Music & Cars: The songs, bands, and albums influenced by the automobile

Collage: Magnifico / All photography copyright original owners

We dedicated the May/June 2023 issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine to the deep connections between music and cars, including several fun lists featuring your favorite car songs. Come back often or click the Music & Cars tag to stay up to date on these stories as they roll out online. You can also jam out with our custom Music & Cars playlist on Spotify, available here. Read on for Jamie Kitman’s prelude, a historical tour of harmony and horsepower. 

To the best of our knowledge, no one has ever named a car after a song. Yet countless songs have been written about (and named after) cars. And driving. And, as the young folks say, we’re here for that. Throughout history, the most popular songs have been written about romance, yet cars—not only as instruments of romance, but also as romantic ideals and objects of desire themselves—have filled many a verse, chorus, and bridge. That’s not to mention the countless ditties that have been penned to convey the experience and psychological significance of driving. The feels, if you will.

Start with 1905’s “In My Merry Oldsmobile” and see what I mean. Move on to “The Little Ford Rambled Right Along” (1914). Then pass some time with “Henry’s Made a Lady Out of Lizzie” (1927), Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” (1936), and the Andrews Sisters’ recording of “Six Jerks in a Jeep” (1942). Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner share credit for “Rocket 88” (1951). Cue up the Beach Boys’ cut “409” (1962), and Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6,” (1965). Keep forging ahead in time to Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” (1972), War’s “Low Rider” (1975), Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (1975), and maybe Motörhead’s “Motorhead” (1977). Then, take in Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” (1980), and, in a different musical vein, Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” (1985), before moving on to hip-hop, with A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” (1990), Vanilla Ice’s “Rollin’ in My 5.0” (1991), 2Pac’s “Picture Me Rollin’” (1996), 50 Cent’s “Get in My Car” (2005), and Rick Ross’ “Aston Martin Music” (2010). Come up for air and it’s 2020 and Lil Yachty drops “Ferrari Music,” while in 2021, Young Thug and Gunna release “Ski.”

The point is, there have been few deeper wellsprings of subject matter for lyrical consideration than the automobile. Indeed, with all the car-centric songs out there to choose from, selecting examples for the preceding paragraph presented us with a seemingly infinite number of possible formulations, no mainframe computer required. There hasn’t been a month, much less a decade, without a carload of car songs. And then there are the bands named after cars, starting with The Cars.

Car inspired music album art collage
Collage: Magnifico / All photography copyright original owners

It’s no wonder. The advent of recorded music is roughly contemporaneous with that of the automobile, a rather successful device that recorded sound has grown up right alongside, starting with wax cylinders, acetate and later vinyl records, radio, eight-tracks, cassettes, compact discs, digital audio, and more recently, wireless digitized sound and satellite transmission. There are no new Oldsmobiles anymore, alas, and many of the ones left often aren’t very merry. But people are still blasting music in their cars and enjoying it as much as ever.

There’s something singular about listening to music in a car. And something unique, too, with the car as setting and symbol, both conscious and subconscious. It sets one to thinking, thinking, as we’ll see, about all sorts of things. When you put tunes in a moving vehicle, it can lead not just to soul-cleansing introspection but also toe tapping. And thrumming on the steering wheel or banging on the dashtop. Often while singing along at the top of your lungs. I’m going to go out on a limb and say cars and music go together fundamentally better than music went with horses, chariots, or landaulet carriages.

1965 Mercedes SL230 radio
Matt Tierney

According to an American Automobile Association report from 2019, Americans spend a collective 70 billion hours annually behind the wheel. That’s a lot of time for listening to music on the go, made ever more possible with each passing year thanks to an explosion in in-car audio technology and the advent of the cloud. Together, they’ve worked alongside decades of miniaturization as drivers of enhanced listening possibility. For those of a more terrestrial bent, there remain tens of thousands of radio transmitters broadcasting thousands of land-based radio stations to drivers, a cornucopia augmented in recent decades by an ever-expanding profusion of satellite stations beaming la musique down to enabled automobiles from above.

