History of obsolete car audio, part 2: Record players
The first car radios were actually bulky home units that were disassembled and stuffed into vehicles wherever they might fit. These days, car radios are well-integrated and incredibly more high-functioning than their predecessors, and most drivers wouldn’t consider owning a car without one.
The same can’t be said of in-car record players. As crazy as it sounds, the idea came about in much the same way as car radio did—taking something that people enjoy at home and converting it for use in an automobile. The 1950s idea flopped, but in-car record players are historic in that they were the automotive world’s first attempt at offering car occupants the chance to make their own musical selections.
Not all in-car record players were created equal. And the first one is absolutely fascinating.
The in-car phonograph, called the “Highway Hi-Fi Record Player,” was designed by Dr. Peter Goldmark, head of CBS Laboratories in the 1950s and inventor of the 33 1/3 “Long-Playing” (LP) microgroove record. For a time, the Highway Hi-Fi was available as a factory-installed option in new Chrysler products. It was an absolute failure.
To appreciate the Highway Hi-Fi, you need to understand that, in the ’50s, the recording industry was dominated by two competing companies and formats: CBS, which was pushing its LP format for classical music, and RCA, which invented the 45 rpm “single.” If you’re going to put a record player into a car, the first question is: Which size and format do I use?
The seven-inch 45-rpm format is a much more manageable size than a 12-inch 33-rpm LP, so going with the small version made it possible to fit a player inside the glove compartment. The problem with that idea: since a 45 holds only one song per side, the record would need to be changed every three or four minutes. In contrast, a 33-rpm “long-playing” record holds more than 20 minutes of music per side, due to its slower speed and so-called “microgroove” construction. But LPs are larger, presenting a design headache.
Dr. Goldmark became obsessed with the problem, and he and his team at CBS essentially skunk-worked a remarkable third solution—a new record format and a special phonograph to play it, both optimized for the space available in a car. Having invented the microgroove format, Goldmark and his team understood it and pushed it to new limits, creating an “ultra microgroove” record with groove spacing one-third the width of what it was on an LP.
Goldmark’s team also slowed the turntable down to 16 2/3 rpm—half the speed of an LP. This combination allowed the record size to be 7 inches, yet hold the same amount of music as a full-sized LP. It was brilliant.
Goldmark tested the system in the lab and found the fidelity to be extremely high, then used his own Chrysler as a mobile test bed. Through a combination of a sprung enclosure around the turntable and increased downward stylus pressure, he was able to tune the system so the record skipped on only the most abhorrent pavement. Although it was a bit too big to fit in the glove box and thus needed to be mounted beneath the dash, the system was sexy. You pressed a button, the front cover flipped down, and the record player inside slid forward. Music played through the radio’s amplifier and the car’s speakers. Goldmark installed a system in a CBS executive’s Ford Thunderbird, with similar positive results.
CBS didn’t think there was a market for the system. Perhaps more importantly, CBS executives were reportedly concerned that in-car record players might cause their radio audience to tune out their advertisers. The company passed.
Goldmark, however, wouldn’t let it go. Since he’d installed the first system in his own Chrysler, he drove the actual car to Chrysler and gave a demonstration on the torture track in Detroit. It performed so well that Chrysler bought in and began marketing the system as the “Highway Hi-Fi” for the 1956 model year. The contraption was expensive—a $200 addition (more than $1,800 today)—but no one else offered anything like it.
And then it all went wrong. While Goldmark had taken extreme care to tune the system in his personal car for nearly skip-free performance, the same delicacy was not exercised when Chrysler began installing the systems en masse into a range of vehicles, including lower-end Dodges and Plymouths, whose suspensions were not as cushy as the high-end Chryslers. Predictably, records skipped, and warranty claims quickly mounted.
In addition, there was a fundamental issue with content. The 33-rpm LP format was not yet the “album of singles” it eventually evolved into. CBS/Columbia Records used it mostly for classical music, show tunes, jazz, and spoken word. Worse, the special seven-inch ultra-microgroove records that were required for the Highway Hi-Fi were produced only by CBS/Columbia, and what CBS offered was a small subset of Columbia Records’ decidedly laconic catalog. When you bought a car with a Highway Hi-Fi system, it came with the following, not exactly toe-tapping, six-record boxed set:
- Romantic Moods (side 1) / Quiet Jazz (side 2)
- Music of Cole Porter (side 1) / Music of Victor Herbert (side 2)
- Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett (side 1) / Champion (side 2)
- Tchaikovsky’s Symphony in B Minor (side 1) / Borodin: Polovtsian Dances (side 2)
- The Pajama Game
- Paul Gregory Presents (side 1) / Don Juan in Hell (side 2)
In total, only 42 records were available from Columbia. If you were, perhaps, Lawrence Welk, or if you wanted The Bible on 26 ultra-microgroove records, you were covered, but if you were a young person looking for rock ’n’ roll or R&B, you were out of luck. It’s a great business case study of a company not understanding how its own product fits a new market, and killing it through neglect.
However, in an odd bit of prescience, there was a dealer demo record for certain model Chryslers that gave buyers a guided tour of the car’s features while they drove. While it was intended as a sales tool, this idea would be resurrected in the 1980s when every car had a cassette player and factory instructional tapes were sometimes included to augment the printed owner’s manual.
By 1959, the Highway Hi-Fi system was discontinued. But Chrysler wasn’t ready to give up on being the only automaker that offered in-car personalized music selection. In 1960 and ’61, Chrysler replaced the Highway Hi-Fi system with an RCA “Auto Victrola” turntable that played a stack of up to 14 conventional 45-rpm singles. It still skipped on real-world pavement, but it must’ve been the cat’s meow if you were parked on a date.
In Britain, the Philips Mignon (sometimes called “Auto Mignon” and sold in the U.S. under the brand name Norelco) was the automotive record player of choice. The Beatles reportedly each had one in their cars, with George Harrison famously photographed using the one in his Jaguar E-type.
The Mignon was surprisingly long-lived, produced from 1958 through 1970, and was more compact and sexier than its American counterparts. And it didn’t need specially-made records; 45 rpm records were simply slid into a slot in the front, a futuristic development 40 years ahead of in-dash CD players. However, the unit held only one record at a time. You needed to jockey a lot of singles to provide continuous music on any drive longer than around the block.
Though there’s been a resurgence of home record players and vinyl in audiophile and hipster communities, there appears to be little corresponding interest in the automotive world (unless you’re fortunate enough to own George Harrison’s actual E-Type Jaguar). However, if you own a vintage Chrysler and take it to car shows, a functioning factory Highway Hi-Fi system is a prized addition.
And because this world is nothing without niche products, Kim at Custom Records in Minneapolis can reportedly press just about any set of songs you want onto a 7-inch 16 2/3-rpm lathe-cut platter for about $200. His cutting equipment is currently limited to about 16 minutes per side, but he plans to upgrade it soon. So if you own a ’56 Chrysler Imperial with a Highway Hi-Fi and you absolutely have to hear “Dark Side of the Moon,” you may be in luck. Of course, the contrasting 1950s and ’70s vibes might cause the system to explode.
In-car record players may seem like an anachronistic joke, but they need to be looked at with proper perspective. If you wanted to play your own selection of music in a car in the mid-1950s to early ’60s, that’s what was available.
Soon after, taped music came along and changed everything.
Next week: Part 3.
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 Mechanic™ Guide 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.