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Before CD and Cassette Players, There Were In-Car Record Players

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For a short time, mobile music involved a dashboard-mounted phonograph

1958 DeSoto Firesweep convertible Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi in-car record player vinyl

Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi system in a 1958 DeSoto Firesweep
Photo: sv1ambo via cc/Flickr

Listening to music has become an essential part of the experience of driving a car. Before music was mobile through digital technology, drivers utilized CDs, cassettes, and eight-track tapes to listen to tunes on the road. Before that, though, some people were affluent enough to own specially designed in-car record players.

Though the idea might sound absurd, there was a significant attempt in the mid-twentieth century to design a record player that could withstand the bumps of pavement and storage capacity of a car’s dashboard.

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Chrysler cars once offered in-car record players

Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi record player music car vinyl advertisement ad

Original advertisement for the Highway Hi-Fi in-car record player system

Some readers may remember a time in the 1950s when companies were advertising in-car phonographs and celebrities were popularizing them. The failed fad was brief but admittedly fascinating.

Dr. Peter Goldmark, head of CBS Laboratories and inventor of the 33 1/3-rpm LP, conceived the idea of the original in-car phonograph, officially called the “Highway Hi-Fi.” He ingeniously designed a special record format that could fit more than a single track on a disk without being the size of a 12-inch LP. The under-dashboard-mounted player relied on spring-based suspension to avoid skipping on bumpy roads, as well as a slowed-down RPM speed.

Goldmark installed and tested the unit on his own Chrysler car, and although Chrysler executives originally passed on the idea, he eventually convinced them to offer it as an add-on feature beginning in 1956. The package included a six-record box set of music pressed on these special disks that could be played on the slowed-down player.

Unfortunately, the effort was a sudden and unprecedented disaster. Chrysler didn’t tune their vehicles to make the suspension and driving characteristics of their models like Goldmark did on his own car. Lower-end and utility vehicles with rougher suspensions didn’t offer the same smooth playback, which led to numerous cases of damage. Plus, the selection of available music was embarrassingly outdated.

Within a couple years, Chrysler tossed the Highway Hi-Fi system, but other companies over the following decade still attempted to make in-car phonograph performance a reality — with mixed success. Most of the units that were available as after-market add-ons were purchased by celebrities and aristocrats.

It’s easy to see in hindsight how the in-car record player wouldn’t work without requiring tons of money and fine-tuning, but at the time, it’s not surprising that people wanted to listen to their music on the go. And, it wouldn’t be surprising to see if hipsters find a way to bring the in-car record player back.

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Sources: The Vinyl Factory, Hagerty