A Brief History of the Car Radio, 1904-Present

Listening to the radio in the car is something we take for granted.  But it wasn’t always this way. 

The very first time anyone demonstrated the operation of the new-fangled wireless devices was at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis when American inventor Lee DeForest showed off some of his newest technology.  It worked, but since no commercial radio stations would sign on for another dozen years, there wasn’t really much of a demand for this thing. 

Lee DeForest

When AM radio got rolling in the middle 1910s, a number of inventors began to experiment with radios in cars.  In 1922, an amateur natured George Frost showed off a radio in a Ford Model T.  Others followed like the Airtone 3D in 1925 and Philco Transitone of 1927.  But all these devices were very big, very fragile and very expensive.  A Transitone cost $150 when you could buy a whole car for under $700.  There was also the matter of electrical interference from the car’s ignition system with the radio’s reception.  

Airtone 3D (c. 1925)

The big breakthrough came in 1930 when the owner of a radio supply business, Willam R. Lear (yes, the Lear Jet guy and the first promoter of the 8-track player) worked with Elmer Wavering (one of his employees and the inventor of the car alternator) met up with Paul and Joseph Galvin, owners of an electronics manufacturer.  Together, they built a radio for Paul’s Studebaker.  It was big and bulky–all he controls were mounted on the steering column–but it worked and sounded good.  Galvin then drove it to a radio manufacturers convention in Chicago, parked it outside, cranked it up and the orders flooded in for his “Motorola.”  (Yes, the same people who are now in the mobile phone business.) It was still expensive–$110—but it was the first useful and practical car radio. 

Paul and Joseph Galvin

Once the Motorola car radio was introduced in the early 30s, more and more people opted to spend the significant dollars on the option for their new cars.  The next big advances came in the 1950s.  First, the radios slowly moved from using fragile vacuum tubes to transistors, greatly increasing their reliability and greatly reducing the amount of heat they gave off.  They could also be much smaller.  (This transition began in the 50s but it wasn’t until 1963 that the first all-transistor car radio was available.)  

The other big introduction was the first-ever FM radio in 1952, made by the German company Blaupunkt. 

Then there was something called the Becker Mexico in 1953. This was the first premium car radio with both AM and FM and the first-ever automatic search function. 

Becker Mexico c.1953. Notice the housing for the vacuum tubes.

Up until 1955, the only way to get music in the car was with a radio, but for a while you could get an under-dash turntable on certain Chrysler, Dodge and DeSoto models.  They didn’t work very well. 

The Highway HiFi

It wasn’t until the fall of 1965 when Ford introduced the first-ever 8-track players that music-on-demand became a thing in cars. 

Ford 8-track player, fall 1965

That was followed by the first-ever car stereo by Becker in 1969.  Up until then, all factory auto sound systems were in mono. 

The first cassette players in cars showed up in about 1970, which pushed out 8-tracks and led to the development of the aftermarket car stereo industry, which became a multi-billion-dollar business.  

No clue, but it’s old.

Bose and Delco, a GM subsidiary, teamed up to offer the first premium factory audio system in 1982. It was better than anything offered my automakers up until that point, but it would be years yet before factory audio systems were as good as what you could buy aftermarket.

State of the art–in 1984.

After the cassette player came the CD player.  Sony was the first to introduce a CD machine for the car in 1984 and the first automaker to offer one as an option was Mercedes-Benz in 1985.  By the 90s, CD players and CD changers had all but supplanted cassettes in cars. 

Satellite radio broadcasts began on September 25, 2001 (XM Radio was first; Sirius followed about four months later). 

And now the big buzzword in the industry is “infotainment systems,” technology stacks in the dashboard that connect to the Internet.  Right now that’s mostly through smartphones but it won’t be long before all cars are connected all the time—and connected to each other.  Cars will talk to each other. 

We’ve come a long way since that first car radio in 1930, haven’t we?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37438 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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