Route 66,” “Drag City,” and “Hot Rod Lincoln.”

The Rip Chords
Hey Little Cobra and Other Hot Rod Hits
Sundazed Music Inc., Audio CD

Various Artists
Hot Rod: Hot Rod Cowboys
Capitol, Audio CD

Various Artists
Hot Rod: Hot Rod Rebels
Capitol, Audio CD

Various Artists
Hillbilly Hot Rod and Automobile Songs
Jasmine Music, Audio CD

Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Rodger Bumpass, George Carlin
Cars (Widescreen Edition)
Walt Disney Video, DVD

Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, Fred Haltiner
Le Mans
Paramount, DVD

Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Wagner
Universal Studios, DVD

Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, Don Gordon, Simon Oakland
Warner Home Video, DVD

Spirit Level Film, DVD, 2004

Elvis Presley, Shelley Fabares, Diane McBain, Dodie Marshall, Deborah Walley
Warner Home Video, DVD

Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra, Bill Bixby, Gale Gordon, William Schallert
Warner Home Video, DVD

James Murray, Joan Marsh, Jackie Searle, Eddie Lambert
High Gear
Alpha Home Entertainment, DVD

Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd, Patti LuPone, Esther Rolle
Driving Miss Daisy (Keepcase)
Warner Home Video, DVD

Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton
Christine (Special Edition)
Sony Pictures, DVD
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