There is little doubt that in recent years the standard car radio has fallen from grace. Our stations of old are ignored to make room for modern conveniences, changing how we listen and interact with our cars. However, we often forget that the radio once held an important place in both automotive and music cultures, influencing various trends around the word. In order to pay tribute to this little device on World Radio Day, let us look back at the history of the car radio and acknowledge all that it has done for us.
The radio was first introduced to the car as a separate small portable device. The earliest example of a communicative device
found in a car can be raced to Lee DeForest’s vehicle which was exhibited at the World Exhibition 1904 in St. Louis. It played a limited set of programs, but its popularity gradually caused individuals to bring the devices in their own cars, cause owners to install radio compartments for themselves.
In the 1930’s, Galvin Manufacturing Corporation attempted to standardize the car radio. Launched by two brothers, Paul and Joseph Galvin, they purchased a battery eliminatory business that led them to incorporate their product with vacuum tubed radios. They introduced the first commercial car radio to the Motorola Model 5T71, selling the product for around £70 or roughly £1,000 in the modern times. Interestingly, the made the design open enough for any car to handle it, ultimately becoming so popular that the business grew to become modern day ‘Motorola.’
Development of radio technology took off during the mid-20th century, ultimately causing companies to develop a modern ‘seek’ function that allowed tuning from one station to the next with a button. Growing in demand during the 1950’s, Ford released a radio that could be switched between “Town” and “Country” to tune receiver sensitivity. This was introduced during a period where FM radio was becoming increasingly popular, shifting the balance away from AM as radios began ‘seeking’ the best station waves available.
The 1960’s and 1970’s saw a drastic change from semiconductors to transistors and tubes to voltage power supplies. These advances caused some manufacturers, most notably Chrysler, to adapt more devices alongside the radio like the Highway Hi-FI, 4-track, Stereo 8, and ultimately the compact cassette. The radio thus became part of a greater console to reel-to-reel equipment that made the car a music machine.
Development in the 1980’s and 1990’s saw greater emphasis on watt output and the quality of the sound produced in the car. Zed Audio became the first company to offer a 200 watt car amplifier, specializing in home audio and professional markets. These developments led different manufacturers to offered different components, ultimately creating monster car audio systems that are found in many modified cars today.
While the radio is still widely used in most vehicles, modern technology has given the listener the power to select specific songs on their digital devices, making any other service redundant. It has become a niche device still used on those long drives to experience a different form of entertainment, offering a merely a choice. But while the radio may no longer reign as king on our trips, its history is an interesting canvas through time, showing us how it shaped the entire car industry for over a century.