Rock and Roll is an invention of America. And so was the automobile, despite what the Germans say about Daimler and Benz. That's enough of a connection for us to have welded the two cultures together over the years to make a hybrid subculture of fast cars and loud music. From rock's earliest days, the cars stars drove have been the stuff of legend. By now, rock and roll goes with expensive sport and luxury cars like peanut butter and jelly. Or Valium and alcohol, if you're a rhythm guitarist for Def Leppard. These are some of the iconic cars that made that possible for us all.
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What do you get when the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and poetry of Allen Ginsberg blend into rhythm and blues, rock and mescaline overdoses? Jim Morrison, that’s who. And the only car he drives in the afterlife is the same one he drove between his first big paycheck clearing in 1967 and his death in 1971 at the age of 27, a ’67 Mustang GT500 with 662 hp that Jim once used to run over trees in front of a Los Angeles police station. Nobody officially knows what happened to the car after he died, but we have some ideas, and they all involve landscaping work in God’s front yard.
If you knew nothing about American car culture, you wouldn’t think a 1932 Ford Model 18 would make a promising rock and roll icon, but by the time The Beach Boys came out with Little Deuce Coupe in 1963, middle-class kids all over the country had been tricking these things out for decades. The key to the Deuce’s popularity was the surprisingly powerful V8 under its hood and relative mechanical simplicity, which encouraged garage customization. While the stock Model 18 was strictly ho-hum for performance on the highway, they got as peppy as a Beach Boys song once they were ported and relieved and the front end was bored. They would not, however, ever quite go 140 in the top end floored. Given the car’s boxy aerodynamics, that would take a rocket engine to do.
It wasn’t a monster like Morrison’s Shelby, but the powder-blue ’65 Dart that was Kurt Cobain’s only car somehow fit the down-tuned style Nirvana brought to rock in the early 90s. Boasting plenty of chrome and absolutely no aftermarket modifications affecting performance, Cobain’s Dart is spending much of 2019 on display at a museum in Ireland, of all places, followed by a year-end appearance at another museum in Chile, of all other places.
Wood-paneled station wagons were made by several manufacturers between the late 1920s and early 1950s. These cars were distinctive for the wooden strips, usually birch, that were hand-applied to the exterior side panels of larger 4-door wagons. The style developed as a high-end accessory for some luxury models, but the era they were made in meant they would be considered pretty rough by the late 1950s and early ‘60s. That’s when beach culture found the “Woody,” as they came to be called, and started strapping those comically large surfboards to the roof and hitting the sand. Toss in a few songs written for the Beach Boys by members of the Manson Family, and bang – a rock classic is born.
The Eldorado convertible was a lot like the Apollo 12-18 missions that were launching around that time. Nobody really needed them to happen, and they were ridiculously wasteful, but it had cost so much to build the rockets, it would have been a shame not to waste them on something cool. By the time this car appeared in Judas Priest’s 1980 video Breaking the Law – which was ironically a song about poverty and unemployment – it was already an icon of total overconsumption. The early-‘70s Eldorados had standard 500 cu in V8 engines that got – when the carburetor wasn’t broken – maybe 8 mpg in a 5,200-pound ocean vessel. In the video, it’s being used as a getaway car, though in truth the cops would probably have caught the band after 30 miles when they had to stop to gas up.
John "Bucky" Wilkin was a student in high school when Pontiac came out with the G.T.O. in 1964. He wrote the lyrics to Little GTO in class, while largely ignoring a physics lesson. Wilkin’s mother was a country music songwriter, and she put her son in touch with the right people to get the song pressed, which was done with various random musicians who wandered into the Nashville studio where the recording was going on. The car in question, the Pontiac Lemans with a racing package, was basically a 1963 Tempest with the 389 cu in (6.4 L) Pontiac V8 engine from a Bonneville dropped in. In time, this got upgraded to a 400 cu in (6.6 L) Pontiac V8, which only had a base output of 180 hp until you put the closed 1967 heads on it and bored out the carb. Then you might be looking at a safe and reasonable 400 hp in a car that weighed 3,100 pounds.
