Cars and rock music are inseparably linked. From the cars’ inception on drawing boards where music easily helps you visualize a new car’s shape and form and purpose, to the marketing material where the car hits a floodlit stage or a sweeping road, to actually using the finished car for a quality time while blasting quality tunes – either as new, or 30 years since it first rolled off the lot.
And there are various genres to consider: punk rock when you just want to beat on the BRAT, hard, garage born rock when it’s a rattlecanned hulk laying down sweet rubber, or classic rock’n’roll to really suit a pastel Chevy that’s destined for a night out on the diner parking lot. Or then it’s all about dusty, dirty trucks, Budweiser and Bob Seger. But still, there’s one specific style of smooth music that perfectly fits some 30-40-year old cars, absolutely unparalleled from my point of view.
The entire discussion I’ve been having with some fellow music/car nerds is based on a love of smooth, expensively made late 1970s-early 1980s AOR music, often linked to yachting in SoCal due to its image. Countless overdubs to get everything right. State of the art equipment, for the crispest sound. Seasoned studio hands brought in for just the shortest contributions, yet days, weeks, months, years spent honing the albums to flawless perfection. It’s all about expensive sound that only guitarists like Mark Knopfler could achieve in those proto-yuppie or full-on-yuppie days. But what are the cars that really seamlessly fit this kind of soundtrack?
The Datsun 280 ZX – as yacht as Japanese cars come.
To begin with, the cars in question really have to be American. It’s only the perfect malaise era American personal luxury car manufacturing that really nailed the grandiose yacht rock hero car stylings. Japanese manufacturers tried, and got close to it (say, Datsun 280 ZX), but they do not always go hand in hand with perfectly finished smooth rock music, sometimes dangerously close to either nightclub schlager or full-on prog noodling in their advertising.
British cars, on the other hand, were too tastefully made (think Jaguar XJ-S), designed for far shorter roads than the endless Pacific Coast Highways of the minds of true yacht rock aficionados. Of course, the Aston Martin Lagonda is the Phil Collins equivalent here – perfectly expensive, perfectly yuppie, and looks good pictured at a yacht club.
The Chrysler New Yorker – suitably Brougham for Steely Dan?
And French cars? Too much jazz, too much crooning – and while I find a Citroën SM or a Mercedes W116 or R107 to perfectly fit the late-‘70s Steely Dan period, they can be too Steely Dan to really nail it. Glamour Profession, on Steely Dan’s 1980 Gaucho album casually name-drops a Chrysler from which some basketball scout phone calls are made, and it’s easy to visualize the car in question as a late 1970s New Yorker.
Is the R107 Mercedes-Benz SL the most Donald Fagen of cars?
Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen was mentioned to drive a black sports car in the Aja days, and there’s definitely something R107 about him. Still, a yacht rock car is driven by the rocker himself, and a Steely Dan guy is better suited to spend time slightly drunk in the back seat, taunting the driver with all the snark powers his turtleneck can bestow on him. And a decadent W116 that smells of whiskey and cigars fits the Aja or Gaucho period Dan chords perfectly, but it’s owned by someone who really couldn’t care less about yachts or yacht owners.
Cadillacs, Lincolns, Jeeps – sold with help from yachts.
That leads us to the matter of actual yacht ownership. My point is, a yacht rock car doesn’t absolutely need to be owned by someone who can also afford a yacht. If we’re looking at marketing material, malaise era Cadillacs are often pictured at a harbor with yachts clearly seen in the background, but only the Allanté really rocks – the saloons and Broughams are too wafty, too formal. And the Allanté is also on the verge of slipping towards vaporwave with its digital dashboard and late-‘80s sharp styling, and that’s a completely different aesthetic. What I’m getting at is that the car should be something that can be photographed next to some yachts at a pier, but it can be far less stately than something driven by a yacht captain.
Sevilles and Devilles – land yachts?
The Pontiac Firebird Esprit – sumptuous, especially as Sky Bird Edition.
Initially, I thought of the Sky Bird editions of Pontiac Firebirds nailed the description. This was a late-1970s package for the Firebird Esprit, meaning the power plants gave a weak 150 horses if specified with the 305 V8, but the outside was two-tone light blue down to the wheels. Perfectly maritime color for true yachtiness.
The Pontiac Grand Prix Aero Coupe – yacht material nose cone?
But Pontiac has always been great at distilling some sportiness into the personal luxury coupe package. Take the Grand Prix Aero Coupe, which took the A/G-Body shared with Regals and Monte Carlos, but which used an awesomely ‘80s nose cone to smoothen out the front. And enough bits were body color. The Grand National and GNX are too dark, too menacing, too brute, too heavy rock; the Aero Coupe is closer to the required smoothness. As is the late ‘80s Bonneville despite its FWD sedan appearance. SSE it up, spec it in white and it’s perfect.
“And I’ve got such a long way to go (such a long way to go) to make it to the border of Mexico.”
As for Ford’s output, mid-‘80s Thunderbirds are closest. The late 1970s enormous “Torino” ‘Birds are pictured with private planes, the 1980 Box Birds are too Lego-shaped for their own good, but the fluid lines of the Aero Bird generation suit the style best. And sportswear editions are always a good match with yachting, hence the FILA Thunderbird’s easy inclusion here.
Is the “Aero Bird” the yachtiest T-Bird?
And since it’s the malaise era we’re talking about, build quality would only go as far as the newness of the car. Hall and Oates are easily yacht enough to fit the genre, and on Daryl Hall’s Sacred Songs solo album – which in turn is too art rock or prog to suit this – there’s a track called Survive, featuring these lamenting lyrics: “Whatever happened to you, the one that was so beautiful/ I always thought you were built to last / But I never saw anything fall apart so fast”. In build quality terms, that’s perfect.
The Buick Reatta – near-maritime naming despite dropping a letter.
But the thing about yacht rock is that it’s perfectly serious and sincere, no matter how many parody mockumentaries are crafted out of it. 1970s carmakers and record producers both set out to make the best personal luxury cars and finest albums their equipment could produce. And in this commitment to expensive smoothness lies the enduring quality of the genre, be it car or rock.
[Thanks to the expertise of Jay Ramey and Mikael Mattila! Images courtesy of manufacturers]