One of the great missions in the electronics and music industries is to provide devices that make music easily accessible, and can be taken anywhere. People don’t want to be tied to their radios, music players or phones, those devices have to be tied to them. That aim has largely been accomplished now with cell phones, iPods and whatever but it’s been a long time coming. The relentless determination of the public to have music and mobility combined really comes into focus when you look at the history of the first mobile music device; the car radio.
There are many stories about how the car radio was invented. One states that in 1929 two young men, William Lear and Elmer Wavering, took their girlfriends out for a romantic view of the sunset in their car and one of the girls remarked it would be much nicer with music. The two men, who had studied engineering and radio, then set out to put together a radio that would work in a car. It was not an easy task as radios were too bulky to fit in a dashboard, the electrical system in a car could not provide the power a radio required and the spark plugs caused a lot of interference. Eventually they solved the problems and came up with a working model in 1930. They sold it to a Chicago entrepreneur named Paul Galvin who had them install it in his Studebaker. Galvin began marketing the radio, which he called the Motorola (meaning “sound in motion”), by driving to an engineering convention and playing music in the parking lot.
Motorola went on to become one of the biggest electronics and communication companies in the world; Wavering stayed with them and later invented the alternator. Lear went out on his own and invented, among other things, the 8-track tape and the Lear Jet.
It’s a great story and some of it is even true. The Motorola was the most successful early car radio but it was by no means the first.
The very early history of car radios is murky, and many facts are in dispute. People had been trying to combine cars and radios ever since both were invented but up until the mid 1920s, music in cars was only possible using “portable” radios, which would go in a car as long as you didn’t want any other passengers. The first person to apply for a patent for a radio specifically made for a car was William Heina of The Bronx, New York. The patent was granted in 1927 and in that same year Heina’s company was acquired by the Automobile Radio Corporation, known as ARC. They started manufacturing the Transitone Radio soon afterward.
These early radios were a difficult sell; to find a station the operator had to use two separate tuning knobs which were mounted on the steering column. The radio had its own batteries but also used the car’s electrical system and when the car slowed down, the radio would turn off. You had to pretty well take the whole car apart to install one and it cost about a third of the value of the car itself.
People must have really wanted them; ARC’s business was good enough that in 1930 they were acquired by Transitone’s distributor, the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company. Philco, as they were better known, then began marketing an improved Transitone car radio that cost under $100.
In 1929 Sparton introduced the first police car radio; an essential tool for communication, though at the time it was still one way.
By 1931 there were about 100 different manufacturers of car radios in the United States. In 1932 Canadian General Electric introduced the M-30, the first car radio made outside the U.S. Companies in Europe and Britain soon followed. By 1933 there were an estimated 100,000 cars in North America outfitted with radios even though it was the height of the Great Depression.
Several jurisdictions passed laws banning car radios over concerns that tuning them took the driver’s attention away from the road and music could lull a driver to sleep. The Radio Manufacturers’ Association argued that radios provided valuable traffic and weather information and actually kept drivers awake. The laws had no effect, car radios became cheaper and smaller and more popular. Push-button tuning was introduced to make them safer, and that simple technology also had an unexpected effect on radio itself.
Broadcasters quickly realized their listeners in cars were looking for stimulation and could change stations easily if they weren’t getting it. As car radios gained popularly, radio stations developed a more rapid-fire delivery; short songs, lots of jokes, quick bites of information and, naturally, traffic reports.
By the mid-1940s 9 million cars had radios but they were limited by vacuum tube technology which required a noisy vibrator to change the car’s direct current (DC) power to alternating current (AC). In the early 1950s, the transistor allowed for radios that were smaller, cheaper and easier to install. With the post war boom in place, cars changed dramatically too, and then along came rock ‘n’ roll; perfect music for playing in cars. By 1963, most cars, over 50 million, had radios installed; one third of the radio audience was mobile.
Those radios also changed aesthetically and many are gorgeous to behold today. The 1940s radios were usually a single unit with a built-in speaker which was often covered with a striking art deco styled grille. The round dial was the focal point, and it glowed with a warm, yellow light. In the 1950s the speaker would often be attached separately under the dash or even in the back seat. The linear dial faceplate would be all chrome with dramatic knobs and push buttons. That style didn’t last long after Ralph Nader, in his book Unsafe At Any Speed, pointed out that the protruding chrome was killing people.
The next step in the mobile music quest was to get a player to work in the car. There were attempts at car phonographs but, for obvious reasons, they didn’t work well. Reel-to-reel tape was too cumbersome. It was an eccentric Californian who made the big breakthrough.
Earl “Madman” Muntz owned a used car lot in Los Angeles and gained widespread fame through his inane, over-the-top commercials featuring his madman persona. The style continues today with the various “I buy your gold for cash” hucksters. Muntz was so successful he branched out into manufacturing cars and consumer electronics. In 1962 he introduced the Stereo-Pak 4-track tape cartridge as well as a machine to play it in the car. He convinced major Hollywood celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and even Barry Goldwater to install one in their cars and soon the 4-track was the hottest thing going.
That was until William Lear came up with the 8-track. Like the car radio of 1929, Lear’s product wasn’t the first, or even the best, but it was the most convenient and that made it a winner, for a while anyway.
Today there is a strong collector interest in all vintage radios. Car radios are very difficult to use on their own so most of the demand for them is from people rebuilding their classic cars, the radios themselves are often rebuilt with modern components. As we see at the annual Orillia Classic Car Show, that’s a pretty vibrant market and no car is complete without a radio.