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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