A lot of us are vintage car people here at BestRide, content to tooling around in old Blazers, Celebrity wagons and Roadmaster Estates instead of owning the most recent technologically advanced sedan. But there’s one area in which we envy new car owners: car audio.
You ride around with your podcasts and your Pandora playing on masterfully tuned speakers, even in the most affordable new vehicles, and we’re over here listening to an AM radio buzzing through a speaker with all the audio quality of a Kleenex box.
These six audio “features” represented the lengths we went to in order to get sound out of our lousy audio systems:
We like old guitar amps and home stereo equipment here, too, where tube-driven amplifiers are the audiophile’s holy grail. Nobody seems to be much interested in vacuum tubes behind their car’s dashboard, though.
Radio was the internet for Americans in the 1920s. At home, vacuum tubes had matured to the point that they were a viable means of power for radios, but it wouldn’t be until 1930 that the technology made its way to the car.
The problem was that while tubes worked great at home, they were originally unsuitable for cars. Tubes needed 50 to 250 volt direct current to work, while the best a car from the 1930s could generate was six. Transformers, rectifiers and filters eventually allowed car audio to become a reality.
In 1930, American Galvin Manufacturing Corporation marketed a Motorola radio specifically for automotive use. The price: $130, at a time when you could buy a Model T for less than $550. In Germany, things weren’t much different when Blaupunkt offered its first car radio in 1932 for about a third the price of a new car. Crosley was the first manufacturer to provide a factory-fitted radio, and by the late 1930s, an AM radio was largely considered to be a standard feature.
Tube-driven amps were still an issue, though. Vibrator-style tubes aren’t meant to last forever, and their life was greatly reduced in the hot, constantly moving atmosphere under a car’s dashboard. Tubes had to be changed regularly, and they took up a ton of space under the dash. In the early 1950s, for example, the Philco-designed 912HR “Town and Country” radio that appeared in Chrysler vehicles had nine vacuum tubes taking up an ever more confined space behind the dashboard.
It wasn’t until 1955 that Chrysler introduced a Philco, solid-state, all-transistor radio for the 1956 model year Chrysler and Imperial vehicles.
As an indicator that tube technology is truly dead, while hipsters spin their own wool, text on Bluetooth-enabled Underwood typewriters and listen to ironic 1970s disco on vinyl, there hasn’t been any great demand for a tube radio in a car.
If the idea of a rack of constantly failing tubes seems like a pain in the neck, how about running around with a stack of your most prized 45-RPM records melting in the sun?
“Wherever you go, listen to your favorite sounds by being your own disc jockey,” wrote Bud Lang in Car Craft magazine in 1963. “At the drags, beach, mountains or while just cruising around with the guys or your favorite chick, you can now play your own 45-rpm platters on an automatic reject record [ARC] changer that is designed for genuine driving pleasure.”
Again, Chrysler was at the forefront of the technology, and with CBS Electronics, developed the optional record player. Unlike aftermarket car record players that came along later, Chrysler’s Highway Hi-Fi system not only attempted to extract money from the buyer’s pocket at the time of sale, but also long afterward in the form of the proprietary records you needed to purchase to make the system work.
Highway Hi-Fi platters worked with less skipping because they rotated at a slow speed of 16 2/3 RPM, and the records had 550 grooves per inch, about four times that of a conventional long player.
Car record players had their blip of popularity. Chrysler marketed the Highway Hi-Fi system between 1955 and 1959 before it bailed out. A later aftermarket version of the player without the Highway Hi-Fi brand played standard 45 RPM records, but they were unreliable, and because the stylus required a lot of pressure to stay in the groove, wore out records at – heh – a record pace.
Reverb is great, when applied judiciously. Surf bands like the Ventures, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, the Lively Ones and the Revels made entire careers with salt-water drenched reverb in surf instrumentals in the 1960s. Would Pulp Fiction have been as cool without it?
