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Before there was the in-car CD player, before there was the in-car tape player, before there was the in-car 8-track player, even before there was the in-car 45 RPM record player, there was the Highway Hi-Fi.

It was the brainchild of Dr. Peter Goldmark, the man who headed up CBS Labs and who had developed the LP for Columbia. He was actually inspired by his son asking for adventure stories that he could listen to in the car, instead of the boring stuff on the radio. Goldmark decided on an in-car record player. He did some calculations and figured out that, to get 45 minutes of sound on a side (since the thought of people zooming down the highway while changing records was probably pretty gruesome), he'd need to design a 7-inch record, playing at 16 2/3 RPM, with triple the number of grooves per inch that an LP had (there were 550 of them), and utilizing a 0.25 mil stylus. It only took Goldmark's team six months to develop the “ultramicrogroove” record and the player.

He tried to pitch it to CBS management, but William Paley, the head of the company, somehow got the notion that if there were a record player in cars, people would listen to that instead of his radio stations. So Goldmark went off to Chrysler (since that was the kind of car he was driving at the time) to try and interest them in it. After seeing a demonstration that the device worked as well on Chrysler's "torture track" as it did on a highway, management was enthusiastic.

Christened the "Highway Hi-Fi," it was first released in the Fall of 1955, under the dashboard of various 1956 models. Goldmark found out at the last minute that the suspensions of Plymouths and Dodges and DeSotos were nowhere near as solid as those of a Chrysler, and the unit had to be redesigned for the less expensive lines. There was probably no redesign needed for the Imperial.

Sales were hardly brisk. The unit played a proprietary product, and customers seemed unsure how to get the Columbia-manufactured disks. A set of six records came with the unit and additional sets had to be ordered either through the dealer or by mail. By filling out the registration card, you would be notified of new releases.

closed unit                open unit

The unit was about four inches high and twelve inches wide. It mounted beneath the instrument panel and played through the regular radio speaker. The special 7-inch records (with the same small holes found in 78s and LPs) played between 45 minutes and an hour of music or speech. There was a storage area beneath the turntable that accomodated five records, held down by springs. (I can only wonder what a pleasant 90-degree Summer day, with the car parked in the sun, did for the disks.) The turntable pulled out partway for the passenger to change the record (I shudder to think of the driver doing this at speed). The pickup arm moved in the horizontal plane; it was only the stylus that moved vertically. (The stylus had springs to hold it against the record with two grams of pressure.) Remember, this isn't an automatic changer. One side of a record may last a long time, but sooner or later it has to be changed. Then, it becomes exceedingly manual.

The 1956 Plymouth sales brochure claimed that you could safely change records while driving. “While you're driving, you can operate the Highway Hi-Fi with complete safety...no need to take your eyes from the road. Just pull out the drawer that's within easy reach of your right hand. Press the tab and swing the stylus arm and it automatically positions itself on the record. When the record has finished, press the tab when you wish and swing the arm to “off” position.” I need some volunteers to try this. Can I see a show of hands? (I'm only taking those whose life insurance is both paid up and payable to me.)

The same brochure also claimed that you could listen to “Classical music by the world's greatest artists. Hits from the Broadway stage. And recorded readings by stars of the legitimate theatre.” This, at a time when music was undergoing it's biggest revolution in decades. Maybe you could get away with that with Crysler and Imperial owners, but Plymouth and Dodge buyers probably wanted something a little different! Even worse, you couldn't play those records on anything else. The record sleeve warned: “This record is made for use only on the Highway Hi-Fi player in automobiles. It should not be played on other machines equipped with standard or microgroove needles.”

If you're curious what titles were offered (strangely, there are none on Red Robin or Chance), check out the listing here.

The Highway Hi-Fi fiasco only lasted for two years (that is, through the 1958 model year). That's what happens with a proprietary product. You couldn't easily get new records, the unit wouldn't play the regular ones you already owned, and the special ones wouldn't play at home. There were also mechanical problems, and warranty costs were pretty high. It didn't take long for dealers to stop pushing the unit. Another problem was that it had an AC induction motor with an electromechanical vibrator (which converted the car's DC into AC). This produced noise; lots of noise. It was also failure-prone. The Highway Hi-Fi was quietly (or, possibly, noisily) dropped.

RCA Victor Auto Victrola

In 1959, Chrysler offered no in-car record player. They were gearing up for the 1960 model year, at which time they switched over to the RCA Victor Auto Victrola. Since, it was felt, drivers were determined to take their tunes with them, the Auto Victrola allowed you to stack fourteen 45 RPM discs, for up to two hours of play. At least now you could leave your own records out in the sun to warp. Not a terribly reliable piece of equipment, this bright idea also only lasted for two model years.

We can take the narrow view: the Highway Hi-Fi made no provision to play Drifters records, so what good was it? However, almost no one seemed to be pleased with either the selection or the operation. Goldmark would have done better to have developed the CD.

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