409s and Forgotten Records
One of the things that keep me busy when I'm not traveling for clients is working with the Gilmore Car Museum as a member of their education committee. A part of my work there includes occasionally leading groups of students on tours through various exhibits, sharing automotive history relevant to the vehicles on display. It’s always fun to answer questions and hear different viewpoints about what the visiting Gen-Z’s find interesting about all the different cars they see.
While recently leading a small group of high schoolers through the muscle car gallery, I stopped next to a beautiful and sparsely optioned Tuxedo Black 1962 Chevy Biscayne 409. A quintessential stripper with no heater or radio, rolling on dog-dish wheels, we paused to talk about "sleepers" of the era. After describing to the group what sorts of characteristics made a car a sleeper, I asked if any of them had ever heard the song "409" by the Beach Boys. Sadly, but maybe not surprisingly, all I heard were crickets.
I then asked whether any of them had at least heard of the Beach Boys. Out of a dozen kids, only two hands went up. Standing next to the Biscayne with the hood up, I explained that sixty years ago the band wrote an entire song just about the engine in this car. I sang the chorus like Mike Love with a head cold and then talked about what the different verses meant... "Four-speed, dual-quad, Positraction, 409..." while pointing to different parts of the car and explaining the connection to drag racing in the era. Before moving on, I asked the group how many songs their favorite singers have written about the cars on our roads today. This was met with a few snickers, they will be the first to tell you that modern artists don't sing much about cars.
It was while leading one of these groups through the exhibit that I began to wonder how I first came to appreciate music about car culture from the fifties and sixties. I only had to think about it for a moment before the answer came. It was a summertime trip to see my grandparents in Traverse City in 1988. I was nine years old.
One rainy afternoon during that visit my cousin Anders and I were exploring my grandparent’s basement, looking for something to do. Over in a corner, we found a large cream-colored cabinet, practically the size of a small dresser. Almost the entire front of it was lined in ornate cloth behind flat horizontal wood slats. It only took us a minute or two to figure out that the top of this cabinet tilted upward, and after pinching our fingers once or twice while we lifted the heavy wooden lid, we found a concealed record player underneath, it was an old RCA console. Exploring inside the dusty cabinet, we noticed a cubby just to the left of the turntable containing a small pile of old records.
It’s amazing to me how big a record console from the 1960s could be. In just half a century, we’ve gone from listening to music played in cavernous wooden boxes, spinning vinyl discs the size of pizzas, to all the music you could ever dream of hearing streamed through a device that fits in the palm of one’s hand. We should all be pleased with this progress.
Anders and I found the plug behind the console and decided to see if it still worked. Plugging the cord into a nearby outlet produced a sharp electrical snap and crackle from the outlet. A slight plume of dark, foul-smelling smoke slowly rose from the back of the plug for a moment. We recoiled, fearing we may start a fire while playing with this antique. As quickly as it started the smoke abated, and with no flames to engulf us, we shrugged it off and pressed on. I pulled the record collection out of the cubby and began perusing through titles I’d never heard of. Years later, I came to inherit those records, so it's not hard to remember the artists. Hidden among the Supremes, Tommy James and the Shondell's, The Mamas & The Papas, and a couple of Beatles records, one album caught my eye, “Little Deuce Coupe'' by the Beach Boys. On the cover was a customized '32 Ford. It was blue, with a chopped top, a custom front end with frenched-in quad headlights, an Oldsmobile V8 with triple Strombergs sitting on a blower, and huge finned drum brakes. Of course, I didn't know any of these things at the time. All I knew was this was a cool-looking car, I loved cars, and I was older than Anders so this would be the record we would listen to.
