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 any 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," Siegel wrote.
"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(ARC) bought Heinaphone," he wrote
Of course, the country was so tuned into enjoying radio in their homes, 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 begin to appear in many vehicles.
In 1930, Galvin Manufacturing introduced the first car radio as the “Motorola,” Siegel wrote. It was one of the first commercially successful car radios, and the first major product for the company that later became the much more familiar business Motorola, he said.
Following is a short timeline of the history, advancements and milestones as researched. An internet search led me to “The History of the Car Radio: From Morse Code to Mixtapes” by Anne Le Tran. The information in that pieced filled in the history of the car radio that I did not experience firsthand and helped me to compile the years 1952 to the late 1960s and into the early 1970s.
1952: "Edwin Howard Armstrong invented FM radio in 1933," Le Tran wrote. Most people were still listening to AM radio. In 1979 FM audience levels surpassed AM audience listeners. Then in 1953, the “Searchers” start searching and 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 Corp. The 8-track tape housed in its plastic cartridge was a continuous loop that held a total of 8 tracks.
1960s and into the 1970s: "Phillips introduced the cassette in 1964, it was in the 1970s that car cassette players became a standard feature," according to Le Tran. This also brought us a cool way to introduce a captive audience to your favorite songs — the mixtape!
1980s to 1990s: Over this time period the cassette player was slowly disappeared from almost all new car models. The creation of the compact disc again changed the way drivers listened to music, enabling them to enjoy their favorite songs at the simple push of a button.
2000s the present: According to Meaghan Garvey of complex.com, listeners welcomed the digital revolution with mp3s on the rise, and 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," Garvey wrote. Then satellite radio arrived. With its 2000 launch of three satellites, "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," she wrote. The two eventually merged to become Sirius XM. Finally, streaming services joined the mix of options. The services are satellite radio’s main competitors. In recent years internet streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music have been integrated into the car audio listener’s world.
I hope you enjoyed this briefcar radio and beyond history. After some of the research, I hope we are both a little more in tune with the ever-evolving history of car audio and the development of ways that we listen to music in our vehicles. I hope to see you at the next red light “Listening Up” to the music on your car music player in your favorite format!