It’s a lot of work, being a semi-retired rock legend, but Ozzy Osbourne is the man for the job. After a lot of ups and downs, plus more downs, the Osbournes currently enjoy approximately the best lives Western Civilization is capable of producing. They live in Malibu, for instance, where you can see dolphins jumping in the ocean from your bedroom window in the morning. In the garage at that Malibu house is a smooth-running German street machine, the Audi R8. Built as a 2-door coupe with a longitudinal midline engine on a converted Lamborghini frame, the R8 was the first production car to have all-LED lights and delivers a quiet down-low thrust in the middle gears. At $100,000 a unit, this is exactly what you’d expect the elder statesman of animal cruelty to be driving, though because it’s Ozzy there’s no front plate on the car, in violation of California law.
The Beatles were such iconic symbols of their time and place in history that, if you’re making a documentary about either the 1960s or the history of rock, all you really need is that stock footage of the Fab 4 coming down the airplane stairs in 1964 and waving to everybody. Their cars were similarly iconic, all at once seeming to scream “British,” and “Rockstar,” and “expensive.” John Lennon led the pack with a psychedelic Rolls Royce Phantom V that was painted in great swirly colors and had a television, refrigerator and double-sized bed inside, which were all Jetsons-level advanced for the age.
Noted octogenarian humanitarian Sir Paul McCartney was a little more reserved with his cars, but that doesn’t mean he was cheap or boring. In due course, “the cute one” was able to rev the performance-caliber engines on an Aston Martin DB6 and an Austin Healy 3000.
The quiet Beatle seems to have taken his cues from the other two gear heads in the band, at least where his daily driver was concerned. For routine trips, George Harrison drove a compact Austin Mini given to him by Brian Epstein that was painted to look like Lennon’s Rolls Royce. There wasn’t room inside for the sofa-sized TVs they had back then, but the car was otherwise tricked out pretty well with a top-mounted statue of Lord Shiva. Legend has it you can see the car in Magical Mystery Tour, but nobody sober enough to be believed has ever made it that far into the video, so who knows.
Ringo Starr was famous for being the guy in the room while three rock legends were writing and performing their best work. He was no slouch at the car game, but the 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SE 3.5 Coupé Starr annihilated in a 1980 wreck wasn’t exactly a hair-on-fire wild ride when it was new. As an artist, however, Ringo couldn’t just let the incident pass without making some kind of statement, so he had the 5,000-pound steel beast crushed into a cube and installed it in his home. That’s pretty creative, Ringo. Right up there with Yellow Submarine, guy.
Hey kids. There used to be this guy named Bob Seger, and he was the first guy to perform your favorite Metallica songs. While the younger kids are asking their parents who Metallica was, you should know Seger was the glowing light that produced Turn the Page and Like a Rock. For many years, he has driven an offensively puke-green Ford Mustang Mach 1 with a 5.8-liter 351-cubic-inch Windsor V8 that can push maybe 250 hp when he’s angry. It is a matter of historical irony that Seger’s Like a Rock was licensed for a hugely annoying 1986 Chevy ad campaign, but at least the overexposure killed many people’s interest in both Chevy trucks and progressive rock, so there’s that.
It is said that Jimi Hendrix was so poor as a kid, he couldn’t afford a left-handed guitar, so he flipped over a right-handed one and learned on that. Later on, when he had more money than God, he didn’t bother switching styles and just played on an upside-down Fender Stratocaster, the guitar he brought to Woodstock. The car he drove it in was equally over-the-top, a 1968 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. This bright red monster had a savage v8 with 350 hp on command and that crazy maybe-we’re-gonna-die back and forth feeling when the clutch was popped.
The 409, which you may know from yet another Beach Boys song, wasn’t any one specific car. Rather, it was Chevy’s absurdly overpowered small block engine, which could be dropped into almost anything GM produced in the early ‘60s. The game was to yank the pokey old engine out of your dad’s Impala, drop a 409 V8 in under the hood, then blow away your friends and enemies in tremendously illegal street races later on. Unlike Dodge’s later Hemis, which were half the size of a Japanese apartment, Chevy’s 409 could physically fit under most models’ hoods, which made it the classic sleeper hit on the racing circuit for Corvairs, Chevelles and later El Caminos.
Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll, and he drove a lot of cars in his life. The first famous one was a pink-and-white 1954 Cadillac he bought used after driving by the dealership in his first car, a ’51 Chevy. Elvis loved the Cadillac, and he later said he stayed up the whole first night looking at it through the window of his hotel room. The next morning, a brake light on the car caught fire and burned it to a crisp. Elvis never forgot though, and as soon as possible he bought another pink Cadillac. This was THE pink Cadillac, which became for a time the most famous car in the world. Elvis later gave it to his momma like a good Southern boy. Then he bought a Lincoln, like a bad Southern boy.