Automotive Oddity: The Highway Hi-Fi

by: John R. Paul

April 09, 2012

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.

Road Test

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.

 

Comments

  1. Chuck Peters New Jersey

    I celebrate the genius and marketing savy of Madman Earl Muntz. Restoring a 1952 Muntz Jet with not only a modern system but also an 8 track Muntz tape player with an fm radio insert. Muntz created the 4 track and sold it to Lear who bettered the design and marketed the better known 8 track. Muntz sold both and I have a working 8 track installed in my Muntz Jet. He went on to license recording artists and sold his stereo pak caseetes to that market. Also known for his Muntz TV's he was an electrical master whose vision foretold many new markets and devices. He died in 1987 and at the time was the largest cell phone seller in La. So when you speak of car music you have to give a "hats off" to Earl Muntz. He was a game changer!

  2. Chuck Peters New Jersey

    I celebrate the genius and marketing savy of Madman Earl Muntz. Restoring a 1952 Muntz Jet with not only a modern system but also an 8 track Muntz tape player with an fm radio insert. Muntz created the 4 track and sold it to Lear who bettered the design and marketed the better known 8 track. Muntz sold both and I have a working 8 track installed in my Muntz Jet. He went on to license recording artists and sold his stereo pak caseetes to that market. Also known for his Muntz TV's he was an electrical master whose vision foretold many new markets and devices. He died in 1987 and at the time was the largest cell phone seller in La. So when you speak of car music you have to give a "hats off" to Earl Muntz. He was a game changer!

  3. Chuck Peters New Jersey

    I celebrate the genius and marketing savy of Madman Earl Muntz. Restoring a 1952 Muntz Jet with not only a modern system but also an 8 track Muntz tape player with an fm radio insert. Muntz created the 4 track and sold it to Lear who bettered the design and marketed the better known 8 track. Muntz sold both and I have a working 8 track installed in my Muntz Jet. He went on to license recording artists and sold his stereo pak caseetes to that market. Also known for his Muntz TV's he was an electrical master whose vision foretold many new markets and devices. He died in 1987 and at the time was the largest cell phone seller in La. So when you speak of car music you have to give a "hats off" to Earl Muntz. He was a game changer!

  4. Michael Iandoli mass

    In 1959 I had a 45 rpm record player in my 1959 Ford . It was made by North American Phillips corporation . It sat under the dash and was wired into the AM radio amp. It had a spring loaded arm that was driven across the record . It worked never skipped . Before the 8track there was a 4 track with the same kind of cassette as the 8 tracks made by mad man Muntz had one of those too.

  5. Robert 15108

    Hi. You have forgotten to mention the ARC - RCA - and Sears etc. manufactures of 45 rpm record players in the above story about the highway hi fi. I have had a ARC in my 1965 Galaxie convertible since 1966 with reverbrator and It still works fine. I also have one going into my 1959 Desoto convt. and also one going into my 1968 Ford Galaxie XL convt. I also have 2 spares [ not for sale] . These players play 10+ 45's without skipping. They drop down after playing and continue for the rest of the [10-12 ]. Also you did not mention that the highway hi fi was only 16 2/3 RPM. in the Chrysler auto's THANK YOU BOB

  6. Dan Salem, OR

    You kinda skipped over the 4-track tape player, didn't you?

  7. George Trax Kernersville, NC

    I own a 1971 Cutlass Supreme SX. It has an original Am/FM radio. I installed a Redi-Rad converter which mounts under the dash out of sight. I placed an Ipod in the glove box and play variety of oldies. The redi-rad is super easy to install.

  8. Wayne Farrey Illinois

    This is my second 1956 Plymouth Belvedere Convertible I've owned. I had one just like this one when I was 18 yrs old & I first met my wife. My original one had the Highway Hi-Fi in it & I used to play it all the time. I also have one in the 56 Plymouth I have now; whenever we are at car shows people looking at the car do a double take when they see it & have alot of questions about it. We enjoy playing it for them also. Just wish I could find more records for it; I just have one NOS set of 6.

  9. Jim Blakely Florida

    This idea was expanded later to play 45's in any car. The unit mounted under the dask. You loaded the records with side to be played facing down. As the record finished the arm retracted and the record fell down the shaft that held the records and the next one was ready to play. I had one of these in 1966. I had it running thru a reverb unit. If you hit a bump just right you got the greatest bonnnnnnnnnnnnng sound.

