Moving in mono: Cruising to music by any means necessary
I had hoped to write about the sale of my truck this week, but events have not yet played out. So instead I’m going to give you my odd history with automotive sound systems. Note that in 2017 I wrote a five-part series for Hagerty on the history of obsolete automotive audio (here are links to part 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5), but this will be far more personal.
When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1960s, my father had a monophonic hi-fi sound system in the living room with a Heathkit AA13 amp that he’d built (he was an electrical engineer), a Garrard turntable, a Lafayette tuner, and a single AR-4 speaker. While he was alive, it was used mainly to play Broadway soundtracks. The standard ’60s stuff … you know—Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, The Fantasticks, Camelot. When I was nine years old, I remember asking him what the bass and the treble knobs did. He explained and twisted them for me to demonstrate, but I couldn’t hear their effect. Of course, the soundtrack of Camelot didn’t exactly have the snap or the frequency range of, say, Paul McCartney’s bass and George Harrison’s sitar on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I have no recollection of rock and roll like that finding its way via the tuner into the house to educate me. Likewise, if there was a radio in my parents’ 1963 Ford Fairlane, I have no recollection of it pumping scratchy music into the Long Island air. To be clear, it wasn’t as if my father clamped down on music in any way. The lack of happenin’ tunes in the Siegel ancestral household to grab me and make me pay attention to audio was just a generational thing.
After my father passed, my mother bought ’69 Plymouth Satellite. My earliest recollection of listening to music in a car is hearing Cousin Brucie on WABC spin songs on the AM radio in the Satellite. Perhaps it was the fact that the Satellite was the first family car with air conditioning, allowing windows-up driving that didn’t drown out the tunes. Whatever the reason, I have sharp clear memories of my sister and I fighting for control of the radio dial and hearing songs as disparate as Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites.” Toto, I don’t think we’re in Camelot anymore.
After we moved up to Amherst, Massachusetts, I briefly worked in a stereo store when I was in the 8th grade. In addition to being the place I first saw a Lotus Europa, it’s where I developed an understanding of audio. If someone was interested in a pair of big expensive speakers, the store’s owner would crank Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man.” The combination of the jangly twin acoustic guitars, the crisp snare crack, the woofy electric bass, and the thunderous 36.71 Hz low D synthesizer note at the end of the song literally moved product.
A few years later, when I was in high school, I learned to drive in the Satellite, but when the car’s repair bills mounted, and when the Arab oil embargo hit in 1974 causing gas prices to spike, my mother went shopping for a small car. I, who had been bitten by the BMW 2002 bug as a 13-year-old when a 2002-owning college student lived with us for the summer, begged her to buy one, but they were too pricey, so she bought a brand-new ’74 Fiat 128 two-door instead. It was a stripped car with no radio and no A/C, but it had a four-speed standard transmission. My mother taught me how to drive a stick, and as soon as I got my license, I had fairly free run of the Fiat. In return, I pretended it was a 2002 and beat on it mercilessly.
Having a driver’s license and a car with four-on-the-floor was awesome, but one thing was missing—tunes. I begged my mother to let me install a sound system in the Fiat. I think she gave me a $20 budget. Presaging the Hack Mechanic that I would become, I bought a used monophonic FM radio, hung it from the underside of the dash with furniture brackets and drywall screws, and laid the no-longer-used AR-4 speaker from my father’s sound system on the back seat. The car had no tach, but there was so much ignition interference on the radio that you could estimate engine rpm from the whine. I didn’t care. I was driving a stick with tunes. I was in absolute heaven.
I bought the 1970 Triumph GT6+ the summer of ’76 after I graduated high school. The previous owner had stuffed both an 8-track player and a cassette player into that tiny interior (the cassette in the console, the 8-track hanging down from the left under-dash). When I bought it, the car came with two 8-track tapes. In the glove box was Eagles Greatest Hits, which I think was a legislatively mandated requirement for any car in 1976, along with ridiculously large bumpers and crushing levels of hastily-integrated emission controls. But the album that was already queued up in the 8-track player was Gary Wright’s Dream Weaver. When I drove the car home after the purchase, the song “Love is Alive” began cranking over the car’s decent aftermarket sound system. I’m not sure that any other piece of music roots me so completely to an automotive-specific time and place. When Gary Wright passed away in early September, I went back and listened to “Love is Alive,” and confirmed that a) it’s still a killer song, and b) it still puts my 18-year-old butt right back into the GT6’s seat. The summer of 1978, a few months before I sold the Triumph, The Cars’ debut album broke on the radio, and like Gary Wright, I can’t hear “Just What I Needed” (or anything else off that album) without imagining myself in the car.
Fast-forward to winter 1981. When my then-girlfriend Maire Anne and I were preparing to move down to Austin, Texas (her job running an animal lab at Harvard had been transferred there), outfitting her 1971 VW Bus with tunes for the four-day drive was a necessity. My ex-boss—the guy who’d had the 2002 when I was in junior high school—gifted us a Fosgate Punch 100-watt power amp he’d pulled out of a car before selling it. I, who had no job waiting for me in Austin, spent most of my remaining cash on a Craig “Road-Rated” cassette deck with a pair of RCA output jacks to feed the Punch power amp. For speakers, I continued the fine tradition I’d begun with placing my father’s AR-4 on the Fiat’s back seat and used my two massive ESS AMT9s home stereo speakers. I installed them in the back of the bus (hey, we had to move them anyway, right?) and put a plywood board and a mattress on top of them so one of us could sleep while the other one was driving. When I showed this system to friends, the uniform response was “You’ve got to be kidding me,” only they didn’t say “kidding.” You could’ve faced the speakers backward and used the music as propulsion.
