Billy F. Gibbons: Manic Mechanic

By Steve Rider

The esteemed Mr. Billy F. Gibbons is a fixture in American music and pop culture. He reaches into the past to tap the roots of the Delta Blues and pull its essence into the present by combining those tried and true methods with rough and raw hard rock riffs over gravelly vocals. Whether he’s dousing the lights to pluck out the signature intro licks to Just Got Back From Baby’s or kicking it up with Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers, Gibbons exhibits a style that is utterly authentic and deeply classic. This is the man himself; it’s who he is. Whether on stage or in his garage, Gibbons works hard at living a dream rooted in American classics and reaching into the future. What could be more classic Americana than rock and roll and cars?


The love affair between music and the automobile stretches back to the time before there was such a thing as Rock and Roll. Blues artists in the ‘30s wrote about hitting the road in a fine vehicle, or as a sign that they had made it big enough to be able to afford such a luxury. By the 50s, Rock and Roll was exploding onto the national scene as a controversial and brash new genre. While some staunch traditionalists were smashing records, those who welcomed the exciting, fast-paced music of performers like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were quick to adopt the trappings of their favorite stars. Massive, stylish, and chromed-out, Chevys, Fords, and Cadillacs were the center of American pop culture, symbolizing prosperity, beauty, and freedom. The car itself was a form of freedom for the youth yearning to break free from strict upbringings and social convention. Add your best girl, favorite radio station, and a moon-lit Saturday night, and you have the trappings of the Golden Years of American culture. Gibbons said this in regards to the prolificacy of the car in American music, “On a car radio, away from one’s parents – the mobility afforded by the automobile combined with a rockin’ soundtrack was a recipe for spiritual liberation. Play loud and drive fast – these things go hand in glove. It’s really not a coincidence that the popularity of hot rods and custom cars was concurrent with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll – they’re really about the same thing.”


For ZZ-Top front man Billy Gibbons, the dream started young. When asked when he first got interested in hot rod cars, Gibbons returned that some of his earliest words were Ford, Chevrolet, and Cadillac.  His first car was a two-door Dodge Dart he shared with his sister, Pam. He claimed that the slant six would go were Jeeps feared to tread. The sound of the engine revving can be heard on the track Manic Mechanic. As his music progressed, so did his love of classic American muscle. He began to commission custom hot rods to match his gritty yet stylish persona; rides fitting for the guitar-slinging blues rocker.

The best known example of Billy’s hot rods is the Eliminator a ’33 Ford three-window coupe. The low-down mean Ford bearing the ZZ insignia on the pin stripping was on the cover of the album of the same name. Eliminator would become the bands biggest commercial success during their peak in the ‘80s. At the time, MTV was just getting into swing and it was suggested that the Texas trio make videos for several tracks from the Eliminator album. Gibbons decried the idea that people would want to watch the three of them and their duo of trademark beards, so he suggested that they add pretty girls and the Eliminator coupe. They shot Legs, Sharp Dressed Man, and Gimme All Your Lovin with that formula. It became the staple of their music videos and would become iconic in the MTV era.


But the Eliminator, currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, is not the only hot rod in the ZZ-Top garage. There is also the CadZZilla, a super-sleek custom Caddy designed and built by Larry Erickson. Gibbons says of the CadZZilla, “We stay amped-up with the fact it’s as much “go” as “show.”  She’s made a couple of cross-country treks, driven hard, come rain or shine!” The CadZZilla has travelled all over the world for car shows, and received copious press. Gibbons love of the old school ‘30s style racers, like the Eliminator, shows in the Mambo coupe, another three window coupe with dramatic lines. He likens the modding of cars to the modding of guitars, “Both deal with style and performance.  Exotic looks with power and punch… and that’s what we strive to do with the four wheel customs and the six string slings as well.”


Having a garage full of custom hot rods is a luxury out of reach for many people. If you were Billy F. Gibbons, which ones would you roll out when it was time to hit the road? According to a spread in Forbes Magazine, on the shortlist of Gibbons’ favorite rides are: The Leapin’ Limo, a ’48 Pontiac silver streak that was stretched 40 inches and had four inches chopped off the top. The CadZZilla, a ’48 Cadillac sedan lowered and stretched. The Mambo Coupe, ’36 Ford three-window coupe with a sinister paint job and a screaming chrome skull in front grille. The Kopperead, a ’50s Ford sedan transformed into yet another three-window coupe, with the roofline lowered three inches and with 10 inches added to the doors. The Slampala, a ’62 Chevy impala SS that was left stock except for an air-suspension upgrade that’s a nod to the low-rider culture that made this car a classic.

Gibbons love of cars is in no way purely aesthetic. Just like a guitar is meant to be played, a vehicle is meant to be driven. He takes these fine beauties on long road trips across the arid Southwestern stretch between Texas and California, opening up the throttle to let the machines make their own music. Just like the sweet notes that pour out of his famous Pearly Gates Gibson Les Paul, these tuned-up hot rods deliver an experience that is all about substance and style.

The New York Times said this of the eccentric musician’s collection, “The cars and music are part of the same enterprise; creating a shared landscape of mind, a fantasy land where Mr. Gibbons’ music provides a soundtrack for imagined journeys in fantasy cars. Many will be happy to ride along.”

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