Today's car infotainment systems offer drivers and passengers an array of state-of-the-art features that can dazzle even the most savvy techno-geek. (Unfortunately, these same high-tech systems can be complicated to use and prone to technical problems, as we detailed in "High-Tech Automotive Headaches.") On the audio front, the listening options are vast, including AM/FM, satellite, and Internet radio, CDs and DVDs, and audio files you play via plugged-in or Bluetooth-enabled smart phones, music players, and off a built-in hard drive. Cars have long had music players beyond radio. Anyone of a certain age will remember 8-track and cassette players. And record players. Record players? Yep.
A new technology came on the market in the mid-1950s and early 1960s that freed drivers from commercials and unreliable broadcast signals, allowing them to be the masters of their motoring soundtrack with their favorite pressed vinyl spinning on a record player mounted under the dash. Consumer Reports covered three auto record player units of the day.
The “Highway Hi-Fi” was the first on the scene, available from the Chrysler Corporation as an option on the 1956 Chrysler, Desoto, Dodge, and Plymouth. CBS Labs developed the technology that played records specifically designed for the system, with 7-inch discs in 16⅔ rpm format, available exclusively from Columbia Records. The format was chosen because 33⅓ rpm records at 12 inches in diameter were too big for the car and the smaller 45 rpm size didn't play as long. The 7-inch size developed for the "Highway Hi-Fi" fit in the car and played for about an hour per side.
Chrysler started the auto audiophile's collection with six records from Columbia that presented mellifluous motoring tracks such as “I'll Take Romance” from Percy Faith and His Orchestra. Additional recordings were available for order. The Great American Songbook was represented with picks such as Cole Porter's score for the Broadway show “Kiss Me, Kate” and "My Old Kentucky Home" played on a Wurlitzer organ. And there were talk selections, too, including recordings of the CBS radio series “You Are There” featuring historical topics such as “The Signing of the Magna Carta” and “The Battle of Gettysburg.” (You can listen to CBS' classic “You Are There” series on the Internet Archive.)
The Highway Hi-Fi was short-lived as Chrysler only offered it for two years. Consumer Reports did not test it, but we did report its demise, suggesting that the price tag of nearly $200 (over $1,700 today) and the constraint of buying proprietary records from Columbia were probably reasons for the player's short run. Chrysler did eventually add an option to play 45 rpm records on the Highway Hi-Fi, but perhaps that choice came too late.