Once we were settled in Austin and I bought my first project BMW 2002, I mounted in it the Craig tape deck, the Fosgate power amp, and a pair of ADS 200s (speakers in little Kleenex-box-sized metal die-cast boxes) that I’d bought at a pawn shop. When I first drove the revived car with its freshly-rebuilt transmission, brand-new Pirelli P3 tires, and killer stereo through the Texas hill country—winding it up, shifting the no-longer-crunching transmission through the gears, cornering on the new rubber, and listening to The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You” jumping off a fresh Maxell UDXLII tape—I was the happiest guy on the planet. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt that my needs in life were so completely satisfied.
The ADS 200s had two versions—standard home bookshelf speakers and versions that had threaded holes for brackets meant to be mounted on a car’s back deck. These were the bookshelf versions, so there was no obvious mounting method. I found that they wedged nicely on the back deck under the rear windshield and didn’t move around while driving, but they were also highly visible and thus likely to be stolen, so I took a couple of ¼-inch guitar-style plugs and jacks, installed a jack panel on the back deck, wired it to the power amp, and made the speakers un-pluggable so they could be removed and put in the trunk. It was my first of several steps toward non-permanent stereo installations. Of course, as BMW informally stood for “Break My Window” because of both stereo theft as well as theft of the entire car, that’s the way the industry was moving anyway.
When we moved back to Boston, one of the 2002 parts cars I bought had a high-dollar sound system with an Alpine deck, an ADS power amp, and a pair of ADS 300i flush-mount speakers. This system found its way into several cars, including my ’73 E9 3.0CSi, with the Alpine in a slide-mount-removable “Benzi Box.” Although I didn’t mutilate the door panels by cutting holes for speakers, I did cut rectangular holes in the back deck for the 300i speakers and cut a second set of holes in the rear seat’s kick panel for a pair of subwoofers, decisions that are now commonly regarded as an act of cruelty against a vintage car.
As part of replacing the console when I retrofitted air conditioning into the E9 in 2000, I swapped out the Alpine cassette deck for a Pioneer CD player. Although I specifically tried to find a deck with a very simple design (that is, no Star Trek The Motion Picture graphics), it still clearly looked like it teleported in from the wrong millennium. Surprisingly but perhaps mercifully, I can’t find a single photo of the system in the car, a cosmic indictment of the fact that it wasn’t supposed to be there. I didn’t really use it that much, as there was something about the placement of the ADS 300i speakers in the back deck that set up an unpleasant resonance. It probably could’ve been tuned out with proper equalization, but I wound up removing the 300is and installing them into another car.
As the number of cars multiplied, I moved away from direct installations in favor of portable systems that I could throw in a car before a road trip. Initially I used a Cambridge Soundworks PC Works system with two small satellite speakers and a small, powered subwoofer. As the name implies, it was meant for use with a desktop computer, but its advantages were that a) you could plug in an aux cable from your iPod (and later your phone), b) it sounded surprisingly good, c) the powered subwoofer had a 12-volt jack that you could power directly off the car’s cigarette lighter socket, and d) for the $30 a used system cost you, if it got stolen from the car, who cared?
Once I went down the Cambridge Soundworks rabbit hole, I found the then-way-cool but now-laughably-clunky Cambridge Soundworks Model 12 that had a small, old-school stereo amplifier and two removable satellite speakers inside a little road case that also held an integral subwoofer. Like the PC Works system, the Model 12 runs off a cigarette lighter, but it sounds much better. When I found one of these locally for $150, I jumped at it. I used it for a few road trips, jamming the case with the sub behind the driver’s seat, sticking the satellites to the back deck with Velcro and balancing the little amp on the transmission hump. It sounded great, but it wasn’t really a very good solution, as it was a bit too valuable for the “go ahead and steal me” approach of its PC Works brother, and the pack-up and re-deploy time to pull it in and out of the car was non-trivial.
Because the Pioneer CD player in the E9 was too old to have an aux port, for a while when I was annually road-tripping the E9 coupe to The Vintage in Asheville, North Carolina, I resurrected the ADS Power Plate amp that’s still mounted in the trunk, fed it music directly from my phone via an aux-to-RCA adapter, and tried the old Fiat / VW Bus / BMW 2002 approach of pumping the sound into stereo speakers like the ADS 200s. However, over the years I found the high-volume levels needed to overcome the wind noise in the vintage cars fatiguing and began the road-trip in thought-provoking silence instead. The exception is my 2003 E39 530i— compared with the vintage cars, it’s very quiet, and its bone-stock sound system is astonishingly good.
Of course, with vintage cars, what the market values is the original in-dash radio. I’m responsible for the violence committed against my E9 in the name of tunes, but in my defense, two of my BMW 2002s have never had their interiors cut up for a sound system and are still wearing their original functional Blaupunkt mono FM units, and those things will only change over my dead body. I’ll sometimes twiddle the tuner knob just for the novelty of it if I’m at a traffic light running an errand on a Sunday morning. I’m well aware that I could send these units out and have them retrofitted for Bluetooth, but I don’t see the point. It’s doubtful it would make me listen to them more. I have a period-correct mono Blaupunkt for the E9 too. I’ll install it the next time I need to pull apart the console.
I don’t know if it’s the fact that, at age 65, I’m now officially a get-off-my-lawn senior citizen, but my days of in-car audio seem to have naturally ended. These days, when a car with a big woofing sound system rolls by pumping out oodles of Lucky Man-ending bass, I have a reaction where I feel physically ill.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that if, during one of the short periods I have the monophonic Blaupunkt turned on in one of the 2002s, something from Camelot came on, I’d probably enjoy it. My father would be so pleased.
Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.