I was recently listening to a favorite song of mine in the car. It was "Windfall” by the band Son Volt and I heard the following lyrics;
“Switching it over to AM, Searching for a truer sound, Can't recall the call letters, Steel guitar and settle down, Catching an all-night station, Somewhere in Louisiana, It sounds like 1963, But for now it sounds like heaven.”
The lyrics struck me as I thought back over my lifetime enjoyment of music and listening to music in the car and on the road. Music has been a part of my travel, I am guessing since my parents brought me home from the hospital in 1968. Were my folks listening to the number one hit of the time, Otis Redding’s "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" or perhaps a top hit from the end of '67 such as the Monkees' “Daydream Believer,” or perhaps “Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles was still in heavy radio rotation.
While I have no way to confirm either of those theories, one thing is certain. The car radio in our car and for that matter almost every car I have ever ridden in or driven has for the majority of the time had a radio or musical device playing music.
While some of the history of when the car radio was first introduced is surrounded by a bit of “static,” We know that way before Don McClean “drove his Chevy to the levy,” the car radio was in almost every automobile produced. Some say the first one was introduced in 1922 by Chevrolet.
Rob Siegel at Hagerty.com points to "newspaper accounts of Chevrolet offering the "Radio Sedan" in 1922, apparently including a Westinghouse radio that utilized a rooftop antenna, batteries beneath the front seats and large horn speakers behind the rear seats, but it’s unclear whether it was actually produced or was a one-off publicity stunt.”
The first radio as a factory-installed option in a regular production car may have been in 1923 by the Springfield Body Corporation, but it, too, was likely a hodge-podge adapted from a house radio. There is also debate over which manufacturer deserves the distinction of being the first to offer a car-specific radio, it seems that William Heina, of the U.S. Heinaphone Company, appears to have been granted the first patent for the installation of radios in cars. Heinaphone’s car radios were called “Transitones.” In 1927, the Automobile Radio Corporation bought Heinaphone.
Of course, the country was so tuned into enjoying radio in their homes so listeners wanted to take this new way to listen up to radio with them on the road. So the success and growth in commercial radio broadcasting helped the first car radios began to appear in many vehicles.
In 1930, Galvin Manufacturing introduced the first car radio as the “Motorola.” It was one of the first commercially successful car radios, and the first major product for the company that later became a much more familiar business name Motorola, Inc.
An internet search helped compile some more information to share with you and help you tune into the history of the car radio. Here is a short timeline of advancements and milestones;
1952: FM Car Radio - Edwin Howard Armstrong invented FM radio in 1933. Most people were still listening to AM radio. In 1979 FM audience levels surpassed AM audience listeners.
1953: The “Searchers” Start Searching - The first luxury car radio, featured both AM/FM and included the first fully automated “seek” feature.
1965: Although I have seen a few photos and references to a 45 RPM player installed in a few cars, the more popular way to play music (non- radio) in the car was the 8-track. The technology was developed by Learjet Corporation, the 8-track tape housed in its plastic cartridge a continuous loop of magnetic tape that held a total of “8 tracks”.
1964 and into the 1970s: Cassette Players = Phillips introduced the cassette tape in 1964; it was not until in the 1970s that car cassette players became a standard feature. This also brought us the concept of the driving, road trip & a cool way to introduce a captive audience to your favorite songs… the mixtape!
1980 to 1990s: The Death of the Cassette Tape, the Birth of the CD – Over this time period the cassette player became defunct in all new cars. With the creation of the Compact Disc, another revolution in the way drivers listened to music, enabling them to enjoy their favorite songs at the push of the button.
2000s the Present: MP3 Players, Satellite Radio and Music Streaming Services – Listeners welcomed the digital revolution with MP3s on the rise, CD sales began to steadily decline. It took a while for in-car audio capabilities to catch up to the digital revolution. Initially, there were very few options to connect the influx of MP3 players to car stereo systems until the mid-2000s. Then satellite radio arrived. Sirius Satellite Radio effectively created the satellite radio industry single-handedly. XM Satellite Radio launched its first two satellites the year after, effectively altering the way we experience radio. Today, the service offers a wide variety of music, talk, news, and sports stations, and it’s commercial-free (with a subscription fee) with Sirius XM Radio. Finally, Streaming Services joined the mix of options. The services are Satellite radio’s main competitors. In recent years Internet-streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music are now being integrated into the car radio listener’s world.
I hope you enjoyed this brief Listen Up “Car Radio & Beyond” history. I hope to see you at the next red light “Listening Up” to the music on your car music player on your favorite format!