Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

10 Wonderful Facts About Eric Clapton On His 75th Birthday

Eric Clapton performing in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 1992.
Eric Clapton performing in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 1992.
Niels van Iperen/Getty Images

Eric Clapton is among the greatest and most influential guitar players in rock history. Rolling Stone ranked the British icon #2 on its list of the all-time best guitarists, right behind Jimi Hendrix. As a solo artist and a member of bands like The Yardbirds, Blind Faith, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, the man known as “Slowhand” (and sometimes “God”) has thrilled generations of fans with his righteous bluesy wailing.

In honor of the rock icon's 75th birthday (March 30, 2020), here are 10 things you might not know about Eric Clapton.

1. Eric Clapton had a pretty unusual childhood.

For much of his young life, Eric Clapton believed that his maternal grandparents were his parents. His mother, Patricia, was just 16 when she gave birth to the future rock legend on March 30, 1945. His father was a 24-year-old Canadian soldier stationed in England during World War II. Clapton’s father returned to Canada before Eric was born, and Patricia gave the boy to her parents to raise. She returned for a time when Eric was nine, and to avoid scandal, the family told people she was his older sister. Patricia’s return traumatized Eric, turning him from a model student to a shy, artsy loner.

2. Eric Clapton quit playing guitar at age 13 because it was too hard.

Eric Clapton performing on stage in Philadelphia in the summer of 1974.
Eric Clapton performing on stage in Philadelphia in the summer of 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Young guitar students often begin on cheap instruments that are difficult and frustrating to play. That’s why many aspiring rockers quit before they reach Eric Clapton levels of playing (if they ever can). Yet Clapton himself nearly suffered this same fate: He received his first axe, a German-made Hoyer, when he was 13 years old. The steel-string guitar was nearly as big as Clapton was. "It sounded nice, but it was just such hard work, I gave up,” Clapton said. “So I started when I was 13 and gave up when I was 13 and a half.” Fortunately, he picked it up again.

3. Clapton’s nickname “Slowhand” has nothing to do with his guitar technique.

Eric Clapton’s nickname “Slowhand” is a strange one for a guy who’s made millions playing blazing guitar solos. You can’t shred like Clapton does without some seriously quick digits. As it turns out, the name dates back to his days with The Yardbirds, a band he joined in 1963 and stayed with until 1965. Clapton often broke strings during shows, and while he changed them, the audience would slow clap. This inspired The Yardbirds's manager Giorgio Gomelsky to come up with the name “Slowhand.” According to Clapton, it was meant to be ironic.

4. Clapton left The Yardbirds right after they released their first hit.

In April 1965, The Yardbirds tune "For Your Love" peaked at #3 on the UK charts. But Clapton wasn’t around to enjoy the success. In those days, Clapton was a blues purist who clashed with Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and manager Giorgio Gomelsky over the group’s increasingly poppy direction. Clapton didn’t like the mostly guitar-free sound of “For Your Love,” and it’s among the reasons he left the group soon after its March 1965 release. Clapton suggested session pro Jimmy Page as his replacement, but the future Led Zeppelin guitar god declined. The gig wound up going to Jeff Beck.

5. Eric Clapton was worshipped as a god (maybe).

In the mid-’60s, the graffiti slogan “Clapton is God” began popping up on walls around London. The phrase became part of the Clapton mythology, affirming his superhuman guitar prowess. While Clapton claimed he never actually saw the messages, he admitted in his 2007 memoir that he was “grateful” for their existence, as they gave him “the kind of status nobody could tamper with.” In 2016, Clapton suggested it wasn’t an anonymous fan behind the vandalism, but rather Hamish Grimes, a man employed by The Yardbirds’ manager to hype up audiences.

6. Clapton once got to play a Beatle for a day.

During sessions for The Beatles, a.k.a. “The White Album,” in 1968, George Harrison didn’t feel like his bandmates were paying enough attention to his song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” So on the way to the studio one day, he invited his friend Eric Clapton to come play the guitar solo. Clapton was reluctant—no outsider had ever really guested on a Beatles record—but it all worked out for the best. “I said, ‘Eric’s going to play on this one,’ and it was good because that then made everyone act better,” Harrison said. “Paul got on the piano and played a nice intro and they all took it more seriously.”

