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Vintage Installs: The Highway Hi-Fi

Sections: Installations

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The Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi

Chrysler vehicles of the mid-’50s had the option of a Highway Hi-Fi system like this one that would allow for the playing of special 16 2/3 RPM seven-inch records while on the go. (Photo courtesy ImperialClub.com.)

Like many classic car fans, I’ve spent the holiday weekend getting hyped for Barrett-Jackson’s 2013 Scottsdale, AZ auction by watching Speed TV’s reruns of last year’s auction. I was taken by surprise when an Imperial rolled across the stage with a record player sticking out of the dash. I was even more surprised to hear it had come from the factory that way!

Turns out the system is something Chrysler Corporation called the Highway Hi-Fi, and there was a lot of engineering that went into it. The head of CBS Labs, Dr. Peter Goldmark, who coincidentally invented the LP record format that became the world standard for vinyl albums, invented what later became known as the Highway Hi-Fi upon considering a question he had been asked: “Why don’t they have adventure stories on the radio? Something you can put on yourself.”

According to his book, “Maverick Inventor” (excerpt here), Goldmark began to wonder how best he could incorporate a record player into the cars of the time. This was around 1955, so even FM radio wasn’t present in most cars. Goldmark determined a seven-inch disc would be best for the job, and found that to fit 45 minutes of material on each side would require a rotation of 16 2/3 RPM, half the speed of the 33 1/3 RPM LP format he had invented. The discs themselves would have to pack in three times the number of grooves per inch as the standard LP, meaning each groove was one-third the width of a human hair.

An Advertisement for the Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi

This vintage advertisement for the Highway Hi-Fi promises “the finest tone reproduction…even on rough roads” thanks to a counterbalanced pickup arm and a shock-proof case. (Photo courtesy ImperialClub.com.)

To the casual observer, it would seem such thin grooves placed so closely together would be a recipe for skipping and skating of the needle across the disc, especially when you put that disk on a rotating platter inside a moving, bouncing, cornering vehicle. Set into the glovebox of his Chrysler, however, Goldmark said the player stood up to the Chrysler proving grounds and their array of cobblestones, bumps, trestles, and more while skipping not once when he approached Chrysler officials with the idea despite lukewarm reception from CBS powers-that-be. On top of that, the sound quality was reportedly very good, with Goldmark noting, “The fidelity was superb.”

Plans were made for CBS’ electronics division to produce 20,000 of the machines for installation in Chrysler vehicles. Unbeknownst to Goldmark, the folks at Dodge and Plymouth had decided to offer the option on their cars, as well, resulting in an urgent phone call from Chrysler brass just before the new system was to be revealed to the press. In his own words:

“All went well until two weeks before the press showing. I was summoned to the phone: emergency call from Chrysler. Something about the installation. I immediately flew to Detroit. As soon as I arrived, the engineer put me inside a car and started driving with the record player on. It was incredible. The machine wheezed, fluttered, groaned, jumped grooves, and made noises I had never heard before. It did everything it was designed not to do. What had happened?

And then I glanced at the dashboard and almost jumped out of my skin. The engineers of the Chrysler Corporation had installed my machine in Dodges and Plymouths. The characteristics of those cars are quite different from those of the Chrysler line. They were lighter and harder riding, for one thing, with different kinds of suspension. Obviously a record player installed in these cars needed a different kind of damping.

Here was a major corporate goof on the part of Chrysler’s engineering department. I couldn’t call it anything else. There was no reason to believe that any device geared to one type of car had a universal spirit in it that made it happily adjust to all cars.

Back in the laboratory we simulated the vibrational behavior of the Dodge and Plymouth and discovered what we had to do to fit them with our machines. The night before the press affair we were still feverishly at work, but by morning we managed to install our last hi-fl system in the last of several cars to be used in the display.”

The Highway Hi-Fi never took off. Goldmark surmised it may have been because of a lack of marketing and the fact that dealers largely did not stock the special 16 2/3 RPM records, which were not commercially available in record shops since, at the time, no home record players would spin at that speed. He also hinted that “There were complaints from both sides about the way the record players worked,” a nod to the fact that even the best-engineered record player would likely have a hard time adapting to every situation it may face when installed in a car.

It would be the better part of two decades before cassette players became commonplace in cars, bringing largely error-free music reproduction into the cabin on-demand (eight-track-eating tape machines aside.) But Dr. Goldmark deserves kudos for doing the early development work on satisfying our thirst for listening to our own favorite material behind the wheel. Without his work, who knows? We might not be plugging in our SD cards, USB sticks, and iPods full of music today.

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