15 October 2013

Magnetic Appeal: The 20-year rise and fall of automotive tape players

The idea of putting a record player into a car dashboard seemed wonky to Chrysler executives in the mid-1950s, but CBS Records convinced them that consumers wanted to bring their own music into the car, rather than rely on the radio.

A new ultra-microgroove format developed by research scientist Dr. Peter Goldmark, who had helped develop the 33-1/3 long-play (LP) record, seemed to hold promise. The small, slow-turning vinyl discs offered 45 minutes of playtime per side. “Highway Hi-Fi” was born, debuting as an option in some Chrysler Corporation models for 1956.

Chrysler claimed skip-free performance for the in-dash record player, which might have been true on a glass-smooth road surface or when parked. But customer experience was mixed. A bigger problem was that the proprietary format was not compatible with home equipment, and the format offered only a limited selection of Broadway show tunes and other sleepy choices from the CBS catalog.

Highway Hi-Fi was gone after 1959, but Chrysler offered a new accessory record player from RCA-Victor for 1960. The big, clunky record changer, which played a stack of standard 45-rpm records, was also available as an aftermarket item. Chrysler dropped the option by 1962. Records and cars just didn’t work together.

That year, a major battle began to brew for a new mobile music format, courtesy of two American entrepreneurs, Earl Muntz and William Lear. Muntz was a self-taught electrical inventor and used car mogul who had designed and manufactured low-cost television sets. He delved into car manufacturing by stretching the Kurtis Roadster into a luxury model he called the Muntz Jet. Muntz built about 400 Jets from 1950-1954, with either Cadillac or Lincoln V-8 engines.

For music, Muntz saw potential in the new Fidelipac cartridges, or “carts,” that radio DJ’s had started using in 1959 to play recorded commercials. He modified the format to hold more content and licensed popular music from major record labels for the Muntz Stereo-Pak cartridge and aftermarket in-car players.

The cartridge contained a continuous tape loop with two stereo audio programs, which Muntz called “4-track.” (Unrelated to the four-track studio recording.) When the first program finished, pushing a lever on the player repositioned the tape head to play the second program.

Lear, an aviation and electronics pioneer who had helped develop the Motorola car radio in the 1920s and the first successful private business jet in the mid-1960s, offered a different approach. His Stereo-8 or “8-track” cartridge used the same ¼-inch tape as the Muntz cartridge but divided it into four stereo programs to offer longer playing time. The players changed programs automatically.

The Muntz 4-track remained an aftermarket device only. Lear, though, scored a breakthrough by getting Ford to adopt his 8-track, starting with its 1966 models. Other carmakers followed, ensuring the format’s success.

The 8-track market proliferated with factory and aftermarket 8-track players, portables and home stereos. The public was willing to trade sound quality for convenience, accepting low fidelity and other drawbacks.

There were two other tape formats emerging around the same time. The PlayTape, introduced by America entrepreneur Frank Stanton, found some success with inexpensive portables. In 1968, Volkswagen offered its PlayTape-compatible Sapphire players. The format’s main drawback was short playing time, with single record albums taking at least two cartridges.

Also in the mid-1960s, Phillips Electronics of The Netherlands introduced its Compact Cassette. The small format’s two sides could contain most record albums. By the mid-1970s, the Cassette’s improved fidelity and greater convenience had won over customers, carmakers and the aftermarket, and it eventually finished off the 8-track. Making Cassette “mix tapes” became a staple of teenage dating.

Ironically, Cassette’s inventor, Phillips, sealed the format’s eventual doom when it introduced the Compact Disc (CD) in 1982. Within a few years, in-car CD players appeared, about the same time as carmakers started to get serious about high-quality sound. General Motors teamed with Bose® to introduce the industry’s first custom-engineered, factory-installed premium sound systems, which appeared in the 1983 Cadillac Seville and Eldorado, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado as a $900 option.

Compact Cassette stuck around for a while, helped by the popularity of Sony’s Walkman portable players and “Books on Tape.” But as CD experienced a meteoric rise, and Compact Cassette faded away. The last car to offer a factory-installed Cassette player was the 2010 Lexus SC 430, long after all other brands had dropped it.

