Our Two Cents: What Is Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”?


Perhaps because we identify with songwriters as storytellers ourselves, the staff at Hagerty Media has an affinity for songs that tell a compelling, deep, and complex tale. That’s not easy to do, and it’s tough for a track like that to be a popular success. But that’s precisely what Fast Car, Tracy Chapman’s smash hit from 1988, accomplished.

Too bad car enthusiasts were always left with a singular question, one that the official music video never answered. Aside from a worn-out tire (?) at the end, the music video tells us nothing about the car that saved her from the past. If the car condemned her to a less-than-desirable future, it can’t exactly be that heroic of a vehicle … or could it?

Combined with the renewed interest in Fast Car thanks to Luke Combs, asking the Hagerty Media staff about their best guesses was only natural. (I’d like to thank Hagerty contributor Brendan McAleer for posing this question.)

Here are our answers, and we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Beat-up Tri-Five Chevy

Chevrolet front end closeup double rainbow
Jeff McLaughlin

Since this story is about escaping a small town, and it was written in the late ’80s, I assume the “fast car” is a rough hot rod that a young guy could afford given his disadvantaged circumstances. A beat-to-hell, two-door-post Tri-Five Chevy always fit the bill for me, as the owner could get one for almost nothing out of a farmer’s yard, then work a menial job to earn enough to yank a hot small-block from a junked first-gen Camaro.

This fast car would be akin to the 1955 Chevy in Two-Lane Blacktop but owned by someone who had no interest in making a sleeper that could go drag racing. — Sajeev Mehta

’78 Camaro Z-28

1978 Camaro Z28 front three quarter

I see a beat-up ’78 Camaro Z-28 pulling up to the 7-11 and picking Tracy up after her second shift. The passenger handle creaks when she pulls at it, and the long F-body door rattles shut behind her once she’s in. Flowmaster mufflers (and a bit of exhaust leak) sound off, and the car roars away into the dark, even though it’s got nowhere to go. The cinematic view of this song was always clear as day in my head. “Fast Car” and Bruce’s “Racing in the Street” were the musical representations of car-as-escape for me. — Eddy Eckart

Datsun 280ZX

1981 Datsun 280ZX front

I think it’s a Datsun 280ZX with an automatic, and it was just a used car her comrade bought for $800 off some corner lot in Cleveland. Even though time marches on in the song, and Chapman’s friend essentially turns into her drunkard father, I don’t think the car changes. I think it’s just older and crappier but still considered fast because that’s how she remembers it, and now it only looks fast. — Stefan Lombard

Turbo Buick

Buick GNX front three quarter

Let’s see … late 1980s? In my mind it’s a Ferrari Testarossa. But she doesn’t seem like a Ferrari person. For the type of music and the era, I feel like it has to be American—but not a Corvette. Corvette covers a different genre of music at the time. So I think I’m gonna have to go with a Buick GNX or Grand National. — Ben Woodworth

Third-gen F-body with T-tops

1982 Chevrolet Camaro Interior T Tops

When the song was released in 1988, I figured a V-8 Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird. Gotta be. Preferably with (leaky) T-tops, which first appeared in Camaros in 1978, in the Firebird a couple of years before that. — Steven Cole Smith

Lotus Esprit?

Lotus Esprit S1 White

With a last name like Chapman, I’m guessing she was singing about a Lotus. But which one? The song was recorded in 1987. That was the final year of the Giugiaro-styled Esprit … so … Esprit, final answer. — Cameron Neveu

1982–85 Honda Accord

Vintage Honda Accord closeup front grille headlight

I’ll take this a different route … There’s an undertone of optimism throughout that entire song; Chapman is talking about what the subject’s life will look like in the future, right? “I know things will get better … You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted … ”

Let’s say that optimism stretches to the car, and remember that the starting context for the song’s subject probably isn’t that great. There’s probably a shortage of money, so I don’t think the car in question is anything super fancy, more like something to just scrape by. I picture a second-generation Honda Accord, probably a pretty beat-up one. But it’s a car, and the upside of having it is that the subject and his/her lover can use it to make their lives better in the coming days. — Nathan Petroelje

Drop-top Caddy with a bench

1967 Cadillac DeVille interior doors open vertical
Matt Tierney

I always assumed “fast car” was more metaphorical. Like, just a car that would take them away quickly from their (her) bad situation. (Drunken dad and whatnot.) The people described in the song are not wealthy, likely barely scraping by. Working at a convenience store, getting a job as a waitress, etc. My mind always conjured an old drop-top Cadillac. Probably mid-’70s. Rusty, worn, but capable to take them away from it all. Top down, city lights whizzing by.

Also, it has to be a bench seat up front for the “arms wrapped around my shoulder” scenario to work right. Hard to do while driving in bucket seats with a center console. — Todd Kraemer




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    I never liked the song. It was just never my kind of song even in country form.

    But if you were driving a fast car in the 80’s it was generally a older used GTO, SS model, 442, or Mustang from the late 60’s.

    Being I was a fast car driver of that age the older cars were cheap and if you were leaving town you were not likely to have a new car. .

    Here is a song about growing up in the 80’s. Something to be Proud Of By Montgomery Gentry The song goes ……

    Son graduating college, that was momma’s dream
    And I was on my way to anywhere else when I turned eighteen
    Cause when you got a fast car, and think you got everything

    [Verse 4]
    I learned real quick those GTO’s don’t run off faith
    I ended up broken down in some town north of L.A
    Working maximum hours, for minimum wage

    [Bridge 2]
    Well I fell in love next thing I know
    The babies came and the car got sold
    Sure do miss that old Hot Rod
    But you sure save gas in them foreign jobs

    That was the fast cars of the 80’s era.

    I picture a beat up Old’s Cutlass (maybe a ’69?) or Pontiac Laurentian (again, maybe a ’61?). Don’t know why. Just when I listen to the song these two pop into my head.

    The only answer is a Volvo. Or maybe a diesel Mercedes. The types in this song aren’t wealthy, so anything new or remotely new is probably out of the question. What does that leave? The need for a machine to run persistently, if not quickly. In the 80s, that was a Volvo or old diesel Merc.

    My immediate response was Camaro, although I think more poor boys were driving Firebirds. I recently won a prize in a car club meeting trivia contest by being the first (only?) one to name the original artist.

    I’m happy to report that you’re all absolutely correct! The beauty of the song is that it encourages every listener to imagine the specific vehicle, if he or she cares to, making it a different yet equally powerful experience for every individual. I always imagined it to be a version of my very first car, in hindsight a certified clunker but recklessly driven to extremes as my first experience with freedom and escapement from my dumb job and dysfunctional family. THAT’S the car.

    A ‘63 Chevy Nova 2 door, painted spray can flat black, with a Junkyard 327 w/ Muncie 4spd, jacked up rear, AM Radio with reverb, a pack of real Camels atop the dash, slotted mags, and second hand slicks.
    I’m ready for anything.

    I remember when this song came out late spring in 88 and the cars that I admired and that were fast to me back then were the 1980 Trans AM Burt Reynolds made famous and the 5.0 Mustang trunk edition.

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