History of obsolete car audio, part 4: Rise of the cassette

Bulky home-radio conversions, record players, and 8-Track tapes. Fine attempts, all. But when it comes to car audio, the cassette blew them all away.

The amazing thing is that, unlike records and Stereo-Pak and 8-Track tape cartridges, the development of the cassette had very little to do with playing pre-recorded music, and certainly nothing to do with in-car audio. Because of this, to understand the cassette’s rise, we need to track its development prior to its incorporation into the automotive landscape.

The birth of the cassette

In 1958, shortly before the development of the cassette, there was an effort from RCA to establish a standard for an easy-to-use “quick-loading cartridge” employing the same quarter-inch tape that reel-to-reel decks used, but without the need to manually thread tape reels. Unlike the Stereo-Pak and 8-Track formats, the cartridge was not to be an endless loop, but instead a pair of reels hidden in a 5x7-inch flat box. The format was developed and marketed as the “RCA Sound Tape Cartridge,” but it never got traction in the marketplace.

Luke, I am your father: The RCA sound tape cartridge (right) and the Compact Cassette that followed.
Luke, I am your father: The RCA sound tape cartridge (right) and the Compact Cassette that followed.

The “Compact Cassette” was developed by Philips in Belgium, and was patented in 1962. The team, led by an engineer named Lou Ottens, had recently developed a portable battery-powered reel-to-reel tape recorder that was a very successful product, owing partially to the supplanting of tubes with transistors that reduced size and power consumption. After the success of this portable reel-to-reel unit, Ottens’ team felt that a small tape recorder with something like RCA’s “quick-loading cartridges” could be a successful next product for office dictation.

This is where Dr. Peter Goldmark, inventor of the “Highway Hi-Fi” phonograph, entered the story in a funny way. In response to RCA’s effort, Goldmark’s team at CBS designed a single-reel cartridge solution that used a new tape format that was 0.15 inches wide and ran at a speed of 1 7/8 inches per second. The cartridge was never adopted, but the tape format, commonly (but incorrectly) referred to as 1/8-inch, stuck around.

Back at Philips, Otten and his team juggled requirements of size, power consumption, fidelity, and reliability (in this case, tape jamming) and designed what was essentially a smaller version of RCA’s proposed easy-to-use quick-loading form-factor, using the CBS 0.15-inch wide and 1 7/8-inch IPS format. It provided 20 minutes of playing time per side. The cassette was supposed to be “pocketable,” and Ottens reportedly carried around a wooden tape-sized block in his sport coat pocket to evaluate that metric.

Ottens showed the tape to Philips product management. They liked it, but proposed increasing the playing time from 20 to 30 minutes per side to allow for the possibility of recording long-playing (LP) albums of music. With that design change, what we know as the cassette was born.

The portable cassette recorder, introduced in 1964, sold in Europe as the Philips EL 3300 and in the U.S. as the Norelco Carry-Corder, and it sold like hotcakes. But the apogee of the cassette was yet to come.

Origin of the species: The Phillips EL 3300 cassette recorder.
Origin of the species: The Phillips EL 3300 cassette recorder.
cassetterecorder-museum.com

Finally, cassette players in cars

The historical section of the Philips website says that the first Philips in-dash car radio with a built-in cassette player, the Type RN582, that went on the market in 1968. Becker Mexico Olympia and Becker Europa radios appear to have had integrated cassette players beginning in 1969. But it’s unclear who the early adopters were. In this big web-enabled world, it’s surprising that, while it’s well-documented that the first car with a factory 8-Track was the 1966 Mustang, I can’t find a reliable reference for the first car with a factory in-dash cassette player. On the bleeding edge, I see references to Mercedes as having Becker radios with cassettes beginning in 1971. Most sources list the general envelope of cassette adoption as “mid-1970s.”

A 1968 ad for Philips’ first in-dash cassette player, the RN582.
A 1968 ad for Philips’ first in-dash cassette player, the RN582.

If that seems surprisingly late (and it does to me), remember that both the cassette tape and the portable recorder it went into were designed as spoken word (dictation) products, so initially, by music recording standards, the fidelity was poor. Also remember that cassettes were competing with 8-Track, which itself had knocked out Stereo-Pak. It’s rather remarkable that a format designed for dictation would not only overtake the two existing tape formats designed for music but come to define music, but it was the result of the confluence of several factors:

  • Although the Muntz Stereo-Pak had much better fidelity than the cassette, it had no method for recording your own tapes.
  • 8-Track’s fidelity was initially better than cassette (though not as good as Stereo-Pak), and 8-Track home recorders were, in fact, available, but they did not sell well.
  • After a period of negotiation with Grundig, Sony, and others, Philips agreed to license the cassette format free of charge. Record labels began producing music cassettes (originally called “Musicassettes”) of popular-selling albums as early as 1966.
  • Cassette recorders transitioned from the portable battery-operated realm into the home audio realm, having RCA jacks on the back and thus allowing home recording of albums onto cassette.
  • The physical size of the cassette, much smaller than the 8-Track, was ideal for stashing multiple tapes in the glove compartment, or in the soon-to-be-ubiquitous shoebox on the floor.

