Back in the 1950s, the only way to listen to something in your car was by turning on your AM radio and tuning it into a local station. Needless to say, the music selection you listened to was a bit restricted. Well, they say that “necessity is the mother of invention” so Columbia Broadcast System (CBS) put their engineering staff to work. Soon, a solution was developed; it was a specially-designed record player (Remember CBS was behind this) built just for automobiles.
Chrysler Was First
We discovered from our technical source at Barkau Automotive (Stockton, IL) that the the first automobile company to take advantage of the system was Chrysler Corporation. They offered their “Highway Hi-Fi” system on their 1956 models. The system was contained in a small metal box that mounted on the bottom edge of the dashboard directly above the transmission hump. The way it worked was simple: by pressing the button on the front cover of the player, the door would flip open and the turntable would slide out. You would load a record, flip the “Play” button and the record would begin to play.
Extended Playing Time
In order to make the playing time tolerable, a new 16 2/3 rpm speed was used with the records. This allowed up to 60 minutes of audio per record side. In case you are wondering how the tonearm was put down on the record, it was easy because it was done automatically.
If you were to order one of the Highway Hi-Fis on your new Chrysler, Desoto, Dodge or Plymouth, you received with it the first 6 records in the series in a box set, along with a registration card and order form for more records. Only 36 were available when the option first came out with an additional 6 added in early 1956 for a total of 42 available to the general public.
The only other records that were made specifically for this player were not intended for distribution to the general public; they were dealer demonstration records. This is what dealers would do. When a salesman would bring a prospective buyer out for a test drive, a record would be put in the player and the customer would be told about all the new bells and whistles by a strange voice coming from the radio speaker!
The Highway Hi-Fi option was discontinued at the beginning of the 1957 model year. Apparently the system could still be ordered by dealers but it was no longer a factory-approved option. So, why did the option die so soon? If you read between the lines on the service bulletins related to the player you can see that they had service problems. By the time the bugs had been worked out, the industry was moving onto 8 track tapes!