The History of the Car Radio
It’s an almost universal experience: People get in the car and turn on their favorite music. But the first car radio wasn’t sold until Chevrolet offered one as an option in 1922. And at first, radios in cars weren’t a popular feature. In 1930, laws were proposed in Massachusetts and Missouri that would ban automobile radios, and a poll in 1934 found that 56% of people thought car radios were a dangerous distraction. Motorola kept refining the idea, though, and designed a more attractive and better-functioning radio. By 1946, around nine million cars had a radio installed in them. The technology improved over time, and by 1963, more than half of all cars driven in America had a radio in them.
Using Their Heads
A head unit is like the motherboard of a car’s audio system. Originally, head units only controlled the radio, but over time, they were used to control everything from 8-tracks to CDs. Today’s head units incorporate touchscreens and smartphone integration. The size of the head unit is dictated by the size and design of the car’s console and the size of the front faceplate of the stereo system. Most head units are a size 1DIN or 2DIN; DIN is an acronym for a German company, Deutsches Institut fur Normung.
Lee de Forest invented the vacuum tube, which made radios possible. In 1904, he gave a demonstration of his invention at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and afterward, he was nicknamed the “Father of Radio.” It wasn’t until 1922 when Chevrolet put a Westinghouse radio into a car. But the first successful commercial automobile radio is considered by most experts to be the Motorola 5T71, which was released in 1930.
- History of Obsolete Car Audio, Part 1: Early Radio
- The First Motorola Car Radio
- The Evolution of Car Radio Through the Years
Radio on the Go
The radio was first invented for the military, and its purpose was to allow for short, simple, person-to-person messages. Even these very simple radios were large and bulky at the beginning. The first radios meant to play music were even larger and bulkier, and they don’t at all resemble what most modern people would consider a portable radio or music player. Early radios were housed in a large box, which was accompanied by a second box for the speaker. They featured several large batteries and an antenna consisting of a long piece of wire. All of these elements would be put into what amounted to a large wooden suitcase to make the radio portable.
Form and Function
Early car radios of the 1920s and 1930s looked different from what most people today consider automobile radios. There was a tin box with:
- A speaker
- An audio receiver
- A tuning mechanism
- Sometimes (but not always) batteries
The car’s battery would heat the radio’s tubes, and the radio needed a separate box for its anodes. All of this equipment actually blocked the radio from getting clear reception from radio towers. The invention of the vacuum tube solved a lot of problems for car radios, making them more user-friendly as well as improving the quality of the audio.
When Mass Manufacturing Got Rolling
On Sept. 26, 1928, the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation, located in Chicago, IL, began production. In 1930. the company would introduce its Motorola car radio, the very first mass-produced automobile radio offered for sale. The name “Motorola” comes from combing “motor” with Victrola.
Car Audio Timeline: A Century of Progress
The 1920s marked the birth of large-scale radio broadcasting. Radio soon became a major source of entertainment, news, and information for a lot of people. Suddenly, masses of people could experience breaking news or sports events as they happened. Many Americans were making good money in the 1920s, and this was coupled with an increase in available credit that helped people to afford radios for their homes. Soon, inventors and marketers realized these people might also enjoy listening to their radios in the car.
The Roaring ’20s ended by throwing the United States into a deep economic depression. Suddenly, large numbers of people were experiencing job loss and poverty. However, those with money continued buying radios and expressing interest in car radios. Radios were an expensive option: Adding a Motorola radio to a brand new Model-T made the price jump 20%. Some people pushed back against radios in cars, but continued technological advancement and the introduction of features like push-button tuning made radios more popular than ever. This was also the decade when FM radio was invented, improving sound quality.
Nine million automobiles had built-in radios by the beginning of the post-war period. Head units became smaller and better designed. Many started to take on Art Deco styling to match the interiors of the cars of the moment.
AM radio ruled the airwaves at the beginning of the 1950s, but the first automobile radio with an FM receiver was put on the market in 1952. One year later, the first radio with a fully capable automatic station-search feature was introduced. Chrysler also decided to experiment by selling cars with record players installed as a part of the in-car entertainment system.
Two major technological advances had a great impact on car radios in the 1960s. General Motors and Ford teamed up with Motorola to create the Super 8 (better known as the 8-track) cassette and began putting 8-track players in their cars. At almost the same time, in 1964, Philips introduced the compact cassette. Even from the beginning, compact cassettes offered better sound quality than 8-tracks. But thanks to the involvement of two automotive powerhouses, 8-track players continued to be installed in cars into the 1970s.
Cassette players took over the market in the 1970s. The ’70s were a time of great advancement in the field of automotive audio systems. Vacuum-based amplifiers, which were bulky, were replaced with smaller models with better sound quality. Pioneer began selling car systems that provided almost the same sound quality as at-home stereo systems. The Supertuner, for example, offered a cassette player and FM radio tuner with excellent reception.
Pioneer once more led in-car stereo innovation when they introduced the first automotive compact disc (CD) player in 1984. The sound quality was much, much better than that offered by cassettes, but in-car CD players didn’t achieve widespread popularity until the 1990s.
The 1980s also saw rapid advancement in speaker technology and sound. Systems with at least six speakers became popular. High-end automotive audio setups rivaled the best at-home systems. General Motor’s Delco division paired up with Bose to make a high-end system for people buying luxury GM products, which at the time included Corvette, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Buick customers.
One reason the popularity of in-car CD players skyrocketed in the 1990s was that CD changers, capable of being loaded with up to 18 CDs, hit the market. Suddenly, drivers could truly curate their listening experience, even on very long drives. Sony attempted to compete with the rising popularity of the CD when it released the Minidisc in 1992, but the smaller format never caught on with customers.
Two huge new technological advancements ushered car audio systems into the new millennium. The first was GPS technology, which allowed for navigation systems to be added to car entertainment systems. Navigation systems meant larger screens, and soon, infotainment systems became a larger part of a car’s dashboard. The other major advancement was Bluetooth. This technology allowed drivers to make and accept hands-free calls through their audio systems. At the same time, portable digital music players hit the market. Soon, people were using a variety of adapters to connect their music players to their car’s audio system, but Bluetooth would go on to make this a seamless experience.
2020 and Beyond
The increase in people working from home coupled with people viewing their smartphones as their primary source of information has changed what people listen to in their cars and how they listen to it. The popularity of radio stations dwindles each year. Now, people are more likely to listen to podcasts or music streaming services as they drive.
The Next Leap for In-Car Technology
Car entertainment systems continue to make technological advancements. Many cars are now ready to let users control the infotainment systems using smartphone apps, and some will allow apps to guide even more of the functions of the car. Built-in screens with multiple uses also continue to increase in popularity, integrating with telematics systems to help drivers monitor vehicle diagnostics.
Even as infotainment systems become increasingly complex, aftermarket stereo shops and DIY systems continue to flourish. People often upgrade older cars with new infotainment technology, including Bluetooth-enabled stereos with backup cameras and touchscreens.
Additional Reading on Early Radio
- The Golden Age of Radio
- The Development of Radio
- The Evolution of Radio Broadcasting
- 1890s-1930s: Radio
- History of Commercial Radio
- 100 Years of Radio
- Golden Age of Black Radio
- Radio Activity: The 100th Anniversary of Public Broadcasting
- The Creation and Following of Public Opinion: A History of Music Choice in Radio Programming
- The First Black Radio Show in America Debuts
- Soap Operas During the Golden Age of Radio