7. “Layla” was partly inspired by Clapton’s love for George Harrison's wife.

Ringo Starr, Maureen Cox, George Harrison, Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton arrive at Heathrow Airport in 1968.
Ringo Starr, Maureen Cox, George Harrison, Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton arrive at Heathrow Airport in 1968.
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of Clapton’s signature songs is “Layla,” released in 1970 by the group Derek and the Dominos. Clapton was inspired by two things: the 12th century Persian story The Story of Layla and Majnun, and Pattie Boyd, then-wife of Beatles guitarist (and Eric’s good buddy) George Harrison. “I was amazed and thrilled at the song—it was so passionate and devastatingly dramatic—but I wanted to hang on to my marriage,” Boyd told The Guardian in 2008.

Boyd divorced Harrison in 1977, and two years later, she and Clapton were married. Amazingly, Harrison wasn’t mad—he performed at the wedding with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

8. Clapton’s biggest U.S. hit was inspired by personal tragedy.

In March 1991, Clapton suffered an unspeakable tragedy. His four-year-old son, Conor, fell to his death from the window of a New York City high-rise. After a period of seclusion, Clapton worked with lyricist Will Jennings—who’d later co-author Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”—to write “Tears In Heaven.” Originally appearing on the soundtrack for the 1991 film Rush, “Tears In Heaven” reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Clapton’s best-selling U.S. single. The song also earned him Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year.

9. Eric Clapton is not Sheryl Crow's "favorite mistake."

Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow perform together during the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival in Bridgeview, Illinois.
Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow perform together during the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival in Bridgeview, Illinois.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Gibson

Much like Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," rumors have swirled for years that Sheryl Crow's 1998 hit "My Favorite Mistake" was written in response to her breakup with Clapton. (The two dated for a couple of years during the late 1990s.) But Crow, who had previously dated Owen Wilson and was once famously engaged to Lance Armstrong, has put those rumors to rest, stating that, "'My Favorite Mistake' is about several people in my life who weren’t very good ideas—but not Eric. I’ve known Eric for over 10 years, and I can’t look at that relationship as a mistake."

10. Clapton is a three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

Eric Clapton was first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, when The Yardbirds received the honor. The following year, he got in as a member of Cream. Clapton’s 2000 induction as a solo performer made him the first (and to date only) artist to be inducted three times.

If You’ve Always Wanted to Learn to Play the Guitar or Ukulele, Fender Is Offering Free Online Lessons

"Anyway, here's 'Wonderwall,'" this man might shout to his entire neighborhood from the balcony of his apartment.
"Anyway, here's 'Wonderwall,'" this man might shout to his entire neighborhood from the balcony of his apartment.
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Self-isolation might be the perfect opportunity for you to finally become the guitar-shredding rock star you’ve always dreamed of being. To help you get there, Fender is offering three months of free online lessons.

People reports that the deal is open to the first 100,000 users who create a new account on Fender Play, the online learning platform available to use on phones, tablets, and computers. You’ll get to choose from lessons for acoustic, electric, or bass guitars—or even the ukulele—but it does depend on what you already have (or are able to buy), since all users must provide their own instruments.

The lessons are organized into bite-sized, high-quality videos featuring instructors who have graduated from world-class music programs at places like Berklee College of Music. Not only will you learn from the best, you’ll also get to practice some of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time. If you put in a little time each day, you’ll probably be able to strum an impressive rendition of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” before long (which you can—and should—show off to all your friends during your next video chat).

The three-month deal is a big step up from Fender Play’s customary 14-day free trial for new users, and it might even be enough to convince you to stick with your subscription even after your free lessons are finished; the monthly subscription costs $10, or you can buy a full year for $90 (which will save you $30).

Set up an account and claim your free lessons here.

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[h/t People]

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