July/August 2011
Paul Collins

The Fickle Needle of Fate

Who the Hell Puts a Turntable in a Car’s Dashboard?

Discussed: A Solid ’60 Plymouth, The Pitiless Judgment of Youth, Dashboard Jukeboxes, Horn-Rims and Brylcreem, Optimistic Overestimation in Marketing Copy, That Damn Rock-and-Roll Noise, Purchases Made by Howard Hughes, Inventors and Madmen, Custom Presses, The Hard Sell

(Crackle.)

(Crackle.)

(Crackle.)

(Crackle.)

“Howdy, this is Steve Allen. No—wait a minute, don’t go looking in the glove compartment. I’m not there. I’m not really in the car at all. Not personally, that is. But you have to admit, that RCA Auto Victrola’s a fooler.

“You know, I enjoy sitting at my piano. I guess, uh, any musician does. But you! Man, you’re really in solid—sitting behind the wheel of a new, solid ’60 Plymouth.… Solid, man. Really solid!”

(Crackle.)

“Solid, man. Really solid!”

(Crackle.)

“Solid, man. Really solid!”

(Crackle.)

“Soli...”

(Click.)

You’re working in the parts department of a Plymouth dealership, car demo disc in your hand, campaign coverage of Nixon and Kennedy chattering away from another car in the garage.

And you’re wondering: Who the hell puts a turntable in a car’s dashboard?

Five years earlier, the verdict of Peter Goldmark’s son had been pitiless: “Boring.”

The radio in the Goldmark family’s Chrysler had no stories to listen to, no good music—why, the boy demanded, couldn’t they bring their own stuff to listen to in the car? By 1955, Peter Goldmark had plenty to work on already—the Hungarian émigré was an inventor of the 33 rpm LP for CBS Laboratories, and had created the nation’s first color TV system. But now, he admitted, “I kept thinking of my son’s question.”

Their car already had a radio, something almost unthinkable before the 1950s. Prior to transistor radios, getting music in your car meant installing a vacuum-tube set so monstrous that it required sawing apart the dashboard. But now Goldmark sensed an opportunity: why not hook a dashboard-mounted jukebox up to these sleek new audio systems?

Sure, there were problems—after all, the 33 rpm LP that Goldmark helped invent was too big for a dashboard. He needed something smaller, yet capable of running for an hour without skipping or switching records. Goldmark had his lab shrink the grooves down to cram three where one normally sat; they slowed the rotation; they buffered out potholes with rubber pads; they jammed the needle so hard into the record that it wouldn’t skip. The resulting “ultra-microgroove” 16 2⁄3 rpm record—a thick vinyl platter the size of a 45, but so slow and densely pressed that it took an hour to play—tested beautifully in a CBS exec’s jet black Ford Thunderbird.

Goldmark pitched the invention to Detroit, and within days found himself at a Chrysler test track. Horn-rimmed execs swapped records in and out of the player as the auto giant’s president wildly drove a car over a torture-track of cobblestone, speed bumps, and washboard test strips. Goldmark, tossed around the backseat, was on the verge of throwing up. But his player performed perfectly, and the car swung into the test garage with music swelling from its windows.

“I must have it for the Chrysler,” one executive barked to Goldmark. As the men stepped out, company managers gathered around their bosses in what one can only imagine was a haze of Brylcreem fumes and cigar smoke.

Yes, they chanted in corporate unison. Yes, we must have it.

The fall ’55 advertising was ecstatic.

“It’s another Chrysler Corporation first!” the ads blared. “The Highway Hi-Fi record player slides in and out easily and can be operated without taking your eyes off the road.” If the wisdom of changing records while driving was debatable, the price was not: Chrysler was pushing the seventy-five-dollar option, along with what it called “The Forward Look ’56,” with a barrage of buzzwords like “magical Pushbutton PowerFlite.”

The press quickly followed. “You’d have to drive up a wall to make the needle skip a groove,” Popular Science marveled. Billboard reported that CBS was even testing out the system for use in taxicabs, DC-7 passenger planes, -Washington, D.C., buses, and on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

But the fickle needle of fate, alas, was about to skip.

