Today’s car infotainment systems offer drivers and passengers an array of state-of-the-art features that could dazzle including the most savvy techno-geek. (Unfortunately, these same high-tech systems might be complicated to work with and susceptible to technical problems, as we detailed in High-Tech Automotive Headaches.) On the audio front, the listening alternatives are vast, including AM/FM, satellite, and Internet CDs, radio and DVDs, and audio tracks you play via plugged-in or Bluetooth-enabled smart phones, music players, and off a built-in hard disk drive. Cars have long had music players beyond radio. Anyone of the certain age will remember 8-track and cassette players. And record players. Record players? Yep.
A whole new technology came on the market within the mid-1950s and early 1960s that freed drivers from commercials and unreliable broadcast signals, letting them be the masters of their motoring soundtrack with their favorite pressed vinyl spinning on a record player mounted under the dash. Consumer Reports covered three auto record player units of the day.
The “Highway Hi-Fi” was the very first on the scene, offered by the Chrysler Corporation for an option on the 1956 Chrysler, Desoto, Dodge, and Plymouth. CBS Labs developed the technology that played records specifically designed for that system, with 7-inch discs in 16? rpm format, available exclusively from Columbia Records. The format was chosen because 33? rpm records at 12 inches in diameter were too large for the car and the smaller 45 rpm size didn’t play for as long. The 7-inch size produced for the Highway Hi-Fi fit in the car and played for about an hour per side.
Chrysler started the auto audiophile’s collection with six records from Columbia that presented mellifluous motoring tracks such as “I’ll Take Romance” from Percy Faith along with his Orchestra. Additional recordings were available for order. The Great American Songbook was represented with picks like Cole Porter’s score for your Broadway show “Kiss Kate”, Me and My Old Kentucky Home played with a Wurlitzer organ. And there were talk selections, too, including recordings of the CBS radio series “You Are There” featuring historical topics for example “The Signing of the Magna Carta” and “The Battle of Gettysburg.” (It is possible to listen to CBS’ classic “You Are There” series online Archive.)
The Highway Hi-Fi was short-lived as Chrysler only offered it for two years. Consumer Reports did not test it, but we did report its demise, suggesting that this price tag of nearly $200 (over $1,700 today) and the constraint of buying proprietary records from Columbia were probably causes of the player’s short run. Perhaps that choice came too late, even though chrysler did eventually add an option to experience 45 rpm records on the road Hi-Fi.
RCA Victor auto Victrola record player
In 1960, a lot cheaper car record player offered being a Chrysler option came out there: the RCA Victor auto Victrola. It cost $51.75 ($410.47 today) and you could play your own personal 45s onto it. We bought one and tested it in the lab and on your way.
The RCA “Victrola” held 14 records and could play for 2½ hours continuously, if extended play 45s were used. Our test drivers found the record changer easy to operate whilst keeping eyes on the highway ahead. Music without distracted driving. Believe that.
The similarly-priced Norelco “Auto Mignon,” which we tested a year later, only held one 45 rpm record at a time, for 4½ minutes of play at best, potentially distracting the driver with the need for multiple record changes by contrast. And there was the question of where you can put the vinyl since the Norelco didn’t store any records, as the RCA model did, leaving a box on the floor or car seat as the alternative.
Norelco Auto Mignon record player
Surprisingly, we found in our tests of the RCA and Norelco players that both units were able to keep your needle in the record while driving. Of the RCA, we wrote: The stylus did not jump the grooves even though the car was moving at various speeds over brokenpavement and cobblestones, and deep holes. We gave the Norelco a similar assessment, describing the needle performance for being “unaffected by rough roads, car sway, and sharp braking.” But a steady stylus had its price, wearing down the records from the high pressure required to ensure that it stays in place. As well as the RCA unit’s turntable ran fast, accelerating records. We described this defect as “bound to be strongly annoying with many types of music.” And speed metal hadn’t yet been invented.
Inspite of the possibility that it could turn a ballad into “Flight from the Bumblebee,” we determined that the RCA Victor auto “Victrola” was, overall, more satisfactory in comparison to the Norelco “Auto Mignon,” “as a means of bringing self-selected music to the lonely motorist.”
But the RCA Victor was just available in 1961, with the company discontinuing the Victrola after that model year.
Car record players soon made way for the next new-fangled audio gizmo: the eight-track tape deck. The Chrysler Corporation introduced it as a choice in its 1968 cars.
Skip forward to 2014, and now multifaceted, phone-integrated infotainment systems are the rage. And radio retains reception issues and too many commercials.