September 6, 2008 at 1:00 am

A century of General Motors

Driven by culture: GM's cars take center stage in popular music, movies, TV shows

Dinah Shore sang about her Chevrolet on her popular '50s and '60s TV show. Here, she is featured in a 1986 Chevy commercial. (General Motors Corp.)

For a century, General Motors Corp. has cast a huge shadow over American popular culture, its cars inspiring songs, movies, cartoons and TV shows.

Images of GM cars abound in American music, folk and visual cultures, dating back to one of the first "car songs": Billy Murray's "In My Merry Oldsmobile" from 1905. That song became a classic recording by Jean Goldkette and his orchestra in 1927 and inspired a somewhat naughty 1932 cartoon by the Fleischer Brothers.

The image of GM's cars in popular culture would alternate between the dangerous glamour of fast cars and wild youth and the more wholesome virtues -- the idea that a Chevy or Buick would deliver you to freedom and escape out on the open road of an expansive, optimistic America.

From the '50s into the '60s, girl-next-door Dinah Shore sang "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet" on her popular "Dinah Shore Chevy Show," accompanied by video of the dishy yet demure singer riding in a Chevy convertible full of admirers, or footage of a four-door Chevy motoring along a picturesque Western highway.

"General Motors was always seen as part of the open road, seeing America, becoming one with it," said Michael Marsden, who lectures on the automobile in American culture at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. "Chevrolet was the big identifier because -- but also the Corvette -- it still remains the only true American sports car. There's really an affectionate connection with that car."

Certainly Barbie, the plastic queen of our mythopoetic dreams, doesn't drive a Boxster; she waves coquettishly from a pink Corvette.

Corvette haunts dreams

The Corvette was always emblematic of summertime and California. The Beach Boys are posing by a Corvette (and a Pontiac GTO) on the cover of their album "Shut Down Vol. 2."

There's a dark side to that iconic imagery. The Corvette symbolized freedom but also wantonness, the idea that cars that fast and sexy could kill. In the 1955 film noir "Kiss Me Deadly," detective Mike Hammer is speeding along a dark highway in a '54 Corvette when he almost kills a hitchhiker played by Cloris Leachman. When a gas station attendant first sees Hammer's new Corvette, which replaced his old Jag, he says: "What's the matter, a Jag not good enough for you?" Hammer replies, "Yeah, the ashtrays got all full."

But the ultimate Corvette of the '60s, the one that haunts Baby Boomer dreams is the baby blue driven by the two restless young wanderers in the 1960-64 TV show "Route 66." Martin Milner as Tod Stiles and George Maharis as Buzz Murdock drove Stiles' Corvette across America's more picturesque, pre-interstate highways seeking adventure to the sound of a cool, jazzy theme song. The show's top-notch scripts, atmospheric local shoots and array of almost-famous guest stars (a young Robert Redford, a young Suzanne Pleshette) helped keep the show, and its mythic Corvette, rolling. The show's first season came out on DVD in May.

Cemented in history

Now defunct, Oldsmobile hasn't been thought of as a charismatic brand for years, but the 1951 song widely believed to be the first rock 'n' roll song ever, "Rocket 88," celebrates a late '40s/early '50s Oldsmobile.

Ike Turner told The News in 2001 that he wrote "Rocket 88" about his favorite car, the Oldsmobile Rocket Hydra-Matic '88, which had a powerful V-8 engine shoehorned into a sleek, compact body, and dominated NASCAR races from '49 into the early '50s. The song is credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats; Brenston was the singer/saxophone player in the Rhythm Kings with Turner. Brenston always claimed he took parts of an earlier song, "Cadillac Boogie," and re-wrote it into "Rocket 88," but with both men dead they'll have to argue it out in rock 'n' roll heaven.

The mid-'50s Chevrolet Bel Air is another GM model that's moved past real life into folklore. In the 1971 cult car film "Two-Lane Blacktop," a '55 Chevy is covered up by dark gray primer paint, but its lines are so familiar as a hot rod and icon of speed that the viewer understands what the car is, and what it means.