Highway Hi-Fi units, still ruinously under warranty, started pouring back into service departments. It hardly helped that Chrysler had also installed them in its cheaper Dodge and Plymouth lines, whose suspensions were harder on the units. And someone else was a little hard on the players, too: namely, CBS System chief William Paley.

“He felt that record players installed in cars might cause drivers to turn off the radio to listen to -records,” Goldmark recalled years later, “and thus CBS would lose listeners.”

Despite car ads promising “a complete modern record library on wheels,” Columbia Records’ proprietary 162⁄3 rpm format left buyers at the mercy of a perversely scattershot catalog. Chrysler drivers puzzled over titles like Ken Griffin at the Wurlitzer Organ, Irving Berlin tunes, and a dramatic reenactment of the signing of the Magna Carta. Part of the problem, Goldmark admitted, was William Paley himself: “He didn’t think pop music was a market at all.” Even worse, Chrysler brass agreed, imagining the market was full of people like themselves—executives tired of all that damn rock-and-roll noise.

“If you want to listen to classical music and relax and you can’t get anything on the radio but rock and roll, it can be irritating,” one Chrysler VP explained. “Did you ever try to get classical music on your radio at three in the afternoon?”

For a round disc, Highway Hi-Fi was hopelessly square. It took two model years to unload the first hopeful production run of eighteen thousand sets. Columbia Records stalled at just forty-two album releases in the 162⁄3 rpm format—with a number of the -final records all by the deeply obscure “Lee Raine and His Orchestra.” Though salesmen snared a final few unwary buyers (including Howard Hughes, who bought one in a blue ’57 Imperial convertible), it seemed the song for Highway Hi-Fi was already over.

But—like a record on repeat—the idea just wouldn’t go away.

The music you love in the car you love, announced ads in 1960, showing a beaming Steve Allen clutching a handful of records. These, though, were 45s. After the fiasco of Columbia’s proprietary format, Chrysler went to RCA and had it produce a dash-mounted record player that could play a stack of fourteen 45 rpm singles—be they Elvis, Sinatra, or Bill Haley. A California knockoff (the A.R.C. 2500) soon appeared, while in Europe the Dutch manufacturer Philips came up with its own version, the Auto Mignon AG 2101. But for all the clever padding and stylus tweaks made by RCA engineers, the machine was still dogged by the same existential crisis of automotive phonographs everywhere.

It skipped.

In the end, the RCA Victor Auto Victrola had an even shorter run than the Highway Hi-Fi, vanishing by 1961. The following year would bring the next serious attempt at car audio, a precursor to the 8-track deck by inventor Earl Muntz—“Madman” Muntz, as he was known. But what could ever be half so mad as a dash-mounted turntable?

There is quite possibly only one man left in the world still pressing records for the Highway Hi-Fi, and he lives in Minneapolis.

“I first had a guy come to me years ago who had an old Highway Hi-Fi, asking about making a record,” says Kim Gutzke of Custom Records. Vintage car owners email Gutzke a music file, and he custom presses whatever they want onto a 16 2⁄3 rpm acetate disc. And what they want, he says, is simple: “’50s rock and roll. Not the crappy music Hi-Fi put out.”

The old machines are collectors’ items now; even a rusted-out unit can fetch hundreds at auction. But a few YouTube videos circulate of restored dashboard phonographs in all their glory—and if you look hard enough, you can still find an otherwise-inexplicable Steve Allen 45 labeled Solid Plymouth 1960. Pressed by the specialty label Hanover-Signature Record Corp., it may be the very last record ever made purely for the doomed audio species of Motor Victrola.

(Crackle.)

“...Say, I’m getting carried away. This car doesn’t need selling, it needs driving…. Yessir, your own reaction to the drive you’re taking is the best salesman Plymouth could possibly have on the payroll.

“So, I guess I’ll cut out. But let me leave you with a little thought. If you’re looking for the best of the low-priced three, you’re in it. When that fellow with you shows you the dotted line, sign, man, sign.

“So long. See you on television.”

(Crackle.)

(Crackle.)

(Crackle.)

(Click.)

Paul Collins teaches creative nonfiction at Portland State University. He is the author of seven books; his latest, The Murder of the Century, has just been published by Crown Books.

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