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The 'groovy' highway hi-fis of the 1950s

Turntables in cars looked like the next big thing in 1956.

I know a little about under-dash record players from the late 1960s, but I was totally clueless about 1950s car turntables, until I heard writer Paul Collins talking about them on WNYC's "Soundcheck" radio show a few weeks ago. I chatted with Collins to learn more about these groovy hi-fis.

Columbia Records developed the proprietary Highway Hi-Fi format: a thick 7-inch, 16 2/3rpm record that had up to one hour playing time per side. Chrysler executives jumped on the idea, and offered the turntable as an option in their 1956 models, and were hoping one out of 10 cars would sport turntables in a few years. The 7-inch, long-play format quickly flopped, but Chrysler sold 18,000 turntables for around $75 each.

Car tunes in the 1950s looked like this UAW-DaimlerChrysler National Training Center

The stylus tracking force was around 2 grams, which isn't that much higher than what we use today. Of course, 1950s technology had severe limitations, so the Highway Hi-Fi records skipped and jammed. Only 36 titles were available when the turntables first arrived, and an additional 6 were added in early 1956, which raised the total to 42 titles. These 7-inch, 16 2/3rpm records didn't have the large hole of a 45rpm single, and the grooves ran almost up to the small center hole to maximize playing time. The records probably sounded awful; they should have called the format "Highway Lo-Fi."

The slim selection of titles didn't help sell the format, and they weren't the blockbusters of the era, though I'd like to hear "How Hi The Fi," a Buck Clayton jam session. Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry tunes were never offered for the Columbia Highway Hi-Fis. The technology had its faults, but the proprietary format was doomed from the start.

RCA flirted with car turntables from 1960 to 1961 and made models that played standard 45rpm 7-inch records, but those turntables also failed to gain any traction in the market. Philips dabbled in aftermarket installed car turntables, but once the 4-track tape cartridge system arrived in the early 1960s, car turntables were on the road to extinction. Other tape formats, like 8-track and cassette, had long and successful runs until the CD arrived in the early 1980s.

Paul Collins wrote "The Fickle Needle of Fate" about car turntables for "The Believer" magazine. This YouTube video of a factory-installed RCA turntable playing in a 1960 Chrysler Imperial will illustrate how the technology worked.