CC Feature: Cars On The Radio – The Songs That Drive Us

(first posted 8/21/2011)      We often use this space to take a serious look at our passion-cars and the companies that make them. But a little lighthearted diversion now and again keeps everything in perspective in a world gone mad.When I penned a piece about TV cop cars a while back, I was frankly astonished that there were as many people as myself that enjoyed the intersection of pop culture and commerce.

I often find myself singing along with the radio in my car (and believe me, I’m glad you can’t hear the result). After a broadcast career in a galaxy far, far away and many years ago, I have called on my DJ experiences to connect the dots between music and mobility. The result is the article you see below. It turns out that popular music and the auto industry have actually been friendly relations from the early days of both. So let’s hum a happy tune as we remember the times when the two seemed to be in perfect harmony.

In My Merry Oldsmobile-The earliest days of jaunty, open air motoring inspired one of the nations leading songwriters to exalt the nation’s newest pastime. As early as 1905, one of the biggest names in entertainment , Gus Edwards, penned the music for what became a pop sensation in its day. The 1903 curved dash Oldsmobile is considered one of the first mass market automobiles and as such, it was tailor made for a mass market song.

Radio hadn’t been commercialized yet, so the big money in those days was in the sale of sheet music. Public performances acted like radio airplay in our own time as free advertising for the composers product.The song was considered somewhat bawdy in its day, as it suggested that (as would become the norm with auto related tunes),the subject characters would engage in romantic congress at some point. The car itself was a smash- It stayed in production until 1907 and sold over 19,000 copies, big numbers in those days.

Terraplane Blues– A couple of explanations. One- The Terraplane was a Hudson series that helped get the company through the Great Depression and was produced from 1932 to 1938. Hudson needed the volume that a lower priced make could deliver and the’Plane did just that.

Two- This is a song about sex. Considered quite daring in its day,the song,recorded by blues journeyman Robert Johnson in 1936, was never a hit because it was considered way too racy for radio. But compared to what comes out of car speakers today, this belongs on The Old Time Gospel Hour. It sold about 5,000 copies and failed to make the charts. This is one of the few instances where the car sold many times the number of records about the car.

Hot Rod Lincoln– This song has been recorded half a dozen times since 1955, but it took Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen to make the song a smash in the summer of 1972.

More spoken than sung, its a toe tapper that really fits more into the novelty song category than serious music. It describes the travails of misspent youth in a race between then current Fords (hot rod V-8’s) and Lincoln’s (bigger hot rod V-8) . Its a rockabilly classic. It actually made it all the way to #9 in ’72, a remarkable performance for a song in that era that didn’t extol drug use.

409-The Beach Boys- Here is a song that stands taller in our memories than it ever did on the record chart. Lots of my buddies can recite the lyrics word for word for this ditty, which was released on the “B” side of the hit “Surfin Safari” in 1962. The subject matter is the W- series 409 engine that Chevy installed in some of its plain jane Biscaynes and Bel Airs in those years. These sleepers only looked mild mannered. The 409 had the beans to embarrass anything from FoMoCo or MoPar in those days. The song made it to #76 that summer and later inspired a lawsuit between Brian Wilson,Gary Usher and Mike Love over credit for the composition.

Little Deuce Coupe- More Beach Boys pop candy, this time from 1963. This song was not much longer than a commercial jingle (only 1:38) and sang the praises of the 1932 Ford V-8 that many beach bum types were hopping up in those days.

Mike Love provided the vocals,but the lyrics were penned by a California DJ named Roger Christian. It made it all the way to #14 in ’63 and is one of the very few songs from that transitional era in music to remain popular beyond its time.

Chevy Van- Who knew that you could seduce some comely young thing in a clapped out Chevy panel van? Robert Johns told us just how it went down in this 1973 smash (#5 on Billboard). Hey, it was the 70’s. It really could have happened. Anyway, I never figured out why Chevy didn’t use this tune behind their ads in those days. Maybe it was too counterculture. If you wince when you hear this, you probably knew all of the words at one time or another. Cover versions of this exist from such notables as Waylon Jennings (!), Eric Church and Sammy Kershaw. This song served as an early warning of sorts. All of those full size van rendezvous’ in the mid 70’s later resulted in huge demand for family minivans in the early 80’s.

Mustang Sally– A Wilson Pickett smash, and named one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

This song actually charted twice (On R&B and Pop charts) and made the soundtrack of the 1991 feature film The Commitments. It’s highest ranking was #6 in 1966 in R&B and has been covered by more groups than we could possibly name here.

Low Rider– War- 1974. This is not a song about a specific car model, but more like a lifestyle. War included this as part of their 1975 album “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and it zoomed right up the charts and has been featured in countless soundtracks and remade at least two dozen times since. MTV was still a half decade away, so we just have to imagine what the subject cars looked like. It peaked at #7 on the pop charts that year and was number one on the R&B chart for weeks.

Mercedes Boy- Disposable, saccharine, forgettable disco-lite, this is what passed for entertainment back in the 80’s. In my DJ days, I would rather take a beating than play this 3 times in 5 hours, but business was business and that’s what we did. Pebbles hit number two on the chart with this one and I stepped into the loo whenever it was scheduled for airplay. If you were listening out there, I sincerely apologize.

Pink Cadillac-This is not an Aretha Franklin song (although I wish it was- hers was “Freeway Of Love”). Actually Bruce Springsteen penned this one and Natalie Cole made it a top 5 smash in April,1988. More sexual metaphors that just happen to involve GM’s luxury division.

Okay, this is not an all inclusive list. I’ve left out a few. I would love to get some fresh perspectives on your favorite car tunes.