Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

Elvis Presley’s Lincoln Limousine "Family Car" Is Hitting the Auction Block

Elvis Presley not only liked peanut-butter-bacon-and-banana sandwiches, he also loved cars. The King owned more than 100 automobiles, including several limos. Whereas most of his cars—and his plane—have been preserved at Graceland, one of Elvis’s lesser-known and most sentimental cars has almost been forgotten. Atlas Obscura reports that Presley’s 1967 Lincoln Continental Executive Limousine by Lehmann-Peterson will hit the auction block in Monterey, California, on August 15, courtesy of Mecum Auctions.

“Colonel” Tom Parker, Presley's manager, gifted the limo to Elvis and Priscilla on their wedding day in 1967. For the '60s, it featured a lot of advanced amenities, like air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, a power antenna, and a power front bench seat. Over the years, it became known as the Elvis Presley Family Car. Elvis’s imprint is all over it: The limo’s Tennessee license plate reads “1-Elvis,” and comes with a copy of the car’s original title application, with Elvis’s name on it.

But since Presley’s death in August 1977, the car has fallen into disrepair—dust covers the black exterior and interior. In 2014, the car was found in car collector James Petrozzini’s collection after Petrozzini died. As Mecum Auctions states, Petrozzini liked to use the limo to pick up his son and his friends from school while wearing a chauffeur’s hat and white gloves.

If you’re interested in bidding, Mecum Auctions recommends calling for an estimate. For comparison: In 2018 Presley’s 1971 Mercedes-Benz sold for $116,600.

12 Facts About Woodstock For Its 50th Anniversary

Tucker Ransom, Getty Images
Tucker Ransom, Getty Images

From August 15-18, 1969, an estimated 400,000 spectators attended Woodstock, a music event held in Bethel, New York, that quickly became a defining moment in the counter-cultural movement of the era. Nearly three dozen acts performed over the course of four days, ranging from the Grateful Dead to The Who to Jimi Hendrix, who closed out the show. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this milestone in music history, we're looking at some of the things about the festival you might have missed.

1. Woodstock was banned from its original site because of toilets.

Attendees at Woodstock pose while sitting inside a car trunk
Three Lions/Getty Images

Woodstock was conceived in early 1969 by a group of twenty-somethings: Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, and John Roberts. In January of that year, the four men—Kornfeld and Lang as music industry vets and Rosenman and Roberts as venture capitalists who provided the financial backing— formed the company Woodstock Ventures, named for the New York town that Kornfeld and Lang were scouting to build a recording studio in. Woodstock had long been known as an artists' retreat about two hours north of New York City, and even has its own "Artists Cemetery" for a variety of creative types.

The original site of the festival was intended to be at Howard Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, near Middletown, New York. After negotiations with landowners, the four believed they had found a solution. But Wallkill residents shot the idea down, fearing that an influx of visitors—possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs—would be potentially problematic. By insisting the concert's portable toilets weren't up to code and refusing to grant a permit, Wallkill effectively banned Woodstock from taking place there just a month before its scheduled August 15 start date.

2. Woodstock was saved by a farmer.

When Wallkill fell through, promoters turned to Bethel, New York, a small town with just 2366 residents where a farmer named Max Yasgur owned a 600-acre dairy farm. As in Wallkill, Bethel residents were not terribly enthusiastic about hosting a concert that would attract a considerable crowd. But Yasgur didn't share their apprehensions. Even though he was middle-aged, blue-collar, and as far from a "hippie" as he could be, he respected the desire of concert-goers to share in a communal experience and allowed organizers the use of his property for a fee of $50,000. He even came out at one point to address the crowd (above), congratulating them on the assembly. It was said he received as loud an ovation as Jimi Hendrix.

3. Woodstock wasn't meant to be a free concert.

The crowd at Woodstock is pictured
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mounting Woodstock was not intended to be an altruistic venture. Kornfeld, Rosenman, Roberts, and Lang paid for talent, production costs, Yasgur's site, and incurred other expenses in the hope of profiting from ticket sales. One day's admission was $7; attending all three (which stretched into early Monday morning due to rain and technical delays) was $18. But as people began to show up to Bethel days before the scheduled start, the infrastructure was still incomplete. Fences still needed to be erected and ticket booths set up. With no practical way of turning away crowds, the partners decided to make it a free event for people who had not purchased one of the 100,000 tickets that had been pre-sold. Of the 400,000 who ultimately attended, 300,000 were never charged an admission fee. (The total number of attendees would have likely been more if not for traffic back-ups. Some people walked miles to the site.)

After expenses, the partners ran into a deficit. Two of them—Kornfeld and Lang—sold their share in Woodstock Ventures, the company they had formed to put on the concert. Roberts and Rosenman eventually saw a modest profit after other income sources, like the 1970 concert film Woodstock, were tallied.