Recently, we asked the regarded music critic Michael Azerrad, author of several books, including the authorized Nirvana biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, for his thoughts on the supernatural connection between cars and music. Traveling around the country as a journalist and a onetime touring musician himself, he has had occasion to consider this topic.

“A car is a great place to listen to music—it’s not like you can get up and do something else, and what you see through the windshield provides a constantly evolving visual soundtrack. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the greatest stereo, since the human ear adjusts to any aural conditions—how many hundreds of millions of people,” he asks, “have had peak listening experiences while listening through a crappy little mono speaker in the dashboard?”

HDC-Kitman car music collage
Collage: Magnifico / All photography copyright original owners

Azerrad continues: “Listening to music in a car is very intimate and intensely private—nobody knows what you’re listening to, and you can pound on the steering wheel and sing as loudly and out of tune as you want, and no one will hear. So, you’re engaging with the music more than you can pretty much anywhere else.  If you’re alone, music will keep you company, and if you’re with other people, it can unite all of you; either way, that forges emotional bonds that you’re just not going to get with, say, talk radio.

“There’s just something about the kinetic energy of music—particularly rock music—that pairs well with driving. And bear in mind, musicians do a lot of traveling on highways, so movement is often built right into the music from the start. To take a literal example, perhaps the ultimate driving album, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, was directly inspired by the sounds of cars whooshing down pristine modern freeways.” Quite so, though if I may get personal for a moment, Kraftwerk never did as much for me as it did for many of my friends. But the Kinks’ “Drivin’” from their 1969 masterpiece Arthur, which celebrated the freedom—or at least the illusion of it—the automobile offered, somehow clicked for me and my auto-fevered brain, despite my tender years.

“And all the troubled world around us

Seems an eternity away

And all the debt collectors

Rent collectors

All will be behind us

But they’ll never find us

’Cos we’ll be drivin’, drivin’, drivin’, drivin’”

The Kinks, “Driven”

The track, like many a Kinks classic, was written from a working-class perspective. Other numbers—for instance, “House in the Country”—allude to the automobile as symbol for persons of wealth (“He’s got a house in the country and a big sports car”). Later still, when the Kinks were more fully established in the rock firmament, they wrote songs like “Motorway,” about the rigors of touring, or the poignant “Sitting in My Hotel.”

“If my friends could see me now,

driving round just like a film star,

In a chauffeur driven jam jar, they would laugh.

They would all be saying that it’s not really me,

They would all be asking who I’m trying to be”

The Kinks, “Sitting in My Hotel”

By way of further biographical footnote, I first became aware of the Kinks as a young child, with 1964’s theretofore impossibly rocking “You Really Got Me,” which I heard on the dashtop speaker serving the lame-o AM radio in my parents’ 1960 Plymouth Valiant wagon. I thought it sounded great. Legend has it that band member Dave Davies stuck a pencil through the speaker of his amplifier to achieve its signature distorted guitar tone, a sound that cut through the fog even on the tinniest of car radio speakers.

Eleven years later, one of the greatest experiences of my early driving career was being able to cue up Kinks’ leader Ray Davies’ moving indictment of consumer culture, “Shangri-La,” in the cassette player of the parental units’ almost-new 1974 Saab 99LE (which also had—gasp, such luxury—an FM radio.) If fuel-injected Saabs with cassette decks were the fruits of consumer culture, well, count me in. Not that we only got carried away by the British Invasion around my house. My sister, Suzy, and I had demanded extended rides in the family’s new 1967 Volvo 122S wagon (which replaced the Valiant) against the chance we could catch on its Bendix AM receiver the Monkees’ single, “Last Train to Clarksville.” Over and over again. Nowadays, of course, it’s a different world. Your kid can listen to any song they want on demand and as often as they want. I pity the modern parent.

