Audio Goes On The Road – The Story Of Columbia, Chrysler, and the Highway HiFi

We have spent some time here looking at the history of recorded music and how it has been made in a studio and reproduced at home. We have examined ancient formats like Edison cylinders and 78 rpm discs, and slightly less ancient formats such as the Long Play record and the smaller 45 rpm disc. One thing all of these forms had in common was that they were mobile only insofar as you could lug your phonograph from one location to another. Music in your car? That was what radios were for.

Everyone knows about the Compact Cassette tape and its precursor, the 8-track tape, but not everyone knows about an earlier attempt to take your own music on the road – the Highway HiFi.

During the transition out of the longtime standard 78 rpm shellac disc, there was one format that came out around the same general time as the “33” and the “45” – That was the 16 2/3 rpm disc. These discs were mainly offered for spoken word records aimed at the blind. However, they also served as the basis for a collaboration between Columbia Records and the Chrysler Corporation for a device Chrysler called the Highway HiFi. We all know how that experiment ended, but the story is interesting just the same.

The system was the brainchild of Peter Goldmark of CBS Laboratories. It is not as though Goldmark needed a new invention under his belt – he is credited with a major breakthrough in color television before the war and had also been a member of the team that had invented the 33 1/3 rpm Long Play disc for Columbia (then owned by CBS). In his later years, Goldmark wrote a book in which he attributed the idea for the Highway HiFi to his young son, who observed that with radio, passengers in a car were at the mercy of broadcasters who decided on programming. You could switch to another station, but then (as now) there was only so much variety available.

Goldmark worked through what would be needed – to get the same 45-minute playing time as a standard LP and still have a disc and player that would fit in or under a car’s dashboard, a smaller disc with even finer grooves would be necessary. The 16 2/3 rpm format was already in existence, so that was a start. That format had a built-in limitation in that it was only really good in middle frequencies (like the human voice), but then in an environment like a car on the road when playing time trumped sound quality, the trade-off seemed worth it.

Goldmark came up with an “ultra” microgroove that packed far more grooves into the same space than did a standard LP. To go with the extremely compressed grooves, the system needed a stylus of .25 mil (.00025 inches). This has half the thickness of the .5 mil stylus that remains the standard for a normal stereo LP.

With the basics out of the way, it was next necessary to make a player. Goldmark made a prototype and installed it in a collegue’s Thunderbird for a test, and it seemed successful. But when he approached higher levels of management at CBS, he ran into resistance. William Paley, who ran the company, was not at all keen on the idea. This was mainly because CBS was in the radio business, and Paley viewed a mobile phonograph as a potential threat to radio – a medium which was already straining under competition from television. Still, Goldmark retained a stubborn belief in the value of his invention and decided to present it directly to Chrysler Corporation.

Why Chrysler? Goldmark said it was because he owned a Chrysler and it was, therefore, the first company he thought of. He contacted Chrysler’s chief electrical engineer and demonstrated the prototype. Goldmark’s recollection was that the engineer drove the car on Chrysler’s test track, which contained all kinds of inhospitable surfaces. Despite this determined attempt to make the record skip, it would not. Goldmark’s memory may not be completely reliable, because he also remembers that future Chrysler President Lynn Townsend personally told him “I must have it” for the company. The problem is that Townsend was an outside accountant who was not brought into the company until 1957, so it is doubtful that he would have been involved in the prototype stage of a device that would probably have gone into production late in the summer of 1955. But whatever.

The Highway HiFi (the name given the player by Chrysler) was offered as an option for 1956 models. At $200, it was not at all inexpensive – that equates to about $2,200 in 2023. But the Highway HiFi was a Chrysler Corporation exclusive, and that company gave it plenty of promotion.

Like in this short dealer film that showed off the new features of the 1956 Chrysler line of cars. If you want to skip past all of the other life-changing innovations of new Chryslers that year, you can see where they pushed the Highway HiFi system starting at the 3:36 minute mark.

