Car audio history


From the earliest days of radio, enthusiasts had adapted domestic equipment to use in their cars. The commercial introduction of the fitted car radio came in the 1930s from the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation. Galvin Manufacturing was owned and operated by Paul V. Galvin and his brother Joseph E. Galvin. The Galvin brothers purchased a battery eliminator business in 1928 and the corporation’s first product was a battery eliminator that allowed vacuum tube battery-powered radios to run on standard household electric current (see also Rogers Majestic Batteryless Radio). In 1930, the Galvin Corporation introduced one of the first commercial car radios, the Motorola model 5T71, which sold for between $110 and $130 (2009: $1,700) and could be installed in most popular automobiles. Founders Paul Galvin and Joe Galvin came up with the name ‘Motorola’ when his company started manufacturing car radios. The Motorola prefix “motor-” was chosen because the company’s initial focus was in automotive electronics.

In Germany Blaupunkt fitted their first radio to a Studebaker in 1932 and in the United Kingdom Crossley offered a factory fitted wireless in their 10 hp models from 1933. The early car radio receivers used the battery voltage (6.3 volts at the time) to run the vacuum tube filaments, and generated the required high voltage for the plate supply using a vibrator to drive a step-up transformer. The receivers required more stages than the typical home receiver in order to ensure that enough gain was available to allow the AGC to mask signal fading as the car was driven. When cars switched to 12-volt batteries, the same arrangement was used, with tubes with 12-volt heaters. In 1952 Blaupunkt became the first maker to offer FM receivers.


A common feature of modern car radios is the “seek” function which allows tuning from one station to the next at the push of a button. This was a popular option on some Ford products in the 1950s. It was known as the “Town & Country” radio since it used a pair of switches marked “Town” and “Country.” Pressing the Town button actuated a motor to rotate the tuning mechanism while the receiver sensitivity was reduced so that only local (stronger) signals would be received. When a station was tuned, the motor stopped. Pressing the Country button had the same effect except that full sensitivity was enabled so that the very next available station would be selected. In addition, for repeated seeking operations, pressing a foot switch on the driver’s floor up to the left where the “dead pedal” is located on modern cars would reactivate the Seek at whatever sensitivity was last selected.

Chrysler all-transistor car radio

All-Transistor car radio – Chrysler Mopar model 914HR

Chrysler and Philco announced an all-transistor car radio in the April 28th 1955 edition of the Wall Street Journal.This all-transistor car radio was the first tubeless auto set in history, to be developed and produced. It was a $150 “option” for 1956 Chrysler and Imperial cars, which hit the showroom floor on October 21, 1955.

Hybrid car radio

The cost of an all-transistor car radio was extremely expensive. The radio manufacturers had come up with a solution to reduce the costs, by building a “Hybrid” car radio, that contained both vacuum tubes and transistors in 1956. The introduction of semiconductors (transistors) allowed the output stage to change to a transistor, which soon lead to the elimination of the vibrator, and the use of “space charge” tubes that only required 6 or 12 volts on their plates without a high voltage plate power supply (typical examples were the 6DR8/EBF83, 6GM8/ECC86, 6DS8/ECH83, 6ES6/EF97 and 6ET6/EF98). Chrysler discontinued its all-transistor model 914HR and started using hybrid car radios in its 1957 car models.

Car record players and 8-Track tape players

Advances in electronics allowed additions to the basic radio and Motorola offered 16 2/3 rpm disc players fitted to some Chryslers known as Highway Hi-Fi from as early as 1956 and ran through 1958. Records were produced under license by Columbia “Special Products” division and sold exclusively through Chrysler dealers. The 45 rpm record player was introduced in 1959 and ran through the early 60″s under the RCA and ARC brand. Earl “Madman” Muntz introduced the “4-track” tape player in the early ’60s using a continuous loop cartidge and was the first commercially available “car stereo”. Tape players using reel to reel equipment followed, but their bulk ensured limited popularity. This changed in 1964 when Philips launched the Compac Cassette. During the ’60s Lear invented and introduced the 8-track cartridge in competition with the cassette system. Other early manufacturers and enthusiasts began building extra audio power amplifiers to run on 12 volts (the standard voltage in automotive electrical systems). Jim Fosgate, later to become the founder of Rockford Fosgate, was one such pioneer. The company also brought an amplifier to market in 1978.


A factory headrest on a Pontiac Fiero embedded with stereo speakers. Eliminated on later models due to cost.

In 1983, Zed Audio became the first company to build a 200-watt per channel car amplifier, the HiFonics Zeus, which was invented by company founder Steven Mantz. At first, speakers from the home audio and professional markets were simply installed into vehicles. However, they were not well suited to the extremes of temperature and vibration which are a normal part of the environment of an automobile. Different manufacturing techniques, and different component materials, were used in construction to adapt to these conditions.

Sound quality in car audio

By the mid-1980s, vacuum tube amplifiers had been completely supplanted by transistorized models. In 1986, toward the goal of maximum sound quality, Milbert Amplifiers introduced a 30-watt-per-channel all-tube audio power amplifier, born in high-end home audio a decade prior and subsequently adapted for use in automobiles. Receiving mention in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles] several car audio champion cars used Milbert tube amplifiers. By the early 2000s, a few companies had introduced “hybrid” amplifiers using vacuum tube voltage amplification coupled to transistorized power stages for driving loudspeakers. This trend toward sound quality continued as Fender Amplification entered the car audio market in 2012.

The Compact Disc technology also began appearing in vehicles after its use in home audio proved popular. Stock and aftermarket CD players began appearing in the late 1980s, competing with the cassette. Use of the CD in a moving vehicle faced challenges that compromised playback quality of early units. Shock and vibration inherent with driving a vehicle would cause the laser to lose its track and skip around, interrupting playback. Innovations in passive, active, and digital skip protection improved on these conditions in the 90s.

Car audio competitions started in the early 1980s

The first known occurred in 1981 in Bakersfield, California and evolved into an annual event. It was called The Summertime Car Show and Sound Off Competition, which at its height drew upwards of 300 contestants and continued into the 1990s. The Summertime Car Show and Sound Off Competition began as a promotional event for Cars on Camera, a magazine founded by owners Steve Silver and Scott Burud. Since the magazine derived a large part of its advertising revenue from local car stereo shops (TransLex, AutoSounds and others), it made sense to hold a sound-off competition in order to create higher demand for magazine ad space. The original event took place in the parking lot of the local Zody’s chain store on Ming Avenue, in Bakersfield. However, the following year it was moved to the Kern County fairgrounds in order to accommodate the thousands of participants. By the second year, the event added a men’s great legs contest and a bikini contest that attracted contestants from all over California. Cars on Camera changed its name to Camera Ads, which was then sold to Buck Owens Productions.

The most important of these were CAN (formed by Alpine) and NACA (supported by shop owners and amp manufacturers). Both organizations sanctioned countrywide regional events and hosted National Championship events in the late 1980s. They merged to form IASCA in 1990. Despite the move to “quality”-based judging, volume was still a significant portion of most early 1990s competitions. Since then, the two styles—SPL vs. sound quality—have become almost mutually exclusive. The loudness competitions have become known as dB drag racing. Currently, Mobile Electronics Australia, an independent organisation, conducts Sound Quality Competitions (MEASQ) and SPL Competitions (Bass Battle) nationally in Australia. These formats were developed by enthusiast Marc Rushton, the founder of one of the largest enthusiast organizations known as Mobile Electronics Australa