It’s hard to decide what The Beach Boys must have loved more: cars, girls, or surfing. In 1963, though, the band released Little Deuce Coupe, an album comprised of 12 tracks, each about cars. In truth, they weren’t just motivated by a love for rubber and chrome. They did it because Capitol Records – without the band’s input – was working on a car compilation album called Shut Down, featuring “409” and “Shut Down”, plus car songs by other groups. Brian Wilson set to work and cranked out eight new songs, with writing help from disc jockey Roger Christian. He pulled “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Our Car Club” from previous albums, and thus was born Little Deuce Coupe, an album filled with both dream cars and clunkers, street races, and enough garage talk to make you want to install your own set of naugahyde bucket seats. With help from John Tennyson, a docent from the California Automobile Museum, we thought we’d take a look at the cars of Little Deuce Coupe in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary.
1. ‘32 Ford Coupe
The car that gives its name to the song and the album might be the oldest of the lot. The ‘32 Ford Coupe V8 was third in the line of succession that included the Model-T and the Model-A. With this car, Ford was able to put a small, but powerful engine in a rather inexpensive automobile – $500 at the time. The car was also significant in that it came at a time in the early ’30s when vehicles were getting more styling. According to Tennyson, the box-on-wheels look gave way to slanted windshields, widened grills, and plenty of chrome. Eventually, both before WWII and then after, the lightweight car with a solid engine became attractive to kids looking to make hot rods out of them. “In the late ’50s, early ’60s, you had this lore, this trend of these hot rodders that would race these cars at night on city streets,” Tennyson said. In Los Angeles, the L.A. River (which is lined with cement and was dry during the summer) was a prime spot for racing. “It’s the iconic hot rod,” he said.
2. Corvette Stingray
The Stingray makes two appearances on the album. In “Shutdown”, the Corvette gets into a race with a Dodge Dart and eventually overtakes it. The driver attributes this to the car’s fuel injected engine. The Stingray also gets a shout-out on “Our Car Club”, as part of a dream lineup of cars for inclusion in said club. According to Tennyson, the Stingray was an incredibly popular car. In 1963, Corvette introduced a completely new design, which included hidden headlights, a duck-like rear end, and a long, rakish hood, as Tennyson describes it. Plus, Corvette (which was America’s first sports car, introduced in late ‘53) had been one of the first cars with that fuel injected engine. “A lot of young people were very enthralled with this car because of the design, as well as the fact that it did so well in various racing circuits,” Tennyson said. General Motors designer Bill Mitchell’s concept was probably the most radical design for an automobile at the time, and that was certainly evident, as the car sold twice what its predecessor had the year before.
3. Jaguar XKE
Also turning up on “Our Car Club” is the Jaguar XKE. “It was a very sexy, expensive European sports car,” Tennyson said. The design differed from the earlier, famous XK120 model in that it was lower to the ground and the hood was much longer. “It looks sort of like a submarine on wheels,” Tennyson said. This was another case where the design played a significant part in the appeal. At first, the car suffered problems with its electrical systems and carburetion, but eventually improved. Still, a Jaguar had a strong reputation as a racing car, and the kind of automobile wealthy sports car lovers might pick over an MG, an Austin-Healy, or even a Corvette.
4. Ford Woodie
The Ford Woodie gets a quick mention in “No-Go Showboat”. The singer’s plight is that he’s got a beautiful custom car, but looks is about all the car’s got. It’s performance leaves so much to be desired, that even an old Ford Woodie can take it. Ford Woodies played an important part in the Beach Boys’ surf-centered world, though. With ancestry linking back to the very first versions of the station wagon, the post WWII Ford Woodie was all steel, with either wood bolted onto the steel or fake wood sides and tailgate, Tennyson explained. By the early ’60s, a Woodie wagon (Ford wasn’t the only manufacturer) was a good option for surfers, as older models were relatively cheap and big enough to fit most of a 10-foot surfboard in the back.
5. Ford Thunderbird
The Thunderbird is probably one of the most iconic cars of the era. However, it only shows up in one line on the album, even if it would later factor prominently on 1964’s “Fun, Fun, Fun”. During “Little Deuce Coupe”, the singer uses it as a way to demonstrate the speed of his hot rod: “She’ll walk a Thunderbird like she’s standing still.” The T-Bird, which made its debut in 1954, wasn’t really a sports car, but a sporty, personal luxury coupe aimed at upper middle class professionals, Tennyson explained. From about 1955 to 1965, the T-Bird was in its heyday, outselling even the Corvette. The earliest models beat out the Corvette in part due to a roomier interior, roll-up side windows, a V8 engine, and the option of a 3-speed manual or automatic transmission. In 1958, Ford turned the car into a four-seater and added more amenities, like air conditioning, power windows, and a more powerful V8. Ford tweaked the car again in 1961, adding a low-slung, pointed front end and even more features, like a swing-away steering column. The Beach Boys’ Thunderbird was most likely one of these models.