Before Bluetooth: The History of Car Audio for Dopes

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald | Jun 12, 2015

You kids have it easy. You jump in the car with your phone in your pocket and your car is smart enough to recognize the music there and starts playing it automatically, LIKE MAGIC. In my day, we had primitive methods for getting music in the car AND WE LIKED IT.

"And while I'm on the subject, why don't you get off my lawn!"

Here's a look at how we got music in cars in the days before Bluetooth.

1930: The Car Radio Arrives

Biggest Hit of 1930: "Happy Days Are Here Again"

In 1930, Paul Galvin and Don Mitchell from Galvin Manufacturing came up with a method of installing a radio in an automobile. It's not as easy as it sounds, especially in 1930, when a radio was approximately the size of a broom closet. Not only that, all the spare electrons that used to fly around under the hood caused all kinds of interference with the radio signal. Even if you could squeeze Ma's RCA into the Model A, all you'd hear was static that people often confused with the Collected Works of Laurie Anderson, which is weird because it was only 1930 and Laurie Anderson wasn't born yet.

Galvin Manufacturing's engineers came up with a solution that worked, and in May, 1930, Paul Galvin set out across the country in his Studebaker to demonstrate the car radio's abilities on the road.

1952: FM Radio Arrives

Biggest Hit of 1952: "Wheel of Fortune"

From the 1930s to the 1950s, AM radio ruled the airwaves, but then stations started broadcasting FM radio in the late 1950s in bustling metropolii such as Paxton, Massachusetts (popluation: -11).

FM stands for "Frequency Modulation," which means absolutely nothing to anybody. FM broadcasting was pioneered by Edwin Howard Armstrong, who got sick of listening to traffic and weather and Rush Limbaugh. Thanks to Armstrong's efforts, America eventually got FM radio broadcast in stereo, which eventually led to "album-oriented rock" music coming from everybody's Camaro in 1973. Unfortunately, it also led to Car Talk on NPR.

The first commercially available FM car radio came from Blaupunkt in 1952. "Blaupunkt" is a German word that means "I smashed your window and stole your radio."

1955: Music You Want to Listen To

Biggest Hit of 1955: "Rock Around the Clock"

Up until 1955, whatever you heard in your car was what some sweaty, bald D.J. wanted you to listen to. Thanks to the payola scandal, those songs were greatly influnced by how much free beer and ladies of the evening had been procured for the D.J. by the record company.

If you wanted to listen to another song, you either had to bring the band along in the car with you, or sing it yourself. That year, though, Chrysler came up with an invention that would revolutionize music in the car. And by "revolutionize" we mean "have no appreciable impact upon."

It was a record player you put under the dashboard.

Yes. Records. You'd be hurtling along at 48 miles per hour in a car with bias ply tires and drum brakes and insert a record the size of a garbage pail lid into a slot. The needle would somehow find the groove as you dodged potholes.

Trivia: The biggest hit Chrysler owners with said record players heard that summer was "SCRREEEEEEEccakkkgkzzzBAKAKAKAKA In The BZAAAFGIGGFIF sSWKKAAAA."

1962: The Eight-Track Scare of 1962

Biggest Hit of 1962: "Telstar"

In 1952, Bernard Cousino invented a cassette tape that used a continuous loop of one-quarter-inch, oxide-coated tape to store and play sounds. For the next 50 years, these cartridges (or "carts" in the industry) were the dominant medium for playing commercials, jingles and fart noises on morning radio. When record companies tried putting music on them, though, it was a decade of learning to hate you car audio player.

Earl "Madman" Muntz developed the first eight-track player for cars in 1962 called the Muntz Stereo-Pak. Two years later, Lear Jet developed the Lear Jet Stereo eight-cartridge and player , which reduced the complexity of Muntz's cockamamie player by exactly one part, and the idea took off for automobiles.

In 1965, Ford started offering eight-track players as original equipment, and all the other manufacturers followed suit. In the 1970s, eight tracks were the dominant music medium, wonderfully changing tracks and breaking single songs into two parts, forcing record companies to reshuffle tracks on an album, and treating listeners to long periods of silence before the eight-track player reached the end of a track and clunked over to the next one.

Oh, what a wonderful age we lived in, with our matchbooks jammed under eight-track tapes to get them to play!

1972: The Cassette Era

Biggest Hit of 1972: "Superstition"

Cassettes had been around since Phillips developed the Compact Cassette format in 1962, but prior to the early 1970s, they were used so the boss could dictate his lurid comments to his secretary. They weren't really considered high quality enough for music reproduction until after 1971. That's when they started showing up in cars.

Cassettes were a decent music delivery medium, because they were relatively small and record companies bought into the format once Sony pressured Philips into making it royalty-free.

The bad part was that it was only a matter of time until the cassette player barfed your favorite Foghat cassette all over the floor. Cassettes were also incredibly sensitive to temperatures much above 65 degrees, so if you left your best Supertramp cassettes in the car, you'd find the tape had fused together.

The last cassette player to make it in a new car was in 2010, when Lexus offered it in an SC 430.

1985: Digital Music Makes Its Debut

Biggest Hit of 1985: "Money for Nothing"

Like the cassette, it took a while for the CD to catch on for automotive applications. First of all, in the 1980s, car dashboards weren't set up for a disc the size of a large coaster to be jammed inside. Most car radios at that point were still shaft-style, with a shaft for volume and tuning on either side. It would be a few years before DIN-style audio players would be integrated into car dashboards.

The first one came from Blaupunkt for Mercedes-Benz automobiles, mostly because cars cost approximately as much as a house in suburban Philadelphia. By the late 2000s, you got a free CD player with the purchase of a pack of Dentyne, but in those days, the technology was new.


The technology also stunk in the first CD players. They wouldn't perform much better than the old record players in those Chrylsers from the 1950s. Home CD players would skip if anything bigger than a Miata passed by on the street outside. The technology improved rapidly, though, and it wasn't long before they completely replaced cassettes as the dominant medium.

For about eight minutes in the 2000s, we were plugging iPods into auxiliary 3.5mm jacks, but that's all over now thanks to Bluetooth.

The one thing that was nice about all the media prior to digital music, though, is that when you bought it, you owned it. Now you're just kind of renting it until they develop the technology to just beam music straight into your medula oblongata.

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