Late one night last summer, my wife and I were crossing San Francisco in a nearly empty bus. There were the two of us and a young couple from the suburbs celebrating their engagement in town, plus the driver, a cheerful, talkative fellow with a gift—well, let’s say an enthusiasm—for song. As we headed east through the empty streets, isolated in our chilly fluorescent box, he struck up a tune: “While riding in my Cadillac, what to my surprise….”

I tried to join in on my first favorite song, a Roulette single of which my brother and I had ground down on a gray-and-white Philips portable, but the driver had a rather creative recollection of the words. He was solid on the chorus, though, and whenever a toy-horn squeak would have punctuated the Playmates’ 1958 original, he hit the wheel for an industrial-strength substitute. After a few blocks, even the newly betrothed had joined him in his effort to rouse the slumbering city: “Beep, beep (honk! honk!)/Beep, beep (honk! honk!)/His horn went beep, beep, beep!”

I was thrilled to see “Beep Beep” nestled between Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” and the Delicates’ “Black & White Thunderbird,” anchoring an onomatopoetically themed sequence on a new four-disc Rhino box. The packaging of Hot Rods & Custom Classics, which includes a Revell-style box and a lopsided pair of fuzzy dice, may be inspired by cardom’s flashiest and finest, but the music on the set embraces the temperament of everything from the dust-spewing roadster to the family sedan. It races from late-’40s country (Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway”) and early-’50s proto-rock (Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket ’88′”) to ’70s AOR classics (the Doobie Brothers’ “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley”) and ’80s new wave (the B-52’s’ “Devil in My Car”). It stops along the way to pick up the occasional novelty (Nervous Norvus’ lugubrious “Transfusion”), glides over a slice of TV cheese (Dinah Shore’s “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet”), and jumps the curb to chew through a patch of bluegrass (Bill Monroe’s “Heavy Traffic Ahead”). By the time it pulls into the pit, the box has wheeled through more than 80 hymns of the Church of Internal Combustion.

And a church it is. When King of the Hill’s Luanne reverently dubbed NASCAR roster-topper Jeff Gordon “the world’s fastest Christian,” she spoke volumes about America’s devotion to speed and a good machine. As the monks of the national religion, professionals are cloistered on racetracks, but amateurs prefer dragging on deserted roads and dry lake beds, out in the real world. The rest of the English-speaking world just doesn’t understand. In Australia, they have what Geoffrey Blainey has called “the tyranny of distance,” and England once gave us a song by former ‘HFS fave It’s Immaterial plumbing the anguish of “driving away from home 30 miles or more.” (Sorry, that’s not a road trip; that’s a commute.) But here, driving constitutes our chief connection to the landscape, the repository of the American sublime. When newly unencumbered retirees or downwardly mobile youngsters drop everything and take to the blue highways, they’re insisting that Manifest Destiny wasn’t left back in the 19th century.

Before interstates crowded out the railroads, the way to take in the American expanse was by train, and until the car usurped its place, the train was the nation’s romantic conveyance par excellence. (Of course, in a country where to be “railroaded” was to be sent forcibly and dishonestly where you didn’t wish to go, the days of rail’s dominance were numbered.) When the car was embraced by popular music, it naturally was conceived as a one-man locomotive. And the rhythm of the rails became the rhythm of the road.

Filled with walking bass lines and guitar-solo triplet cascades, late-’50s/early-’60s rockabilly, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll are the soul of Hot Rods & Custom Classics. The beats driving them are boogie-charged takes on the blues shuffle that propelled so many train songs into the national mythos. Whirring flywheels and squealing belts didn’t offer the same opportunity for rhythmic mimesis that clickety-clacking steel had, but no one objected to the automobile’s jumping someone else’s train. The important thing was the suggestion—all tied up with sex, God, and country—that you were getting somewhere. Not that it’s necessarily a physical destination, as Chuck Berry discovered in “No Particular Place to Go.”

Then, as now, the proof was out there. For this reason, I have road-tested every track on the box. (Remember, kids, never trust a rock critic who doesn’t drive.) A couple of weeks ago, I lit out for the wilds of central Maryland, running errands and adopting an itinerary that even Immaterialists could love. If I can’t get away from it all, I at least like going places that sound farther away than they really are, so I hit Columbia (skipped the fries, got a second Chick-fil-A), Lisbon (rolled up the windows against the stink of dung), and Damascus (spent all of Nelson Riddle’s “Route 66 Theme” parked behind a ChemLawn truck waiting for the flagman).