1967 Pontiac GTO radio detail
Stefan Lombard

Kids are people, too, and anyone with a pulse has some connection to music. Car guys and car gals are no different. Remembers Bob Boniface, head of design for Buick (and formerly Cadillac): “I used to listen to the [underground alt rock giants] Pixies on WFNX in my car when I lived in Boston. When I moved to Detroit in 1989 to study transportation design at the College for Creative Studies, I discovered that there were no alt rock radio stations in the area. I bought Doolittle on cassette the first day. To me, the Pixies’ music borrowed from nothing—it was pure creativity, and it had a profound impact on my own creative process. I would always start an important sketch assignment by playing ‘Debaser.’” A happy coincidence, of sorts, as Pixies’ frontman Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis, told me he still owns the 1985 Cadillac Fleetwood he bought in 1988 with his first royalty check.

It would be easy to fill volumes free-associating one’s way through this subject, but to give some shape to an inevitably rambling exercise, what follows is a brief outline of the many branches of the car song family, prepared with the kind assistance of the aforementioned critic Azerrad and John Flansburgh, guitarist and founding member (along with John Linnell) of multiple Grammy Award winners They Might Be Giants, a band whose vast catalog includes many songs about cars, including “Electric Car,” “Thunderbird,” “Boat of Car,” “Mink Car,” “The Bloodmobile,” “AKA Driver” (about “Nyquil drivers”), and several others I can’t recall, even though I spent 32 years managing the band. Space limitations and regard for your patience and my own sanity will limit the number of songs referenced, though I’d invite you, the reader, to insert your own favorites in each category and to make up your own.


This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

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    Excellent article and a subject near and dear to me. I’ve always considered myself both a “car guy” and a “music person” simultaneously. I also happen to consider The Kinks a great band, and listen to them often!

    I have an extensive “road trip” playlist, which has two parts: one is strictly songs about cars, trucks, motorcycles, and/or driving (think Six Days on the Road), the other is songs that really sound great (to me) while driving, but have all sorts of titles, subject matter, and artists (Sally Was a Goodtime Girl is a fave). I have what I call my existential favorite: “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz – My Friends All Drive Porches, I Must Make Amends”…

    One of my best on the road memories was going up Manastash Pass about 1:00 a.m. on a cool summer night, kinda drowsy and thinking about pulling over for a nap. Then Ozzy and “Ironman” came on. I cranked that radio up as far as it would go – all windows open – and belted out all the duh-duh-duh-da-dah riffs at the top of my lungs. By the time the song ended, I was refreshed and energized. The radio and I made it all the way to Seattle and breakfast at Denny’s before I ran out of personal “gas”.

    I understand all the folks who say, “I don’t need a stereo, the sound of my growling engine is music to my ears” – and I too love to listen to that particular tune sometimes. But I can’t imagine rolling very far or in very many circumstances where my fingers need to drum on the steering wheel rim, and for that, I’ll fire up to music!

    WABX? WRIF? CJOM? WDET? WLLZ? Cmon jaime, talk to your friends, or hit the scan button on your wonderbar.

    So great to see a Jaime Kitman byline. Doubtlessly Hagerty is the best automotive website extant.

    I could swear that the author’s name is spelled J-A-M-I-E, pronounced as JayMee – but two commenters have spelled it J-A-I-M-E, pronounced as HiMee. Now I’m thoroughly confused: did the author AND the editors ALL miss the spelling error in the byline at the top of this article?


    You forgot the KING – Elvis! e.g. Long Black Limousine, Album: Pink Cadillac, & Chasing Cars. May be more?

    Best regards,

    I must express my complete shock that the music edition and accompanying Spotify playlist didn’t include even ONE Stray Cats song. Cars, especially hotrods, are the essence of their work. Check out the album cover for “Built for Speed” and it will tell you everything you need to know about them! Otherwise, great issue.

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