The history of car audio is a graveyard of abandoned tech

By Andy Kriege, YSN

These days most of us think nothing of jumping into the car and turning up the radio. Music in the car is a given. But there was a time when there was nothing (other than friendly banter) to keep early drivers occupied and entertained. Although the car and the radio are roughly the same age, it was nearly 20 years after autos first hit the road before radio and automotive technologies got together. 

The first car antennas were huge and mounted externally.

The first commercial car radio was introduced in 1930 by a couple of brothers named Paul and Joseph Galvin. The Galvin brothers became fixated on putting an affordable radio into an automobile, although their early handmade models were expensive.

Electrical interference from the auto necessitated the radio’s components to be split up and installed in various parts of the car. The entire top of a vehicle had to be ripped out and completely insulated to provide a place for an aerial. All leads were hand-shielded down to the head unit, and all parts of the car had to be bonded and grounded. 

The Galvins would go on to name their company Motorola, to evoke the concept of sound in motion. 

Early units retailed for around $130 — the equivalent of about $1,800 today. Keep in mind that this was the era of the Model T, and you could buy an entire car for less than $600!

The 1950s: Car Audio Becomes Affordable

Aside from coming down in price, car audio changed very little from the ’30s through the ’50s. Although FM radio was introduced in the early ’50s, AM radio was your only option while driving because AM stations still held a stranglehold on the market. Blaupunkt sold the first AM/FM head unit in 1952, but it took a few decades for FM to really catch on.

Chrysler’s Highway Hi-Fi

Vinyl records were the music medium of choice in the ’50s but were not very good on bumpy roads. But that didn’t stop Chrysler from putting the very first record-playing head unit in several luxury models in 1955. It played a proprietary 7-inch record and would come to be known as the first Highway Hi-Fi.

The 1960s: The Car Stereo Is Born

The 1960s saw the introduction of both eight-track tapes and car stereos. Up until that point, all car radios used a single (mono) audio channel. Early stereos sent one channel to the front speakers and the other to the rear speakers, but systems that used the modern left and right configuration appeared soon after.

Ford put eight-track on the fast track.

The eight-track format was introduced around the same time and eventually caught on. The entire format probably would have died had Ford not aggressively pushed the platform. Ultimately, competing manufacturers picked up the format and the venerable eight-track tape became the rage in car stereo.

The 1970s: Compact Cassettes Arrive on the Scene

The eight-track format was rapidly pushed out of the marketplace in the 1970s by the compact cassette, which would outlive its ephemeral predecessor by many years.

The first cassette deck head units were notoriously hard on tapes. Anyone old enough to remember recalls the sinking feeling associated with the head unit “eating” a precious tape, and the desperate attempt to wind it all back up.

The 1980s-1990s: Battle of the Compacts

The first compact disc (CD) head units showed up less than 10 years after the first compact cassettes. Adoption of the new digital technology came about slowly, and CD players wouldn’t become ubiquitous until the late 1990s. The two technologies coexisted for more than two decades.

Today’s Units

During the first decade of the 21st century, head units gained the ability to interface with phones and other devices via Bluetooth. The technology allowed for integration with cellular phones and GPS navigation systems. The 2000s also saw the emergence and rising appeal of satellite radio.

A turning point in car audio came in 2011, which marked the first year that manufacturers stopped offering cassette decks. After about 30 years of service, the format was finally retired to make way for new technologies. The CD player is the next format on the chopping block. Several OEMs stopped offering CD changers after the 2012 model year, and in-dash CD players are beginning to follow suit. 

What’s Next?

Most head units are now capable of playing music from mobile devices and even the cloud. The phone is beginning to stand in for old physical media. Most still include an AM and FM tuner, although there is already talk of eliminating AM radio in EVs.  

While eight-track tapes, cassettes, compact discs, AM radio and other technologies are either gone or fading into history, one thing remains constant: as long as there are cars, there will always be tunes.  


Arthur Redding

New England Appliance Group (NEAG) president Arthur Redding began his retail journey selling and installing car stereos. In the 1970s it was eight-track stereos and FM converters, and by the 1980s amplifiers and speakers were the hot sellers.

“Back then the manufactures didn’t put a good-sounding system in new cars,” he recalled. “We would install an entire eight-track system with four speakers for $189. We could do seven or eight in a day and got pretty good at it.”

Redding said the real money was in the high-end systems. “We once did a conversion van in the 1980s for around $1,250. There were four amplifiers and six pairs of speakers. We made some money on that one.”

The decline in Redding’s car audio business coincided with the advent of auto makers providing “halfway decent-sounding” OEM systems, he said. By 1977 he was out of the car audio business and into TVs … but that’s a whole ’nother story.

 YSN publisher AVB BrandSource is the nation’s largest merchandising and marketing co-op for independent appliance, mattress, furniture and CE dealers.

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