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Great Cars of Song: Red Barchetta

For those of a certain age--namely, anyone who came of age in the late 1970s to early 1980s--and of a certain musical proclivity (i.e., hard progressive rock), this song by the Canadian prog-rock band Rush will bring back memories. Or not, depending on how you spent your misspent youth. The track is off of RedBarchettaImage Rush's 1981 Moving Pictures album, which was the group's biggest-selling U.S. album, although for Rush fans (that would be me) it was kind of after its heyday in the early-late 1970s.

Still, it's one of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (along with 2112). This particular song, Red Barchetta, is still a staple of Rush's live shows and is probably the only place most people ever even heard of a Barchetta, let alone a red one. Speaking only for myself (though I suspect many others), I never really knew what a Barchetta was other than that it was a sports car, probably of Italian origin, and left it at that.

Of course, now that we have this here Internet thingie, you can finally answer all those "I wonder what such-and-such is?" questions that have been simmering in the lower parts of your consciousness for years and years. Thus, I decided to look into it. Not only the car on which the song is based, but also the song itself--its inspiration, how its "predictions" hold up today, and what it looks like going on 30 years down the road, so to speak. For those unfamiliar with the song or the group, a video for the song appears at the end of this post. And, for car lovers, a great song it is:

Well-weathered leather, hot metal and oil
The scented country air
Sunlight on chrome, the blur of the landscape
Every nerve aware

First off, the song was inspired by a short story first published by Richard Foster in the Nov. 1973 issue of Road & Track; you can read the full story here. In short, it's a futuristic tale in which government regulations have conspired to make cars so safe that they could survive 50-mph head-on crashes with no damage to car or driver. A rebel who has use of an old MGB, however, regularly drives ANMD his little car out in the  country but is often beset by drivers of "Modern Safety Vehicles" (MSVs) who like to ram old cars just for kicks. The story relates one harrowing adventure in which two MSVs coordinate their attack.

The song itself (lyrics below) differs somewhat from the story. In the original, new cars seem to be normal in most ways--gasoline engine, wheels, etc.--just much safer, at least for the driver and passengers. In the song, the antagonists are "gleaming alloy air cars" which seems to imply some sort of anti-gravity technology. Also, in the story, driving an old car was perhaps a bad idea, but not illegal. The song suggests that driving personal cars or old cars is against the law ("before the Motor Law" and "I commit my weekly crime"). It's not clear just why our hero is being chased; because of the apparent illegality of the act, it always made me think that the pursuers were actually police cars rather than simple miscreants as in the story.

The cars, as noted above, differ as well. In the story, the protagonist drives an MGB which is only 15 years old, but the car in the song is a Barchetta that has been kept and preserved "for 50-odd years".

Ah, but what exactly is a Barchetta? Well before my interest in cars turned more formal, I just assumed it was a particular model called a "Barchetta," probably of Italian origin. I was, as they say, somewhat misinformed. 'Barchetta' is Italian for a "small boat" and simply describes cars that look like inverted boats. They are small two-seaters designed mostly for racing. They have no bumpers or other amenities Ferrari_166MMsuch as as roof or side windows. They were designed to minimize air resistance, with perhaps only a small racing windshield for protection.

Technically, it is pronounced 'bar-ketta' (hard k-sound) but Rush has always pronounced it with the ch-sound instead. Some say it's because they didn't know the "correct" pronunciation, but I think perhaps it's just aboot them being Canadian, eh?

The iconic Barchetta, and the one on which the song is based, is the venerable Ferrari 166, probably the 166MM (see photo) which won several races in 1949. This was a magnificent car, with an aluminum body on a tubular frame. It descended from the 125 S, but had a larger engine (2.0 liters as opposed to 1.5 in the 125). Between 1948 and 1950 the 166 MM won several races, including the Mille Miglia (whence the "MM" designation), the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Spa 24 hours; in 1949 it won all three, the only car ever to do so.

Since Barchetta refers to a style rather than a model, other manufacturers have produced them over the years. Other Barchettas include the OSCA MT4 and the Abarth 1000SP. More recently, both Ferarri--the 550 Pininfarina--and Fiat (pictured) have produced Barchettas, the former in 2001 and the latter between 1995 and 2005.

How well have the rather dismal predictions of both the story and the song held up over time? Thankfully, not too well. It's true that cars have gotten much heavier over the years, and much of the added weight is due to safety considerations. For example, my 1978 Mustang II, a 2+2 hardtop, weighs in at about 2,700 pounds. The 2010 Mustang clocks in at over 3,500 pounds. Even a little two-seat Porsche Boxster S is over 3,200 pounds. FiatBarchetta

While the original story had safety regulations paramount, both the song and reality have tended towards better fuel mileage. (Though cars today are really much more efficient, increasing weight and power have muted the effect on actual mileage). The story does seem eerily prescient in one respect:

Cars became larger, heavier, less efficient. They consumed gasoline so voraciously that the United States had had to become a major ally with the Arabian countries.

Of course, these days it's seeming more like we'll have a Carbon Law before we get a Motor one. And, were we wont to open up the old SUV fracas once again, one could liken modern SUVs to MSVs. I hope not, but we could.

