There’s a good reason why James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke became YouTube’s biggest viral hit of 2016 — and why the format has lured everyone from Stevie Wonder and Elton John to Madonna and Adele into the passenger seat. Music and driving is like love and marriage, as Frank Sinatra sang it: you can’t have one without the other. What’s a road trip without a soundtrack? Where would we be without Bachman-Turner Overdrive… Remember Tom Cruise launching into Free Fallin’ in Jerry Maguire or Wayne and Garth’s rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody in Wayne’s World? The world would be a far less colourful place without in-car audio.
While the engine noise of the very first cars was quite enough to listen to, the history of music in cars can be traced back to the original car radio, introduced in 1922 by Chevrolet. It had an antenna that covered the car’s entire roof, enormous batteries and monster speakers set behind the seats. In the century since, we’ve seen the listening experience shaped as much by the design of automobiles as by advances in audio technology.
Radio has played an important role in the driving experience ever since, with slightly less cumbersome models becoming a standard built-in feature by the 1930s. Developed in 1930 by brothers Paul and Joseph Galvin with William Lear, the first dashboard radio was named the “Motorola” (a contraction of “motorised Victrola”, a brand name that was also a generic term for a gramophone). Later that decade, push-button tuning and presets allowed drivers to choose a station with minimal distraction. With help from the transistor, size and price came down and by 1963 radios had been installed in 50 million cars.
As with so many new technologies that rapidly achieve widespread adoption, not everyone was convinced. Driving with music was controversial and considered by many to be a distraction on par with texting today. Undeterred, public appetite grew. But until the next major innovation in car audio, one’s listening was determined by the airwaves, with AM the dominant mode. Then, in 1956, Chrysler had a big idea: the Highway Hi-Fi.
This brand new automotive innovation was a phonograph mounted on the bottom of the dashboard and wired into the car radio. With a deft flick of a switch, a miniature turntable slid out. James Bond’s Q would have been delighted, but only up to a point. Exclusively featuring artists under contract with Columbia Records, special Chrysler-made seven-inch disks using the obscure 16rpm format were capable of playing just under an hour of music… as long as the drive was a smooth one. If not, the records skipped predictably. With a price tag of nearly $200, more than $1,700 (£1,400) today, it was untenable. Highway Hi-Fi would be phased out within a couple of years.
Shortly afterwards, in 1960, the RCA Victor auto “Victrola” came on to the market. Much cheaper at $51.75 (about $410 today), it played a stack of seven-inch singles for around 2½ hours and didn’t jump the grooves, even, said Consumer Reports magazine in its review, “when the car was moving at various speeds over broken pavement, cobblestones and deep holes”. The high pressure required to keep it in place, however, wasn’t especially good for the vinyl. Car record players soon gave way to a new gizmo: the eight-track tape deck.
Developed by a consortium that included the Ampex Magnetic Tape Company, Lear Jet Company and RCA Records, the success of the Stereo 8 phenomenon was due in no small part to Ford Motors, which championed the players by offering them as an option in their 1966 model line. A refinement of the four-track players that had been gaining popularity thanks to Ernie Muntz, an enterprising West Coast car dealer who had licensed the technology, Ford saw the potential. With home players not yet introduced, four- and eight-track tape players were initially sold only in auto shops and truck stops as accessories, yet they flew off the shelves. They would stick around for most of the 1970s.
The best thing about Stereo 8 — because it certainly wasn’t the sound quality — was that it allowed drivers to create their own driving tapes and customise their playlists. Bowie, Bach or a jolly singalong with Flanders and Swann, the choice was no longer restricted. The arrival of Phillips’ all-conquering Compact Cassette format eventually saw off the eight-track. Albums on cassette were introduced in the US in 1966 and the format went on to dominate car audio during the 1980s and 1990s.
These were also the years of the booming trade in after-market systems: custom hi-fi that involved installing flashing screens, huge speakers and a general sense of superiority. Any audiophile worth their sub-woofer knew that there were options that would transform the listening of their driving playlist far beyond what any car manufacturer was offering. Alpine, Blaupunkt, Kenwood and Pioneer sold cassette receivers and better-quality speakers, while the first Benzi-box pull-out stereo receivers (a response to a rise in car-radio thefts) were introduced in the early 1980s.
Not to be outdone, car manufacturers began to play catch-up, paying more attention to the sound quality of the amplifier and speakers. Realising that sometimes it pays to stick to one specialism, many began collaborating with well-known audio brands such as Harmon Kardon, Burmester and Bang & Olufsen. With cars themselves evolving to become such complex pieces of engineering, it was no longer possible for an audio shop under the railway arches to cut out great chunks of bodywork for a huge bass bin. Frustrating as it often was for audio hobbyists, the after-market began to die down and hi-fi integration had to be considered at the start of the design process.
As anyone of a certain age will remember, the coolest cars of the late 1980s and 1990s didn’t just feature tape decks, but also a multi-disc CD changer (in-car CD players debuted in 1984). Bringing vastly improved sound quality and able to skip from track to track with ease, this was the ultimate in musical freedom on the road.
The arrival of MP3 players and the iPod sounded the death knell for older audio formats. With the capacity to store thousands of songs, create custom playlists and flit between the tracks almost instantaneously, digital music players revolutionised the music industry. And although a generation of drivers has struggled through conflicting formats and general lack of compatibility, today’s premium cars come with acres of hard disk space and easy connectivity — wired and wireless — for your smartphone. There is no turning back (although audiophiles still lament that MP3 and AAC files are still a long way off the experience you’d get from a proper CD or uncompressed audio file).
In 2005, Aston Martin and Bang & Olufsen (B&O) resolved to create a bespoke sound system, starting with Aston Martin Chief Executive Officer Dr Ulrich Bez’s own DBS. B&O received the car in Denmark in January 2006 and spent the following months creating a functional yet elegant system that integrated seamlessly into the cabin. After two years of fine-tuning, the results were so promising that it was also agreed that the company would develop a sound system for the DB9. Today’s systems offer sophisticated Digital Signal Processing, with each model having 13 speakers around the cabin (although the Rapide S has the grand total of 15) — including the signature motorised rising tweeters — and a commitment to design and presentation that befits an Aston Martin. The results are justly acclaimed, setting a new benchmark for in-car audio.
What’s next? There’s more and more potential for cars to become moving entertainment capsules, so why stop at music when so much more media is available to enjoy? But perhaps we’re in danger of losing the point, which is that driving and music are one of those pairings that will last for all time.