The History of the Car Stereo
Where would we be without the car stereo? In a country with as much land mass as the U.S., it's almost impossible to imagine long drives without music or talk radio—and, more recently, audiobooks and podcasts—to keep us company. During the Roaring Twenties, driving was largely a silent affair, aside from the noise of the engine and the sound of thin tires rolling over mostly unpaved roads. But beginning in the 1930s, with mass adoption a generation later, the car radio eventually became part of the American drive for almost everyone.
Today's cars come with audio systems that are nothing like those early radios, from 10+ speaker systems and powerful amplifiers, to extra channels, subwoofers, and finely tuned frequency response curves that match specific car interiors. It has certainly been quite a leap—so how did we get here? Come with us, as we take a look back at how the car stereo became what it is today.
The First Car Radios
Monophonic AM radio was the norm for a long time, beginning with the first in-car audio system more than 80 years ago. In 1930, Paul and Joseph Galvin, along with William Lear, developed the first automobile dashboard radio and named it the "Motorola," or motorized Victrola—and demonstrated the 5T71 prototype (pictured, below right) in a Studebaker. Motorola went on to sell millions of car radios, and later, two-way radios for police and fire departments, home stereo systems, and televisions before moving into transistors, solid-state electronics, and semiconductors.
The image of a couple on the open road in a convertible in the 1950s, complemented by the sound of AM radio and the beginnings of rock and roll, became indelibly imprinted in the American psyche. Several advances contributed to this. Blaupunkt debuted the first automotive FM radio in 1952, though AM ruled for the rest of the decade and into the 1960s. In 1953, Becker unveiled the first "Seek" station-search, which let drivers sample each available radio station for a few seconds before choosing one to listen to for longer. And newer transistor-based radios in the mid-to-late 1960s reduced the amount of space and power required—no more vacuum tubes.
Stereo 8, Compact Cassettes, and Compact Discs
It's tough to fathom, but it wasn't until the 1960s that drivers and passengers could actually control which songs they listened to. That is, with one almost-forgotten exception: A bizarre Chrysler in-dash turntable that played 7-inch, 45rpm singles in 1956. (That went nowhere fast.)
Stereo 8, or eight-track tapes, are now typically known for horrid sound quality and cheesy plastic construction. But for a while they were the only practical way to customize a playlist. Compact cassettes were always a better option, even right from the start, when Philips unveiled the format in 1964, and the first stereo radios followed soon after. But lower-priced, clunky eight-tracks stuck around for most of the 1970s anyway.
The early 1970s also brought us the real beginnings of what we now call the aftermarket, with custom stereo outfits like Crutchfield popping up to cater to those who wanted to improve their vehicles' audio capabilities beyond what any car manufacturer or dealer offered. Vendors like Alpine, Blaupunkt, Kenwood, and Pioneer began to do well selling cassette receivers and better-quality speakers. The early 1980s also brought us the first "Benzi box"-style pull-out stereo receivers, which were a response to the plague of break-ins and theft that afflicted many cities in the U.S. around that time. Later, receivers with detachable and even motorized faceplates made it much easier to protect your investment.
By this point, enthusiasts and car manufacturers also began to pay more attention to the sound quality of the amplifier (pictured, left) and speakers themselves. For decades, car audio speakers were single, full-range drivers—often you'd get only one, in the center of the dashboard. Think of the old Delco full-range speakers found in many GM vehicles in the 1960s. Later, we began to see the first 2-way and 3-way models that integrated separate tweeters and midranges in a plastic or metal bracket ahead of the main woofer, which was then relegated to bass duties. Miniature, passive 2-way and 3-way crossovers—first seen on home stereo systems—split the incoming audio signal into separate frequency ranges, each of which was directed to the appropriately designed speaker driver.