High-Tech in the 1950′s: HighWay Hi-Fi – Where The Vinyl Meets The Road, Part 5

From 1960 Plymouth Sales Brochure, The Solid Plymouth 1960 pg. 23:

1960-plymouth-hi-fi-option

The 1960’s Plymouth had hi-fi upgrade options, including an unusual automatic record player that fits handsomely within reach, right under Plymouth’s instrument panel.

Music to while away the miles? You can choose between Plymouth’s Push-Button DeLuxe radio at a truly low price, or a new Hi-Fi radio with push-buttons that pull in stations that are states away with a sound that compares well with a livingroom console.

hi-fi-automobile-record-playerAnd you can enjoy, if you will, your own favorite phonograph records from home. This is another feature you will not be able to get in any other low-price car this year. To make it possible in Plymouth, RCA perfected an unusual automatic record player that fits handsomely within reach, right under Plymouth’s instrument panel. This RCA Victor “45” record player handles your standard 45 rpm records smoothly and safely. It plays up to 14 of them consecutively — about two hours of uninterrupted music of your own choosing. As the records play, the automatic changer stacks and stores them for you. The storage space actually holds many more than 14 records, so you can change the repertoire after each stack if you enjoy your records as much as we suspect you might.

It played a stack of 14 singles! Does anyone else see the great-grandaddy of today’s in-car CD changers? Once again, Mr. Greenfield fills in the nitty gritty, and seems to approve.

From Practical Auto Radio Service and Installation by Jack Greenfield (1960, Gernsback Library Inc.) pg. 153-156:

Highway-Hi-Fi-04Undaunted by the failure of its original Highway Hi-Fi, its promoter cooperated with one of America’s leading electronics firms in a project involving the application of a more conventional phonograph to automobiles. The new phonograph is a 45-rpm automatic record changer of special design (Fig. 911) to enable it to be used in the family car.

The unit is normally installed under the dashboard. Two features that differentiate auto radios from home radios are found in the design of this phonograph. It is intended to be operated with a minimum of distraction and is specially compensated for shock and vibration to enable it to operate in a moving auto. Cost is about a fourth the cost of the original Highway Hi-Fi.

The phonograph plays up to 14 extended-play 45-rpm records for a total playing time of up to 2 1/2 hours. Loading 14 records is accomplished easily and with a minimum of distraction, as shown in Fig. 912. Once inserted, the records are played automatically at the flip of a switch on the case of the unit (Fig. 911). The operator need never position the tone arm in the record groove. A record can be replayed instead of rejected at the end of its play by operating a switch on the front-panel control. Operation is directly off the automobile’s 12-volt dc supply.

Highway-Hi-Fi-05An internal view is shown in Fig. 913. The device is actually an upside-down version of a conventional 45-rpm changer. It is similar in operation to many commercial 45-rpm jukeboxes in that the pickup is held by spring tension against the underside of the record being played. Tracking pressure is high compared to conventional 45-rpm units. Sapphire and diamond replacement styli are available and should be stocked in the shop in anticipation of a service call.

The 45-rpm phonograph originally was developed for use with two specific models of cars. The auto radios that came with these cars had a special phono jack to accommodate the phono’s audio cable plug. The phonograph is available now for use in any car. As such, the unit represents an interesting repair to the service technician who must provide a suitable phono jack for the auto radio with which it is to be used. In most cases, the phono-jack installation will be conventional. It should be tied between the hot side of the auto radio’s volume control (the input of the first audio stage) and ground (chassis or bus, depending on the radio).

Highway-Hi-Fi-06Alas, the RCA “45” only lasted through the 1961 model year. What went wrong this time? At this point I can only theorize. My personal guess is that the mechanics of the design had some sort of problem. Hi-Fi equipped ’56 Imperial owner, Dave Fluck (who provided much of the material here), reports that he has seen the RCA unit, but never in working condition. Perhaps it had a tendency to break down? Or had trouble handling those stacks? Or had tracking problems? Or the high tracking pressure wore records out prematurely? On the conceptual level, they certainly had it together. It played normal records one could buy anywhere. And RCA made the unit available on the aftermarket, theoretically widening the consumer base to any brand of car.

45-rpm-steve-allen-record-played-on-hi-fi

In the Fall 1959 to Summer 1960 television season, Plymouth sponsored Steve Allen’s weekly variety show on NBC. Which resulted in marketing opportunities like this 45-rpm single recorded by Allen: Come Along For A Ride In The Solid New Plymouth (Solid Plymouth 1960, PLY 101, a product of Hanover-Signature Record Corp). Both sides are identical and consist of Steve pitching the features of the 1960 Plymouth over piano backing. It was clearly created to be played while a prospective customer took the car for a test drive.

The tape cartridge format hadn’t yet emerged as competition. California’s Earl “Madman” Muntz marketed his Muntz Stereo-Pak 4-track system in the early 60’s, but that had limited, regional success. It wasn’t until the 1966 model year that Bill Lear’s 8-track format became a factory option in Fords, followed in another year or so by Chrysler and GM. So I can only imagine that the “45” had some sort of mechanical bug. Or maybe people simply weren’t ready for the idea of turntables in cars. Judging by today’s popularity of in-car CD players, they’ve finally gotten the hang of it. Too bad it didn’t work out earlier.

Resources for Highway Hi-Fi Series:

Compiled by M.Ace in 1997
Commentary © 1997 M.Ace
Information and materials contributed by:
Dave Fluck, Byron Caloz, Frank Uhle, Lee Exline

Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1946-1975 (1982, Krause Publications)
Total Television, 4th Edition by Alex McNeil (1996, Penguin Books)
8-Track Heaven
The Imperial Online Car Club has an index of hi-fi info.

