In 1976 Jimmy Carter was in the White House, King Kong was in the theaters, and Johnny Cash was singing the last of his songs to hit number one on the country charts. Its title was One Piece at a Time. It told the story of a fellow from Kentucky who moved to Detroit in the 1940s to work for GM. It wasn’t long before he realized that, on his wages, he would never be able to afford one of the Cadillacs to which he spends his days attaching wheels.
Like a lot of brilliant, yet budget-strapped folks before him, he hits upon a novel solution to his problem. He and a co-worker decide to build their own Cadillac by removing one piece at a time from the factory. Fasteners and other small parts find their out the door in his lunch box, while larger components are hidden in the partner’s motor home.
The duo is especially methodical and cautious in carrying out their plan, taking their time so as not to arouse supervisor’s attention. As a result, the project that began in 1949 wasn’t completed until 1973. Cash refers to the finished vehicle as a “psychobilly Cadillac.” It has a ’53 transmission, a ’73 engine, a single tail fin, and three headlights, two on one side of the car. The song ends with Cash talking to a trucker on a CB radio about his Frankenstein creation. “You could say I went to the factory and picked it up,” Cash says. “It’s cheaper that way.”
The song was popular with country fans in general, but it has a special meaning for those of us who grew up cash-strapped in the rural parts of the country. Many a time my brothers, nephews, and myself would cobble together something we wanted from the abundant spare parts in my dad’s barn or the nearby woods.
When we wanted a go-cart we built one from the remnants of a riding lawnmower. When we got old enough for bikes we assembled them from whatever was lying around.
Cash’s song is a tribute to the millions who came up the same way, not letting a lack of funds keep them from building what they wanted with their own hands.
If you Google the song’s title, then you’ll run into tons of stories about a car in Roscoe, IL that was built as a tribute to Cash. It sits there to this day in a roadside museum. But there was another version of the “psychobilly Cadillac” that was put together in 1976 by the folks at Hilltop Auto Salvage in Nashville. It was much truer to the actual vehicle described in the lyrics. Sadly, it was sent to the crusher in the 1980s. But the photo remains, as does Cash’s legend.
We pay tribute to the Man in Black as “Out Among the Stars” debuts today. The album consists of previously unreleased material. While we listen, we’ll be thinking about one of the cars tied to Cash, and the working class spirit that his music often stood for.