Sunday, 23 September 2012

Ninety years of in-car listening

George was 18; and he loved his car.  Well, it was a Model T Ford and not many blokes his age had one, given it was May 1922. 

The car was probably good for his courting too, not least because he was a member of the High Lane School Radio Club in Chicago.  Just maybe he needed some extra credentials.

The one thing wrong with his wagon is that he couldn’t carry on listening to the radio, whilst he was cruising down the American highway.  So, this enterprising lad swiftly bolted a radio into the passenger door, complemented by a high-impedance cone loudspeaker.  It was clearly a good idea, and, frankly, the only way one could enjoy the sounds of Al Jolson as the wind blew through one's hair at 30 mph. 

Commercial car radios swiftly followed, with the first mass-produced model on the market in 1927: the Transitone TH-One.  Then, in 1930, Paul and Joseph Galvin created the 5T71, under the now familiar brand-name  ‘Motorola’, on sale at $130. It took off, after being demonstrated at the 1930 Radio Manufacturers' Association Convention.  Here in the UK, a Daimler Light 30 car was said to be the first to benefit from an eight-valve receiver in November 1922. It was chosen for the Marconiphone experiment, as Daimlers were nice quiet cars.  Still are, I guess.  Those glowing valves were eventually retired, in favour of transistors.

Blaupunkt then led the way, who also installed the first FM set, albeit there were few FM stations to listen to. Ah well.

Licensing was required, but of course. In the early days, when the current TV (including radio) licence was, itself just a radio licence, it did not extend to in-car listening. A separate piece of paper was accordingly required.  Some people even suggested in-car listening should be prohibited completely, fearing the distractions Jeremy Vine might provide.

Stereo arrived in 1969.

Right into the 80s, AM-only radios were still common.  FMs were as rare as DAB sets are now.  If you were lucky, you had AM pre-set buttons, otherwise it was a case of twiddling down the top end to find Radio Luxembourg on 208 as you drove back from the coast.  Very lucky drivers even had a tone control.  The aerial rose proudly erect from the bonnet.  More frequently, it was broken off, but we all knew a bent wire coat-hanger would do the trick.

Once radios became commonplace, it was natural to try other audio devices.  Experiments ensued with reel-to-reel tape players, and even record players, such as the so called ‘in-dash turntable’. Just imagine that. I suspect it made for careful Sunday drivers, bunging on a nice KTel compilation as they cruised down the A52.

Tape was clearly a better mobile medium than an LP – and the battle for vehicle supremacy raged between the Cassette and the Cartridge player.  Cassette players were great things, pioneered by Phillips in 1964, and first installed in cars from about 1970.   A great 1975 press ad for a Philips in-air radio/cassette player suggested it was ‘bristling with advanced features’ as it could make ‘monaural recordings’ from a ‘specially developed microphone’. Frightening.

You fed cassette players with brand name cassettes; or risked a cheaper C90 from your local supermarket.  C120s, sadly, were destined to get snarled up halfway through Y Viva Espana.  One could, with patience, repair them by using a special kit. 

8 track cartridges were fun too: bulky, masculine things, first introduced by Ford and Motorola in 1965. You could just about hear some of the other tracks leaking through in the gaps between the songs. The bottom soon fell out of the 8 track market, though,  with cassettes overtaking them in popularity by 1977.  The luckiest cartridges ended their lives piled up in car boot sales.

All these cunning products were all too often not line-fitted at the point of manufacture.  Holes were accordingly hacked in dashboards; and many a lad spent his Sunday on the front drive with a roll of green insulation tape and some bits of wire, determined to fit a shiny new audio device into his baby.  And, given these were removed far more easily than they were installed, the local scallies found them an easy and lucrative target.  

The early 80s saw the arrival of the CD player.  I recall a chap with spectacles from Philips bringing one into Radio Trent and we aired a 10cc track from the flash new silver device.  But it wasn’t until about 84 that they started to appear in cars; and some time before they began to enjoy the wonderful carousels we could arm with our whole set of Now compilations.

Now, if you're lucky, or if you ask the nice man in a blue blazer politely and haggle at purchase, you get a fab DAB radio in your vehicle.  Albeit with potentially puzzling instructions like 'scan all multiplexes'.   For the future, no doubt there'll be other flash ways of summoning up what will necessarily always be audio entertainment.  Voice control is probably a must - and I'd love Siri to be able to change stations and volume for  me.  In spite of all that has changed thus far, however, after nearly 100 years, radio still accounts for a vast proportion of mobile entertainment. I suspect it always will.


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