Rhythms for the Highway, Before the Age of the iPod

JIM KOSCS NY Times 06/08/12

FROM the arrival of the earliest car radios in the 1920s to the advent of today’s colorful dashboard display screens, automakers have been playing catch-up with consumer tastes and trends. Yet the key to providing an ideal blend of in-car information and entertainment — infotainment, in the lexicon — has long been close at hand.

Technology: Merging Cellphones and Dashboards (June 10, 2012) “The ongoing thread in infotainment development has been that drivers have always wanted to bring into their cars the things they use at home for entertainment and information,” said Peter Patrone, who helped direct the development of telematics in his 30-year career at Mercedes-Benz USA and is now an independent auto industry consultant.

Automakers have overcome many obstacles — technological challenges, changes in music storage formats and aftermarket competition among them — to introduce their innovations. Some proved fabulous, while others were flops. Here are a few highlights that might help you to appreciate your new car’s iPod compatibility all the more:

RADIO ON THE ROAD Radio had a decades-long run as the dominant source of in-car music and news, lasting to the 1950s and beyond thanks to continuous advances. Convenient push-button presets for favorite stations appeared in the late 1930s, helping drivers keep their eyes on the road.

Even more cutting-edge was a signal-seeking radio offered by Cadillac in 1952 for $129. The Delco Wonder Bar — named for the bar above the tuning dial that, when pressed, caused a motor-driven pulley to move the tuner to the next strong station — was eventually offered in most General Motors cars.

With radio still offering mainly AM broadcasts and low-fidelity sound, some brands tried gimmicks to make sales. Some 1958-60 Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac models offered a removable radio that doubled as a battery-operated portable. Pontiac called it the Sportable, while Olds and Buick marketed it as the Trans-Portable.

The clearer-sounding FM broadcast band arrived for car radios in the 1950s, including an option in 1958 Lincolns. More consistent performance from the first fully transistorized in-dash units came early in the next decade. To the delight of music listeners, FM stereo became available as an option in many cars by the late 1960s.

MOBILE JUKEBOX Automakers realized that the holy grail of in-car entertainment would be the ability for drivers to play their own music collections on the road. In 1956, Chrysler tried to accommodate them with an in-car record player it called Highway Hi-Fi.

Developed by a research scientist from the laboratories of CBS, Highway Hi-Fi used a new ultra-microgroove format that provided 45 minutes of playing time per side from its small 16 2/3 r.p.m. record discs. Though Chrysler claimed skip-free performance, owners had mixed results.

A limited selection of music recordings, along with the contraption’s proprietary format that would not play on home equipment, doomed Highway Hi-Fi to failure.

For 1960, Chrysler replaced it with a new accessory record player, made by RCA Victor, that played up to a dozen standard 45 r.p.m. records. Working better in a parked car than a moving one, it was dropped by Chrysler after 1961.

GO TO THE TAPE Around 1960, radio D.J.’s began using tape cartridges to play recorded commercials. A self-taught inventor, Earl Muntz, saw the potential to sell tape cartridges containing music licensed from record labels. Muntz, who had created a used-car empire in California using his “Madman” advertising persona, also manufactured TVs and briefly built his own luxury convertible, the 1951-54 Muntz Jet.

The Muntz Stereo-Pak cartridge and in-car players appeared in 1962. The cartridge contained a continuous tape loop with two stereo audio programs, leading Muntz to call the format 4-track. William Lear, who helped develop the first successful car radio in the 1920s, called the Motorola, liked the Muntz cartridge but saw room for improvement. The Lear Stereo-8 or 8-track used the same ¼-inch tape as the Muntz cartridge but packed more playing time by dividing it into four stereo programs. While the Muntz system remained an aftermarket product, the Lear 8-track became the first factory-installed tape system, beginning with 1966 Fords.

A third magnetic tape cartridge format, introduced by Philips Electronics of the Netherlands, appeared in the mid-1960s, the Compact Cassette. The cassette’s two sides meant songs played without interruption.

By the mid-1970s, major improvements in sound quality, and a convenient auto-reverse playback function added to tape players, put the Compact Cassette on the road to finishing off the 8-track. At the end of the 1970s, Philips partnered with Sony to develop an optical storage medium, the compact disc, which appeared in 1982. CD players replaced cassette units in most cars by the mid-1990s. The 2010 Lexus SC 430 convertible was the last car to come with a factory-installed cassette player.

10-4, GOOD BUDDY Telematics services that appeared in the 1990s, like OnStar from G.M. and TeleAid from Mercedes-Benz, offered emergency calling, and today’s smartphones deliver social connectivity. Yet both functions first appeared in more primitive states in the 1970s with the introduction of optional factory-installed Citizen’s Band two-way radios. Even Mercedes-Benz offered a CB for a while, Mr. Patrone said.

The CB burst into the public consciousness with some help from C. W. McCall’s 1975 hit song “Convoy” and the 1977 Burt Reynolds film “Smokey and the Bandit.” Both romanticized the CB’s use for avoiding speed traps.

The CB option was offered in many cars into the early 1980s, including, of course, the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, the model that Mr. Reynolds drove in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

BETTER VIBRATIONS With magnetic tape, carmakers jumped the hurdle of bringing quality music recordings into the car. Still, competing noises from the wind, engine and tires made it a challenge to wring good sound out of the playback equipment.

Mr. Patrone, on an assignment to Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Germany to get better-sounding radios for United States customers, recalled the pronouncement of a high-ranking German colleague that translated to, “Hi-fi in a car is impossible.”

Something needed to be done to reverse the trend of consumers turning to the aftermarket for better-sounding audio systems.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology electrical engineering professor, Dr. Amar Bose, had won the hearts and ears of audiophiles with his home audio speakers in 1968. A decade later, his Framingham, Mass., company began to look at making in-vehicle sound “as good as in a home listening environment.”

G.M. was the first to accept a pitch from Bose to develop systems customized and acoustically tuned to each car’s interior. The 1983 Cadillac Seville and Eldorado, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado introduced Bose components, the auto industry’s first custom-engineered, factory-installed premium sound systems, Bose says.

Mr. Patrone would use the Bose-equipped G.M. cars to make his case, and Mercedes-Benz offered a high-end Bose system in the 1991 S-Class.

THE NOT-SO-MAGIC TOUCH Central to infotainment functions in new cars is a central display screen. The idea, with more primitive technology, actually made its debut 26 years ago in a Buick.

The 1986 downsized Riviera introduced the Graphic Control Center, essentially a TV-like cathode ray tube screen with touch-control capability. The screen, which was also used in the two-seat Buick Reatta, consolidated controls for the stereo and climate control, along with a trip computer.

Panned by the press, it was gone by 1990, but the touch-screen concept was revived and today is nearly ubiquitous.

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