Between the inconveniences there was plenty of great music (Thee Midniters’ “Whittier Blvd.” is a glorious piece of mid-’60s garage trash) and great driving (I heartily endorse the Olney-Laytonsville Road). The road is, alas, a harsh master. I like Phranc’s “’64 Ford” just fine at home, but it’s too fragile—particularly on the “It’s not crazy for a girl to love her car” bridge—to stand up to 50 mph on a windy day. And I can understand why singers as uncertain as Jan and Dean would want to hide behind Spectorish production, but the wall of sound always supported musing better than it did propulsion.

“Dead Man’s Curve” is, however, a thematic necessity, and on that score Rhino covers its bases. There are memories of the drag strip, descriptions of usurious financing, and tales of women willing to trade their virtue—on a permanent basis, even—for the right ride. Johnny Cash contributes his 1976 country chart-topper “One Piece at a Time,” about an assembly-line worker who steals his dream car part by part. “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” a cautionary tale about the dangers of running ‘shine, comes courtesy of none other than Robert Mitchum.

But the overriding concern is car love. Machines from the Rip Chords’ little Cobra and the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” to Sammy Masters’ “Pink Cadillac” and the Medallions’ “Buick 59” are lavished with praise. War’s “Low Rider” may celebrate a person, but everyone knows it’s his ride that exalts him.

The reason for all this idolatry is that the true objects of automotive devotion—freedom and motion—aren’t objects at all. Modern American religions both secular and sacred have had a lot of trouble visualizing their abstract concerns. Our churches are Simpsons-worthy monstrosities designed by hapless third-rate chasers of innovation, our farmland is filling up with vinyl-sided tract mansions appointed with nylon banners denoting an endless parade of minor holidays, and the newly prosperous still telegraph their striving with ornamentation and signage of lacquered brass. The automotive reification of independence is, in comparison, a triumph of good taste.

Tricking out a rod is a way to identify it as a religious vehicle rather than a mundane conveyance, so Rhino’s decision to ally the music on this box with the titular classes of cars is canny. And if it’s a distraction, it is illuminating. In addition to a glossary of hot-rodding and car-customization terms, there is an informative essay by Pat Ganahl about the history of “The California Hot Rod,” drawn from the catalog of a show at the Oakland Museum. But in light of the lack of detailed notes about the musicians, some of whom are rather obscure, the decision to reprint, in its entirety, Tom Wolfe’s 1965 Esquire piece on the custom scene, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” leads me to question the packagers’ priorities.

Still, I’m glad Rhino decided to include the article, if only because it allows me an opportunity to crack on Wolfe without having to dig into his latest wrist-breaking fiction. In case you’ve never read it, “Baby” proves The Painted Word is no fluke: Wolfe is a complete idiot on matters of visual culture. Never content to make a fine distinction when a gross one will do, he spouts ahistorical nonsense such as, “As a matter of fact, [sculptor Constantin] Brancusi and [car customizer George] Barris both developed out of a design concept that we can call Streamlined Modern or Thirties Curvilinear…” which disregards the fact that the ideas for Brancusi’s major pieces date from the teens and ’20s and that by the ’30s he was just ringing the changes on them. Wolfe is also unable to distinguish between the restrained, refined curves of a Brancusi, the aerodynamic contours of ’30s-style streamlining (which the writer says serves no function “unless you’re making a Bonneville speed run”; perhaps he’s unfamiliar with the migratory habits of air), and the wild, decorative swoops of mid-’60s custom cars, many of which were never designed to be driven. To Wolfe’s mind, everything represents something he calls “baroque abstract” or “baroque modern.”

If Wolfe is useless, he at least gets me reaching for the most functional and most irresponsible of Rhino’s packaging tchotchkes, the Mooneyes bottle-opener/key ring, optical yellow so it’s easy to see even under the least promising conditions. Could this, I ask, turning it over in my hand and cranking up the volume, be the reason Dave Edmunds is ever “crawling from the wreckage”—into a brand new car? CP