Please note: We do not have any Highway Hi-Fi equipment or records, nor do we know any specific sources where they can be obtained. We have no additional information on the subject. Everything we know is included on these web pages.

Read Part 1

 

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High-Tech in the 1950′s: HighWay Hi-Fi – Where The Vinyl Meets The Road, Part 4

From Practical Auto Radio Service and Installation by Jack Greenfield (1960, Gernsback Library Inc.) pg. 152-153:

Highway-Hi-Fi-02The Highway Hi-Fi unit cost almost $200 and generally was available only as an accessory through an authorized automobile distributor. This tended to keep its distribution and use exclusive. In addition, the special records this unit played were not the type available in the neighborhood record store. Nor could these records, once bought, be used inside on the conventional home phonograph. When an owner disposed of his auto, he inevitably had to turn over his record collection with it, unless he took the Highway Hi-Fi set with him (in which case installation in his new car became a problem).

To complicate matters further, Highway Hi-Fi was not an automatic changer but a manual record player. To be sure, the special records it played provided a full 45 minutes to 1 hour of listening per side. At the end of each play, however, it was necessary to pull the unit partially out of its case to gain access to the record, reinsert a new side and manually operate the tone-arm mechanism to switch the turntable on and to engage the stylus in the record groove (in the manner indicated in Fig. 909).

Highway-Hi-Fi-03In addition to all this, Highway Hi-Fi utilized an ac induction motor, incorporating a vibrator power supply into its design to convert the auto dc power to a suitable ac operating power (Fig. 910). (The reader will recall that the electromechanical vibrator is a notorious noise producer, and perhaps has the highest failure rate of all the components used in auto radios.) The owners of Highway Hi-Fi were determined to be a small, exclusive minority, and like all small, exclusive minorities, they were destined to fade away.

Other sources peg the unit’s price at $56.95, FOB New York, with the price of bracket packages ranging from 75 cents for Chryslers to $2.55 for Plymouth and Dodge.

1959 was a vinyl-free year for Chrysler, but they had not given up. They found a new dance partner in RCA, who had plans of their own for auto audio domination. The 1960 model year saw the debut of the RCA “45” Phonograph. No odd, one-off format this time — the “45” played normal, everyday 45-rpm 7-inchers. Probably not so coincidentally, this was a format that RCA had an interest in pushing. But regardless, you could now pick up any single in the record shop, hop into your car and give it a spin while you go for a spin.

Before I forget, I would like to make special mention of Carbonite online backup technology without which some of the resources and materials I had used could have been lost. Nothing hurts more than having to lose some of the materials and resources that you have been collecting for years just because your laptop computer was stolen or lost. I’m just glad to have all my computer files backed up by Carbonite to its remote datacenters.

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Some sources list the “45” as officially available only in Plymouths and DeSotos, but as any Chrysler fan will tell you, nothing’s impossible with a Mopar. Meaning; if it was available in one division, it would be no problem to order it up, no matter what the nameplate — even if it wasn’t listed in the catalog. The original price is said to have been $39.55 for the phonograph and 60 cents for the bracket set.

Read Part 5

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High-Tech in the 1950′s: HighWay Hi-Fi – Where The Vinyl Meets The Road, Part 3

From Original Highway Hi-Fi Owner’s Brochure:

Highway-Hi-Fi-01YOU CAN TAKE IT WITH YOU

Highway Hi-Fi is the startling new development for motoring enjoyment. It gives the motorist a delightful traveling companion that will entertain with music and the spoken word. Highway Hi-Fi, the most unique advancement since the automobile radio, enables the car-owner to listen to his favorite classical recording, the tops in popular music, drama, children’s stories — indeed, he can select from an across-the-board listing of world famous artists performing their specialties. The modern motorist may now program the entertainment he wants as easily as tuning in a radio.

HOW TO INCREASE YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE

After you have played and enjoyed the six records you receive with the Highway Hi-Fi instrument, you will want to add to your collection. In this brochure you will find a listing of the initial library from which you may choose, an array of the finest in hi-fi sound, a fitting complement to the Highway Hi-Fi record player.

Simply check off the ones you desire on the order blank enclosed and mail it. The records will be shipped prepaid if your check or money order accompanies your order. Postage and C.O.D. charges will be added to the price of the records if you prefer that method of shipment.

NOTE: For regular information on records to be added to the Highway Hi-Fi Library in the future, make certain that you fill out and mail the Registration Card enclosed.

HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR RECORDS

The records designed for the Highway Hi-Fi are precision-made of the finest materials known to the industry. Like any other quality product, reasonable care should be taken in their use. They should be handled by the edges and occasionally wiped clean with a soft, slightly damp cloth in the event that dust collects on their surfaces. When not in use, the record should always be kept in its protective sleeve and stored in the compartment under the machine or in the specially designed carrying case you can order separately to house your growing library.

Like any high fidelity instrument, the care of the stylus is of prime importance. Although the specially designed pick-up and arm permit only a two-gram stylus or needle pressure against the record, and wear, therefore, is negligible, you may wish to replace the stylus after long use or accidental damage. They may be ordered from the same source as the records for $2.50 each.

The mail orders went to New York, where they were handled by Columbia. Did CBS-Columbia see this as a new format with which to carve out a market share? Whatever, it obviously didn’t work out, as the original Highway Hi-Fi only lasted through the 1958 model year — though it was already practically dead in ’57, thanks in part to high warranty service costs. From our current perspective, we can also see it as a software format incompatibility problem. You were limited solely to the releases made available by Columbia, and as you can see in the listings, these were somewhat limited. I’m no expert on what was available to them, but I’m guessing that many of these releases were remasters from Columbia’s back-catalog. Note the complete absence of serious jazz, rhythm & blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll. This limited editorial view could not have helped. Mr. Greenfield provides more post-mortem.

Read Part 4

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