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Wheels, Women and Song

March 9, 2015

The 1962 Ford Thunderbird, the perfect car for a young woman in search of “fun, fun, fun.” (Object ID: P.833.122703.226)

Late last year, I was invited to present to students at Wayne State University in Detroit. Their seminar, “Women Who Motor,” examined the many connections between American women and the automobile industry, whether as the producers who design and build cars, or as the consumers who buy and drive them. The class also studied depictions of women and their autos in popular culture, from literature, to film, to music. That’s where I came in – with a look at the relationship between women and automobiles in popular song.

It’s no great revelation that the automobile is fertile inspiration for pop music. The car is a rolling metaphor for social status, wealth, style and any of a hundred other things. Sing about someone in a Cadillac, and you paint a picture of an affluent sophisticate; sing about someone in a Chevrolet, and you describe someone more down-to-earth or – if that Chevy is old and tired – someone down on her luck. In other words, the car is a spectacular lyrical shortcut. (And I’ve said nothing about the car as a metaphor for romantic activities… but I will.) In sharing some examples with the students, I broke female-focused car songs into three general groups: 1.) those about using the car to attract a mate, 2.) those about the car as a setting for romance, and 3.) those about women behind the wheel.

Motor Head Baby,” recorded by Johnny “Guitar” Watson in 1953, is a nice place to start. Watson sings of a woman who is only impressed by automobiles. Indeed, car ownership seems to be her lone requirement in a partner. She’s fairly egalitarian (she’ll take a Cadillac or a Chevrolet), but she has her limits (“must be a ’52 style”). Watson’s song is only partly about automobiles, though. The third verse ends with a classic bit of romantic innuendo: “step on the gas, John darling, and stop all that teasing me.” The Spaniels followed a similar grove with their 1959 cut simply titled “Automobiles.” It’s the same story of a girl who likes cars, but isn’t terribly picky about marques – she’ll take a “Studebaker, Oldsmobile, a plain old Ford or a Bonneville.” The Spaniels’ allusions to romance are slightly more subtle, but they’re still there.

When you talk about women in car songs, one name stands above the rest. “Maybellene” is the two-timing title character in Chuck Berry’s 1955 rock classic. We’re never told exactly why Maybellene left our narrator this time (she’s clearly done it before), but there’s a strong hint of class conflict. The singer spots her in a Cadillac Coupe de Ville as he gives chase in his Ford. That Caddy, assuming it’s a current model, cost some $4,300. A new Ford started around $1,700 in 1955 – and I’ve always assumed it’s a used Ford that Chuck is driving, something bought for pennies on the Cadillac’s dollar. Furthermore, I suspect that Maybellene isn’t the one driving that Coupe de Ville. She’s riding off with her new – and clearly more successful – man. It’s social mobility, literally.

Sometimes the woman uses her car to impress the men. The Beach Boys gave us one of their best car songs – and perhaps even a proto-feminist anthem – in 1964 with “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Our protagonist is a teenage girl who, whenever given the chance, uses her father’s Thunderbird to cruise around town and generally raise hell. This girl is no shrinking violet behind the wheel. She’s got skills that make A.J. Foyt look like Judah Ben-Hur. For this young woman, the car is empowering. Her driving abilities make the other girls jealous, they attract all the boys, and they give her freedom and independence. It’s not just her “fun, fun, fun” that’s gone when daddy inevitably takes that T-Bird away – it’s partly her sense of self. And it’s salt in the wound when the male narrator offers to bring the fun back, but only if she rides with him.

The Curved Dash Olds, in which Johnnie Steele invites Lucile to ride in Billy Murray's 1905 hit “In My Merry Oldsmobile.” (Object ID: 30.1303.1)

The car upended courtship rituals in the United States. Boy no longer had to call on girl at her home. He could drive her away to some quiet spot and, if the date went well, the car provided a place for the couple to… be affectionate. The great-grandmother of all car songs, “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” is a classic study in the automobile as a means and a metaphor for romance. Today we might snicker at the lyrics in Billy Murray’s 1905 recording, but they were racy for the day. Lucile and her Oldsmobile-driving beau “love to spark in the dark old park.” She “knows why the motor goes / the sparker is awfully strong.” You don’t have to read too closely between the lines to realize that Lucile isn't thinking about the ignition coil.

If you want metaphor, though, it doesn’t get much better than rockabilly pioneer Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “Every Woman I Know” from 1957. What is it about every woman that the narrator knows? She’s crazy about automobiles, of course. It’s the usual story – Cadillac, Ford, whatever, just as long as it runs – but the second verse doesn’t leave much to the imagination. “She can play with your keys and she can shift your gears,” is soon followed by “start up the heat and flip on the fan / and then you start rollin’ just as fast as you can.” Let’s hope the defroster works on that car – the windows are likely to get fogged!

We return to the Beach Boys’ catalog for “Car Crazy Cutie” from 1963. Stereotypes are turned inside-out. No manicures for this young woman, for she’s got “axle grease embedded ’neath her fingernails.” The real payoff comes in the last couplet. Our narrator is ready for romance but finds his amorous advances denied: “but when I talk of lovin’, man, some kisses and hugs / she says don’t you think we better clean and gap the plugs?” Ouch! It’s a wonderful shift in the traditional power dynamic heard in early 1960s love songs.

Until 1970, drivers didn’t begin the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in their cars. They stood across the track and, when the flag dropped, ran to their vehicles like in this 1967 photo. Jan and Dean referenced the “Le Mans start” in one of their songs. (Dave Friedman Collection, Object ID: 2009.158.317.3334)

Jan and Dean gave us two hits in which the female driver is played for laughs – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s an elderly woman. While 1964’s “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena)” is surely the better known of the two, I prefer its follow-up of the same year, the rather expansively-titled “The Anaheim, Azusa & Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association.” It’s a classic play against type – genteel women who wear “high-button shoes” yet read Hot Rod News, and who devote their week to putting up “jam and preserves” but spend their weekends at the track negotiating curves. Jan Berry himself produced many of the duo’s records, and this was one of his most ambitious efforts. Listen to the contrast in instrumentation – gentle, Bach-like harpsichord on the verses and raucous brass on the choruses – that mirrors the club members’ split personalities. Jan and his co-writers weren’t slouches with their lyrics, either. Listen for references to everything from Playboy to the fabled Le Mans start.

Possibly the most interesting woman-as-driver car song of the 1960s is “Go Go G.T.O.” by Carol & Cheryl in 1965. There aren’t any jokes or double entendres in this one. It’s pure car song goodness, every bit the equal of a “409,” co-written and sung by women. The “Carol” in the duo is Carol Connors, a genuine “car guy” who co-wrote “Hey Little Cobra” for the Rip Chords and, indeed, drove her own AC Cobra. Pontiac muscle gets celebrated here, though, as Carol & Cheryl croon about carburetors (“three big twos”), camshafts (“high lift”) and chrome headers (“burnin’”). Our narrator wins trophies at tracks and shows, but she also uses the car in the same way as some of our male singers: “when I cruise around town on a Saturday night / all the guys really dig me as I pull into sight.” Both sexes are attracted by the right car, and neither sex is above taking advantage of that fact.

There are many more songs (from many more genres and eras) to explore, but these examples present a good survey of the various ways in which women and automobiles have intermingled in popular music. It’s a fascinating subject, and one that reminds us of how thoroughly the car is a part of our culture.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

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