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1972, 8-tracks, Audio cassettes

Cassettes Wallop 8-Tracks for In-Car Audio Systems

In 1972, American electronics manufacturer CTI announced that it was eliminating its home stereo system division to concentrate on one marketing area:  8-track players for cars.

Bad move.

By 1972, audio cassettes, with their smaller footprint, easier storage and increased audio facility — thanks to the introduction of Dolby B noise reduction technology in 1971 — were quickly outdistancing the larger, rectangular, plastic-encased format.  Said Billboard in 1972, “record companies were banking on the sale of cassettes,” which had reached a sales ratio of 2-to-1 over the bulkier 8-tracks.  The phenomenal rise in popularity was spurred in part with technological progress in home recording equipment, including the introduction in 1972 of the first in the Nakamichi line of cassette players and recorders, featuring the world’s first three-head system for even greater audio fidelity.

The Ford Motor Company had introduced factory-installed and dealer-installed eight-track tape players as an option on three of its 1966 models, the Mustang, Thunderbird and Lincoln.  By the early 1980s, however, the 8-track format was dead; heartland rockers Bob Segar and the Silver Bullet Band’s 1982 release The Distance was their last released on 8-track.

The 8-track fiasco, however, was not the first attempt of electronics manufacturers to fail miserably in the introduction of audio reproduction equipment for automobiles.  That dubious accolade goes to the in-car record players of the 1950s.

Record players, up until the late 1970s, had four speeds: 16 2/3 revolutions per minute or rpm, 33 1/3 rpm, 45 rpm and 78 rpm — and could play seven inch 45s or ten inch 78s or 12 inch 33 1/3 long players – LPs as some people called them, but known as “albums” since the early 20th century, due to the fact that many records came in multiple disc sets that were contained in a hardbound album.  Most of those early 1900s releases were recorded at 78 rpm, with the large, black, shellac records played on hand-cranked players, like the RCA Victrola with its big speaker cone – like the one that the little black-and-white dog Nipper was listening to in the advertisements that carried the tag line, “His master’s voice,” which implied the recording had such fidelity that it fooled the pooch into thinking that its owner was somehow stuffed into the machine.

The 16 2/3 rpm speed, the slowest of settings, appeared in the 1950s for spoken word recordings, because the lack of reproduction quality from the reduced speed didn’t diminish the listenability of someone reading the Bible or Shakespeare, and because the slower speed meant you could pack more spin time on a 12 inch or seven inch disk.

Then, in 1956, the Chrysler auto company came out with a wild idea called Highway Hi-Fi, which was a 16 2/3 rpm turntable that was mounted under the dash, above the transmission hump, which allowed you to play records in your car, the slower speed apparently resulting in less skips of the disc when crossing railroad tracks than experienced by faster-moving turntable speeds.  Highway Hi-Fi was the ultimate in luxury – and offered only on the top-of-the-line cars like the Plymouth Fury and the Chrysler New Yorker and the Dodge Royal Lancer.

You could listen to about 60 minutes on the side of a 12-inch disk as you sped along one of President Eisenhower’s interstates – the ultimate in modern living.  The record player ran through your AM radio and was controlled by the radio’s regular knobs, which was pretty much limited to volume and tone and balance, but one of the big problems was that it was extremely dangerous to try to change records while flying down a superhighway.  You had to pull the unit out from its mount under the dashboard, take the record off the spindle, insert a new record, push some buttons to get the needle into the ultra-microgroove of the record, close up the front and push the whole thing back into place.  With enough practice you could do it without looking, but it was probably not recommended.

When you ordered one of the Highway Hi-Fis on your new Chrysler or Dodge or Plymouth you got a starter set of six records; you could order more but apparently only 42 records were ever available to the general public.  And what’s more, there were demo records that dealers would put on when someone took one of the Hi-Fi cars out for a test spin, with the disembodied voice telling the driver about all the frills and trimmings and garnishes and geegaws you could get on the car, so the dealer didn’t have to ride along and bore you with all the details or offend you with his bad breath and body odor and ridiculous sport coat.

But the real discs, not the demos, were the kicker; you could listen to Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra through a Tchaikovsky symphony, or to the original Broadway cast performing The Pajama Game, or an audio-only version of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, starring Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen, or hear Charles Boyer and Charles Laughton and Agnes Moorehead perform Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell,.  Or if you were in a romantic mood you could spin Percy Faith and his Orchestra’s take on “The Nearness of You.”

If you wanted to get happy there was Sammy Kaye and the Swing and Sway Strings playing “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.”  Looking for something educational or informative?  There was chain-smoking journalist Edward R. Murrow ‘s I Can Hear It Now, featuring the real voices of Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin and countless other vile, evil men that you could have as traveling companions, or you could listen to the CBS radio program You Are There, with stirring recreations of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 or the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.   And for the kids there were exciting episodes of Rocky Jones and the Space Pirates, including “Shipwrecked on Planet X” and “Space Ship to Mars,” complete with mind-blowing sound effects.

Great idea.  But it bombed with the buying public and it died after only two years on the market.  People say it had service problems, that it was always messing up or breaking down but really it was Elvis Presley who killed the first generation of Highway Hi-Fis.

The King didn’t show up in any of the 16 2/3 rpm record lists, but in 1956, the same model year as the Chryslers and Dodges and Plymouths with the built-in players, Elvis released 45 rpm versions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel” and “I Got a Woman” and “Rip it Up” and a bunch of Little Richard rip-offs like “Tutti Frutti” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Long Tall Sally.”  And thing was, you couldn’t play Elvis records in your car.  Oh, eventually the old fuddy-duddies at Chrysler got wise – they couldn’t ignore rock and roll anymore – and they re-released the in-car record player in 1960 but this time it played seven inch 45s  — you could stack up to 14 records at a time and the player spun through them automatically, so you didn’t have to stop and change the discs all the time — and the machine was made by RCA Victor, which just happened to be part of the company putting out all those Elvis records.  What’s more, it just happened to be the year that Elvis got out of the U.S. Army and started recording again.  But by then Elvis had lost his edge, was making saccharine middle-of-the-road schlock like “It’s Now or Never” and by 1961 fewer and fewer people were listening to Elvis and the in-car player was once more history.

If only they had hung on three more years, because in 1964 the Beatles would conquer America and that year they amazingly occupied the five top chart positions on the hit list – no one else in history would come close — and people were once more buying 45s like crazy and they probably would’ve liked to listen to them in the car.

But the in-car record player proved an abysmal failure – just as the 8-track player would two decades later.

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About markwalston

Writer, historian, creative director, poet, playwright, author of nine books and nearly 200 essays and articles exploring a broad range of American social, cultural and historical topics.

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