Tracing the History of Car Radios

From the Studebaker to sat-nav, the history of car stereos is a long and fascinating journey of innovation and adaption. Today, we can ask our cars to play our favourite songs or podcasts, but it wasn’t always like this! Read on to find out about the first in-car radio and how automobile audio evolved from crackly to crystal-clear.

Automotive History
26 August 2023

The roar of the engine, the clunk of the mechanical gearbox and the squeal of the tyres on tarmac has been a symphony of motoring majesty for almost a century and a half. However, for the modern motorist, it’s often the sounds that pour from a car’s speakers that truly orchestrate their journeys. For car audio, history is as interesting as the tale of the car itself.

The world of in-car audio, once just silence between conversations, is now a vibrant soundscape that sets the tempo of our travels. From the soothing whisper of AM radio broadcasts to today’s razor-sharp digital streams, the evolution and history of car stereos has forever changed the travel experience.

Come with us as we set out on a nostalgic journey through time as we explore the car radio evolution.

Car Radio History: Genesis

Classic car radio (Credit: TT via Getty Images)

The earliest car radios bore little resemblance to the touchscreen in-dash infotainment systems we recognise today. Indeed some of the earliest iterations in the timeline of car audio history were so bulky they included extremely heavy batteries, speakers that took up the entire back seat, and an antenna that covered the cars’ roof. It would have been easier taking a three-piece band along for the ride.

But by 1930, the car radio evolution was about to take off.

Brothers Paul and Joseph Galvin of the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation – later to officially become Motorola in 1947 – introduced the first mass-market radio receiver in 1930, known as the Motorola 5T71. It cost $130 which doesn’t sound expensive today but by way of comparison, a brand-new Ford Model A cost $540 in 1930.

The receiver is believed to have run on six glass vacuum tubes with the batteries housed under the passenger seat. In order to reduce static, a suppressor was installed on the spark plugs, a modification that, while successful in its purpose, inadvertently diminished the car’s performance.

One story goes that Paul Galvin retrofitted his car radio to his Studebaker and drove 800 miles to a trade show in Atlantic City and began to take orders, although there’s very little evidence to back it up. It may just have been a nice yarn to start the tale of the car radio’s history.

Later in the decade, push-button controls and preset stations were introduced to stop drivers from taking their eyes off the road ahead.

German manufacturer Blaupunkt introduced a medium and long wave radio in the mid-1930s. Soon after World War II ended, it’s estimated that nine million cars in the US had AM radios along with countless millions worldwide.

Just in Time for Rock ‘n’ Roll

Old car radio (Credit: DutchScenery via Getty Images)

The timeline of car stereo history took off in the 1950s with the introduction of frequency modulation, or FM, a significant step forward in the evolution of in-car entertainment.

The first in-car radio with FM capability was introduced by Blaupunkt in 1952, and the famous Becker Mexico was unveiled a year later with a scan function to search for stations on the FM frequency.

FM offered static-free, hi-fi quality sound. It allowed for a greater number of stations and therefore a wider variety of content for listeners to choose from, thanks to an increased bandwidth. In addition, FM signals are less affected by weather, geography, and other sources of radio interference, ensuring a more consistent and reliable listening experience.

In 1956, Chrysler offered an in-car record player which played specially-commissioned vinyl discs, though unsurprisingly the idea didn’t last long and was dropped relatively quickly.

By the early 1960s, vacuum tubes were a thing of the past and the Becker Monte Carlo was the first solid-state radio. With this innovation, the history of car radios saw another monumental shift, with the introduction of stereo sound and the ability to play recorded music.

The Birth of the Car Stereo

Old car radio in a classic car. (Credit: TT via Getty Images)

Until the early 1960s, car radios were solely monophonic, offering only a single audio channel. Even though some models featured speakers in both the front and back that could be independently adjusted, they were nevertheless confined to a single channel.

Pioneering stereo systems initially divided one channel between the front speakers and the other between the rear speakers. However, the advent of systems employing the contemporary left/right format quickly followed, heralding a new era in car audio technology.

Car audio history came of age with the introduction of the pre-recorded eight-track cassette. However, they were cumbersome beasts with constant tape jamming, clumsy forwarding and rewinding and poor sound quality. Their days were numbered, and they were soon dispensed with in favour of the compact cassette tape.

From In-Car Cassette to Compact Disc

Inserting a compact disc into a car audio system. (Credit: deepblue4you via Getty Images)

Introduced by Phillips in the late 1960s, the in-car cassette player was a revelation in the timeline of car radio evolution, and they allowed for one of the greatest inventions of the 1980s – the mixtape. For the first time, you could record and play the songs you actually wanted to hear. Cassettes were the medium of choice until 1984 when Pioneer introduced the CDX-1, the first in-car CD player. The CD autochanger followed soon after.

After-market car stereos began to appear in the mid-to late 1980s, with brands like Sony, Pioneer, Alpine, JVC, Panasonic and Kenwood dominating the mass market, while Bose, Rockford Fosgate, Bang & Olufsen and Harman Kardon offered a more exclusive – and more expensive – product.

Some early infotainment systems even had DVD drives and retractable screens.

The Multi-Source Age

A car featuring both an aux input, and USB input. (Credit: tzahiV via Getty Images)

As we entered the 2000s, car radio’s history became the car radio’s present. In actual fact they were no longer just radios. Most modern cars came with an AUX input so you could plug in iPods and other MP3 players. The USB port arrived soon after, as did integrated controls on the steering wheel which promoted safer driving habits.

This was followed by the integration of Bluetooth technology, enabling wireless connection of phones and MP3 players to car audio systems. By the 2010s, in-car infotainment systems became commonplace, merging radio, navigation, climate control, and other functions with touchscreen interfaces. Internet-enabled features allowed for streaming services and advanced connectivity.

Today, in-car entertainment systems are incredibly sophisticated and the humble car radio has transitioned from playing crackly music on the AM dial into fully-fledged multimedia entertainment systems.

Music for the Masses

Dashboard in a vintage interior of an old car. (Credit: xmagic via Getty Images)

In tracing car stereo history, we have journeyed from the advent of the simple AM radio units of the 1930s to today’s cutting-edge, connected infotainment systems. It’s a narrative marked by ingenuity and innovation, each new chapter bringing drivers and passengers a richer and more immersive in-car audio experience.

Through the rise and fall of the eight-track, the widespread adoption of FM and stereo sound, the era of cassettes and CDs, and now in the age of digital and streaming media, the car radio evolution has both reflected and shaped broader trends in technology, music, and consumer behaviour.

What began with the Galvin brothers’ audacious vision for affordable, in-car entertainment has culminated in a world where the soundtrack to our journeys is limited only by our individual tastes and imaginations. Despite the enormous advances in technology, the essential role of the car radio has remained the same; to connect us, to entertain us, and to make our road trips just that little bit more enjoyable.

As we look to the future, with autonomous vehicles and ever-advancing artificial intelligence promising to redefine our relationship with cars, the next chapter in the story of in-car audio is already being written. And yet, regardless of how the technology evolves, the car radio, in whatever form it takes, will continue to provide the soundtrack to our travels.

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