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The History of the Highway Hi-Fi (1956–1959)

by Matt Reicher 4 months ago in Historical
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An installed in-car record player which changed how we listened to music while we drove

The History of the Highway Hi-Fi (1956–1959)
Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

The Highway Hi-Fi System had neither a predecessor nor competition. It was a one-of-a-kind device, at least in the beginning, which gave consumers a degree of choice they’d never before experienced. It allowed them to play LP records while they drove down the road. Unfortunately, significant challenges were too much to overcome, and the device was little more than a flash in the pan that entered the market with a bang and quietly left it a short time later.

It offered a level of listening autonomy consumers longed for, packaged in a product that was before its time.

In the years following World War II, the automobile began to firmly cement its position as the king of travel in the United States. Urban sprawl, thanks in no small part to a rapidly ever-expanding highway system, moved people away from city centers, thereby keeping them in their cars longer than ever before as they traveled from point A to point B. Drivers had the AM radio to entertain them as they traveled but had little choice in what they listened to as they made their way down the road.

Enter the Highway Hi-Fi, an in-car record player that allowed users to play amplified music through their car speakers. This new technology was a big deal. After years of cycling through a limited number of AM stations to find something worthwhile, drivers and passengers had their first chance to choose the soundtrack of their drive, no matter where they were going. They were no longer at the mercy of the whims of the radio DJ.

The LP was the prevalent mobile music technology of the time — by a long shot, and the Highway Hi-Fi System capitalized on consumers’ comfort with records by offering a way to play music while they drove. The system was first installed in shock-proof cases under the dash of the Chrysler family of cars, consisting of Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler, DeSoto, and Imperial vehicles, in 1956.

However, choice was by no means cheap. The cost of the installed device, which was not available as an aftermarket addition, was $200, roughly $1700 in “today” dollars. It was designed by CBS Laboratories engineer Peter Goldmark, inventor of the 33 ⅓ rpm long-playing album format.

The record player played 7-inch records in a 16 ⅔ rpm format, offering consumers up to ninety minutes of music, forty-five minutes on each side. This format change helped drivers keep their eyes on the road instead of constantly looking for the next record to play. To prevent records from skipping, the grooves were deeper than those on a standard LP. Six playable records were available exclusively from Columbia Records.

While the proprietary technology made it special — a status symbol of sorts available only to Chrysler customers, it also played a big part in the Highway Hi-Fi’s demise. The limited set of available LPs only offered music by Columbia artists, keeping some of the biggest stars of the day out of the reach of Chrysler’s customers. Also, when the Highway Hi-Fi stopped working — which happened quite often — customers had to go directly to the dealer to get them fixed. This made repairs (both warranty and otherwise) expensive and time-consuming.

The big splash that the device made in 1956 was short-lived and Chrysler, citing a lack of demand and high warranty service costs, discontinued the device in 1958. Consumers had seemed to love the idea but couldn’t get past the limited selection of available records.

Other companies attempted to fill the void in the market left by the demise of the Highway Hi-Fi, but none found any semblance of sustainable success. By 1964 cassette players made their way into cars, and the push to play LPs as people drove down the road was relegated to history.

Sources

  • “1956 Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi: Detroit’s First In-Car Record Player.” Mac’s Motor City Garage. Last modified November 29, 2019. https://www.macsmotorcitygarage.com/1956-chrysler-highway-hi-fi-detroits-first-in-car-record-player/.
  • “Car Record Players of the 1950s and 1960s | Early Infotainment Systems- Consumer Reports News.” Product Reviews and Ratings — Consumer Reports. Last modified May 30, 2018. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/04/record-players-were-the-infotainment-systems-of-the-1950s-and-60s/index.htm.
  • Florea, Ciprian. “Highway Hi-Fi, the Revolutionary Vinyl-In-Your-Car Tech That Failed.” Autoevolution. Last modified March 30, 2021. https://www.autoevolution.com/news/highway-hi-fi-the-revolutionary-vinyl-in-your-car-tech-that-failed-158421.html.
  • “Highway Hi-Fi Record Player.” Useless Information. https://uselessinformation.org/highway-hi-fi-record-player/.

Historical

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Matt Reicher

Content creator and researcher

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