How Car Stereos Used to Roll in the 1950s

Up until 1956, the only music in the car was an AM radio (there were FM radios, too, but almost no one had one).  Technology had yet to find a way for drivers to program music for themselves.

Then Chrysler/Dodge/DeSoto came up with what they thought was an amazing idea: the under-dash turntable.

Lawrence Welk and his Highway HiFi

The Highway HiFi was an option from 1956 through 1959.  Here’s the text of the official press release:

DETROIT – – Highway Hi-Fi, a record player that provides music and speech as you go, has been developed exclusively for the 1956 Chrysler Corporation cars.

This novel addition to the pleasures of highway travel, specially designed by CBS Laboratories as an accessory for Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial, was introduced today at the press preview of Chrysler Corporation’s new cars at the company’s Engineering Proving Grounds.

For driver and passengers who prefer the lively scores of Broadway musicals, Highway Hi-Fi provides the lilting and memorable tunes from the hit show, “Pajama Game.”

And if the children are restless on a long ride, Davey Crockett and Gene Autry are ready at hand to help keep them quiet.

Highway Hi- Fi plays through the speaker of the car radio and uses the radio’s amplifier system. The turntable for playing records, built for Chrysler by CBS-Columbia, is located in a shock-proof case mounted just below the center of the instrument panel. A tone arm, including sapphire stylus and ceramic pick up, plus storage space for six long-play records make up the unit.

Using a new principle of design worked out by CBS Laboratories, the player and position of the stylus on a record are not affected by the angle of a car, its highway speed, or even severe cornering. Tests demonstrate it is extremely difficult to jar the arm off the record or even make the stylus jump a groove.

The special records also developed by CBS Laboratories, are seven inches in size, transcribed on both sides, and pressed especially for Chrysler by Columbia Records. They give up to 45 minutes of music and up to one full hour of speech per side, A collection of six disks will be presented to customers with each player.

Making up the collection are Tschaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Borodini’s Polovtsian Dances, Ippalitov-Ivanov’s Procession of the Sardar, the complete score of the Broadway musical show Pajama Game, Walt Disney’s Davey Crockett, Gene Autry and Champion, Romantic Moods by Percy Faith and his orchestra, quiet jazz by Paul Weston and his orchestra, Music of Cole Porter and Victor Herbert by Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra, and dramatic readings from Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell by a cast of top Hollywood and Broadway artists.

But the Highway Hifi was a dud.  Let me count the ways.

1.  Although the tonearm was designed to stay in place with extra downforce, it still skipped.  A lot.  

2.  The downward pressure on the tonearm played hell with the records it was supposed to play. They wore out very quickly.

3.  The turntable would only play special 16 2/3 RPM records (available only at the your local Chrysler/Dodge/DeSoto dealer, of course).

4.  There was an extremely limited supply of these records.  I read somewhere that only 43 were ever manufactured.

5.  Every try to change a record while driving at 60 mph?

It wasn’t until September 1965 that drivers were able to program their own music.  Ford introduced the 8-track player in select 1966 models (including the Mustang), promising motorists “up to 70 minutes of uninterrupted hands-free music.”

And while we’re on the subject of dumb automobile inventions, can you believe this from 1935? It actually existed.

(Via Jalopnik)

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 37848 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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