The album was a radical departure for the band, with opening track "Europa" setting the pace. The track is a dramatic instrumental overture featuring orchestral arrangements and ending with vocalist Debbie Harry declaiming a passage about automobile culture over an electronic soundtrack. Besides rock and pop tracks, the band explored a wide range of other musical genres: "Here's Looking at You" and "Faces" show jazz and blues influences, the reggae hit "The Tide Is High" was a cover of The Paragons' 1967 Jamaican ska hit, whereas "Rapture" combined funk, rock, jazz, and even saw them embracing the then emerging genre of rap. The closing track, "Follow Me", was a cover of a torch song from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 Broadway musical Camelot.
Producer Mike Chapman insisted the band record in Los Angeles. Guitarist Chris Stein lamented: "Every day we get up, stagger into the blinding sun, [and] drive past a huge Moon-mobile from some ancient sci-fi movie." Drummer Clem Burke welcomed the change: "Autoamerican was fun. We got to spend two months in California. I'm always up for a free ride." However, the band insisted on the cover artwork shot being from their hometown, posing on a roof near New York's Broadway and Eighth (more precisely 300 Mercer St). The image was taken from a commissioned painting by artist Martin Hoffman (1935–2013).
The band released two singles from this album, "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture". "The Tide Is High" hit number 1 in several countries, including the US and the UK. "Rapture" became the first rap song ever to reach number 1 on the singles chart in the US (it also reached number 5 in the UK).
Autoamerican was digitally remastered and reissued with two bonus tracks by Chrysalis Records in the UK in 1994 which included extended the 12" Special Disco Mix versions of "Rapture" and its B-side "Live It Up", from 1981. The album was again remastered and re-released by EMI-Capitol in 2001, again featuring the extended version of "Rapture" along with the full-length version of their number 1 hit "Call Me" (from the film soundtrack to American Gigolo), and also "Suzy & Jeffrey" which was originally the B-side to "The Tide Is High" single.