Cars and Music

March 12, 2021

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By Nick Gargaro, Alumni Relations

I am unable to drive without music. In college, I was unable to walk to class alone without music. Music in my ears works like a piston, rhythm and melody are like an engine driving me forward. While having music always available at my fingertips is a modern notion, it took less than 20 years for music to find its way into automobiles.  

2008 Automotive Hall of Fame Inductee Paul Galvin and his brother Joseph were the first to realize the commercial potential of portable music. In the early 1900s, before the invention of television, radio was a staple of the American home. Families gathered around their radios every night to get their daily source of news, sports, and of course, music. Galvin saw that American families were adopting automobiles as part of daily life, just as they had done with the radio, and he realized that the two could be harmoniously married.   

The Galvin brothers were not the first to realize this, but before their time, car radios were far from practical. Chevrolet had produced a portable car radio in the 1920s, but it was housed in a huge control box and required external batteries and speakers. Altogether it was not very convenient or comfortable and took up a lot of space.  

Along with radio manufacturer Lear, the Galvin brothers developed the first tube-amplified car radio for Paul’s Studebaker in May 1930. This reduced the cost and size of the technology. Paul then proved the power of their invention by driving from Chicago to the annual Radio Manufacturers Association meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, blasting his car radio for 850 miles. When he arrived in Atlantic City, he parked outside a popular pier and played his radio at top volume. With music blasting from his new invention, Galvin began taking orders for the first commercially viable car radio. When he returned to Chicago, he had enough orders to begin production and marketing on what he called the “Motorola” (motor vehicle plus Victrola, a record manufacturer).   

Initially, Galvin’s invention was not as popular as he had predicted. The states of Massachusetts and Missouri tried to outlaw car radios, fearing they would cause distracted driving. In 1934, a poll of the Automobile Club of New York found that 56 percent of drivers thought car radios were a dangerous distraction. After several academic studies failed to find evidence to support these fears, the legislation failed and car radios found their way into vehicles around the world.   

By the mid-1930s, millions of cars featured built-in AM radios. In 1950, the German radio maker Blaupunkt introduced the much-improved sound quality of radio bandwidth. A Mexican radio company called Becker quickly overshadowed this accomplishment by creating an AM and FM capable radio with a “seek” function. This allowed drivers to flip through different channels until they found the one they wanted. In 1957, Chevrolet offered its own version called the “Wonderbar.”    

In 1956, Chrysler changed the world of cars and music with the debut of the “Highway Hi-Fi” system, which allowed users to play vinyl records in their cars. Before this, drivers were at the complete disposal of radio DJs for their music. Unfortunately, Chrysler was the only company to produce this technology, so listeners were limited to seven-inch vinyl records produced by Columbia Records, which had a partnership with Chrysler.   

In 1962, Earl “Madman” Muntz, wanted to create a better way to listen to records in the car. His invention, called a “stereo-pak,” worked like a cassette cartridge with a continuous loop tape. These “stereo-paks” were inserted into Muntz’s other invention, the “auto-stereo.” Bill Lear, creator of the world’s first composite aircraft (who had worked with the Galvin brothers on the first car radios in the 1930s), wanted to make Muntz’s invention more affordable and accessible. He developed the 8-track cartridge system in 1964, which was widely accepted by the public.   

At about the same time, Phillips audio developed the cassette tape in 1963, which had higher audio quality, and allowed owners to record their own “mix-tapes” compiling their favorite songs onto one cassette. Cassettes became the industry standard until the introduction of the compact disc in the late 1980s.   

Today, we take driving to our favorite songs for granted. Many of us just plug our phones in and play away. Next time you reach for the aux cord, take a second to think about how far we have come. Maybe turn on the radio and let your local DJ find the soundtrack to your next trip.  

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