First, there was the wheel. Not much of interest happened for millennia after that until the advent of car audio. But even the introduction of the first car stereos in 1930 was no big deal because, well, music basically sucked until there was rock ‘n’ roll. By the 1950s, automakers were hip to the kids and their passion for those hip-shakin’ sounds and began experimenting.
Chrysler offered an actual turntable in one of its higher-end models, which proved to be both impractical and really stupid, as well as an expensive option. It was not until the 8-track tape (developed by Bill Lear of Lear Jet fame, of all people) arrived that car audio became a personal musical statement of taste and discrimination. Of course, 8-tracks sucked, too, but could withstand the ride without skipping and players became options in many cars of the 1960s and ’70s. Many believe 8-tracks the precursor to cassettes, but the opposite is true. The Dutch firm Philips launched the first “compact cassette” in 1964, several years prior to Lear’ 8-track, but the latter format had already taken hold.
Carmakers wised up by 1970 and the first in-dash tape decks arrived, although most too poor to own a new car or purchase high-end car audio systems simply retro-fitted their old 8-track players with cassette adaptors from Radio Shack. Tape decks reigned as the standard even as Sony introduced the first in-dash CD player in 1985. Early CDs were easily damaged and skipped, and the in-dash players were often prohibitively expensive. With advent of MP3s, cassette decks finally bit the dust. The last vehicle offering a factory cassette desk was the 2010 Lexus CS 430. Automakers are now experimenting with in-car streaming using a Bluetooth pathway from a smart phone. Eventually, carmakers will reduce the in-dash stereo to nothing more than a connection node on a network. Of course, the aftermarket lives on. Cassette-to-iPod adaptors make the leap into the 21st century for older cars. But the CD? It’s just yet not cool—or vintage—enough.