4. Many cows were in attendance.

Attendees at Woodstock sit near their car
Three Lions/Getty Images

Yasgur's farm was a functioning site of business, which meant that the incoming crowds were going to be displacing the cattle usually present on site. His workers tried to corral them into a fenced area, but so many people ran over the barrier and set up campgrounds that they decided to just let the cows wander and mingle with attendees. One of Yasgur's employees, George Peavey, told United Press International that the cows and music fans "seem to be getting along together fine."

5. Jimi Hendrix got $18,000 to perform.

Booking big-name acts didn't come cheap. Jimi Hendrix was Woodstock's highest-paid performer, earning $18,000 (roughly $125,000 in 2019 dollars, accounting for inflation). Creedence Clearwater Revival, the first act booked, received $10,000. The Who received $6250 (although another report has them receiving $11,200) and Joe Cocker made a relatively paltry $1375. Sha Na Na got $750, while Quill was the most economic booking at $375.

6. Woodstock's musical acts needed to be helicoptered in.

Musician John Sebastian performs at Woodstock in 1969
Tullio Saba, Flickr // Public Domain

The traffic leading into the event was so awful that Sweetwater, which was due to open the festival, didn't make their scheduled start. (Richie Havens went on instead.) The band was airlifted to the grounds by helicopter so they could go on second. A number of other performers also traveled by air to circumvent the traffic issues.

7. Woodstock's crowd was actually very well-behaved.

Attendees at Woodstock are pictured
Three Lions/Getty Images

Despite concerns from both Wallkill and Bethel over the anticipated misbehavior of attendees, virtually no reports of violence ever came out of the festival. When those in attendance used telephones to place long-distance calls back to home, local switchboard operators were amazed that all of them said "thank you." Lou Yank, the chief of police in nearby Monticello, declared them "the most courteous, considerate, and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with in my 24 years of police work." The only real impropriety came as a result of concession food shortages, driving some attendees to loot nearby farmland for corn and produce.

While it's possible law enforcement could have arrested many, many people for marijuana possession, they opted not to. As one state police sergeant said, there "wouldn't be enough space in Sullivan County, or the next three counties, to put them in."

8. Even the ice had acid in it.

Attendees at Woodstock in 1969 are pictured
Paille, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Woodstock has a well-earned reputation for being a trip in more ways than one. Drug use was pervasive and seemingly inescapable. In 2009, the Who's John Entwistle told Billboard that he decided to drink a bourbon and Coke and realized that someone had spiked the ice with acid. The use of psychedelic drugs was estimated to have resulted in 25 "freak-outs" every hour the first night of the festival; emergency medical staff and members of a commune known as the Hog Farm sat with attendees until the drugs wore off.

9. The Who's set was crashed by Abbie Hoffman.

Performing on day two of the festival, British rock band the Who experienced an interruption when political activist Abbie Hoffman (who had co-founded the Youth International Party the previous year to protest the Vietnam War) rushed on stage to protest the imprisonment of White Panther Party leader John Sinclair. Pete Townshend swung at Hoffman with his guitar and ushered him off-stage. It was probably worth the hassle, as Townshend later said he thought their performance boosted sales of their Tommy album.

10. There were public service announcements between each act.

In an era before cell phones, trying to communicate with friends in a sea of humanity was challenging. To try and facilitate important messages, a member of the production staff named Edward "Chip" Monck (seriously) took to the microphone to deliver announcements, alerting the crowd to unattended children or to notify people where to find help. "Kenny Irwin, please go to the information booth for your insulin," he said. "Paul Andrews, Mike needs his pills and will meet you where he did yesterday." In the above video, you can also hear someone—possibly Monck—warning the crowd about some potentially harmful "brown acid" making the rounds.

11. The original Woodstock site is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

A plaque stands at the original site of Woodstock in Bethel, New York
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Cementing its status as a historic site, the concert area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. The farm is now known as the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. It contains a campus, museum, and 15,000-seat amphitheater. The site will be host to a number of 50th anniversary events, including performances by Ringo Starr and original Woodstock acts Arlo Guthrie and Carlos Santana the weekend of August 16, 17, and 18, 2019.

12. Even the garbage had a message.

People clean up the garbage left behind at Woodstock in 1969
Three Lions/Getty Images

Woodstock's pacifist vibe extended to the extensive clean-up required after the crowds began to dissipate following Hendrix's closing performance on Monday, August 18, 1969. By then the audience had dwindled to just 25,000 or so. When Hendrix was finished, a crew set about picking up the considerable garbage left behind. Surveying the concert site in a helicopter, co-promoter Michael Lang noticed that workers had started to shovel the trash in formation. A peace symbol appeared, made up of the litter left behind.

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