The reality turned out to be a little different from the test that Goldmark described. Because the player would have to withstand road shocks of all kinds, it pressed that extremely thin stylus into the disc with higher than average pressure (2 grams) in order to discourage skipping. The chassis of the player was mounted in some soft rubber mountings to further cushion the unit from road forces. Even then, skipping became a problem and Chrysler began to experience high warranty costs. The players may have worked under the careful calibration of an audio engineer, but there were very few audio engineers capable of such finesse found in Chrysler’s dealer service departments. Even for those lucky owners whose players worked more-or-less as intended, the discs tended to wear quickly because of the concentrated pressure of the ultra-thin stylus on the vinyl grooves, despite the extra thickness of the pressed discs.

Another problem with the discs was the extremely limited selection of titles. Some attribute the lack of rock & roll titles to William Paley’s distaste for that music, and others to Goldmark. In reality, this should not have been an issue as the teens listening to the new sounds in the fall of 1955 were not the ones buying new cars (especially cars with $200 record players in them).

But the selection was still far too limited for the adult demographic. Chrysler’s press release for the system demonstrated the problem:

“Making up the collection are Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Borodini’s Polovtsian Dances, Ippalitov-Ivanov’s Procession of the Sardar, the complete score of the Broadway musical show Pajama Game, Walt Disney’s Davey Crockett, Gene Autry and Champion, Romantic Moods by Percy Faith and his orchestra, quiet jazz by Paul Weston and his orchestra, Music of Cole Porter and Victor Herbert by Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra, and dramatic readings from Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell by a cast of top Hollywood and Broadway artists.”

So, if you were in a mood for some Duke Ellington, some Perry Como or some Dinah Shore, you were out of luck (never mind Sinatra or Elvis). Not even Lawrence Welk, one of the main celebrity pitchmen for Dodge cars, made it onto any of the Highway HiFi records. Go figure. Only 42 titles were ever offered, so the original vision of the Highway HiFi was never actualized – if your programming choices were limited by radio broadcasters, they were limited even more by the sparse catalog of records being offered.

After Chrysler’s initial burst of optimism, consumer interest fizzled quickly (if it was ever there to start with). Sources put the size of the initial order Chrysler placed with Columbia Special Products at between 18,000 and 20,000 units. But when it came to actually installing them in cars, Chrysler sold just 3,685 of the players in 1956 and a mere 675 in 1957 before the option was discontinued.

Mind you, this was with the player being offered by every single brand under the Chrysler Corporation umbrella: Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Chrysler’s Imperial. Those five Divisional brands, by the way, totaled over 1,000,000 units of production in 1956 and almost 1,300,000 in 1957, which shows just how dreadfully unpopular this option was for the company.

This was very much a replay of the fiascos that resulted from early efforts at creation of the long-play record as offered by Edison in the 1920’s and RCA Victor not long after. As before, there were too few record titles and too few early-adopter customers willing to pony up for the too-expensive yet compromised players. And while most record players of the 1950s-60s offered a 16 2/3 rpm option, those household turntables did not come equipped with the ultra-fine stylus necessary to play the Chrysler/Columbia titles at home without damaging them.

Chrysler was not dissuaded, and tried offering mobile music one more time with an RCA-Victor system in 1960-61 model cars. This second version (which was not called Highway HiFi because it was not a Chrysler-exclusive system) avoided the problem of poor music selection by playing standard 45 rpm discs. The good news was that this player cost only $51.75 ($525.96 in 2023 money). However, the players turned out to be even more troublesome than the original Columbia system. First was the need for a mechanical disc changer because individual discs were limited to only 3-5 minutes of playing time. Also, the extra-high stylus pressure wore the records quickly. After this second system flopped as well, both the audio and automotive industries were ready to concede that the traditional disc was not the answer to road-going music to be chosen by the driver and not by radio stations.

It would take close to another decade and an entirely different method of music reproduction to make on-the-go audio a popular automotive accessory. Until that finally came about, AM radio ruled supreme as the source for music on the road, proving that Mr. Paley had nothing to worry about.

