Do you know the difference between a Pontiac GTO’s Rally I and Rally II wheels? How about a Porsche 917 Langheck and Kurzheck? Can you identify different Tri-Five Chevys by their taillights? Many car folks have hard-drive-like knowledge baked into their frontal cortexes. Well, the same memory skills exist for car songs. This became apparent while eating at a neighborhood café this week, when the casual mention of a single car song begat another and another in an impressive snowball effect.
In just minutes, three of us had identified 39 songs ranging from 1951’s “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston to 2014’s “Talladega” by Eric Church. Searching “car song” on the internet would have netted dozens – and maybe even hundreds – more but that wasn’t really the point. What fascinated me here was the free association that quickly produced a simmering pot-full of songs that we all enjoyed and could immediately reprise accurately by riff, lyric, chorus, chord and note. And most noteworthy, that the song content dealt with particular cars and driving situations, such as cruising, dating or street racing. Amazed by this latent knowledge, I jotted the tunes down on a paper placemat, and later created a chart to see what the songs revealed about our driving interests and us.
The song topic most represented in our dinnertime recollections was street, drag or road racing (11 instances), appearing in “Little Deuce Coupe,” “409” and “Shut Down” (The Beach Boys), “Drag City” and “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” (Jan & Dean), “G.T.O.” (Ronny and the Daytonas), “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry), “Hey Little Cobra” (The Rip Chords), “Talladega” (Eric Church) and “Beep Beep” (The Playmates), the 1958 song about a little Nash Rambler racing a Cadillac.
Just as interestingly, the most often covered car brand was Ford (eight instances) appearing in “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Ballad of Ole’ Betsy” (The Beach Boys), “Surf City” (Jan & Dean), “Thunderbird” (John Hiatt), “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry), “Silver Thunderbird” (Marc Cohn) and “Making Thunderbirds” (Bob Seger). Huh. So at heart, we’re Ford guys who like to race? Maybe. But also perhaps, certain songwriters were!
Looking for some outside perspective here, I called Dean Torrence, the Jan & Dean singer who had made possible Hagerty’s “Surf City Here We Come” story in 2014. “What’s your favorite car song?” I asked, expecting him to say “Dead Man’s Curve” or perhaps “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” But no. “’Beep Beep,’ he said. “That was the first one I ever heard. It was clever and funny, and it also had a clever ending – a little tongue in cheek. Most entertaining.”
Did we miss a bunch in our foray into the topic over dinner? You bet. We totally missed “I Get Around” and “Don’t Worry Baby” by The Beach Boys, “The Motorcycle Song” by Arlo Guthrie, “Drive” by Alan Jackson and “No Particular Place to Go” by Chuck Berry. We likewise missed “Tennessee Plates” by John Hiatt, “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett, “Skidmarks on my Heart” by the Go-Go’s and plenty more. We also failed calling out numerous bands with car names such as Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and The Cadillacs. How could we? Either dinner wasn’t long enough or, more likely, our circuits just got overloaded with minutia while recalling song titles and artists. Mental random access memory (R.A.M.) isn’t as sharp as a good Google search, it seems. So a fuller list will require another visit to the café (and our memory vaults) another time.
Nonetheless, among the 39 songs we identified over our tuna melts and coleslaw (hold the pie), after finding and listening to them on YouTube, I was determined to pick my own top three favorites to conclude this article. But that proved quite impossible. Listening to more than a dozen “finalists” time and again, it dawned on me that most were equally good, and that they just emoted car experiences differently. So in the end, rather than cut highly deserving songs just to achieve a predictable “top three,” I divided my nine faves into five genres instead. And here they are.
If you like, listen to them and let us know what you think. Or better yet, send us your own list, randomly picked over dinner in your favorite café of course! We’d love to hear them too.
Little Deuce Coupe by The Beach Boys, 1963
The Little Old Lady from Pasadena by Jan & Dean, 1964
Little Honda by The Beach Boys, 1964
Born to Be Wild by Steppenwolf, 1968
Maybellene by Chuck Berry, 1955
Mercury Blues by David Lindley, 1981
Red Dirt Road by Brooks & Dunn, 2003
Talladega by Eric Church, 2014
Thunderbird by John Hiatt, 2005