News Culture

The BBC Released a Massive Audio Archive Documenting the Sounds of Classic Cars

Ever wonder about the sound of a 1911 Rolls-Royce missing a shift? Or the handbrake action on a Porsche 924? You're in the right place.

It’s often said that smell is one of the most memory-invoking senses the human body possesses. But car fanatics might argue that the sounds of a particular vehicle—everything from the engine note to the door closing to the action on the window switches—that can inflame old passions and bring overwhelming joy. A specific sound can send you spiraling back into history. And thanks to the BBC, we now have free access to one of the most fascinating collections of aural automotive ephemera in the world.

In 2018, the BBC opened up public access to one of their main sound effect libraries, which contains audio clips of various items and scenarios ranging from acetylene torches to scuba diving. But of course, the one category that got our attention was the cars.

There are a total of 517 different sounds in the automotive category of the soundbank, some with generic names describing the short clips like “Tyre inflated,” while others are much more specific, listing the year, make, model, and action of the vehicle featured in the clip. And these aren’t your usual suspects. Ever fancy hearing all the various sounds a 1900 Benz “Comfortable” motor car can make? How about a 1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost— “door shut, false start on cold engine, start into brisk run, stop” sounds like a banger if we’ve ever heard one.

 Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Citroen 2CV lowering its top and going for a drive: As the name might imply, this particular sound is someone getting ready to drive their Citroen 2CV on a sunny day. The clip records the lowering of the top, releasing of the handbrake, and driving off into the distance.
  • Montage of recordings from Veteran Car Run in 1984: An unexpectedly interesting clip, this audio records various automobiles passing by the microphone, all of which were built between 1892 and 1904. While this seems rather generic, it’s quite interesting to hear the pitter-patter of early internal combustion engines compared to the purr of modern cars.
  • 1967 Land Rover Series 2A Safari Diesel driven on a rough track: The 2A is one of the most iconic Land Rovers built, and hearing the whine of the gearbox and familiar knock of the diesel motor is like music to an off-road buff’s ears.
  • 1979 Porsche 924 startup and acceleration: The 924 is a controversial car built by Porsche, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. This clip features a startup and takeoff using the Porsche’s 95-horsepower four-cylinder engine, complete with the satisfying gear change of its manual transmission.
  • Rally Car Racing, multiple cars taking a chicane: Listening to the raw sounds emitted by raucous rally machines is already blissful, and hearing them skillfully navigate a serpentine curve is all the more satisfying.

The best part is that all of these sounds can be used for free for non-commercial uses. Their release effects stems from a BBC project called “RemArc,” or as it is more commonly known, the Reminiscence Archive—a 2016 project which the BBC says can help trigger memories in individuals suffering from various forms of dementia. But it doubles as a fascinating compilation that documents some of the most obscure sounds in automotive history—some of which might never be heard in real life again.

More than 16,000 sound effects are offered as part of the collection, all of which are licensed under the BBC’s proprietary content license, which largely reads that they can’t be used for profit and should not be used for nefarious, harmful, or offensive purposes. All of the sounds are available in lossless high-fidelity and can be downloaded directly from the site.

If you have some time to kill this afternoon, we recommend taking an auditory journey down memory lane.