Rhythms for the Highway, Before the Age of the iPod

Highway Hi-Fi player offered in 1957 Dodge.

From The New York Times:

From the arrival of the earliest car radios in the 1920s to the advent of today’s colorful dashboard display screens, automakers have been playing catch-up with consumer tastes and trends. Yet the key to providing an ideal blend of in-car information and entertainment — infotainment, in the lexicon — has long been close at hand.
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“The ongoing thread in infotainment development has been that drivers have always wanted to bring into their cars the things they use at home for entertainment and information,” said Peter Patrone, who helped direct the development of telematics in his 30-year career at Mercedes-Benz USA and is now an independent auto industry consultant.

Automakers have overcome many obstacles — technological challenges, changes in music storage formats and aftermarket competition among them — to introduce their innovations. Some proved fabulous, while others were flops. Here are a few highlights that might help you to appreciate your new car’s iPod compatibility all the more:

RADIO ON THE ROAD

Radio had a decades-long run as the dominant source of in-car music and news, lasting to the 1950s and beyond thanks to continuous advances. Convenient push-button presets for favorite stations appeared in the late 1930s, helping drivers keep their eyes on the road.

Even more cutting-edge was a signal-seeking radio offered by Cadillac in 1952 for $129. The Delco Wonder Bar — named for the bar above the tuning dial that, when pressed, caused a motor-driven pulley to move the tuner to the next strong station — was eventually offered in most General Motors cars.

With radio still offering mainly AM broadcasts and low-fidelity sound, some brands tried gimmicks to make sales. Some 1958-60 Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac models offered a removable radio that doubled as a battery-operated portable. Pontiac called it the Sportable, while Olds and Buick marketed it as the Trans-Portable.

The clearer-sounding FM broadcast band arrived for car radios in the 1950s, including an option in 1958 Lincolns. More consistent performance from the first fully transistorized in-dash units came early in the next decade. To the delight of music listeners, FM stereo became available as an option in many cars by the late 1960s.

MOBILE JUKEBOX

Automakers realized that the holy grail of in-car entertainment would be the ability for drivers to play their own music collections on the road. In 1956, Chrysler tried to accommodate them with an in-car record player it called Highway Hi-Fi.

Developed by a research scientist from the laboratories of CBS, Highway Hi-Fi used a new ultra-microgroove format that provided 45 minutes of playing time per side from its small 16 2/3 r.p.m. record discs. Though Chrysler claimed skip-free performance, owners had mixed results.

A limited selection of music recordings, along with the contraption’s proprietary format that would not play on home equipment, doomed Highway Hi-Fi to failure.

For 1960, Chrysler replaced it with a new accessory record player, made by RCA Victor, that played up to a dozen standard 45 r.p.m. records. Working better in a parked car than a moving one, it was dropped by Chrysler after 1961.

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