Car Phone Driven from Curiosity to Commodity to Collectible
Two New Ideas Grow Together
Conceived only ten years apart from each other, the car and the telephone (1885 and 1875, respectively) have grown together from technical curiosities to facets of modern life. It would seem inevitable then, that the two would have combined early on, but the truth is a little more interesting than that.
Like many technological firsts, the first “car phone” was large, clunky and highly impractical. In 1901 Swedish engineer Lars Magnus Ericsson installed a telephone in the back of his car. It worked quite well as long as the car was stopped and plugged directly into phone lines via two long wires. On the plus side, talking on the phone while driving was hardly a concern. While it was the first phone-enabled car, wireless capability was clearly the next necessary evolution. And unfortunately it would be a rather long time coming.
Cutting the Cord
It would be 45 years later in 1946, when Bell created a wireless network, that the car phone could become a reality. Weighing in at 80 pounds, the car phone was still a bulky item but with true wireless capability it could finally reach its full potential.
Phones would continue to grow in popularity and shrink in size and price as the decades wore on. The phone was gradually making its way from novelty to commodity. But the car phone wouldn’t get its big break until the “yuppy” days of the 1980s.
While a Corvette and a CB radio would’ve helped you stand out in the ’70s, if you really wanted to keep up with the Joneses in 1987, you needed a slick BMW and a chunky car phone.
German car makers BMW and Mercedes were quick to embrace this trend, and integrated car phone systems became available from the factory in many of their luxury offerings. To a lesser extent, Lexus also participated by offering car phones. Notable car phone equipped cars include early ’90s BMW’s and the Mercedes W140 platform. Most of these cars still look fairly modern until you see the brick-like anachronism of a phone nesting in the center console. Car design may age like wine but phone technology certainly doesn’t.
Ultimately, the rapid progress of cell phone technology meant the car phone had a relatively brief window of relevancy. Though car phones were more popular than conventional “cell phones” during the 1980s, the 1990s would see cell phones handily eclipse car phones for popularity.
The traditional car phone has fallen into obscurity and is mostly used by people who operate out of very remote areas where regular cell phone service is spotty. Though it requires some creative electronic work to get an old car phone to work with a modern network, it can be done for those who want to add a ‘90s feel to the interior of their car. However to really impress your friends, you’ll need to find a way to play Snake on your car phone.
I have scoured the junkyard many times for a car phone to install in my 1989 Swift GTi for an ironic ‘90s twist. I’ve peered into many Mercedes, Jaguars and BMW’s but my search remains fruitless. I still think the contrast of a business oriented car phone in such a silly car would be great fun.
Return of the Car Phone?
However, trends are often cyclical and the car phone is coming back… sort of. Modern consumers demand more connectivity from their cars than ever before, and manufacturers are doing their best to satiate this demand. Though it means an end to cool Y-shaped TV antennas on Lincoln limousines, cars are becoming increasingly more connected every year. The modern reality of Bluetooth conversations playing through car speakers were the stuff of dreams for bigwigs driving 928s in the ‘80s.
With automotive and communication technologies advancing at unprecedented rates, the only sure bet for the future is that the two will continue to grow together. And who knows, maybe people 20 years from now will laugh at our antiquated Bluetooth enabled cars.