Now vs. Then: Listening to Music in Cars
Cars and music are a great combination. There’s not much else in this world as satisfying as propping an elbow out the open window of a cool car on a warm summer evening, cranking up some good tunes and cruising around aimlessly.
Discerning taste in cars likely carries over to other areas of recreational preference too, and the radio waves have long been choked with commercials, inane chatter, and mostly unlistenable noise passed off as music. Today, living as we do in a futuristic world of convenience, it’s easy to bring along thousands of songs of one’s choice on a device the size of a small stack of credit cards, allowing total control of your driving soundtrack. Back in the days of carburetors, distributors, and leaded gas, though, things were a bit more complicated, or more accurately, a lot more simple.
Analog formats, whether magnetic tapes or vinyl records, were the only way to listen to recorded music. Before the availability of 8 tracks and cassettes, the only option for on-demand, in-car entertainment was the turntable – a finicky and high-maintenance machine when used in a controlled home environment, let alone in a moving vehicle. The “Highway Hi-Fi” mobile record system, a factory fit option to several Chrysler products, was the first mobile turntable to market and initially became available in 1956 for cars of that model year.
Utilizing a 10″ record that rotated at exactly half of a standard LP’s 33 RPM, and with over four times the grooves per inch, these highly specialized discs were marketed solely by Columbia’s Special Products division. An extremely high stylus pressure of two grams was intended to prevent skipping and skating, unfortunately, it also caused premature stylus and record wear – these problems, in conjunction with a limited catalog of available music and a high frequency of player malfunctions and breakdowns led Chrysler to withdraw Highway Hi-Fi only three years later, in 1959. A similar RCA system was introduced in 1960, but was gone forever by 1961, its reputation for unreliability even worse than its predecessor. It would be another four years until drivers had a new alternative to radio, when Ford introduced the eight track player as an option in late 1965 for several 1966 model year cars.
Italian vintage car enthusiast, Lino Carlini, is passionate about restoring vintage car radios and about cars having period-correct radios. Click here to watch our interview with him in our Petrolicious “Radio Days” video.
Photo Source: Retronaut