14 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Brian Adams Reno, NV October 16, 2013 at 17:50
    FYI the Dutch company is "Philips" (one "l".) My elementary school band teacher had a '61 Thunderbird with a 45 RPM record player on the console between the front seats, but I think he had a custom installation done. In high school the 8-tracks reigned supreme in all our cars, but the portable cassette decks were starting to show up, and I recall my best friend buying a top-shelf Sony with a removable deck (mount and power adapter stayed under the dash) which was the first in our town. Many an hour was spent recording LPs and 8-tracks onto those blank cassettes.
  • 2
    Brian Adams Reno, NV October 16, 2013 at 17:56
    "LearAvia" was located in Reno, NV, and in the visitor lobby they had the original Lear "Stereo 8" cassette player, gold plated, on a pedestal.
  • 3
    Richard Achron Richmond, BC Canada October 16, 2013 at 18:03
    I worked for Philips Electronics (only one "l" in Philips) in 1964 when the first portable cassette player (model EL3300) was introduced to North America. When I saw the cassette player, I knew that 8 track tapes were doomed. The main drawback to 8 track was that you couldn't rewind the tape, rather you had to let it complete its loop before you heard the song again. With the cassette player you could just use the rewind button to hear the song over. Prior to that, Philips used to manufacture and market both a 45 rpm and 33 rpm under dash record player for automobiles which worked remarkably well. They also used to manufacture car radios for both Ford and Chrysler in the early sixties. About 1965 or 1966 Philips introduced an under dash cassette holder for the EL3300. This was hard wired into the car's radio and music was played through the car's audio system. To give it a stereo effect, you could buy a unit made by Vibrosonic which delayed the signal to the rear speaker thereby creating a faux stereo sound. I still have my EL3300 with underdash deck and a Vibrasonic unit.
  • 4
    Peter Bradley United States October 16, 2013 at 18:21
    You could write a follow-up that now we are nearing the end of the CD era, at least for automotive use. The popularity of personal music players (iPod, etc.) and mobile phones that include music players has exploded. Every young person and many of us older folks have them. Even the smallest players can store many CD's worth of music, and even if you opt for fidelity over quantity. Almost all new car sound systems include both wired and wireless interfaces for these devices. Why lug around a stack CD's when your iPod or phone fits in your pocket? I expect automotive CD players will fade away in the not too distant future.
  • 5
    Randy Abercrombie South Carolina October 16, 2013 at 19:54
    I love my immaculate 71 Dart. Though she is an attention getter I get far more comments and old memory stories when people see the in dash (faux) 8-track player with the big pleather 8-track carrying case that takes up half the backseat. Even have a matchbook propping the bottom corner for "realism". That was the only way to prevent two tracks from playing at once!
  • 6
    Ed Charles New Jersey October 16, 2013 at 20:30
    Good article about music in car history. You mention Earl Madman Muntz, how about showing one of his cars. Why not take a ride in a Muntz Jet. He was first in putting radio speakers in the kick panels. His car had seat belts and padded dash. It was truly a milestone car. Let's take a ride!
  • 7
    John C. Cargill Hanover Park Illinois October 16, 2013 at 22:47
    I worked at a gas station in Chicago in 1967 (Sunoco) run by a family who mainly used it's service bays to install Muntz 4 track systems. A couple of buddies were installers. It used 4 little 4 inch speakers and they store would record all the records you wanted onto the cassettes. Brings back memories.
  • 8
    PR Johnson Esquire Rochester Hills Mi. October 17, 2013 at 18:01
    I had a 4 track, back in 68, thought it was the coolest thing around, hooked up a reverb box to in, added the rear speakers, man that was living, except it the middle of the Doors Light My Fire, the track would change, and continue the tune, Not so cool, moved on up to a Ranger 8 track, 100watts of power, now that was living
  • 9
    Art wegweiser Allison Park (McCandless) PA October 17, 2013 at 11:39
    Although I am of the right age (79) to have known the dubious pleasure of these early devices, I never had them in my car.Currently my 1972 BMW 3.0 CSi has an aftermarket (of course) cassette, I have jettisoned the OEM radio. I shall stick with this as messing with the dash would be a horror and my collection of tapes will outlast me. My 4 speakers are more than adequate and I never could understand having a dozen or more in a car despite the fact that I love classical music. What does make me angry are the creeps running with their system cranked up to super loud and giving a gratuitous concert to all around. There should be a Db limit al all car systems? Maybe the safety nuts could get on this? Allison Park (McCandless)
  • 10
    Rick Hogue Sarasota FL October 29, 2013 at 20:12
    In 1975 I sold my car and started riding motorcycles full time. My 1972 BMW R75/5 was equipped with a Blaupunkt AM/FM cassette recorder, Jetsound graphic equalizer/booster amp and Visonik David D-30MO speakers. HiFi on a motorcycle! I still have all the gear and it still works.
  • 11
    Bruce Robillard Danville, Va. October 30, 2013 at 10:06
    While I cannot dispute that CDs are probably on the way out, I love their convenience. Messing around with an Ipod and computer is WAY too much like making a mix tape, and too much trouble for this luddite!
  • 12
    Michael T Flagstaff, AZ November 1, 2013 at 12:31
    You can't beat a cassette player. Record your own music and play it on the way to your vintage race in your old Cherokee. I'm still buying new cassette tapes at garage sales so that I can have them in the future. MP3 and CDs are junk.
  • 13
    Dave R Ponca City, OK November 6, 2013 at 21:40
    The original Highway Hi-Fi records were a 7 inch disc that ran at 16 2/3 rpm.
  • 14
    Bill Albany, OR November 23, 2013 at 18:32
    I have a Philips Norelco 45 record player in my restro-mod '64 Chevy Biscayne (5 speed and all) and it works great and has for the three years I've had it in the car. I play them going down the road without skipping with the exception of a railroad crossing. I love the player and have a large collection of 45's that I play in the car WHILE DRIVING. I have mastered the art of changing records on the single feed player which is mounted (by my design) on the hump so I can reach it between power shifts and all. Please, don't knock these oldies but goodies if you haven't seen them in action. By the way, I had the same set up in my then brand new '63 Dodge Dart GT back in 1964 ----- and it worked great too back then!

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