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Favorite Car-Related Love Songs

February 3, 2014 Archive Insight
The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe", 1964.
Was there a group better than The Beach Boys to write so longingly about the automobile? (Object ID: 87.170.1)February is upon us and, with Valentine’s Day in the offing, our thoughts turn to love. Red roses and paper hearts are fine, but to me nothing is quite as romantic as a love song. Whether it’s from an old master of the Berlin-Gershwin-Porter variety, or from one of today’s stars, a simple love song communicates emotion in a wholly unique way. Anyone who has explored the “Car Tunes” activity in Driving America knows that automobiles have been a staple in popular songs from the start. It was inevitable, then, that the car song and the love song would blend. In the spirit of the holiday, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites.

Many words have been written on the automobile’s effects on our courtship rituals. (See John Heitmann’s The Automobile in American Life for a good discussion.) Prior to the car, a young man “called” on a young woman at her home under her mother’s watchful eyes. The couple might find a few moments of privacy on the front porch, but that was about it. The automobile threw the old rules out the window and gave couples a literal escape from the confines of the home. It either took them somewhere where they could, ahem, be affectionate, or was itself the place for their amorous activities.

Kenny Roberts, the Yodeling Cowboy, voices this shift in his 1949 hit “I Never See Maggie Alone.” As the title suggests, Kenny can’t get a private moment with Maggie – her large family is always there. He buys a car for a little seclusion, takes Maggie for a ride, but… Well, I won’t spoil it for you, but you probably know what happens. Fast forward 30 years and you’ll find Robbie Dupree covering the same ground in “Hot Rod Hearts” from 1980. Times have changed, though. While Kenny and Maggie were merely “huggin’ and kissin,” Robbie has “young love born in a backseat.” One suspects there’s more than innocent necking at play.

How do you listen to your favorite song in your car today? (Zenith "Zenette" Transistor Radio, 1960-1963, Object ID: 92.46.2).

When the car isn’t providing young lovers with a means to get away together, it’s often the means to bring them together. Many tunes tell of someone driving through the night to reach a significant other. Cyndi Lauper made a big hit out of this very scenario with 1989’s “I Drove All Night.” It’s been an enduring song, with subsequent hit versions from Roy Orbison and Celine Dion. (Celine’s version even backed a series of Chrysler commercials in the early 2000s.)

Classic Rock fans recognize the “drive to romance” concept from Golden Earring’s 1973 smash “Radar Love.” While the title refers to the lovers’ seemingly telepathic connection, the opening couplet is pure road song: “I’ve been drivin’ all night, my hands wet on the wheel / there’s a voice in my head that drives my heel.” Country fans, meanwhile, might be reminded of Dave Dudley’s 1963 cut “Six Days On the Road.” In this case, the narrator is a professional truck driver longing to get home, but the sentiment is the same: “Well it seems like a month since I kissed my baby goodbye… My hometown’s comin’ in sight / If you think I’m happy you’re right / Six days on the road and I’m a gonna make it home tonight.”

Tom Waits puts a nice spin on the situation with his 1973 song “Ol’ 55” (memorably covered by the Eagles in 1974). Instead of driving his car to his lover, he’s driving back home from his lover. So warm is the afterglow that traffic is a “parade” as he rides “with lady luck.” In the song itself, Waits never identifies his vehicle beyond a model year. In subsequent interviews, he’s pegged it as a 1955 Buick Roadmaster, but I still picture a Chevrolet.

Chuck Berry is often cited as “rock and roll’s poet laureate.” His witty lyrics helped to establish rock’s very structure during the formative 1950s. It’s no surprise that Berry created some memorable car songs. His very first hit, 1955’s “Maybellene,” is one of the genre’s best. We find Chuck cruising in his hot rod Ford V-8 when he spies the eponymous Maybellene in her Cadillac Coupe de Ville. They race down the highway, “bumper to bumper, rollin’ side to side.” An overheated engine threatens to end Chuck’s race, but a well-timed cloudburst cools his flathead and allows him to catch the Caddy at 110 miles per hour. While the race goes Chuck’s way, the “Why can’t you be true” chorus suggests that the romantic relationship doesn’t work out so well.

Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are rightfully credited as the masters of the car song. They gave us “Little Deuce Coupe,” “I Get Around,” “Custom Machine,” “This Car of Mine,” “Shut Down” and a host of other hot rod hits. (And really, who else but the masters could have written a song – and a good one at that – inspired by engine displacement?) But Wilson & Co.’s genius with the genre is perhaps most evident in the haunting “Don’t Worry Baby.” Casual listeners will hear the oft-told tale of a man who draws strength and support from his significant other. Those who listen more closely, though, will hear a song about… a car race! Brian boasts about his car, talks himself into a race, and shares his apprehensions with his love. She reassures him – makes him come alive, makes him want to drive – when she shares the titular advice. One of my favorite things about the song – apart from that deft modulation from E to F# between verse and chorus – is the ambiguity in the ending. We never do find out if Brian wins his race, but I suppose that’s beside the point. “Don’t Worry Baby” is the rare track that thick-skinned gear heads and sensitive poets can both embrace.

Among the most atmospheric car/love songs has to be 1984’s “Drive” by the Cars. (And, by the way, how’s that for title/artist synergy?) While the song is open to wide interpretation, I think of it as being about a relationship strained by chemical dependency. The central question, “Who’s gonna drive you home,” is rhetorical. The narrator pleads that his lover “can’t go on / thinkin’ nothing’s wrong” as he watches her self-destruct. If he leaves, then who will be left to care for her? “Drive” isn’t a roll-down-the-windows and rock-down-the-highway hit, but it is a reminder that car songs can be subtle.

Maybe the best twist on the car song/love song style is when the car itself is the object of the singer’s affections. Dan Seals’s 1985 country hit, “My Old Yellow Car,” is the perfect example. It’s a sentimental ballad in which, despite all of his fame and fortune (he’s “got a Mercedes-Benz with a TV and bar”), the thing Dan pines for most is his first car. Even though “she weren’t much to look at / she weren’t much to ride,” this yellow car made young Dan the king of the world: “There was no road too winding / there was nowhere too far / with two bucks of gas in my old yellow car.” It’s emotional stuff, and by the end of the song we realize just what that first car represents. It’s more than empowerment and independence; it’s a talisman of lost youth. There’s a reason we all get nostalgic about our first rides, no matter how humble they were.

Enjoy your Valentine’s Day everyone. Light a few candles, open a bottle of wine, and put together your own playlist of favorite car-related love songs. It’ll put you in a romantic mood – and tide you over until its time to pull the classic out of winter storage.

Like the songs you heard here? Watch them on YouTube or log into Hypster and listen to the whole list.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

Racing In America

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