• David Lloyd

100 years of in-car listening

George was 18; and he loved his Model T Ford. Well, not many blokes his age had a car at all, given it was May 1922.

The car was probably good for his courting too, given he was known as a member of the High Lane School Radio Club in Chicago and maybe needed a shred of street-cred.

The one thing wrong with his wagon is that he couldn’t carry on listening to the radio, whilst he was cruising down the US highway. So, this enterprising lad swiftly bolted a radio into the passenger door, complemented by a high-impedance cone loudspeaker. It was evidently a good idea - and the only way one could enjoy the sounds of Al Jolson as the wind blew through one's hair at 30 mph.

George's efforts set the scene for listening to radio within a vehicle - an enduring partnership which currently delivers 244m hours of UK radio listening - with recent figures at all time high levels. A hundred years on, radio sets are routinely fitted in cars - and 90% of them are DAB. The battle for the dashboard, however, is more aggressive than ever in the 'connected car'. Mike Hill from Radioplayer warns of the risk and the urgency: “Car manufacturers and dashboard designers are having their heads turned by Spotify and other audio and music services coming into the dashboard...once this stuff is out of the bag it is baked into car dashboards for ten years as it drives around on the road”.

The first mass-produced car radio came on the market in 1927: the Transitone TH-One. Then, in 1930, Paul and Joseph Galvin created the 5T71, under the now familiar brand-name ‘Motorola’, on sale at $130. It took off, after being demonstrated at the 1930 Radio Manufacturers' Association Convention. Here in the UK, a Daimler Light 30 car was said to be the first to benefit from an eight-valve receiver in November 1922. It was chosen for the Marconiphone experiment, as Daimlers were nice quiet cars. Those glowing valves were eventually retired, in favour of transistors.

Blaupunkt then led the way, who also installed the first FM set, albeit there were few FM stations to listen to. You needed a licence to listen in your jalopy, as the then 'radio licence' (before TV) did not extend to in-car listening. Some people even suggested in-car listening should be prohibited completely, fearing the distractions Jeremy Vine might provide.

Stereo arrived in 1969.

Into the 80s, AM-only radios were still common. If you were lucky, you had AM pre-set buttons, otherwise it was a case of twiddling down the top end to find Radio Luxembourg on 208 as you drove back from the coast. Very lucky drivers even had a tone control. The aerial rose proudly erect from the bonnet. More frequently, it was broken off, but we all knew a bent wire coat-hanger would do the trick.

Once radios became commonplace, it was natural to consider other audio devices and the first 'battle for the dashboard' ensued. Experiments began with reel-to-reel tape players, and even record players, such as the so called ‘in-dash turntable’. I suspect only the most careful Sunday drivers were able to relish a nice KTel compilation as they cruised down the A52.

Tape was clearly a better mobile medium than an LP – and the battle raged between the Cassette and the Cartridge player. Cassette players were great things, pioneered by Phillips in 1964, and first installed in cars from about 1970. 8 track cartridges were fun too: bulky, masculine things, first introduced by Ford and Motorola in 1965. You could just about hear some of the other tracks leaking through in the gaps between the songs. The bottom soon fell out of the 8 track market, though, with cassettes overtaking them in popularity by 1977. The luckiest cartridges ended their lives piled up in car boot sales.

All these cunning products were all too often not line-fitted at the point of manufacture. Holes were accordingly hacked in dashboards; and many a lad spent his Sunday on the front drive with a roll of green insulation tape and some bits of wire, determined to fit a shiny new audio device into his baby. And, given these were removed far more easily than they were installed, the local scallies found them an easy and lucrative target.

The early 80s saw the arrival of the CD player, but it wasn’t until about '84 that they started to appear in cars; and some time before they began to enjoy the wonderful multi-CD carousels, often located conveniently - in the boot.

Now, you'll usually get a DAB radio line-fitted in your vehicle. Albeit with potentially puzzling instructions like 'scan all multiplexes'. The DAB consumer interface has never been particularly elegant, not least to eyes accustomed to the sleek efficiency of a smart phone.

Drivers are now readily troubling to plug phones into sockets, or spend an hour faffing with bluetooth. When such effort is no longer required and motorists have all the audio they could possibly wish for on a beautifully simple screen - and available on voice command - what will they choose to listen to? Who will be providing it? Where will 'radio stations' live? Never before has such an endless range of content been so readily available. The convenience of the traditional radio offering will continue to be attractive - if it can be found. As always, there is a real opportunity - and a serious threat. After radio lost the radio alarm clock battle in the mornings, the UK radio industry could lose its primacy in the car too - and the graph above illustrates the scale of the risk.

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