Escalade equates success

There are mythic GM cars, and then there is Cadillac. There are untold numbers of songs written about Cadillacs, thousands in the BMI database alone. The Cadillac Fleetwood, Coupe de Ville and particularly the El Dorado -- a perfect mythological name-- served as shorthand for success and glamour. Elvis Presley's gold 1961 Cadillac sits in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. When R&B singer Little Willie John returned to Detroit riding high, he drove a two-tone Cadillac to his former high school, Pershing.

Today the Cadillac Escalade is an instant cultural marker of urban success, whether it's thug life success or professional. The arrival of sports stars, rappers or Detroit's embattled mayor has traditionally been marked by black Escalades speeding into view. The late comedian Bernie Mac drove an Escalade, and gang boss Tony Soprano of TV's "The Sopranos" drove a big white Escalade ESV (Paulie Walnuts' ride was a Cadillac CTS).

Hip-hop stars love to customize '50s or '60s GM models. Snoop Dogg commissioned an L.A. Lakers tribute car that began as a '57 Parisienne; there's also a white '66 Cadillac called "Angel Dust" that appeared in a 50 Cent video.

Ultimate rides define an era

The Chevy Impala Super Sport started out in the early '60s as the ultimate drive-in car, a '64 convertible SS featured pull-down trays and cup holders for your dining and movie-watching pleasure. The Beach Boys' song "409" ("she's so fine, my 409") celebrates the car that started out as a family ride but was given power to spare.

Over the years, Impalas have been popular in the Hispanic community, modified into low riders (El Caminos being another favorite), and in the rap world Impalas still rule. It was an early '60s dark Impala Super Sport that was seen near the site of the murder of Christopher Wallace, aka "Biggie" Smalls, in Los Angeles in 1997.

The Chevrolet Camaro, introduced in the fall of 1966, was also the first Mattel Hot Wheels 1/64th scale toy car produced (the most popular: a Corvette). Camaros became so synonymous with the 1970s that if you ask a savvy, veteran barber for a "Camaro" (or an "El Camino"), in theory you will leave with a mullet.

Today's cultural image mixed

It hasn't been 100 years of top-down happiness for GM's image in the culture. Speed bumps along the way include the General's clumsy handling of critics like safety crusader Ralph Nader, whose 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed" made the Chevrolet Corvair a byword for automotive danger. Then there was director Michael Moore, whose 1989 documentary "Roger and Me" told a David and Goliath story of a rogue filmmaker taunting an indifferent corporate behemoth for abandoning its hometown (Flint, Michigan).

" 'Roger and Me' was one more example of people attacking the giant, and the giant not being as responsive as it should have been to challenges and questions," Marsden said.

Today, GM's image in the culture is mixed.

The company was incredibly innovative in the '30s through '50s, before going into creative overdrive in the '60s, Marsden says.

"They really had more classic car designs than any other company -- very forward looking -- with their displays of prototypes, those really bold design changes, at the world's fairs," the professor said. "And they had an image of freeing Americans to try the open road, but now they have the image of a company that's not concerned about the environment -- even though that's not true."

Today Marsden sees signs of that old creative behemoth. "They're reintroducing the new Camaro, that's a beautiful, beautiful car. Despite the pundits, I think GM has quite a future."

About this series

Today's story is the fourth in a series that will look at the past, present and future of General Motors Corp. as the automaker celebrates its 100th anniversary. The series will culminate with a special commemorative section that will be published on Sept. 16.
So far, in this series:
Aug. 15: Auto Critic Scott Burgess selected GM's best vehicles by decade from among 100 years of cars and trucks.
Aug. 23: Generations of Michigan families have worked for GM, but it's a tradition that is disappearing as the industry undergoes profound changes.
Aug. 30: A look at the executives who helped transform GM into the global company it is today.
Today: GM's place in American popular culture.

The 2nd season of "Route 66" will be in released soon. (Infinity)
"Roger and Me" attacked GM for abandoning Flint. (Courtesy photo)