32 thoughts on “Audio Goes On The Road – The Story Of Columbia, Chrysler, and the Highway HiFi

  1. A good idea constrained by the technology of the time.

    Another consideration that crossed my mind was the movement of specialized records in and out of the car or risking warpage from sun exposure.

    Why is it that Chrysler trying to make a go of this isn’t the least bit surprising?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read that the records were made thicker than a normal LP record partly to combat the likelihood of warpage from heat.

      I am struck by how it seemed that almost everyone thought it was a great idea, and the naysayers (like CBS head Paley) were only against it because they were afraid its success would hurt radio. Oops.


  2. Let’s not give short shrift to those 50’s era suspensions that made your car lope along in gentle undulations! When Detroit finally decided to compete with other countries to make your car handle well, the vibration and “chop” started. Even CD’s would skip in my 2000’s era Toyotas!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect that the prospect of new, smooth modern highways helped move this idea along. Those new modern highways 50 or 60 years on are so much less hospitable to things requiring smoothness.


    • That is a great question, and I have no idea. I wonder if it is even higher. Every time I ever went to test drive a car, it seems that the seller always wants to turn on the radio to show how great it is. I don’t want to listen to a radio on a test drive, I want to listen to the car!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The concept was good, and 70 years later makes total sense with cellphones. Goldmark was definitely a smart guy, but not quite enough to realize with all the push his idea required maybe it wasn’t going to pan out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the CD was the kind of disc that worked. It’s funny, but I never had a car with a multi-disc CD changer. I was always stuck with the 1956-spec 45 minutes of music on a single CD.


  4. That was interesting JP. I never knew that cars had such a concept of a built-in record player. Lots of wear and tear on the stylus and the record too if you hit potholes the likes of what we have these days from the freeze-thaw cycle. I just read in the last day or two that Ford is aiming to get rid of AM radio for good – FM works. No telling what the rest of the car companies stand on the AM rado controversy.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I listen to an all-news radio station at home and in the car; they give traffic/weather reports every 10 minutes. I suspect people would miss that while in the car. There is a website that promotes the continuation of radio as we know it today. The site claims that one day we will only have subscription radio and encourages people to write their representatives to keep free radio.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. Years ago did we think that the printed version of the newspaper would become nearly obsolete? Part of the reason broadcast radio won’t go away is that we need to be aware of emergencies and radio once was the best way to convey emergencies, unless they come up with a plan for smartphones like amber alerts.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating story, J.P. (not just the tech itself). I’m impressed Chrysler was willing to take the gamble. You addressed my immediate concern (needle-skipping) but it also seems it was one of a handful of reasons for the player’s demise. Kind of reminds me of the laserdisc – a solid improvement on VHS/Beta but short-lived because of the far superior DVD that followed (and frustrating to interrupt the movie halfway through because you had to flip the disc). I love the first photo, vintage with the driving gloves, coat, and broad dashboard (is that a compass on the steering wheel?). And the YouTube commercial you included was worth the full watch. Push-button shift! An idea well ahead of its time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That top photo with the elegant lady shows the dash of a 1956 DeSoto – one of my favorite 50s dashes. The thing in the center of the steering wheel is just an emblem. I still remember that from the hours I spent playing in my grandma’s 55 DeSoto, which was almost the same thing inside and out as this one.

      Chrysler in the 50’s was still a company mostly run by engineers, so I think the inventor from CBS Labs and the Chrysler people were very much of a similar mindset. “This is a great idea! Of course it will work! Of course everyone will want one!” They were also coming out of a funk where their cars were seen as dull and boring (they had only recently dropped from No. 2 of the Big 3 in sales/production to No. 3), and were hard set on a new course that sold luxury and style. I think this option may have played into that vision.

      Liked by 1 person

      • For all of the determined engineering efforts like this one, you think someone would figure out how to maintain a clear AM radio signal. Despite today’s streaming preferences, I still love the simplicity of pushing a single pre-set and tuning into a local radio talk show. When the signal inevitably fades or gets crushed by interference from power lines, I don’t have a lot of options in a small town.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think one problem is that AM stations are so much weaker than they were in their heyday, especially after dark. The days of the old high power stations seem to be over.


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