Car audio has worked its way through a number of music formats through the years, including 8-Track, cassette, and Compact Disc. Here’s one early effort: Chrysler’s Highway Hi-Fi record player of 1956.
Today, in-car audio is an essential part of the automotive experience, offering nearly unlimited programming choices from satellite to MP3. But until 1956, American motorists were stuck with but one choice: AM radio. That’s when Chrysler opened the door, we might say, with an in-car phonograph system called Highway Hi-Fi.
Highway Hi-Fi was developed by CBS Laboratories chief Peter Goldmark, the inventor of the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing album format. (As legend has it, Goldmark despised the rock ‘n roll then taking over the radio airwaves and decided to offer civilized motorists an alternative.) After experimenting with various mediums including magnetic tape, he devised a special hybrid record format: a seven-inch vinyl disc like the RCA 45 rpm single, but playing at the 16 2/3 rpm used in Talking Book spoken-word records. Dynamic range was limited to 3,000 Hz but on the plus side, the novel format offered 45 minutes of programming per side. A five-pin harness sent the player’s output into the car radio’s audio section, while a carefully engineered tone arm with high tracking force kept skipping and skating to a minimum.
Goldmark pitched his record player to several Chrysler engineers, then to executive Lynn Townsend (who later became company president). ChryCo liked the setup and agreed to buy 20,000 units from the CBS manufacturing division, although the order was later dialed back to 18,000. The automaker created the trade name “Highway Hi-Fi” and made the made the player optional on Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial models, all sharing the same under-dash unit pictured above. The CBS Columbia dvision manufactured the records, a mix of light classics, musical theater, and easy listening favorites, which were distributed through Chrysler’s dealer network and by mail. Perennial Dodge spokesman Lawrence Welk joined in on the marketing effort.
Unfortunately, we know how this comes out. While the player was offered across the Chrysler model lines from 1956 through 1959, it never caught on—due mainly to poor reliability, high warranty costs, and the limited variety and distribution of the Highway Hi-Fi record catalog. The record player was never more than a novelty, although a healthy number of the units are still around in the Chrysler collector car community.
Despite the first misfire, Chrysler revisited the auto record player concept again in 1960-1961 with a completely different unit produced by RCA and known as the AP-1 (below). Offered by both Chrysler dealers and RCA Victor retailers, it was also marketed by Sears under the Allstate brand. This player took popular RCA-style 45 rpm singles (including rock ‘n roll, hurrah) and played them upside down much like many juke boxes of the era. As each record in the changer finished, it dropped into the floor of the unit. While the RCA player was also less than ideal, it spawned a host of copies and competitors from Philips and others, and no doubt inspired new and improved in-car musical formats, including four-track and eight-track tape cartridges.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.