15 October 2013

Magnetic Appeal: The 20-year rise and fall of automotive tape players

The idea of putting a record player into a car dashboard seemed wonky to Chrysler executives in the mid-1950s, but CBS Records convinced them that consumers wanted to bring their own music into the car, rather than rely on the radio.

A new ultra-microgroove format developed by research scientist Dr. Peter Goldmark, who had helped develop the 33-1/3 long-play (LP) record, seemed to hold promise. The small, slow-turning vinyl discs offered 45 minutes of playtime per side. “Highway Hi-Fi” was born, debuting as an option in some Chrysler Corporation models for 1956.

Chrysler claimed skip-free performance for the in-dash record player, which might have been true on a glass-smooth road surface or when parked. But customer experience was mixed. A bigger problem was that the proprietary format was not compatible with home equipment, and the format offered only a limited selection of Broadway show tunes and other sleepy choices from the CBS catalog.

Highway Hi-Fi was gone after 1959, but Chrysler offered a new accessory record player from RCA-Victor for 1960. The big, clunky record changer, which played a stack of standard 45-rpm records, was also available as an aftermarket item. Chrysler dropped the option by 1962. Records and cars just didn’t work together.

That year, a major battle began to brew for a new mobile music format, courtesy of two American entrepreneurs, Earl Muntz and William Lear. Muntz was a self-taught electrical inventor and used car mogul who had designed and manufactured low-cost television sets. He delved into car manufacturing by stretching the Kurtis Roadster into a luxury model he called the Muntz Jet. Muntz built about 400 Jets from 1950-1954, with either Cadillac or Lincoln V-8 engines.

For music, Muntz saw potential in the new Fidelipac cartridges, or “carts,” that radio DJ’s had started using in 1959 to play recorded commercials. He modified the format to hold more content and licensed popular music from major record labels for the Muntz Stereo-Pak cartridge and aftermarket in-car players.

The cartridge contained a continuous tape loop with two stereo audio programs, which Muntz called “4-track.” (Unrelated to the four-track studio recording.) When the first program finished, pushing a lever on the player repositioned the tape head to play the second program.

Lear, an aviation and electronics pioneer who had helped develop the Motorola car radio in the 1920s and the first successful private business jet in the mid-1960s, offered a different approach. His Stereo-8 or “8-track” cartridge used the same ¼-inch tape as the Muntz cartridge but divided it into four stereo programs to offer longer playing time. The players changed programs automatically.

The Muntz 4-track remained an aftermarket device only. Lear, though, scored a breakthrough by getting Ford to adopt his 8-track, starting with its 1966 models. Other carmakers followed, ensuring the format’s success.

The 8-track market proliferated with factory and aftermarket 8-track players, portables and home stereos. The public was willing to trade sound quality for convenience, accepting low fidelity and other drawbacks.

There were two other tape formats emerging around the same time. The PlayTape, introduced by America entrepreneur Frank Stanton, found some success with inexpensive portables. In 1968, Volkswagen offered its PlayTape-compatible Sapphire players. The format’s main drawback was short playing time, with single record albums taking at least two cartridges.

Also in the mid-1960s, Phillips Electronics of The Netherlands introduced its Compact Cassette. The small format’s two sides could contain most record albums. By the mid-1970s, the Cassette’s improved fidelity and greater convenience had won over customers, carmakers and the aftermarket, and it eventually finished off the 8-track. Making Cassette “mix tapes” became a staple of teenage dating.

Ironically, Cassette’s inventor, Phillips, sealed the format’s eventual doom when it introduced the Compact Disc (CD) in 1982. Within a few years, in-car CD players appeared, about the same time as carmakers started to get serious about high-quality sound. General Motors teamed with Bose® to introduce the industry’s first custom-engineered, factory-installed premium sound systems, which appeared in the 1983 Cadillac Seville and Eldorado, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado as a $900 option.

Compact Cassette stuck around for a while, helped by the popularity of Sony’s Walkman portable players and “Books on Tape.” But as CD experienced a meteoric rise, and Compact Cassette faded away. The last car to offer a factory-installed Cassette player was the 2010 Lexus SC 430, long after all other brands had dropped it.

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