Music Moves Us The Fascinating History of the Car Radio

The Fascinating History of the Car Radio

Image Credit: Tiffany Bailey / Wikimedia Commons

Most drivers hop in the car, crank the engine and find something to listen to on the stereo even before putting on their seat belt. Music and driving are that ingrained into our culture.

As with most popular technologies, from the 1930s for several decades, the early music players in vehicles were kind of clunky and expensive. For a time, the industry even went backward from the forward progress of car radios and eventually stereo.

That blip?

In the 1950s, some designers decided to try and install record players so people could choose their own music. Not surprisingly, drivers trying to flip their vinyl in a car bumping along the road did not catch on. Thankfully car radios continued to evolve and improve during that time.

From big and weak to sleek with almost limitless innovations in-car audio systems, let's look at how we motored from then to now.

Some of the early efforts have been described as "laughable."

Music Moves Us The Fascinating History of the Car Radio

Image Credit: Doug Butler / Wikimedia Commons

It Started with Developers Using their Head Units

The term "head unit" is easy to remember when you understand the head unit is the brains of the vehicle audio system.
An automotive head unit may be called the car's infotainment center in modern times.

The head unit is the hardware interface that ties together the various controls and functions. It lets the driver or passenger pick the audio source, turn the volume up or down, and choose the specific radio station or song motorists want to listen to on the road.

There are size and shape factors for the stereo system's head unit. Most commonly called 1DIN and 2DIN. Ultimately, it all comes down to the size of the stereo system's front faceplate.

1DIN and 2DIN are so commonly used in the automotive and car stereo or infotainment industry many don't know what DIN means. It's an acronym. The German organization "Deutsches Institut fur Normung" invented the car head standard still used today for 1DIN. It means that when viewed from the front, in the dash, the face of the audio system should be about 7x2 inches.

2DIN came later. It's simply twice as tall as 1DIN.

2DIN has the same seven-inch length and double 1DIN's height.

From car radio push buttons to 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CD players and now touch screens and Bluetooth connectivity… the head unit has come a long way, baby.

An American Invention

Lee de Forest gave himself the title "Father of Radio" in 1904. He gave demonstrations with his invention well before commercially viable mobile car audio technology existed.

de Forest took his radio to St. Louis during the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in to show the audio magic.

Experts agree the actual first commercial car radio was the accomplishment of Paul Galvin and the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in 1930. It was the Motorola 5T71.

The following sites give some excellent information and photographs; visuals of the evolution of in-car audio:

The Birth of Portable Radios

AM radio is short for amplitude modulation, while FM means frequency modulation. Therefore, AM is the most basic broadcast form, while FM is best suited for carrying voices and music.

Radio was first developed for use by the military to allow simple, point-to-point communication. It didn't look or sound anything like our car stereos today, but it's where it all began.

By today's standards, calling those early radios "portable" is a big overstatement. They were bulky and very heavy.

Those early radios were made up of:

  • A box for the radio itself

  • Another box for the speaker

  • Several batteries, some of which contained liquid acids

  • A long wire antenna

Then it all had to be constructed together in basically a big wooden suitcase to be called portable.

Form and Function

Car radios through the 1920s and 30s all looked about the same.

They had a shielding, which is basically a tin box that contained:

  • The receiver

  • A speaker

  • A control element

  • Sometimes it would also hold the power supply

The control element was threaded through a flexible shaft to connect to the radio portion.

In those early days, the car battery heated the tube filaments then the radio needed an additional box for dry cells for the anodes.

Then through the years, radios were powered by generators, then power packs with both rectifiers and vibrators. After that, synchro-vibrators were invented that no longer needed rectifiers at all. All those physical parts interfered with radio reception.

So the form was essentially blocking the function.

The answer was a brand new type of tube. Specifically, an electron tube called the vacuum tube. As the name suggests, it contains a near-vacuum. That was a massive development because it let an electric current pass freely.

Engineers in Europe began producing tubes made to get heated by the car battery and a transformer. That was in 1934.

When Mass Manufacturing of Car Radios Got Rolling

September 26, 1928, work gets underway at the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago, IL. It's interesting to note it was only the day before when the company officially incorporated.

Then In 1930, Galvin brought the Motorola radio onto the scene. It was the first mass-produced car radio.

There's something of an urban legend about early car radios.

Some car and history buffs will point to the 1927 "Transitone" as the first mass-produced car radio. That was William M. Heina's contribution to the world of radio in cars.

However, if pressed, experts have to agree it was Galvin with the Motorola radio.

Motorola's name was a combination of "motor" and "Victrola". Victrola was a leading manufacturer of record players. The company is enjoying a rebirth of popularity in modern times as people turn back to vinyl as the best way to experience music at home.

Like phones and computers, Car radios have become smaller, lighter, and better able to handle a more comprehensive array of tasks.

A Car Audio Timeline: A Century of Progress

The 1920s

The 1920s birthed the major innovation of radio broadcasting.

Television and the internet were still in a distant unimagined future. So radio was king both as a source for news and information as well as entertainment. It also leveled the playing field because it made information and news events accessible for the average person.

It wasn't a giant leap for the automotive industry to decide to add a radio to people's beloved vehicles.

The timing was right because Americans were enjoying a high level of prosperity which led to a higher level of consumption. Cars with radios, new vacuums for the home, new clothing styles and beauty products.

Coupled with the expansion of credit during the 1920s meant most anyone could buy those cars complete with the new vehicle audio technology and pay for it over time. Of course, at the cost of paying interest over time, as well.

In the 1920s, the United States was already a leader in mass production.

The 30s brought a massive economic downturn, but people still wanted the latest and greatest in their car audio.

