The car radio turns 90 this year. A history of that thing in your dashboard.

Car radios first appeared 90 years ago. But as Alan Cross explains, they looked a little different than this. Global News

When you get into a car, what’s the first thing you do after fastening your seatbelt? You look for some entertainment. And for 90 years, we’ve been reaching for the radio for our mobile music, news, sports, and entertainment.

Listening to the radio (or some other form of audio entertainment) is one of the few things we can do while driving. No wonder in-vehicle listening is so important to the industry.

Here’s the backstory of that trusty thing in your dashboard.

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Radio in the car is almost as old as the automobile itself. As far back as 1904, American inventor Lee DeForest (who later came up with the audion tube, which made radio practical) was demonstrating how this technology could be used in cars when he showed up in St. Louis at the Louisana Purchase Exposition. DeForest was a bit ahead of his time; no one had successfully figured out how to broadcast anything but morse code to this point. It would be another half-decade before speech and music could be transmitted wirelessly and another ten years before someone figured out how to get a radio to work in the car.

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By 1920, vacuum tubes — which DeForest had a hand in inventing — were sufficiently robust that a few people made serious attempts at putting a radio in a car. There were all sorts of issues: mismatched voltages, electric interference from the engines, the heat generated by the tubes, and the size of the installation itself.

But the prospect of having tunes in the car pushed inventors forward. People recall George Frost, an 18-year-old radio fan from Chicago, who is said to have attached a radio to the passenger door of his Ford Model T in 1922. It was a jury-rigged solution, but it apparently worked.

Around the same time, Chevrolet offered an after-market radio option for $200, which is about $3,000 today. The antenna was bulky — it took up most of the roof — as did the radio itself, taking away a substantial amount of room for passengers. “The installation of this equipment in the Chevrolet car is so simple we may expect to see many cars similarly equipped in the future,” wrote The Literary Digest in September 1922. By 1926, custom-installed radios were a thing, but only for the well-off.

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Enter the Galvin brothers. The story goes that they were on a double date and parked at a romantic spot when one of the ladies said “You know what would make this night perfect? If we could listen to music right now here in the car.”

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Paul and Joseph Galvin, part-time inventors already, started messing with what were known as “travel radios,” which were powered by big batteries. Was there a way to adapt that radio tech into automobiles? And outside of stuffing a big wooden box — the form factor of radios at the time — into the back seat, how would installation work?

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The genius of their solution was to break the radio into four components. The receiver unit was mounted on the firewall. Tuning was handled by a controller attached to the steering wheel and the speaker was put on top of the dashboard. The batteries to drive everything lived in a box under the seats or sunk into the floorboards. Finally, the antenna — crucial, since radio signals back then weren’t very strong — was woven into a mesh on the roof or strung as a thread along the running boards.

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The Galvins called their new company Motorola — “motor-” for “motorcar” mated with “-ola,” designed to capitalize on the widespread use of Victrola gramophones. And yes, this is the same Motorola that exists today.

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Motorola radios first appeared in 1930 — hence this being the 90th anniversary of the introduction of the proper car radio.

Paul Galvin installed a prototype in a Studebaker and had two other inventors, Elmer Wavering and William Lear, drive from Chicago to Atlantic City, where he set up outside the annual meeting of the Radio Manufacturer’s Association. Orders flowed in for what was called the 5T71. And although it cost less than half of one of the custom-installed solutions, it certainly wasn’t cheap. You could buy a Ford Model A Deluxe — and entire car — for $540 (about $8,000 in today’s money). Getting a Motorola unit to go with it was another $130 (another $1,925 in 2020).

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Competition appeared within a year. Philco offered a “wired for Transitone” radio in a 1931 Plymouth. A year later, German manufacturer Blaupunkt began selling a radio that cost about a third of the price of a new car. Crossley Motors, the same company that later moved into making the turntables we still see today, included factory radios in their cars beginning in 1933. By the end of the decade, prices had dropped to the point where factory-installed AM radios were available for every car. By the middle 1940s, close to 10 million cars were equipped with radios.

Not everyone was pleased. In 1934, the Auto Club of New York found that 54 per cent of its members considered radio to be a “dangerous distraction.” A bill banning car radios nearly passed in Massachusetts, citing the same reasoning. The counterargument was that radios provide vital information like traffic issues and storm warnings. And organizations like the Radio Manufacturers’ Association pointed out that the radio could keep sleepy drivers awake.

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The next big innovation was FM radio. Post-war Germany had all but two of its AM radio stations stripped away from them by the allies, forcing them to experiment with the still-nascent FM band. The result was an AM/FM design that debuted in 1952. Competitor Becker also got into the game with a model they called Mexico, which featured a primitive automatic search-and-scan feature.

But all these early radios relied on vacuum tubes which were fragile, bulky, and gave off a tremendous amount of heat. That was solved in 1955 when Philco teamed up with Chrysler to provide a model called the 914HR, the first all-transistor car radio. It wasn’t cheap — $150 or $1,500 today — but it was far more reliable and durable than anything else drivers had ever seen. Still, the price made it a flop, forcing Chrysler to backtrack to old-school tube radios. It wasn’t until Becker introduced a model called the Monte Carlo, notable for the complete absence of vacuum tubes.

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In-dash radios soon became more complex.

Units with 8-track players (again from Motorola and invented by William Lear, the same guy who drove that Studebaker to Atlantic City in 1930) first appeared in some Ford models in 1965. Becker introduced a stereo FM radio/tape player in 1969.

Cassettes, first introduced by Philips in 1964, began appearing in dashboards in earnest in the early ’70s and stayed there until the 2010 Lexus 430 SC, the last new car to come with a factory in-dash cassette player.

Pioneer is credited with the first-ever automobile CD player, the aftermarket CDX-1 in 1984. At the same time, Becker nailed down a deal with Mercedes-Benz to supply CD players for S-Class models. Satellite radio appeared in 1999, followed by aux inputs, Bluetooth connections to smartphones, embedded apps like Radioplayer Canada and Pandora, and ever more sophisticated (some say cluttered) interfaces.

Today, a good chunk of radio listening is still done in the car. It has more competition than ever before, but a car without a radio? Might as well get a car without wheels.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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