  10. Jim Detroit

    '77 Eldorado: 8-track in radio dial; '87 El Camino: cassette; '01 Monte Carlo SS: cd and cassette; who needs an IPOD!

  11. Steve Twin Cities

    I actually used to install those as late as 1967. They were pricey as I recall.

  12. HVA United States & Canada

    *Editor’s note: The Highway Hi Fi did utilize a 16 2/3 rpm format used primarily at that time for talking books as they could hold a entire album’s worth of material on just the one side, thus negating the need to constantly change the record. Other companies did begin manufacturing record players for automobiles, however these were several years after the advent of the Highway Hi Fi. As for the four track tape players, these too came along after the Highway Hi Fi and will be the subject of a future HVA eNewsletter item. Thank you to all for your feedback and comments.

  13. Jeff Fresh Meadows

    In the seventies FM radios were expensive... the cars we purchased had AM radios....FM converters were a cheap alternative...those times were called the good ol days....

  14. Kevin McLaughlin Rochester , MN

    After 10 years of listening to the AM radio/fm converter combo in my 70 Charger I was ready for a change. I still had 30-40 8-tracks from my younger years so I set off to find a player that still functioned. I found a Herald am/fm 8track player with led display on e bay, it had never been installed and was still in the sealed plastic when i received it. I install it and the player worked flawlessly. I have decided to use it for a few years then move up to what the next update would have been in the day, so it will be an am/fm cassette player next and then the am/fm CD player.

  15. Steve Palmer Eugene, OR

    In 1963 my best friend, Pat Blenderman, and I traveled from Arcadia, CA to New York City, via Miami, for the Worlds Fair in Pat's 1957 Pontiac. Mounted under the glove box on the passenger side of the dash was something I had never seen before and have never seen since. A chrome box with a fold down black wood door that contained a slide out turn table that played off the record store shelf 33 1/3 RPM albums. Pat drove most of the way and I handled DJ duties from a cardboard box full of albums. The record player worked flawlessly. Going through New Orleans I remember being stuck in traffic with the windows down playing The Searchers song Needles and Pins. The guy in the car next to us was frantically pushing buttons on his radio trying to find the station we were listening to. We traveled over 6000 miles playing music you just couldn't find available on the radio in the early 60's.

  16. Steve Palmer Eugene, OR

    In 1963 my best friend, Pat Blenderman, and I traveled from Arcadia, CA to New York City, via Miami, for the Worlds Fair in Pat's 1957 Pontiac. Mounted under the glove box on the passenger side of the dash was something I had never seen before and have never seen since. A chrome box with a fold down black wood door that contained a slide out turn table that played off the record store shelf 33 1/3 RPM albums. Pat drove most of the way and I handled DJ duties from a cardboard box full of albums. The record player worked flawlessly. Going through New Orleans I remember being stuck in traffic with the windows down playing The Searchers song Needles and Pins. The guy in the car next to us was frantically pushing buttons on his radio trying to find the station we were listening to. We traveled over 6000 miles playing music you just couldn't find available on the radio in the early 60's.

  17. J Jung California

    I own two of the second generation HiWay HiFi players which are 45 RPM and many records to go with them. Both are in Chrysler cars and work well. There is and was only one drawback to the 45 rpm version and that was leaving the ten records on the changer spindle in the texas heat caused the records to warp and they became mostly unplayable. My solution was to obtain one of those record hop 45 record transport cases which could hold up to 20 or 30 records and could be removed from the car when parked in the sun.....Perhaps a feature on this second edition of the HiWay HiFi would be fun to have. I know it was built by RCA as their name is on it.Thank you, J

  18. C Balister Ohio

    The article on 45 players bring back memorys. I had an ARC that played 45's which hung under the dash board. It played through the radio by removing the car antana pluging the player plug in the radio then the antana back in and dialing to a freg that didn't come in at your location. The 45's were pushed up and the needle/arm played from the bottom of the stack , when rejected or finished the 45 dropped to the bottom. Contray to belief it very seldom skipped even on rough roads. Initially had it installed in a 61 Impala convert then to a 67 Shelby GT 350. I could kick my self for ever getting rid of it. Thanks for the Memories CB

  19. Larry Zappone Seattle

    I have two 1956 DeSotos, both restored and equipped with operable HiWay HiFi record players. I've restored several of these players over the years, a fairly simple process if they aren't too far gone. They are a huge hit at car shows, as most people have never even heard of them, much less heard one play. Check out this website: http://roadkillontheweb.com, for lots of more information on these unusual.

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