The history of consumer goods is littered with brilliant ideas that weren’t quite ready for public consumption yet. In the ’50s, if you wanted to listen to some music in your vehicle, your choices were listening to the radio or forcing your family members to sing. Until the invention of the Highway Hi-Fi in-car record player changed all that. Or could have, if it had caught on with the public.
You know, records: those large, flat vinyl discs susceptible to scratches and prone to skipping that people used for playing music for much of the 20th century. In a world without consumer magnetic tape players, how else were you going to transport music into vehicles? Multiple companies thought that turntables for the car were fantastic and commercially viable ideas. They were not. Consumer Reports unearthed this bit of semi-forgotten tune-blasting history from the late ’50s and early ’60s.
The first in-car record system was the Highway Hi-Fi, available on some Chrysler vehicles beginning in 1956. The system cost the equivalent of about $1,700 in 2014 dollars, and could only use proprietary 7″ records when the system debuted. It came with a handy selection of records: Broadway musicals, radio drama selections, and pop tunes. You could order additional records from Columbia and a later version of the system accepted standard 45 RPM records.
After the demise of the Highway Hi-Fi, RCA introduced a similar, cheaper system. Naturally, the predecessors of our tune-testing colleagues down the hall at Consumer Reports tested it to find out whether it was worth buying. The in-car Victrola cost only $410 in today’s dollars–not cheap, but not ridiculous, either. It held 14 records, which was good for a few hours of music or talk if you bought extended-play 45 RPM discs and wanted to listen to everything in the player. (A 45 RPM record is one of those 7-inch discs that holds maybe one song on each side.)
A competing system from Norelco only held one standard 45, so the driver would have to swap out the disc or maybe hit “repeat” after every song. Also, testers noted that the turntable ran fast, resulting in quicker, higher-pitched music than was intended.
Give your car stereo’s cassette, CD, or integrated digital infotainment system an affectionate pat the next time you get in your car. Their innovative ancestors weren’t marketplace successes, but driving a car with only a radio is now almost unthinkable.
Record players were the infotainment systems of the 1950s and ’60s [Consumer Reports]
How the Highway Hi-Fi Record Player Was Invented for Chrysler Products [Imperial Club]