MotorCities National Heritage Area

By: Robert Tate, Automotive Historian/Researcher
Images Courtesy of Billy D' s Record Collection
Published 10.20.2014


The great music and the sensational singing groups of the 1960s remain as some of the most memorable moments in our American culture. These tunes often highlighted popular hot rods and the car culture during that time period. Our society has always been fascinated with music and cars. Today, when I attend many car shows, you still can hear great songs from groups like the Beach Boys. You might even groove to the famous Rip Chords and their popular song “Hey Little Cobra,” which was one of the highest ranking hot rod songs of all time.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked chapters in our American culture was the role music played in influencing American style by way of the automobile. The 1960s were an integral part of our history birthing great muscle cars and hot rods. These fast, powerful, and competitive cars were most often described in the lyrics of singing groups. Drag races, which were sometimes dangerous, became very popular among young adults during this time period. Drag races demonstrated a vehicle’s speed, power and endurance.

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One of the most popular groups of the 1960s was the Beach Boys, an American rock band formed in Hawthorne, California in 1961. Their surfing-inspired music created a great new sound of vocal harmonies and fun lyrics that many people enjoyed. The Beach Boys recorded a string of hit songs related to car culture which are still popular to this day. I remember when I was seven years old and watching the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1964. I watched the Beach Boys performing on stage singing “I Get Around.” In addition to that performance, they also showcased cool hot rods, and I was so excited. That was a great moment in history.

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Another popular Beach Boys song was “409.” Written by Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Gary Usher, the song became very popular at race tracks, especially with drag races. It was originally released as the b-side of the hit single “Surfin’ Safari.” Interestingly enough, “409” was a song about a Chevrolet with a 409 engine. The song was inspired by Gary Usher, who had an obsession with hot rods.

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“Little Deuce Coupe” was another great Beach Boys song that captured the heart and soul of California style music, relating to surf boards and cool cars. “Little Deuce Coupe” was released on October 7, 1963. Hot Rods and surfing were a perfect combination for many young adults of the era who enjoyed the thrills of both.

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Another band making popular songs included in the 1960s automotive movement were the Rip Chords, an American singing duo from Inglewood, California from 1962-1965. “Hey Little Cobra” was recorded on October 15, 1963 with Terry Melcher singing the lead and joining Bruce Johnston on background vocals. The single peaked at number 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in February, 1964. When the song was released, both men became overnight celebrities, the song remains popular today.

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Ronnie & the Daytona's were an American surf rock group of the early 1960s. Formed in Nashville, Tennessee, their 1964 debut single “GTO” reached number 4 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. 

In the mid 1960s, millions of Americans had a fascination with powerful cars and hot rods. It was also a time when young adults helped define their generation. From the great sounds of the Beach Boys to the Rip Chords’ songs about hot rods, the music of the 60s had an enormous influence and impact on the way we expressed ourselves within our car culture. 

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of Billy D’s Record Collection. (Bibliography: Hinckley Jim & Robinson Jon G. “The Big Book of Car Culture.” 2005.)

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