Ninety Years of In-Car Radio
George was 18; and he loved his car. It was a Model T Ford - and not many lads his age had one of those bad-boys, given this was May 1922.
He was a decent lad and a member of the High Lane School Radio Club in Chicago. But the one thing wrong with George Frost's wagon was that he couldn’t carry on enjoying the sounds of Al Jolson as the wind blew through his Brylcreemed hair at 30 mph. So, this enterprising lad swiftly bolted a radio into the passenger door of his wagon, complemented by a high-impedance cone loudspeaker.
Commercial car radios swiftly followed, with the first mass-produced model 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’ ('motorised Victrola'), on sale at $130. It took off, after being demonstrated at the 1930 Radio Manufacturers' Association Convention in Atlantic City.
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. The Daimler was chosen for the Marconiphone experiment, as they were nice quiet cars. Its glowing valves were eventually retired, in favour of transistors.
Blaupunkt then led the way, which also produced the first FM set, albeit there were few FM stations to listen to. Stereo arrived in 1969.
In the early days, when the current TV (including radio) licence was purely a radio licence, it did not extend to in-car listening. A separate piece of paper was accordingly required. Some people even suggested in-car listening should be prohibited completely, fearing the distractions Jeremy Vine might provide.
Even by the '70s, radio sets were still not always line-fitted by the manufacturer into your Cortina or Capri. You'd throw your tranny on the parcel shelf in the back in the hope of getting an adequate reception.
As car radios became more commonplace by the '80s, they were often just AM - in much the same way many sets did not receive DAB until recently. If you were lucky though, your AM radio had pre-set tuning 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, where you could choose between normal - and muffled. 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 in cars became commonplace, it was natural to try other audio devices. Experiments ensued with reel-to-reel tape players, and even record players, such as the so called ‘in-dash turntable’. I suspect that made for careful Sunday drivers, bunging on a nice KTel compilation as they cruised down the A52.
Tape was clearly a better mobile medium than an LP – and 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. A great 1975 press ad for a Philips in-car radio/cassette player suggested it was ‘bristling with advanced features’ as it could make ‘monaural recordings’ from a ‘specially developed microphone’.
You fed cassette players with brand name cassettes; or risked a cheaper C90 from your local supermarket. C120s, sadly, were destined to get snarled up halfway through Y Viva Espana. One could, with patience, repair them by using a special kit with the precision of a heart surgeon.
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. Holes were accordingly hacked in dashboards; and many a chappie 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 a lucrative target.
The early '80s saw the arrival of the CD player. I recall a chap with spectacles from Philips bringing one into Radio Trent and we aired a 10cc track from the flash new silver device. But it wasn’t until about '84 that they started to appear in cars; and some time before they began to enjoy the wonderful carousels we could arm with our whole set of Now compilations.
Now, after sterling efforts from many persistent folk over the years, you are likely to find a DAB radio in your new car - albeit with what must seem to normal folk like Dr. Who-type instructions: 'scan all multiplexes'.
Much is being said about commuting habits in a post-COVID world - and whether they could lead to less time being spent on-the-move with radio or – at least – a real change in the 9-5 working patterns. Whilst that might risk the drive-time peaks, it could help commercial stations traffic their ads. The graphs below examine the ten year trends of in-car/home/at work listening.
Another technical crossroads looms too. The battle of the dashboard is underway once again – and this time the rivals are better armed. Radio is losing its primacy in the car; and sits alongside a range of other compelling audio options offering, for the first time, easy access to unlimited choice and variety. For the future, voice command will rule in the car and, in delivering audience scale, the biggest brands, best-curated music and best-known personalities will rise to the top – whoever provides them and on whatever distribution platform.
Enjoy tales from radio history?
Grab my very personal and candid wade through the last fifty years of this great medium, as a listener - then a presenter and ultimately a manager, in my book 'Radio Moments'.
True insight - and fond recollections of what life was really like caught up in this colourful analogue age - with its changes, challenges and rich characters.
Available now in paperbook or ebook.