Saturday is Record Store Day. In honor of the event, let’s look back at a technology that way before cassettes, CDs and the rebirth of vinyl tried to displace radio as the in-car entertainment option of choice.
Pretend it’s 1956 and your only in-car option for music is AM radio.
At first, this might not seem so bad considering some of the era’s best music: Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” for example. But keep in mind those treasures shared the airwaves with such treacle as Perry Como’s “Hot Diggity” and Kay Starr’s laughably out-of-touch “Rock and Roll Waltz.” And don’t forget: The tunes were susceptible to being interrupted by one of the day’s dreary radio dramas at any moment.
All that’s to say terrestrial radio was boring scores of automobile passengers, including Peter Goldmark’s son.
Luckily, Goldmark, a Columbia Records engineer who helped create the long-playing 331/3 rpm LP, was in a position to do something about it.
He developed a turntable small enough to fit inside a car’s glove box. The device required specially formatted records and thoughtfully featured a counterweighted arm designed to prevent skipping.
It seemed like a great idea to Goldmark but not to Columbia CEO William Paley, who felt it would cause people to stop listening to CBS radio and buy records instead. Still, Goldmark managed to convince Paley otherwise and had the CBS electronics division build the device.
Next, he offered the proprietary system to Chrysler Corp., mainly because he drove a Chrysler. After testing the new turntable, company executives offered it as an option dubbed the Highway Hi-Fi. Production plans for 18,000 units proved extraordinarily optimistic.
The player worked well in the Chrysler brand cars for which they were designed. But the automaker also placed them in harder-riding Dodge and Plymouth models, leading to issues with how well the Highway Hi-Fi worked. Meanwhile, Columbia thought Chrysler wasn’t doing enough to promote the feature. Dealer interest waned, and buyer interest was minimal.
Yet there were other issues still.
Highway Hi-Fi could only play records that came with the car or ones ordered from Columbia, of which there were 36 available. You could order “Music From Hollywood” by Percy Faith & His Orchestra, a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, or “Symphonic Serenade” by Morton Gould and the Rochester “Pops” Orchestra. But could you buy Kay Starr? No. Perry Como? MIA. Elvis Presley? Are you kidding? Paley hated pop music.
And Highway Hi-Fi records couldn’t be played on a home hi-fi; the records’ special microgrooves were too small for the needles.
By 1962, Highway Hi-Fi was history.
Later, eight-track and cassette tapes would come and go, and who knows, compact discs may be next.
LPs, though? They’ll keep getting played — just maybe not in car cabins.