A car song is a song in a style with lyrics or musical themes pertaining to car travel. Though the earliest forms appeared in the 1900s, car songs emerged in full during the 1950s as part of rock and roll and car culture, but achieved their peak popularity in the West Coast of the United States during the 1960s with the emergence of hot rod rock as an outgrowth of the surf music scene. Though this popularity declined by the late 1960s, cars remain a frequently used subject matter in pop music into the 21st century.
In the turn of the twentieth century, the recent invention of the automobile began to appear within popular music. Many of the earliest pieces had no lyrics, instead attempting to musically emulate the sounds of the automobile, such as "The Motor Car" (1903) and "The Auto Race" (1904). Dance, ragtime, and march compositions began emerging that, though wordless, were musically inspired by the automobile. Eventually, some of these songs took on words, such as Henry Krull's "Automobile Races". In 1905, Gus Edwards premiered the song "In My Merry Oldsmobile", a tune which Kenneth T. Jackson calls "the best-known car song ever written about the automobile."
The car song began to emerge in full in the burgeoning rock and roll scene in the early 1950s. Jackie Brenston had a hit with "Rocket 88", attributed to Ike Turner, praising the Oldsmobile Rocket 88. Chuck Berry had a song entitled "Jaguar and Thunderbird". As the song was released in 1960, the Jaguar in question would most likely be the XK line while the Thunderbird could be any model made prior to the "Bullet Bird" of the early sixties. Although the Johnny Mercer song "Skylark" was actually released in 1942, it became the inspiration for the Buick Skylark that debuted in 1953. Many 1950s songs could serve as soundtracks to play in one's car when approaching a drive-in restaurant or meeting someone. "Walk Don't Run" by The Ventures, "Rumble" by Link Wray, or "Sleep Walk" by Santo & Johnny could all serve a slow entrance, "Let's Go for a Ride" by The Collegians, "You Can't Catch Me" by Chuck Berry, or "Rebel-'Rouser" by Duane Eddy worked for a more speedy approach, and "No Particular Place to Go" by Chuck Berry worked for all situations. Many groups emerged that took their names from car brands: The Impalas, The El Dorados, The Belaires, The Cadillacs, The Fleetwoods, The Starfires, The Continentals, The Bonnevilles, The Rivieras, Little Anthony and the Imperials, among numerous others.
The muscle car craze, as well as the surge of interest in sports car racing, brought several cars referencing performance cars. The Beach Boys, already a highly successful rock band, tapped into the California cruising and drag racing culture, spearheading a short-lived rock music craze commonly referred to as "hot rod rock". Author Geoffrey Himes wrote "The music was only subtly different [from surf music]". According to The Ultimate Hot Rod Dictionary by Jeff Breitenstein:
While cars and, to a lesser degree, hot rods have been a relatively common and enduring theme in American popular music, the term hot rod music is most often associated with the unique 'California sound' music of the early to mid-1960s ... and was defined by its rich vocal harmonies, amplified (generally Fender brand) electric guitars, and youth-oriented lyrics (most often celebrating hot rods and, more broadly, surfing and 'girls'.
From 1961 to 1965, some fifteen hundred car songs were recorded. Alongside The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Ronny and the Daytonas, and The Fantastic Baggys all rose to the forefront of the scene. As in the 1950s, many groups adopted the names of car brands, but this time with a greater emphasis on hot rods, such as The Duece Coupes, The Duals, The GTOs, The Dragsters, The Roadsters, The T-Bones, and The Roadrunners.
Some of the most popular car songs to emerge in this era include:
After the hot rod music period ended by the mid-1960s, car songs, though still frequent, did not enjoy the same level of popularity. Some key songs that have emerged since that era include the following: