There’s nothing better than rolling down the blacktop, windows down, the wind blowing, and the exhaust pumping while you listen to your favorite song. It seems that cars should be driven with a soundtrack and that soundtrack varies depending on the person, but there are certain similarities among those who like to go cruisin’.

In the earliest days of motor cars there was only the sound of the engine and the wind, though driving at a sizzling 15 miles per hour over dirt roads didn’t produce much of a symphony of sound to accompany the driving.

In 1930 this all changed, well sort of. That is the year that a pair of brothers named Galvin, through their American Galvin Manufacturing Company, introduced the first in-car radio. It is true that radio pioneer Lee De Forest experimented with car radios as early as 1904 but it wasn’t until the Galvins released what they branded as a Motorola that radios became viable for automobiles. These Motorolas weren’t necessarily that great, though. The cost was a staggering $130. This was at a time when the cost to get into a Ford Model A was only $540. (Photo 1) There weren’t that many people who were tricking out their Fords with killer sound systems back then.

At the time radio was seen more as an in-home form of entertainment. It was not uncommon for people to crowd around their radios after dinner and enjoy live musical programs as well as news and even radio dramas and comedies. In fact, radio in the home had become so popular in the days leading up to World War II that the motion picture industry actually felt threatened. Why not? Motion pictures were a continuing purchase with people having to buy tickets for each movie they saw while a radio was a one-time cost that could be enjoyed over and over. Considering that this was in the midst of the Great Depression, people were being careful with their money.

By 1933 a British car manufacturer, Crossley Motors, introduced the first factory installed car radio. Shortly after, that trend moved to this side of the pond and American car makers were offering radios as options. By the end of that decade push button AM radios were the norm. While Crossleys were available in England, Americans who had not been wiped out by the Depression were driving the likes of this 1933 Duesenberg Model J convertible. (Photo 2)

The end of World War II had a huge impact on the country. Soldiers returned home from war and manufacturers, especially those in the automotive industry, switched back from making military materials to turning out items for civilians to enjoy. Because there was a large number of jobs allowing people to earn a good living, the face of the country began to rapidly change. One of the major changes was that people began moving out of the cities and into the burgeoning suburbs. This was a direct result of people wanting to own their own home rather than rent as well as governments building paved roads to these destinations. In order to get to those homes, away from where they worked, people needed a car. And thus America’s car culture began.

It is estimated that by 1946, the year after the war ended, about nine million car radios were in use. The top song of that year which surely aired on many of those radios was Perry Como’s “Prisoner of Love.” The people listening to Perry Como might well have been driving a Chevy Fleetwood similar to this one. (Photo 3)

A generation was soon growing up with the familiarity of the automobile in their life. Kids who were coming of age in the 1950s were soon accustomed to hopping in the car and having the freedom to go wherever they wanted. Whether it was riding with mom or dad or, if they were old enough, taking the car off to some school function, the automobile was becoming an integral part of the family.

During this time AM radio was king despite the fact that in 1952, German firm Blaupunkt invented the first FM radio receiver. It was not a success as there were far too few radio stations broadcasting on those frequencies to make the format an immediate success. Still, both FM and Blaupunkt survived and are both around today. Unfortunately you don’t see many cars like this 1952 Nash Wasp (Photo 4) any more. Back then the driver may have been playing the top song of 1952 which was being listened to on those AM only radios was Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me.”

In 1955 Chrysler developed the very first music on demand system for cars. Owners who bought a New Yorker Deluxe convertible, such as this one (Photo 5), may have opted for this sound system. It was a proprietary seven-inch record player that allowed drivers and passengers to choose their own music to listen to while they drove around. One can be seen about two and a half minutes into this video about a Plymouth Fury.

The biggest problem was that these discs were not compatible with the home record players that had become increasingly popular so if someone wanted to listen in their car they would have to buy the record on a new format. This presented another problem in that there were not many offerings and none were pop songs of the time. In fact, the biggest hit of 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. It was not available on Chrysler’s system.

That song and many more were available as 45 RPM records, though and so a number of manufacturers toyed with the idea of putting their record players into cars. A number of manufacturers, including RCA among others, managed to sell quite a few in car units.

For the 1956 model year Chrysler offered a transistor radio branded by Philco. Prior to this radios used expensive, heat creating tubes. The transistor units were more efficient and were also smaller. That radio was standard issue on this Imperial 4 door. It’s more than likely that a number of people heard that year’s number one hit by Doris Day, “Que Sera Sera.”

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s AM radio was the car king. People cruised around listening to their favorite stations hoping to hear their favorite songs. As the decade turned to the ‘60s America’s car culture really kicked in as popular music began celebrating youth and, of course, automobiles. The primary band behind this was the Beach Boys. They formed in 1961 and went up the charts with surf based songs but near the end of 1963 they had their first car themed hit with “Little Duece Coupe.” While many young people during this time were driving hot rods (Photo 7), those who wanted performance in a new car might find themselves in a brand new Corvette (Photo 8).

It wasn’t until 1965 that Ford and Motorola teamed up to introduce the first portable tape system for cars, the 8 track. Initially it was a system for playing pre-recorded tapes. There were four stereo channels that could give the listener the ability to hear the equivalent of a full album. The technology was similar to what radio stations used in their “cart” machines, primarily to play commercials. Eventually the ability to record your own cassettes became available and probably the first “mix” tapes were born. It’s quite probably that people were getting satisfaction driving in a 1965 Ford Mustang like this one (Photo 9) listening to the number one song of that year by the Rolling Stones.

Up to this point car radios were all mono, meaning they really only had one channel. This was logical because that was all that AM could broadcast. By the end of the ‘60s, though, radios were starting to add FM and be made in stereo. 1969 saw the first true stereo car system, a true hi-fi. It was quite possible that people would be driving around in their Olds 442 (Photo 10) listening to the number one song of the year, “Get Back” by the Beatles.

The early 1970s saw the 8 track being pushed aside by the smaller, higher quality and cheaper cassette tape. All home cassette machines not only allowed playback but also recording which meant that if your friend bought the George Harrison’s first solo album in 1971 then you could possibly make a copy of the number one song from that year, “My Sweet Lord” while driving around in a brand new Dodge Challenger (Photo 11).

For the next decade or so music had huge changes, moving from disco to punk. The next big change in car audio, though, didn’t happen until 1985 with the advent of in-dash CD players. Compact discs were seen as not only the replacement of cassettes but of vinyl LPs as well. It took a few years but it accomplished that goal. But the proud owners of those very first car CD players could cue up the number one song of the year, “We Are the World,” the famine relief song from USA for Africa while driving around in the coolest poster car of all time, a Lamborghini Countach. (Photo 12)

And so things would stay until the 21st century when music became totally digitized (yes, CDs were digital and there were even some LPs that were digitally recorded) as MP3 files. Most of today’s new cars allow a person to plug in their cell phone and draw up a play list from their accumulated MP3s. This is much more compact than having huge cases filled with 8 tracks or cassettes or even albums filled with CDs and it gives you the same joy of riding around enjoying your favorite songs.

Going to car shows these days you can usually see great old classics that have been retrofitted to allow playing fully digital files off of a cell phone. Still other owners are true to the time period having only the audio format that existed at the time. It isn’t uncommon for people to look in an old car, see and 8 track and start a conversation with the owner about memories a certain song kindled. This is part of the reason why we create a soundtrack for when we go cruisin’, it brings back the memories we lived with these great old cars.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4

Photo 5

Photo 6

Photo 7

Photo 8

Photo 9

Photo 10

Photo 11

Photo 12