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Dead medium: Chrysler's Highway Hi-Fi, pt. two
From: (Richard Kadrey)

Source(s):; Maverick Inventor by Dr. Peter Goldmark; 1973; published by Peter C. Goldmark and Lee Edson; chapter nine (page numbers unknown)


"Actually I didn't know until later that the timing for my innovation was right. Chrysler was then preparing for its annual face-lifting-a model change-and they wanted to focus their advertising on a new development. Our machine was glamorous, novel, and it wouldn't add great expense to the cost of the car. The Chrysler people named it 'Highway Hi-Fi' and designed it to fit under the dashboard with a two-way switch, one for radio and the other for records. We agreed that everything would be ready for the 1956 model. We made plans for a spectacular debut and a press showing.

"I thought that our new CBS Electronics Division (the Hytron-Air King addition) could manufacture the players and discussed it with Dave Cogan, head of the division. 'Sure, Pete,' said Cogan, waving a cigar at me. 'Sure thing. ' I wasn't sure what that meant. Columbia Records was interested in supplying records, but only if Chrysler placed an order for 20,000 machines, so they could sell that many records to start with. Chrysler seemed to be willing to oblige. So CBS Electronics went ahead.

"All went well until two weeks before the press showing. I was summoned to the phone: emergency call from Chrysler. Something about the installation. I immediately flew to Detroit. As soon as I arrived, the engineer put me inside a car and started driving with the record player on. It was incredible. The machine wheezed, fluttered, groaned, jumped grooves, and made noises I had never heard before. It did everything it was designed not to do. What had happened?

"And then I glanced at the dashboard and almost jumped out of my skin. The engineers of the Chrysler Corporation had installed my machine in Dodges and Plymouths. The characteristics of those cars are quite different from those of the Chrysler line. They were lighter and harder riding, for one thing, with different kinds of suspension. Obviously a record player installed in these cars needed a different kind of damping.

"Here was a major corporate goof on the part of Chrysler's engineering department. I couldn't call it anything else. There was no reason to believe that any device geared to one type of car had a universal spirit in it that made it happily adjust to all cars.

"Back in the laboratory we simulated the vibrational behavior of the Dodge and Plymouth and discovered what we had to do to fit them with our machines. The night before the press affair we were still feverishly at work, but by morning we managed to install our last hi-fl system in the last of several cars to be used in the display.

"I must say that the press conference was a success, and CBS Electronics soon went into preliminary production with 18,000 units.

"Somehow this nice cultural addition to American autointoxication didn't take off with the kind of sales we had expected. Chrysler carried on interminable meetings with CBS engineers. There were complaints from both sides about the way the record players worked. But the chief underlying reason for the middling response, I think, lay in the fact that Chrysler and Columbia Records failed to do proper marketing by not advising potential customers how to obtain additional records. Dealers failed to stock them, and little or no attempt was made to see that they did.

"Without this stimulus to buying, the car buyer didn't order the optional record player in the numbers that we envisioned. Columbia persuaded Chrysler to pay for the initial set of records and phonographs and then grew apathetic, leaving followup to Chrysler. Seeing the slow sales, the auto company relaxed its promotion. Ironically, even though the business declined, the record-changer manufacturers were so enamored with the l6 2/3 that they included the new speed in their changers - 'so you can take home your Highway Hi Fi' - even though there wasn't a 16 2/3 rpm record in sight.

"As a spinoff from the new record technology I developed for the Library of Congress a seven-inch record that plays four hours of spoken word and rotates at 831 rpm. This came into being because of my association with Recording for the Blind, an organization that has brought the beauties of the spoken word into the homes of thousands of blind students. We used the identical tone arm as we did in the automobile, so that it could be pummeled around a bit without distorting the sound.

"My wistful hope is still to bring back the past glories of the radio days, so that one can listen to drama, comedy, and stories on one's own portable talking machine, and by so doing remind people that their senses are not related only to the primitive visual ones utilized in TV viewing."