Car songs, like surf music, were largely a Southern California phenomenon. They were a byproduct of the region's active hot rod scene, which had evolved from the illegal street races of the 1940s to the Bonneville Salt Flats speed weeks and drag strips of the 1960s. Hot rodding included its own crew of culture heroes, including customizer George Barris and drivers "Big Daddy" Garlits and Craig Breedlove, who set a series of land speed records in his "Spirit of America." In addition to musical tributes, the hot rod scene was lionized by Hollywood films, plastic car models available in hobby shops, and Bob Peterson's mass circulation periodical, Hot Rod.
Recognizing the presence of the subculture of potential consumers (not to mention the vicarious interest of middle American youth as a whole), a nucleus of talented Los Angeles-based songwriters and arrangers/producers began fueling the craze in the early 1960s, most notably Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Jan Berry of Jan and Dean, Roger Christian (a deejay at KFWB), Gary Usher, Terry Melcher, and Bruce Johnston. Usher--who contributed to the success of the Hondells' hits, "Little Honda" and "My Buddy Seat," and many the Surfaris' recordings--teamed with Christian to produce hit recordings and film soundtracks. Johnston and Melcher masterminded the success of the Ripchords (e.g., "Hey Little Cobra) and had their own hits as Bruce and Terry: "Custom Machine" and "Summer Means Fun."
As with surf music, the rise of folk rock and protest music in essence submerged the car song genre. The Beach Boys began experimenting with more progressive styles, augmented by the addition Johnston to enable Wilson avoid touring, thereby concentrating on songwriting and studio production. Jan Berry, on the brink of creating increasingly sophisticated sounds of his own, nearly died when his Corvette Stingray crashed at the fabled Dead Man's Curve. Melcher and Usher teamed up to produce the latest West Coast sensation, the Byrds.
Top Artists and Their Recordings
The Beach Boys--"409" (1962); "Shut Down" (1963); "Little Deuce Coupe" (1963); "Fun, Fun, Fun" (1964); "Little Honda" (1964)
Bruce and Terry--"Custom Machine" (1964)
Dale, Dick, and the Del-tones—"Mr. Eliminator" (1964); "Wild, Wild Mustang" (1964)
The Duals--"Stick Shift" (1961)
The Hondells--"Little Honda" (1964); "My Buddy Seat" (1964/5)
Jan and Dean--"Drag City" (1963/4); "Dead Man's Curve" (1964); "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena" (1964)
The Rip Chords--"Hey Little Cobra" (1963/4); "Three Window Coupe" (1964)
Ronny and the Daytonas--"G.T.O." (1964); "Bucket 'T'" (1964/5)
The Routers--"Let's Go" (1962); "Sting Ray" (1963)