Top 10 Oldies Songs About Cars

Classic Top 40 Hits About Cars

Hard as it is to believe now, Detroit was once the symbol of the USA's national pride, the crowning achievement of working-class capitalism and the uniquely American contribution to the industrial era.

The cars they produced were not only vehicles but symbols of pride, prowess, and purchasing power, a standard of luxury and/or speed attainable to just about anyone. As these hit top 40 songs prove, however, the journey brought with it the seeds of its own destruction. Here are the 10 best oldies hits about cars and car culture.

Hardly the first R&B hit about a car -- it borrows heavily from Jimmy Liggins' 1947 smash "Cadillac Boogie" -- but arguably the first to match the sleek power of its subject, in this case a mere Oldsmobile, movement for movement. More importantly, its loud, clean, urbane, smooth-yet-distorted sound created a basic formula for rock and roll, and since cars largely transcend race, that made it a perfect vehicle, if you will, for a crossover. Ike Turner, who was the real "Jackie Brenston" here, would have to wait for fifteen years and one tumultuous marriage in order to reach the white kids.

Chuck Berry's genius lay at least in part in his uncanny ability to read the mind of the typical affluent adolescent, and the song that first hit for him had it all: a story, a girl, and an epic battle between a Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a plainer, older, but more powerful "flathead" V8 Ford. As always with great storytellers, the details are what make it, in this case the deus ex machina of a last minute rainstorm which cools Chuck's motor off just in time for him to catch that Caddy and rescue his fickle girl. As silly and thrilling a sonic chase as you'd find in any silent movie.
A steadily accelerating mini-opera of a novelty sung by a trio of collegiate cut-ups, this Number Four hit was torn squarely from the trade headlines of 1958: a Cadillac, the epitome of Cold War class and comfort, being taken over on the road by a Nash Rambler, the first of the lighter, speedier, more fuel-efficient compacts. It's like a metaphor for what Japan would soon start to do to Detroit. And it turns out in the big reveal that the Rambler hasn't even left second gear yet. (It apparently had a tendency to get stuck in overdrive.)

The Beach Boys were a surf band first, but Hot Rod culture went hand-in-hand with that pursuit in sunny California, so when Capitol ordered a whole album of car songs, the boys were bound to comply. "409" was fast enough for hotrod music enthusiasts, but this is the real boss model, mainly because Brian Wilson's showroom gleam is all over it. The Deuce in question here is a 1932 Ford Model B, another flathead engine tricked out in this case with a "competition clutch" and "four on the floor" (a four-speed transmission with a floor shifter). It's "ported and relieved" and "stroked and bored," meaning the engine's been altered to take in more air and move faster. No wonder it does 140 mph!

The GTO (which stands for "Gran Turismo Omologato") was an Italian sportscar concept that Pontiac happily applied to their new line, although it had little in common with "touring cars" other than a larger-than-usual V8 engine. The result was arguably the first affordable mass-produced muscle car, a specialty line far more powerful than anything actually needed on the street. Ronny and the Daytonas (get it?), despite being from all the way over in Nashville, took Brian Wilson's lessons to heart right down to the "yeah yeahs" and "wah wah wahs," but the lyrics are the most impressive option, giving the kind of explicit detail only a "ho dad" could appreciate.

Songwriter Sir Mack Rice, as he was actually known, originally fell into the Cadillac mythos when he decided the time was right for a new new car song. But by the time he started to write it, sports cars had overtaken luxury ones in the public mind. Undaunted, he switched over to the first "pony car," the Ford Mustang, creating a sex-as-vehicle metaphor that would be emulated by everyone from Led Zeppelin to Prince. Fast girls now wanted fast cars, and the wicked Pickett, who covered Mack's song the following year, certainly had the kind of voice to make that comparison obvious.

Jerry had already realized country-funk and novelty lyrics would get him over on pop radio ("Amos Moses" and "When You're Hot, You're Hot" had already scaled the charts), but this clockwork-tight little number was something else, a statement on the entire auto industry and the way it helped the american gas-guzzling dream get out of hand. It's all here, and all hilarious: the smog, the traffic, the payments, the upkeep, and the assertion that if all the cars in the country were laid end to end, "some damn fool would probably pull out to pass."

Riding the early '70s retro boom, the good Commander retooled an old country boogie number about road racing, postwar style, first recorded by Charlie Ryan and the Livingston Brothers in 1955. The song was driven, no pun intended, by nostalgia more than anything by that point; teens were no longer dropping Ford Model A bodies on top of Lincoln-Zephyr V12 engines, which Ryan himself did. The song worked anyway, because it was still a great groove and a great story: the beleaguered dad, the cops, and most of all the thrill of racing a Cadillac sedan at speeds that can't help but get the adrenaline moving.

It's remarkable in many ways, mostly as a prime slice of blaxploitation-era funk lite, but Vaughn -- not Curtis Mayfield, despite the sonic similarities -- failed at his primary object, which was to remind inner city youths that possessions didn't buy self respect. Listeners were too beguiled by the very concept of a Cadillac with a sunroof, TV, "gangster whitewalls," and a "diamond in the back," which referred to the early '70s model with a private, diamond-shaped rear window.

It was a hit the Man in Black needed badly in the middle of a Seventies slump, but "One Piece at a Time" was also a workingman's revenge fantasy, not to mention the first place anyone heard the word "psychobilly." Can't afford a Cadillac? Just grab it bit by bit from the assembly line over three decades! Trouble is, like Detroit's own prototypes, the brilliant plan results in one unwieldy and rather ugly status symbol. Punchline: the model year, which Johnny's still running through as the song fades out.