Car Radios, Geoff Wheatley

Car Radios, Geoff Wheatley's new car
Car Radios, History , Geoff Wheatley
Published by: All Car Central Publishing
Date published: 3/12/2015

The Car Radio, Some History
By Geoff Wheatley, 2015 ©

Geoff Wheatley

We take the car radio very much for granted and that includes the ability to play music, however this feature in our cars has a rather short history compared with the 130 years that we have used mechanical transport. The first new car I purchased did not have a radio, there was a facility to install one but at an extra cost. That was in the mid 1960's; if I had purchased a more expensive car it would have been fitted with a radio with a single speaker and two wave bands. As for playing my own music etc, that was only available a few years later with what at the time was a separate unit with tapes called an Eight Track. (There was a Four Track offered just before the Eight Track from Earl "Madman" Muntz in 1962. Ed.)

Then the combined radio and cassette were available but again the unit was expensive and usually only fitted to up-market vehicles. Around the same time a new toy was offered, a public communication feature that allowed you to listen to the truck traffic and other drivers who provided such important information as where the local police cars might be. (This was a CB or Citizen Band 2-way over-the-air radio, mostly replaced today by, first the FM Family Band and then the Cell phone. Ed,) I recall fitting such a device around 1975 but to be honest after a few weeks this unique process lost its charm to be replaced by a combined radio and music player that included a special news channel that told you if it was going to rain or snow, that seemed to me to be more useful than listing to other drivers chatter. Today we take the installed radio as an included feature in much the same way that we consider a heater and A/C unit.

The history of the car radio in the USA goes back to 1929, (See Footnote), when two young men decided to take their girl friends down Lovers Land to see the evening sunset. One of the girls happened to say how nice it would be to have music and the idea took hold with William Lear and his friend Elmer Wavering. Both men had a basic knowledge of radio, while Lear had been a radio operator during WW1. A second hand radio was purchased then taken apart and installed in a car. Running off a separate battery the radio would produce sound but when the engine was started the electrical components including the spark plugs made reception very difficult. Item by item was redesigned so that such electrical interference was removed and within a few months they had a car fitted with its own radio that worked!

Having succeeded in their endeavor they decided to take the car and radio to a radio convention in Chicago. There they met Paul Galvin owner of the Galvin Manufacturing Company, who along with other electrical items made a product called a "Battery Eliminator". It should be remembered that many of the home radios made at that time required battery power, however his product had a short life span as more and more homes were wired for electricity and radio manufacturers started to produce radios that ran on AC current. In consequence he was looking for a new product to offer to the public. (A brief personal note, my grandparents who were radio people but lived in a house that featured gas lighting had the battery unit that had to be recharged every week, usually by the local garage. My job was to take in the used one and collect the recharged unit. You were not allowed to take these things on the public transport in case the acid spilled and as the local bus was the only means available I soon acquired a large tin that transported the battery each time it was required. No one ever questioned me about the secret tin despite its size! As I recall the cost for the charge was twenty five cents and the bus fare for two trips was ten. This meant that at the end of each journey I had a profit of fifteen cents, this was during the war when fifteen cents could buy a lot of treats.)

Gavin saw the car radio as his next profitable feature and offered Lear and Wavering production facilities in his factory and the first commercial car radio that they made was fitted into Galvan's car, a Studebaker. Gavin then went to his friendly banker requesting a loan to set up production and to sweeten the deal he fitted a car radio in the bankers car. This proved not to be such a good idea as the banker's car a Packard, caught fire a few hours after the radio was fitted...Need I say more. Short of funds Gavin drove his car 800 miles to Atlantic City to show off the radio at the 1930 Radio Manufacturers Convention. As funds were in short supply he could not rent space but simply parked his car outside the convention and with the radio going at full blast attracted attention. It worked and he got enough orders to go into production.

The first production model was called 5T71, not quite a name to catch the eye of a possible purchaser so a new product name was required. Many companies in the radio business used the term "Ola', examples Radiola or Victrola. As the radio was designed to be used in the motor car he decided on the name "Motorla" but car owners did not rush to have this new device fitted, in reality the problem was clear.

In 1931 the unit cost around a hundred dollars with installation extra. (In today's world that would represent about $2,600). As the cost of a new car at that time was about $650 an extra one hundred bucks could kill the sale, also the depression was about to hit the world markets so money was tight and so were the terms of the banks when lending funds for a purchase. There was another problem when a buyer decided to fit a radio, the installation took all day, and often longer. First the complete dash needed to be removed to accommodate the speaker and the radio. Holes had to be cut in the floor to fit the separate battery required to power the unit. Next the antenna had to be installed and that could mean removing part of the roof. In reality a rather expensive toy that had a limited range of service.

Hills could cutoff reception when out to enjoy a Sunday ride in the country. On the other hand the large building in the majority of the cities had much the same effect. Sales were slow and Galvin lost money for the first three years, however in 1933 Ford started offering a Motorola unit installed in the factory when the cars were being produced, cutting in half the installation time. A year later the Goodrich Tire Company agreed to sell and install the units. As more and more units were fitted the price was reduced and by 1935 the complete radio fitted and working was on offer for fifty five dollars Ford went one better and included a radio for forty five. The Motorola had found its market as more and more car owners accepted that fact that if they did not have a radio they were considered cheap or worse still too old to appreciate the wonders of the modern world! The introduction of push button selection by Motorola in 1937, gave the company a head start in the car radio market but to be honest it was first introduced for the radio that lived in your front room where the family listened in relative comfort on Sunday night rather than in a seat in the family car. Galvin made yet another contribution to the communication world when in 1940 he developed the first hand held two-way radio, thirty three years later it manufactured the first hand held cellular phone while today its one of the largest cell phone manufacturers in the world.

Ok I hear you ask, what happened to the two guys who had the idea to put a radio in a car? Lear went on inventing various things and had over 150 patents. He will be best remembered for the Lear Jet the first mass-produced affordable business jet. (Lear also developed the Eight Track in 1964. Ed.) Wavering stayed with Motorola and was responsible for the development of the automobile alternator the thing that keep your battery topped up each time you start the engine! This review of three successful people endorses the idea that if you put invention and sound business experience together, you can achieve anything.

FOOT NOTE: It is claimed that car radios were fitted before 1929 in Germany and Italy but there is no direct evidence available I guess it's like the TV. Question: Who produced the first working TV set? You can take your pick from the Russians, the British and the Americans. Each has a genuine claim but I would not like to put the crown on any such contenders.


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