Everybody cranked up the reverb in the 1950s and early 1960s, and not just the artists making the records. The guys playing them loved it, too. Listen to the intro from Wolfman Jack’s radio show on the border-blasting XERB — the Mighty 1090 — in LA circa 1966:
Reverb was so insanely popular, car manufacturers started offering it as an option in the 1960s. Prior to the widespread adoption of stereo, which provided a separation effect, reverb units offered the illusion of a concert hall.
A reverb tank in a car works exactly the same way as it does in a guitar amp: Two or more long springs are anchored on either end of a metal box. The signal plays through the transmission springs, which act as a resistor, converting electrical sound energy into mechanical energy – moving the springs around – then converting back into sound again along with the original “dry” signal.
The result is the same splashy sound a guitar reverb tank makes, but applied to everything, including songs already soaked with reverb from the get-go. The result was often a muddy mess, and as a result, reverb tanks in cars disappeared as soon as stereo arrived in a less-expensive form.
Yes, 8-Track players are the oft-maligned subject of many a rant about car audio, but in the radio business, 8-Track cartridges — or “carts” were the dominant medium for DJs to play commercials, public service announcements and other stored media. If it wasn’t for the 8-Track, how could DJs around the country consistently play fart sounds on morning radio?
A guy named Bernard Cousino invented the 8-Track cartridge that used a continuous loop of quarter-inch oxide-coated tape to store an audio signal. For a record industry desperate to make its product more transportable, the 8-Track seemed like a genius idea. The first automotive 8-Tracks came from used car hustler named Earl “Madman” Muntz, who made his fortune selling the Muntz Stereo-Pak, an aftermarket unit that mounted under the dash.
Earl “Madman” Muntz developed the first four-track player for cars in 1962 called the Muntz Stereo-Pak. Two years later, Lear Jet developed the Lear Jet Stereo 8 cartridge and player, and the idea took off (see what we did there?) for automotive applications.
In 1965, Ford was the first manufacturer to offer an eight-track player from the factory, and in a hurry, every other manufacturer followed suit. By the early 1970s, eight-track tapes dominated music sales.
All good news, except for anyone who had to live with the awful players. In concept, it’s a pretty good idea. Each length of tape in an 8-Track tape carries — you guessed it — eight tracks. The player can play two of those tracks at a time for stereo listening. When the tape reaches the end of its loop, a piece of metallic tape makes contact with a solenoid coil in the player, which causes the tape head to shift, playing the next “program” on the tape.
The first problem was that you’d get an audible “clunk” between each of the four programs. Second, an eight track tape could hold between 15 and 40 minutes of music on each program. When you got to the end of that program, whether the song was over or not, you shifted to the next program. Sometimes in the middle of a song. It led to the butchery of albums like the Beatles’ masterpiece Revolver. The tracks were completely reordered, “Doctor Robert” was removed completely, and — most heinously — “Tomorrow Never Knows” was split in two, with an audible clunk in the middle.
8-Tracks were also terribly unreliable. Capstans would wear quickly, requiring a matchbook stuffed under the tape in order to work. By the late 1970s, 8-Tracks were mercifully on the way out, in favor of cassettes.
So you invested hundreds of your hard-earned dollars in a killer Realistic 8-Track player and now the world has moved on to cassettes? Have we got the solution for you!
It’s an adapter you stick in the 8-Track hole to play your cassettes!
Be unkind and don’t rewind, BECAUSE YOU CAN’T!
These days if you want to record an important voice message to yourself (“Get milk and bread!”) you whip out your iPhone, push a button and let Siri take care of it.
In the 1970s, you invested half your annual earnings in a cassette player/recorder like this one we found in a BMW Bavaria a few years back:
Any cassette player in a car between 1971 and 1977 was fairly rare.
This one not only plays cassettes, but records on them, thanks to the big red RECORD button and the dynamic microphone, the holder for which some ham-fisted installer affixed to the console with sheetmetal screws.
In cars like the Lotus Esprit, the Lamborghini Urraco, the Countach prototype in this Philips ad, and the Jensen Interceptor — you might find a cassette recorder like the Philips RN 712, but it was truly an accessory left to the upper echelon of the market.