A Brief History of the Car Radio

Mono AM Radio to Touchscreen Infotainment: Nine Decades of Automotive Head Units

Close-Up Of Radio In Vintage Car
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Car audio has been a popular hobby and obsession since the early days of both cars and radios, and the head unit has evolved a lot throughout the years. They've gone from simple, monaural AM radios to complicated infotainment systems, and a number of technologies have come and gone over the intervening decades.

Most head units still include an AM tuner, but eight-track tapes, cassettes, and other technologies have faded into history. Other technologies, such as the compact disc, could also disappear over the next few years. That might seem far-fetched, but the history of car radios is littered with abandoned technology that was once considered state of the art.

The First Commercial Head Units

Model T Ford
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1930s

  • first car radios

Enthusiasts had already been finding creative ways to integrate radios into their cars for over a decade, but the first true car radios weren’t introduced until the 1930s. Motorola offered one of the first car radios, which retailed for about $130. Philco also introduced an early head unit around that time.

When inflation is taken into account, $130 translates to a price tag of about $1,800. Keep in mind that this was the era of the Model T, and you could buy an entire car for around two to three times the asking price of Motorola’s first car radio.

AM Continues to Dominate

Chrysler's record player

Bill McChesney 

1950s

  • FM Receivers
  • record players

Head units dropped in price and increased in quality over the intervening years, but they were still only capable of receiving AM broadcasts until the 1950s. That made sense because AM stations held a stranglehold on the market share at that point. That might seem strange from a modern perspective, but there was a time when FM radio wasn’t exactly a popular medium.

Blaupunkt sold the first AM/FM head unit in 1952, but it took a few decades for FM to really catch on.

The first on-demand music system also appeared in the 1950s. At that point, we were still almost a decade away from eight tracks, and records were the dominant force in home audio. Record players aren’t exactly the most shock-proof media ever invented, but that didn’t stop Chrysler. Despite all common sense, Mopar introduced the very first record playing head unit in 1955.

It didn’t last very long.

The Car Stereo is Born

Woman Inserting Eight-Track Tape in Car Stereo
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1960s

  • first eight-track
  • first stereo

The 1960s saw the introduction of both eight-tracks tapes and car stereos to the world. Up until that point, all car radios had used a single audio channel. Some had speakers in both the front and the back that could be adjusted separately, but they still only had one audio channel.

Early "stereos" placed one channel on the front speakers and the other on the rear speakers, but systems that used the modern left and right format appeared soon after.

The eight-track format actually owes a lot to car head units. If it wasn’t for car audio, the entire format probably would have floundered. Ford pushed it pretty hard, though, and all of the other OEMs eventually picked up the format in order to compete.

Compact Cassettes Arrive on the Scene

An early in-dash tape deck.
Image courtesy of unknownartist79

1970s

  • first cassette tape head unit

The eight-track tape's days were numbered from the start, and the format was rapidly pushed out of the marketplace by the compact cassette. The first cassette head units showed up in the 1970s, and the format was substantially longer-lived than its immediate predecessor.

The first cassette deck head units were relatively hard on tapes, and Maxell actually based an ad campaign in the early 1980s on the concept that its tapes were hardy enough to stand up to the abuse. Everyone who ever put a cassette into an in-dash tape deck remembers the sinking feeling associated with the head unit "eating" a precious tape.

The Compact Disc Fails to Dislodge the Compact Cassette

An early in-dash OEM CD player.

Image courtesy of dddike

1980s

  • first CD head units

The first CD head units showed up less than 10 years after the first tape decks, but adoption of the technology was much slower. CD players wouldn’t become ubiquitous in head units until the late 1990s, and the technology coexisted with the compact cassette for more than two decades.

CD Players Become Dominant

Image courtesy of Aidan

1990s

  • Video head units
  • CD-RW compatible head units

CD players became increasingly popular in head units during the 1990s, and there were a few notable additions toward the tail end of the decade. Head units that were capable of reading CD-RWs and playing MP3 files became available, and DVD functionality also appeared in some high-end vehicles and aftermarket head units.

Bluetooth and Infotainment Systems

OEM GPS systems became increasingly popular after civilian devices were allowed access to a more accurate signal. Photo © Willie Ochayaus

2000s

  • Bluetooth
  • HDD-based head units
  • Infotainment systems

During the first decade of the 21st century, head units gained the ability to interface with phones and other devices via Bluetooth. This technology was actually developed in 1994, but it was originally intended as a replacement for wired networks. In automotive applications, the technology allowed for hands-free calling and created a situation where a head unit could automatically mute itself during a phone conversation.

The accuracy of consumer GPS systems also increased during the first part of the decade, which led to an explosion in both OEM and aftermarket navigation systems. The first infotainment systems also started to appear, and some head units even offered built-in HDD storage.

The Death of the Cassette and What Comes Next

Fortune's 40 Under 40 Party
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2010s

  • The last OEM cassette deck
  • Cloud-based music players
  • Internet radio

2011 marked the first year that the OEMs stopped offering cassette decks in new cars. The last car to roll off the line with an OEM cassette player was a 2010 Lexus SC 430. After about 30 years of service, the format was finally retired to make way for new technologies.

According to some reports, the CD player could be the next one on the chopping block before much longer. Several OEMs stopped offering CD changers after the 2012 model year, and in-dash CD players could potentially follow suit. So what comes next?

The most obvious candidate to replace CD players are HDD-based music players, but an Internet connection removes the need for physical storage altogether. Some head units are now capable of playing music from the cloud, and others can connect to Internet services like Pandora.