The 10 Best Songs About (And Inspired By) Cars

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary since The Ford Motor Company became the first auto-maker to introduce factory-installed eight-track tape players as an option on three of its models, Mustang, Thunderbird, and Lincoln.

Imagine, no more listening to your dad’s stories about what he got up to in school or how he met your mother, instead, now you had the opportunity to sit back and take in the greatest tunes 1965 had to offer; Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, The Beatles Rubber Soul, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, or The Who’s My Generation.

That said, if either of your folks had control of the eight-track, then you could have been lumbered with Buck Owens’ I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail, Doris Day’s Latin For Lovers or, heaven forfend, Burl Ives’ Have A Holly Jolly Christmas. 1965 was a divisive year.

But imagine it was your hands on the wheel as McCartney sang, Drive My Car, the Mustang thrumming into life, the open road and your whole life ahead. Little wonder then that the steady hum of a V8 engine and a ribbon of empty road has long been the inspiration for artists and musicians alike, below, so start your engines, as we bring you ten of the best.

Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats - Rocket 88 (1951)

Though credited to Jackie Brenston (Ike Turner’s saxophonist) and his Delta Cats (and mooted in some quarters as the first example of true rock and roll), the players were actually 19-year-old Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band. Brenston sang the vocal on Rocket 88, a swinging tribute to the joys of the Oldsmobile’s design and engine, as well as its ability to impress the ladies: ‘V-8 motor and this modern design/Black convertible top and the girls don’t mind’.

Johnny Cash - One Piece At A Time (One Piece At A Time - 1976)

Cash’s easy going take on the story of the man who built his own mismatched Cadillac by stealing the parts over a 24 year period from the production line at General Motors (smuggled out in everything from a lunch pail to a friend’s motor home) was written by Wayne Kemp, but it was a smash for the country star as he drawled his way through lyrics like, The first day I got me a fuel pump/And the next day I got me an engine and a trunk…’

ZZ Top - Arrested For Driving While Blind (Tejas, 1976)

The second single from the band’s Tejas album sounded like something Hunter S Thompson might have espoused in one of his occasional magazine columns: ‘We broke a case of proof 102/And started itchin’ for that wonderful feel/Of rollin’ in an automobile’. And while the song certainly might sound like the work of a band who might once have liked to tie one on and head out to the highway, bassist Dusty Hill was quick to point out in an interview in 1985, “ ”That’s not it at all. Billy introduces it: ‘Don’t get arrested for driving while blind.’”

Bruce Springsteen - Racing In The Street (Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978)

The Boss at his most fragile and human and clearly still quite in love with his car. Forget metaphor and simile, this is man and machine at their most forlorn. This elegy to drag racing (the title gave it away) ended side one of the vinyl edition of Bruce’s fourth album and with his brilliant, brooding vocal and Roy Bittan’s tempered playing, Springsteen’s small town player and the story of his speeding pride and joy came crackling into life: ‘I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor/She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot/Outside the Seven-Eleven store’.

Sammy Hagar - Trans Am (Highway Wonderland) (Street Machine, 1979)

As dedicated to racing his four wheels through the streets as much as Bruce Sprinsteen might ever have been, Sammy Hagar’s take on his dream machine was a little less tempered than that of the Boss, but not without its bombastic charm. You can almost see the grinning Red Rocker behind the wheel as he sings, ‘From Daytona Beach down to Riverside/If there’s a race, she’s qualified/And my 6.6 gets a little too heavy/For a big boss Ford or a 350 Chevy’. Zoom!

Van Halen - Panama (1984, 1984)

It’s a shame that the current and former Van Halen frontmen rarely see eye to eye, as they both clearly love a flash motor. For David Lee Roth, it was a car race in Las Vegas that helped inspire one of the landmark songs from the 1984 album. It’s rumoured that Eddie Van Halen helped out by bringing his Lamborghini to the studio to provide the requisite throbbing engine on the bridge of the song in typically understated Van Halen style.

Rob Zombie - Dragula (Hellbilly Deluxe, 1998)

In typical Zombie fashion, Dragula was inspired by The Munster TV show and Grandpa Munster’s dragster, specifically. While the video saw the singer racing around in the family motor, the Munster Koach (no, really), the original of which was constructed from three Ford Model T motors, was eighteen feet in length and looked like the sexiest hearse to ever grace prime-time television. The horror.

Tom Waits - The Pontiac (Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, 2006)

Originally featured on the Smack My Crack: Giorno Poetry Systems spoken word compilation and then resurrected on this limited-edition, three-disc set, as part of the* Bastards* disc. It’s Waits at his most threadbare, accompanied only by the occasional sound of a car drifting by (and the odd cackle of laughter), Waits details his family’s history of auto-mobiles before ending with the affecting and completely unexpected story of The Pontiac.

Fountains Of Wayne* - ’92 Subaru (Traffic And Weather,* 2007*)*

From the band’s fourth album, ‘92 Subaru never strayed too far from the Fountain Of Wayne’s formula; disenfranchised youth, misplaced somewhere in middle America with love never far from their minds. This hymn to the most conventional of cars is as much about aspiration as it is about getting the girl, staring at the stars with a wry, hopeful and yet hopeless smile: ‘My cousin Kerry is taking a look at the transmission/Putting in a lime green plasma screen television/Seats feel like leather, you can’t even tell that they’re fake/And I only got a couple easy payments left to make’.

Bob Seger - Detroit Made (Ride Out - 2014)

Though it has all the trademark of a stone cold Seger classic, Detroit Made was actually written by John Hiatt about the Electra motorcar or the 225, as it was known, due to its length in inches. Though Seger (and his familiar bellow) makes the song all his own, as he purrs over the car’s big-block engine, it’s leather bucket seats and ‘chrome that takes the moonlight on.’

Think you like cars? Not as much as Brian Johnson, click the link below to check out the AC/DC’s singer TV show, Cars That Rock.

Brian Johnson gets to grips with a pair of Porsches

Philip Wilding

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion.