Like music, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons prefers cars fast, loud

A trip to the grocery store in a 1962 Chevrolet nicknamed Slampala?

How about a stop at the drive-through in the one-of-a-kind 1946 Cadillac called Cadzilla?

Or maybe a munchie run in the souped-up, decked-out 1936 Ford known simply as Big Mambo?

No matter what or where Billy Gibbons is driving, there's no mistaking the guitar player from the band ZZ Top, a man with an unrivaled car collection and the Old-Man-Winter beard.

"(Big Mambo) is usually the day-to-day ride,'' Gibbons told Barry Meguiar, host of SPEED TV's weekly half-hour show "Car Crazy."

"That's what gets me from Point A to Point B. It's definitely not the anonymobile.''

Gibbons' collection of classic cars was never intended to simply gather dust in some warehouse or museum. No, for Gibbons, the cars are to be enjoyed, driven, shared and stared at.

It's partially evident in the way Gibbons proudly talks about his collection. It's especially clear in the way his cars are prominently featured in the rock group's songs, album covers and music videos.

The now-famous 1933 Ford "Eliminator" three-window coupe immediately became an indelible part of the band's image when the famous sketch of the classic car appeared on the "Eliminator" album cover back in 1983. A few starring roles on MTV also helped solidify the 1933's place in ZZ Top lore.

Music and motors is the mantra for ZZ Top and not necessarily in that order.

"There is a strange connection between rock-and-roll music and this passion for the automobile.

"I don't know if anyone has been able to pinpoint that mysterious bridge. There is something to it.''

Each of Gibbons' custom rides is born from his own vision, then built by some of the heavyweights of the car restoration and customization business.

Other notable cars in the multimillion dollar stable include a 1950 Ford business coupe named Kopperhead and a 1965 Chevy Impala convertible called El Dorado Bar.

Gibbons, now 59, also collects vintage guitars, African art and custom-built HarleyDavidson motorcycles with endearing names such as Hogzilla and ZZ Funk 1.

Like his music, Gibbons prefers his transportation fast and loud, a common trait among rock 'n' rollers.

"You can paint guitars, hold them in your hands and modify them with pickups to make them sound unique,'' said James Austin, the man who compiled music for Hot Rods and Custom Classics, a set of rock songs about cars that included ZZ Top music.

"A car is pretty much the same thing. They are rolling art.''

Gibbons said it is difficult to pinpoint when and where his love of automobiles originated. He suspects the wheels began turning during an old Elvis Presley movie with The King crooning inside a hot rod convertible.

"It started way, way back,'' he said. "It was one of the first things I was interested in.''

A Dodge Dart wasn't exactly what Gibbons had in mind for his first car, but the gift from his father was better than nothing to a teenager.

"Fortunately, it was a two-door, so we had that going,'' Gibbons joked. "That car was one of those exciting first things, a bit of embarrassment at the time, later to become a famous car.''

The revving engine from that old Dodge Dart was later used on the 1979 ZZ Top album "Deguello" as an introduction to a song called "Manic Mechanic."

It's just one of many salutes to the automobile Gibbons has used on the 19 ZZ Top albums that have sold tens of millions of copies since the group formed in 1969.

Gibbons might not look the part of a suburbanite with his waist-long beard and Southern-fried look, but he grew up in Tanglewood, an affluent area outside of Houston. It was there he learned the finer points of rhythm and blues from, believe it or not, his family's maid.

From those roots rose a music empire that provided Gibbons with the means to fuel his other love: classic automobiles.

The band's passion for cars is so well-known, ZZ Top was the headline act at the Chevrolet Corvette's 50th birthday party in 2003. They have also played at exclusive car auctions and shared the stage with Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Willie Nelson and Metallica in a Diamond Award performance that celebrated 10 million in ZZ Top album sales.

Not bad for That Little ol' Band from Texas with a love for just "motoring around," as Gibbons often says.

Todd Burlage is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.