There’s a constant theme to car show music—you’re going to hear Elvis Presley or the Beach Boys.

Elvis and the Beach Boys are no-risk choices for car show music because neither one will require anything more than a basic knowledge of vintage Top 40 music.

I have a problem with that shallow-end-of-the-pool approach to music because old cars are permanently tied to the era they were built–so why not capture that era instead of aiming a shotgun at it and hope something sticks? 

I want to cover five decades from the 1930s to the 1970s to explain how you can give a solid history lesson through music and old cars.

The first example is the 1930s–and the first car is the 1931 REO Royale. The REO Royale was more of a high-end car, so it had class and style in a decade known as the Dirty Thirties or the Depression thanks to brutal economic times.

You have to pick a song with class and style from 1931 and Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’ was that song. Play it on an endless loop at a car show in your ’31 REO.  

The late 1930s economy wasn’t much better, plus World War Two was a reality, so the car and the song have to fit the reality of 1939.

The car is a 1939 Plymouth, and the song is ‘We’ll Meet Again’ by Vera Lynn. ‘We’ll Meet Again’ became an anthem for Britain and its Allies in ’39, so if that song is playing in your 1939 Plymouth at a show, you’re giving people a great history lesson.

The second decade (the 1940s) saw World War Two escalate to a global conflict, so a 1942 Jeep would have to be the choice for the vehicle.

The song would have to be Big Band legend Glenn Miller’s ‘String of Pearls from 1942 because he served in the military from 1942-44 when he was MIA over the English Channel. The Jeep and Glenn Miller playing ‘String of Pearls’ are the perfect duo at a car show.    

The late 40s were much better because the war was over, so the 1947 Lincoln Club Coupe would be the showcase car.

Pick the Lincoln because by 1947 people were starting to get optimistic and pick Dinah Shore’s  ‘Anniversary Song’ from 1947 because people were starting to celebrate life again. Dinah Shore’s version of ‘Anniversary Song’ was one of several done that year but her version playing on the radio in a ’47 Lincoln at a car show would be classy and understated—just like the Lincoln.

The third decade starts in the early 50s was a continuation of post-war optimism, so people were starting to buy flashy cars like a 1952 Oldsmobile 98 convertible.

The Olds convertible meant fun was back in town and that meant you could hear songs like Jo Stafford’s ‘You Belong to Me’ playing in every car on the road back in ‘52.  Jo was talking about a different world in 1952—vastly different than 1942 and 1932.

The late 50s was yet another world because we were in the Space Race and cars started looking like finned rockets—cars like a 1958 Dodge Custom Royal convertible.

You might expect to hear Elvis playing in a ’58 Dodge at a car show, but Frank Sinatra’s ‘One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road)’ would up the style game to a ’58 Custom Royal convertible level.  

The fourth decade begins in the early 60s–it would be well-represented by the 1961 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88.

That year would also be well-represented by the incomparable Henry Mancini’s version of ‘Moon River’—many people did versions of that song, but nobody did it better than Henry Mancini in 1961. It’s the perfect song to hear in a ’61 Olds at a car show because again—it’s a history lesson about style and class in 1961.

The late 60s was a different game so the car would have to a muscle car like a 1967 Plymouth GTX.

The obvious music choice would be The Beatles, but the ’67 GTX isn’t an obvious choice for 60s muscle–so why not pick the song ‘Yellow Balloon’ by the band Yellow Balloon? It came out in ’67 and it’s just quirky enough and 60s enough to be blasting out of a 1967 GTX at a show.   

The fifth decade (early 70s) had some monster muscle cars but again—this is a history lesson—not a “what was most popular?’ lesson so the 1970 Javelin Mark Donahue Edition is the car.

The song from 1970 is Pacific Gas and Electric’s ‘Are You Ready?’.  They were a one-hit wonder with that song but more importantly it’s the perfect tune to draw attention to a 1970 Javelin Mark Donahue Edition. Not everyone will remember the car or the song, but they’ll sure get the cool factor when they see–and hear the two together.

The last entry is from the late 70s—it’s the 1979 Dodge Little Red Express.

The LRE was the only real contender for decent 0-60 times in a sea of lukewarm vehicles back in ’79 and disco music had obliterated good music on the charts. That’s why The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ has to be the song coming out of a 1979 Little Red Express at a car show. The song and the truck told people how we were bloodied–but not defeated in ’79.

By: Jerry Sutherland

Jerry Sutherland is a veteran automotive writer with a primary focus on the collector car hobby. His work has been published in many outlets and publications, including the National Post, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Regina Leader-Post,  Vancouver Sun and The Truth About Cars. He is also a regular contributor to Auto Roundup Publications.

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