For a while, cassette and 8-Track coexisted. Indeed, my ’72 Triumph GT6+ had both—a previous owner had installed a cassette player in the console, and an 8-Track was cajoled into hanging there above my left knee. Or, if you owned a car with a factory 8-Track and weren’t prepared to crowbar it out of the dash, you could use one of these contraptions:

One of a number of 8-Track-to-cassette adapters that were available back in the day.
One of a number of 8-Track-to-cassette adapters that were available back in the day.

But the real secret sauce for the cassette turned out to be a combination of improved tape chemistry (chromium oxide “metal” tapes) and Dolby noise reduction. Together, these rocketed tape fidelity forward until, in the early 1970s, it began to approach that of vinyl, at least in the home audio environment. If you had a tape deck at home that could record with Dolby on metal tape, and one in your car that could play it, you were, as Steely Dan would say, a major dude.

Other synergistic factors came into play that enormously sped up the wholesale adoption of cassettes. Many FM radio album-oriented rock stations played syndicated shows like “The King Biscuit Flower Hour,” which featured broadcasts of live performances. Suddenly, the reason to own a home cassette unit wasn’t to play pre-recorded tapes, but instead to be able to record radio shows, to copy records that you already owned, to copy friends’ records, and to make the obligatory “road songs” mix tape. Add the release of the Sony Walkman in 1979, and the cassette became the symbol of freedom, the vessel for music you could personalize and take absolutely anywhere.

Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to listen to music in a car, even pre-selected music—you wanted to listen to your pre-selected music. I vividly remember driving with friends in Austin, Texas, in 1983. The Police’s album Synchronicity had just been released. I slid my copy into the cassette deck. My friend Josiah wagged his finger and pulled his copy out of his coat pocket. I didn’t understand. “I’m already playing Synchronicity,” I said. “Yes,” he replied, “but my copy has Mother left off it.” (It was a truly horrible song.)

With tape capable of sounding nearly as good as vinyl, the expectation rapidly became that your car stereo should sound as good as the one in your living room. By the late 1970s, that was not, in fact, an unreasonable expectation.

All hell was breaking loose in car audio. Aftermarket audio companies like Craig and Alpine sold cassette decks whose internal amplifiers could give you 20 watts of power. External 100-watt power amplifiers became available, providing the kind of clean distortion-free power previously only available in a home stereo. When my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I moved from Boston down to Austin in a VW Bus in 1982, we had a Craig FM cassette deck feeding a Fosgate 100-watt amp, which in turn was driving two home-quality ESS AMT9 speakers, each about 2/3 the size of a washing machine. Hey, if you’ve got the room, why not? The universal response from my friends was, “You have got to be kidding me.” Only they didn’t say “kidding.”

And that was just the beginning. Companies like Crutchfield sprang up who could sell you in-dash units that were better than your existing in-dash unit. And with the fidelity of the musical source now quite good, the market then went nuts over subwoofers, electronic crossovers, graphic equalizers, and much bigger amps with enough power to dent the roof from the inside.

The end of tape, and the beginning (and end) of the CD

Factory cassette players had a remarkably long arc across in the automotive universe, persisting well past the point of anachronism. The first in-dash cassette player may not be well-documented, but the last one is: The 2010 Lexus SC430, at which point, what replaced it—the in-dash CD player—was nearly obsolete as well.

The first bleeding-edge in-dash CD players appeared in 1985, with widespread adoption in the mid-1990s. I skipped over them, and that’s a terrible pun, because, in an incredible twist of irony, some of the early CD units skipped on rough pavement just like their early vinyl form factor brethren, particularly when playing home-burned CDs.

Now, the CD player is well on its way to obsolescence (I’m not sure there’s any piece of automotive audio equipment more obsolete than the in-trunk CD changer), shuffled aside first by connected iPods, and then by audio streamed from smartphones via Bluetooth. With the advent of in-car voice-activated cloud-based services, you no longer even need the smartphone; you literally can just say “Play My Green Tambourine” to your Tesla in order to make it so.

Still, for everything you gain, you lose something. Music is very personal stuff. Voice-actuated on-demand music is perhaps the ultimate personalization, but anyone can do it. In contrast, I have cassettes of a few live shows that exist nowhere else. And only my friend Josiah has the copy of Synchronicity without Mother on it.

(Actually, I lied; I re-recorded it without Mother too. It really was a horrible song.)

Next week’s series finale: What is obsolete becomes desirable.

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Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. His new book, Ran When Parked: How I Road-Tripped a Decade-Dead BMW 2002tii a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is available here on Amazon. In addition, he is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack MechanicGuide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.