So now you know. In my case, the reality pretty well matched up with what I imagined a Red Barchetta to have been all these years: a small, two seat roadster, brilliant red, fast, and maneuverable, able to leave the gleaming behemoths in its dust. One would hope that the rather unfortunate future foretold in both stories will not come to pass, although I'd pretty much not mind having both "air cars" floating around on a cushion of antigravity thingamatechnology and a perfectly preserved sports car in my uncle's garage.

Credits: The 166 and Fiat photos are from Wikipedia, and the original story and cover photo are from The MG Experience

Here is a live version of Red Barchetta that made the MTV rounds in the early '80s, followed by the full lyrics:

My uncle has a country place that no one knows about
He says it used to be a farm before the Motor Law
And on Sundays I elude the Eyes and hop the Turbine Freight
To far outside the wire where my white-haired uncle waits

Jump to the ground as the Turbo slows to cross the borderline
Run like the wind as excitement shivers up and down my spine
Down in his barn, my uncle preserved for me an old machine
For fifty-odd years, to keep it as new has been his dearest dream

I strip away the old debris that hides a shining car
A brilliant red Barchetta from a better vanished time
I fire up the willing engine responding with a roar
Tires spitting gravel, I commit my weekly crime

Wind in my hair
Shifting and drifting
Mechanical music
Adrenaline surge

Well-weathered leather, hot metal and oil
The scented country air
Sunlight on chrome, the blur of the landscape
Every nerve aware

Suddenly ahead of me across the mountainside
A gleaming alloy air-car ahoots towards me, two lanes wide
I spin around with shrieking tires to run the deadly race
Go screaming through the valley as another joins the chase

Drive like the wind, straining the limits of machine and man
Laughing out loud with fear and hope, I've got a desperate plan
At the one-lane bridge, I leave the giants stranded at the riverside
Race back to the farm to dream with my uncle at the fireside

--Anthony Cagle


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...a barchetta is fairly analogous to what we've come to know as a spyder or speedster sports racer, but the single cover above is, of course, a ferrari dino...

I've always liked the song for its depiction of the sheer joy that driving a high-performance car can bring; I certainly do not want to see its dystopian future setting come to pass.

RUSH AND OLD CARS RULE!! I recently bought their Power Windows album (in CD, sorry purists, but it's based off the original master tapes!)! What a great way to spend Christmas, eh?

I got the Snakes & Arrows DVD for Xmas. I shall be in heaven, but I fear the Spousal Unit will be living upstairs for the weekend.

Fantastic article! It asked and answered questions I've had since I first heard the song. Oddly enough, I was preparing to break out Moving Pictures today anyway! I didn't even have to. I read the lyrics and heard the song in my head. Guitar solo and all!!

Thanks to Anthony, Neil, Alex and Geddy!!'re not alone, anthony - i'm forbidden to play rush in my SO's presence...

IMO the song also inspired the film _The Last Chase_.. Though ironically enough, California was portrayed as the "free" state..

Do Mustangs count?

I am on my third. Hardtop 2005 GT now but away for the winter. Snows here.

This is Niel Peart as good as he gets and nobody can claim better. Heard him live and many recordings.

Yep, nothing like Detroit steel. Hate to see that go. I think it will not fade so fast. Tough to replace that with carbon credits. Life is too short for that.


Don't forget the wonderful Italian Ford Ghia Barchetta. Now there's a car I wish Ford had put into production:

One more question remains unanswered for me . . . did the song inspire the scene in the latest Star Trek movie with a pint-sized James T. Kirk being chased to the edge of a desert canyon in a red Corvette?

I used to be an SO who never left the room but went to the shows, bought the cd's, dvd's and in the good old days, the albums. should have seen us splitting up the Rush cd's, that matched some of our best fights over the years. it is in my top 5 fav Rush songs, always loved the evocation of fast cars, the rebellious race against authority, always hoped that if the time came I would have the same sense of adventure and courage.

Well,if it's all the same to you guys,I think I will just stick with my "four speed,dual quad,positraction 409".

Great song from what is probably the most technically talented 3-man group in history. The story fills in a lot of questions I've had over the years...

A few years ago I was restoring a '69 Firebird (1st Gen!). My teenaged son was broadsided in it on the driver's side by a guy in a stolen BMW 750 doing about 50 mph. The BMW was crushed from the front bumper back to the firewall. The Firebird was caved in nearly two feet on the driver's side, the steering column was bent, and the driver's seat was squished to half its normal width. My son got out of the car under his own power, and only suffered a slight crack on one of his pelvis bones. In any other car, he'd have been toast. I gladly exchanged the 'Bird for his life. Detroit steel rules! (at least it used to)

I'll be the first to say that GM has built some of the strongest car bodies ever made. Wanna see them in action? Go to a demolition derby and see what survives.

I hope the driver of the stolen BMW got what was coming to him. Maybe the crush zone of the 750 saved his life so the courts could have their crack at him. I hope he paid dearly for the hurt he inflicted on your family as well.

GREAT post. My only humble comment is that I don't think the "air-cars" referred to in the song are hovercrafts. If they were, our hero wouldn't be able to strand them on the other side of the one-lane bridge. I think they're just really wide air-powered cars.

I just got here after listening to Red Barchetta and noticing that Geddy pronounced it with the CH instead of the K (Italian ch). I live in Montreal and I positively don't think it has to do with being Canadian :-) It probably has to do with being more exposed to Spanish pronounciation, where ch is indeed pronounced CH (tsch, as in cherry). As in Che Guevara.

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