The 1930s

Even though the 1930s were a rough decade for America marred by great economic hardships and horrible poverty, it did not dull people's desire for in-car audio.

Radios in cars were pricy add-ons at the time. For example, the built-in Motorola 5T71 cost a fifth of the price of Ford's Model A. Adding the radio cost about $130. In today's dollars, that is a $2,400 price tag.

It's also when discussions about distracted driving started gaining traction. Those against said it posed a danger behind the wheel, while proponents argued radios could be used to warn drivers of bad weather or worsening road condition.

Soon built-in radios were standard and the addition of push-button tuning and radio presets made it easier for drivers to enjoy their tunes while keeping a safe eye on the road.

The 1940s

By 1946 nine million cars on the road had built-in radios.

Head units, the "face" of the radio, became sleeker and it became popular to add some art deco designs on car radios matching designs of radios that stayed at home rather than hitting the road.

The 1950s

AM radio was still on top at the dawn of the 1950s. Then in 1952, the first FM car radio was introduced by Blaupunkt. However, for whatever reason, it still took decades for FM radio to really catch on.

By 1953 motorists were introduced to the first AM/FM in-car radio with a station search button that was fully automatic. That was the brainchild of Becker Mexico.

1955 brought that foray into using record players as car audio. In addition to the literal bumps in the road, Chrysler's offering required seven-inch records to enjoy about 45 minutes of music.

In the '50s, drivers still had nearly a decade to go before Super 8 (8-track) tape players would make their way into vehicles.

The 1960s

While it can't be scientifically proven, it's fair to say music in the 60s was iconic with the Beatles, CCR, Jimmy Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.

The 60s were also when car stereos came into being. The Europa from Becker featured a tuner that could amplify two channels rather than one.

In 1964 Phillips gave the world the compact cassette. At nearly the same time, Ford, GM and Motorola worked together to introduce the Super 8 to the automotive industry and drivers in an attempt to rival its compact cousin.

Despite that trio of audio powerhouse companies, the cassette completely took over due to the fact it offered superior stereo sound in a relatively small size.

Still, somehow the 8-track managed to keep a bit of a foothold through the 1970s.

The 1970s

Compact cassettes reigned supreme in the '70s even though the first cassette decks were pretty hard on cassette tapes. The price of progress.

Cassette tape players also allowed for a cultural phenomenon; the mixtape.

Audio system components were becoming both smaller and more sophisticated. Bulky amplifiers that were vacuum-based were going the way of the 8-track.

Car enthusiasts also point to this time when drivers could get after-market products and create their own stereo systems.

And Pioneer led the way to car sound systems that got close to the quality and capabilities of audio set-ups in the home. The Supertuner had a cassette player that boasted improved reception and advanced wiring along with an FM tuner.

The 1980s

While Compact Discs (CD) are considered to be better sound technology than cassette tapes (and you don't have to coax the tape back in with a pencil eraser), it took more than a decade after they were introduced in the 80s to catch on with drivers. As a result, they didn't become commonplace in vehicles until the late 1990s.

It was 1984 when Pioneer released the CD player for automobiles. The Pioneer CDX-1. It offered much better sound quality and made it possible for the driver to quickly select the song they wanted, a big advantage compared to cassettes but the cassette tape held strong.

The 80s were also the age of speakers, speakers and more speakers. Multi-speaker stereo systems became popular with at least six speakers minimum. At this time the high-end car audio systems were close to high-end home stere0o equipment in quality.

The first designer stereo came from the team of speaker giant Bose and General Motor's Delco. Bose researched car-specific development rather than relying on the same expensive head unit for every vehicle. From there they marketed the system to Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile shoppers.

The 1990s

In the '90s the Compact Disc (CD) time had come.

CDs took nearly 20 years to push cassette-tape players to the sidelines, mainly because cassettes and players were cheap. Then the CD changer hit the scene, able to handle six up to 18 CDs at a time.

In 1992 Sony released its "Minidisc". The only difference was the Minidisc was smaller than a regular CD. But the larger version was already too popular to stop.

The 2000s

The new millennium brought the beginnings of Infotainment systems and Bluetooth to car audio.

Head units could interface, via Bluetooth, with phones and other devices. The new technology made handsfree calling possible.

The first half of the decade also saw the addition of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology in car. GPS is owned by the U.S. government and can constantly track and report an exact location while traveling or navigating.

2020 & Beyond

Some experts believe AM/FM stereo may be another casualty of COVID-19.

As COVID shut down most of the world, it also had people working from home, which means fewer commutes and use of the car stereo.

Research firm Strategy Analytics created the "2020 Infotainment Report: COVID-19 Brings Challenges for In-Car Radio. Among the findings, "The COVID-19 pandemic and its related lockdowns have also severely curtailed regular commuting journeys, where much of consumers' radio-listening originates," the announcement of the report said. "This has led to a marked decline in AM/FM usage in car, and a steep decline in interest of radio as a 'must-have' feature."

We’re less than two years ago past the original onslaught of the pandemic and travel and commuting are both having a sluggish but steady return.

As the world is opening up, people are headed back to the office or taking road trips, podcasts have become hugely popular.

The Next Leap for In-Car Technology

The car radio was invented for listening to music or news while behind the wheel.
From those beginnings, vehicle audio touches nearly every other system in the vehicle:

  • Radio, Bluetooth connectivity and streaming services

  • Noise control

  • Handsfree calling

  • Navigation

  • Security features

  • Some vehicle diagnostics functions

  • Telematics

"What's next?" doesn't have to do with audio but tracking of driving data, known as Telematics. However, automotive manufacturers are sure to continue to add more bells and whistles to Infotainment systems.


Now that you know the rich history and fascinating evolution of vehicle audio, here's some information if you're interested in upgrading or customizing your own car stereo.