Putting the record on, we began fidgeting with knobs and switches on the turntable until a phonograph stylus that was probably last changed during the Nixon administration found its groove and began vibrating to the opening lines of "Little Deuce Coupe". The music played through ancient, tinny speakers buried somewhere in the cabinet. The speakers produced pops and loud scratching sounds every time we turned the volume knob. Soon the air around us was filled with a faint smell of old electronics that haven’t been used in years, heating up and radiating through layers of forgotten dust. I don't recall Anders hanging around that record player as long as I did, but I sat there for a long while, just listening. Most of the songs on that album hover right around the two-minute mark, helpful for keeping the attention of my young, distractible mind. It was more than that though. The music, in particular some of the harmonies, were unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
The lyrics were filled with new words I'd never heard, and they rattled and resonated in my head. They were singing about a car with a flat-head mill, competition clutch, roaring lake pipes, and a four on the floor. What was porting and relieving, and why are they singing about it? Listening to the revving engine at the beginning of "409" and the verses of "Shutdown" commanded my attention once again, as more new vocabulary quickly came; tach it up, dual quads, Posi-traction, powershifting, ram induction, and fuel injection. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but it all sounded so exciting. There were also these numbers that for unknown reasons were significant enough to sing about, like 409 and 413... What did those numbers mean? Perhaps no other song on the album confused me more than the beautiful “Ballad of Ole Betsy”. A lyrical play on words, I thought they were singing about a well-traveled woman named Betsy, who had lived a pretty rough life but finally found love. Only during the last three lines in the final verse did it occur to me that they might be singing about a car.
A few days later on the road back home from Traverse City with my dad, I had questions about some of this new lingo and I remember having a good talk about cars for a little while. My dad respected Pontiacs of the ‘60s and spoke highly of 389 powered GTO's. He opined that even a base LeMans with a 326 was no slouch in its day. My grandfather had owned one when my dad was in college, and he was impressed with it. He talked about an early Corvair convertible he’d owned and some of the notorious history surrounding those cars, mentioning a fellow I’d never heard of before named Ralph Nader. Later that summer our local librarian looked at me quizzically when I asked her to help me find their copy of Unsafe at Any Speed. My dad also talked about an old girlfriend who had a mid-year Corvette he'd driven on several occasions, which I found amazing. At that point in my life, I wasn’t sure I knew anyone else who’d ever driven a Corvette, so this was all pretty impressive.
It’s interesting to me how my appreciation for music of the fifties and sixties and automobiles from those eras are intertwined. As I grew up, I learned that the Beach Boys were only contributors, albeit talented, to an established trend of writing songs about cars. Before the Beach Boys were humble bragging about having the fastest set of wheels in town, Jackie Brenston was singing about the Rocket V8 under the hood of his Oldsmobile. Mountain boy Robert Mitchum was running moonshine and evading the revenuers on Thunder Road. Jimmie Dolan was racing a Mercury in his Ford, only for both drivers to lose in the end to a kid in a hopped-up Model A. In a poignant and haunting song co-written by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean sang of a remorseful Stingray driver who watched another driver in his XKE not come back from Dead Man’s Curve. Song after song, endless volumes of music all written to celebrate an entire generation’s infatuation with the automobile and its permanent impact on Americana.
Finding that record on a quiet summer afternoon was a formative experience that is seared in my memory. I think one of the reasons why is that its discovery was so accidental and organic. Maybe a little dangerous too, for a kid who momentarily thought he was going to start a house fire. Some of the best discoveries and experiences in our lives are like that sometimes. We all have friends or family who will recommend movies, music, books, or a restaurant to us, and that’s great. But it’s the things in life that we find on our own, those accidental discoveries, that I think mean a little more. We can hope that somewhere, a couple of kids who are interested in cars are poking around in a basement on a quiet afternoon, stumbling across a dusty pile of records or tapes while they explore. Maybe they’ll take a chance and plug in an old stereo sitting on a nearby shelf and experience for themselves something new and unforgettable.
Just don’t burn the house down.
John Hansen is an automotive writer and owner of Michigan Automotive Inspection Services, which provides professional pre-purchase inspection, consultation, and appraisal services for classic automobiles located throughout the United States. You can learn more at michiganais.com