Anyone who drives — whether it’s a quick trip to the grocery store, the daily commute to and from work, or a long road trip — knows that taking their favorite music along can make the experience so much better.
From the time the first in-car radio was introduced in 1930 (price: $130), music and cars have gone hand-and-hand. Musicians are constantly on the road themselves, finding plenty of material for personal driving soundtracks. It’s only natural that driving and cars have had a prominent place in music lyrics going all the way back to 1905’s “In My Merry Oldsmobile.”
Buckle up and join us for a drive through music history as we share our favorite songs about driving and cars.
Music to Move To
Let’s start by paying homage to the band named after the automotive vehicle — The Cars. Formed in Boston in 1976, The Cars had 13 songs that reached the Top 40, including “Drive.” Released in 1984, the song asks, “Who's gonna drive you home tonight?”
The Beatles might have had the answer in their 1965 single, “Drive My Car.” In the song off the Rubber Soul album, an aspiring “star” offers a perspective beau the opportunity to be her chauffeur once she hits it big. Alas, it turns out, she doesn’t have a car just yet.
Folk/rock troubadour Tracy Chapman’s lyrics in “Fast Car” suggests that having a car is the ultimate freedom and a path to a better future. The 1988 hit, which won three GRAMMYs, asks if the car is “fast enough so we can fly away?” Chapman played the song at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute Concert, which helped the song become a hit.
Some of us feel like our cars offer a safe space, disconnected from the outside world. That was certainly the case for English musician Gary Numan who released “Cars” in 1979. The song, Numan said, “explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world... When you're in it, your whole mentality is different... It's like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it.”
“Car Song” by the Britpop group Elastica might be one of the few songs out there to reference a Ford Fiesta, one of the company’s best-selling models (though the manufacturer plans to discontinue it in June 2023). The frisky song released in 1995 also rhymes “Honda” with “Peter Fonda.”
Makes, Models, Music
The 1965 blues classic, “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett is about a woman who just wants to drive her new Mustang all over town and doesn’t want to “put her flat feet on the ground.” A year later, Ford Mustang sales spiked, reaching an all-time high of 607,568 units.
Janis Joplin’s 1970 song “Mercedes Benz,” is not specifically about the German luxury vehicle, but rather about happiness gleaned from material goods, including a color TV, a night out on the town and yes, a car. Joplin herself drove a 1968 Porsche — another car mentioned in the song. “She’d go against traffic on blind curves, with the top down, laughing, ‘Nothing can knock me down!’” one of her friends later recalled.
In “Low Rider,” War pays tribute to hydraulically modified hot rods, common in the band’s Southern California Latino community. “You've got to say it’s Americana. I don't care if you're driving a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce, or if you have a hooptie — hearing it thumping, it just works because it predicts historically a time period in America. That's true about all music, pretty much,” said the group’s sax player, Charles Miller.
Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” wasn’t actually inspired by a Corvette at all. Rather, the 1983 hit, which was Prince’s first single to reach the top 10 in the U.S., was inspired by a pink 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder that Prince helped backup singer Lisa Coleman buy at auction in Minneapolis. The idea for the song came to him when he took a nap in the car during all-night recording sessions for the album 1999.
Ode to the Road
While it is primarily a tribute to motorcycles, Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit, “Born to Be Wild” also conveys the freedom found on the open road — no matter how many wheels a driver has under them.
Similarly, country singer Willie Nelson just can’t wait to get “On the Road Again.” The song, which won a GRAMMY and extolls the virtues of life on tour, wasn’t written on a tour bus or a car — or on the road at all. It was actually written on an airplane vomit bag, according to songwriting lore.
AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” was also inspired by the band’s non-stop touring schedule and was the opening track on their 1979 album of the same name. It’s also the nickname for the Canning Highway in Australia, where the band is from.
There’s something about driving down the highway that seems to strike up a need for speed among musicians. Sammy Hagar famously wrote, “I Can’t Drive 55” after getting a ticket for going 62 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone in upstate New York.
Tom Cochrane’s 1992 song “Life is a Highway” got a new lease on life after a version by country band Rascal Flatts appeared on the 2006 Disney movie Cars. But the original version, while upbeat and hopeful, was written after Cochrane went to Eastern Africa as part of a famine relief organization. “The irony is that it was the most positive song I'd ever written, coming out of a pretty heavy experience. I needed a pep talk, and it became that for me and for millions of others,” the Canadian singer said.
Hitting the Streets on Repeat
No list of driving and/or car songs would be complete without mentioning some of the musicians who have tread the same highways multiple times in various vehicles. The Beach Boys made teenage mobility a major theme in their hits throughout the 1960s with “Little Deuce Coupe,” “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Our Car Club,” “In My Car,” and “Car Crazy Cutie,” among others.
Then there’s the king of the road in New Jersey and beyond. Bruce Springsteen sang “Riding in My Car,” “Thunder Road,” “Racing in the Streets,” “Pink Cadillac,” “Running on Empty,” and “Stolen Car” — just to name a few.
Taylor Swift recently made history by taking the top 10 spots on the Billboard Music Awards with her recent release, Midnights, but she also has a history of including cars or driving in her song lyrics (“Getaway Car,” “Red,” “All Too Well,” among others).
But the musician who captures the checkered flag for car songs is Lil’ Wayne, according to a 2018 survey by GoldEagle.com. The hip-hop artist and rapper known for his very expensive luxury car collection (which includes a $1.9 million Bugatti Veyron) references cars 370 times throughout his song catalog.
Take our list for a spin and share your favorite songs with us on social media. Then, hit the road, crank up some tunes, and join us for NADA Show 2023, the auto industry event of the year in Dallas, Texas, January 26-29.
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