Automotive Oddity: The Highway Hi-Fi
The impracticality of installing a record player in any car may, in retrospect, seem pretty obvious. But back when few vehicles possessed little more than a crackling radio, the “Highway Hi-Fi” was the vanguard of automotive audio technology.
Anyone who’s owned a turntable and been a little overzealous in their dancing can understand the trouble with trying to install a record player in an automobile. When old record players got bumped, the records would skip. So imagine trying to listen to one while cruising down the roads of the late 1950s when Dr. Peter Goldmark’s Highway Hi-Fi made its debut.
Goldmark, then head of CBS laboratories and inventor of the 33 1/3 rpm LP (long-play) format, worked to come up with a solution to allow for smooth record playing even on the bumpiest roads. The answer was something Goldmark called “the ultra microgroove” which, according to his 1974 book Maverick Inventor, were grooves on a record one-third the width of a human hair that provided superb fidelity.
Together with its foldout design for easy and convenient storage (the entire Hi-Fi unit mounted discreetly in the dash), the Highway Hi-Fi seemed the perfect solution to combining the soon-to-be twin passions of the burgeoning, post-war youth market: cars and music.
When presented with Goldmark’s prototype, however, CBS executives didn’t think there would be a market for such a device and passed. They also felt there would be no interest in the popular music market, specifically the growing youth market. Of course, hindsight proved CBS wrong on at least one account.
Since he had used his personal Chrysler to create the initial prototype, Goldmark next took his design directly to company executives who put the invention through a rigorous, impromptu road test at the Chrysler testing facility. The record playing in Goldmark’s car never skipped a beat, the Chrysler folks were thrilled, and the Highway Hi-Fi was born.
But Goldmark’s amazing invention was short-lived. Goldmark had taken great care to customize his prototype specifically to his personal car. Chrysler did not. The company began randomly installing the Highway Hi-Fi into a number of new vehicles, and, not surprisingly, none of vehicles provided for the same smoothness and playability of the initial prototype.
The Highway Hi-Fi did, however, make it to the commercial market beginning in 1956, appearing in the Plymouth Fury, Chrysler New Yorker, Dodge Royal Lancer, Imperial, and 300 series. A rather meager catalog of available 16rpm recordings was drawn solely from the vaults of Columbia Records and consisted primarily of classical recordings, show tunes, and educational programs.
Other record labels would eventually enter the market, but ultimately it would seem Chrysler’s shoddy attention to detail brought an end to the Highway Hi-Fi.
Reader’s Note: Like so many innovations that seem wildly impractical in hindsight but a good idea at the time, the Highway Hi-Fi was a step in the right direction for drivers who love to take their music on the road. Next came 8-track tape players, cassette decks, and, finally, CD players—another medium not exactly comfortable with the occasional bumps the road has to offer. The Historic Vehicle Association would love to hear what kind of music system rocks your favorite ride. Are you one of the few still jammin’ to an 8-track? Still pumpin’ up the volume with a cassette player? Or are you one of the few able to spin some vinyl with a genuine Highway Hi-Fi? Let us know below in the comments section or head on over to our Facebook page.