A historic flop, but one not without a lesson.
History of obsolete car audio, part 3: Tape players
We’ve discussed attempts by early 1900s car owners to install bulky home radios into their automobiles (MacGyver, anyone?). We’ve also discussed in-car record players, and how, although it’s easy to dismiss them as a novelty item, they were the only game in town if you wanted to play pre-recorded music in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Until they weren’t. Enter tape.
It was really only a matter of time before magnetic tape found its way into cars. After all, tape was the highest quality recording medium available. It’s what was used to record records. It just required someone to figure out a format appropriate for use in automobiles, and then produce a bunch of content in that format.
That someone was Madman Muntz.
Madman Muntz and Stereo-Pak
As implied in Mission Impossible, an in-car reel-to-reel tape player was never really an option for anything except giving brief instructions and then self-destructing. Seriously. Can you imagine having to re-thread tape reels while you’re driving?
Fortunately, reel-to-reel’s quarter-inch wide magnetic tape and the magnetic head that read it were already standardized, and were, in fact, already utilized in an endless loop format that didn’t require manually threading reels. That format was the “broadcast cartridge” used by radio stations to play pre-recorded commercials and jingles.
Although these were technically known as Fidelipac cartridges, most people referred to them as “broadcast carts” or simply “carts”. They were the first commercially available tape cartridges. Radio stations loved them because they were compact, could be quickly swapped in and out of a tape player, and because of the endless loop format, after they were played, they were ready to play again at the beginning.
Enter Earl “Madman” Muntz, the Crazy Eddie of his day. An engineer and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles, Muntz hawked cars, stereos, and televisions in silly but memorable commercials where he questioned his own sanity and used a sledgehammer to smash cars that didn’t sell. Because he sold both cars and electronics and was involved in recording commercials, Muntz had the insight to recognize that the enclosed endless format that made Fidelipac cartridges ideal for radio also made it possible for them to work in cars.
Muntz teamed with Fidelipac inventor George Eash, modified the cartridge slightly, and produced the Muntz Stereo-Pak four-track cartridge, or “CARtridges” (get it?), as they were initially advertised. He was able to fit two stereo recordings—typically two sides of an album—onto the cartridge’s quarter-inch tape. The small, under-dash unit that played the tape cartridge was technically called the Muntz Autostereo, but the term Stereo-Pak was generally used for both the cartridges and the player. Flipping a lever would physically move the player’s tape head and select between the two stereo tracks.
Muntz negotiated licensing deals with most of the major record labels and produced and sold Stereo-Pak recordings of many popular artists. Columbia Records, perhaps thinking they had missed the boat by not backing the Highway Hi-Fi phonograph format more aggressively, piled on and manufactured Stereo-Pak recordings from its catalog.
It was revolutionary. For the first time, you could buy pre-recorded music and play what you wanted in your car. Muntz sold and installed the players and also sold the tapes in his factory stores. For a few years in the early 1960s, Stereo-Pak was wildly successful. Muntz systems were installed in cars driven by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, and car-customizer George Barris. Home Stereo-Pak players were also available. They didn’t sell nearly as well as the in-car players, but their availability gave lip service to the idea that the cartridges could do double duty both in the car and inside the house.
(In addition to in-car audio, Muntz also was the developer of the Muntz Jet in the early 1950s, often viewed as the first personal luxury car.)
The Return of Bill Lear and the invention of 8-Track
And then, something unexpected happened. Bill Lear (yes, he who designed the Motorola car radio) was looking for an in-cabin sound system to play pre-recorded music in his new Learjet. Lear and a team of engineers working with him examined the Muntz Stereo-Pak cartridge and determined that it could be redesigned to reduce the number of parts, making it cheaper to manufacture.
In addition, Lear took advantage of the fact that the cassette format recently developed by Philips was fitting four tracks (two stereo recordings) onto skinny, eighth-inch tape, and thus he had his engineers squeeze eight tracks (four stereo recordings) onto quarter-inch tape. Why was that important? You can’t rewind 4-track or 8-track tape cartridges; you simply let them play. While this worked fine for short broadcast carts whose content was 15, 30, or 60 seconds, it was a bit onerous for consumers who might want to re-listed to a specific song. So an advantage of Lear’s redesigned cartridge was that it let the listener select instantly between four stereo tracks. In addition, a magnetic splice that could be sensed by the tape head allowed the tape player to automatically increment to the next track when the splice passed the tape head.
With these changes, Bill Lear and his team invented the 8-Track (with a capital T).
But perhaps more important than the specific changes to the tape, Lear did something Muntz didn’t—he formed a consortium. Unlike Stereo-Pak, 8-Track wasn’t just a single manufacturer; Lear got Ford, GM, tape manufacturer Ampex, and electronics manufacturers RCA and Motorola onboard, and he convinced the American auto industry to adopt 8-Track as a factory-installed system. Ford led the pack; the 1966 Mustang was the first car with a factory in-dash 8-Track player.
The 8-Track wasn’t better than the Muntz 4-track Stereo-Pak. In fact, it was worse. The 8-Track’s narrower tape tracks had poorer fidelity than Stereo-Pak, and the tape transport mechanism was more jam-prone. However, the 8-Track worked well enough that it was widely adopted, which drove the prices of tapes down. In addition to factory decks being offered in new cars, aftermarket 8-Track players were installed under the dashboards of nearly any car whose owner had a few hundred bucks and a screwdriver. And home 8-Track console systems, often with an integrated turntable and FM stereo, were making significant inroads, lending real credence to the idea that you could buy one tape and play it both at home and in the car.
In addition, there were also home 8-Track recorders that allowed you to make your own tapes, but due to a combination of cost and the difficulty of correctly splitting a record album onto a tape’s four stereo tracks (each track needed to be the same length, which sometimes required fading songs in the middle and splitting them), they didn’t sell well. But, more centrally, with inexpensive pre-recorded tapes readily available, the public probably didn’t think that music selection needed to get more individual than that.
Silly public. Things were about to change. Again.
Next week: Part 4, cassette tapes.
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.