I’ve offered some very correct opinions in the past about the best ways to listen to music while behind the wheel, and while I won’t tell you that record players were a smart addition to vehicles, I wish I could experience it at least once.
Consumer Reports published a superb breakdown in 2014 of record players in cars from the 1950s and ’60s, based on reviews the publication conducted at the time. The first offering was called the “Highway Hi-Fi,” CR says, available as an option from Chrysler on the 1956 Desoto, Dodge, and Plymouth.
Interestingly, the technology designed for the Highway Hi-Fi made it so you could only play 7" records in 16 2/3 rpm format from Columbia Records. That format was picked, CR says, because 12" in records that played at 33 1/3 rpm were too big for the car, and 45 rpm records—typically enough to fit a single on both sides—didn’t play long enough. The “Highway Hi-Fi” 7" records played an hour per side.
Here’s a demo video, which says only 42 titles were in fact offered in this format:
CR says it only lasted two years:
The Highway Hi-Fi was short-lived as Chrysler only offered it for two years. Consumer Reports did not test it, but we did report its demise, suggesting that the price tag of nearly $200 (over $1,700 today) and the constraint of buying proprietary records from Columbia were probably reasons for the player’s short run. Chrysler did eventually add an option to play 45 rpm records on the Highway Hi-Fi, but perhaps that choice came too late.
By 1960, Chrysler offered a $410 option called the “Victrola,” according to CR, and that could play a standard 45 rpm record. While CR couldn’t get a Highway Hi-Fi to test, its test drivers did spend time with the Victrola:
The RCA “Victrola” held 14 records and could play for 2½ hours continuously, if extended play 45s were used. Our test drivers found the record changer “easy to operate while keeping eyes on the road ahead.” Music without distracted driving. Imagine that.
Based on the description of this video, it looks like this is a test of the Victrola:
Another model called the Norelco “Auto Mignon” held only one 45 rpm record at a time, CR said, which obviously presented a distracted driver scenario, having to swap records every four-to-five minutes.
Something I didn’t expect, and am honestly impressed by, is that both the RCA and Norelco players tested by CR were able to keep the needle on the record while driving, CR says.
Of the RCA, we wrote: “The stylus did not jump the grooves even when the car was moving at various speeds over broken pavement, cobblestones, and deep holes.” We gave the Norelco a similar assessment, describing the needle performance as being “unaffected by rough roads, car sway, and sharp braking.”
Seems obvious this would be a short-lived trend, especially with the advent of cassette players and eight-tracks. But I’m surprised, really, that automakers haven’t attempted to figure out how to make it work today as an offering to attract young car buyers who love vinyl.
That’s a hip, happening idea, yeah? No? All right.