The first LPs were introduced to the world more than seventy years ago. This was right around the time North Americans became obsessed with their automobiles. The Eisenhower administration was developing the US interstate highway network and with this came the ability to take those beloved automobiles on long distance trips. But this also took travelers beyond radio range. You can see where this was going. We had recorded music, but we needed portable music for our cars.
It seems fitting that the inventor and engineer, Peter Carl Goldmark would take a crack at solving the portable record player in you automobile problem. After all he was the driving force behind the 33 1/3 microgroove prototype that set the standard for the long play record album. He did this great work while with Columbia Records.
While there is no doubt that the LP was a success – the Highway Hi-Fi not so much.
You could add the “Highway Hi-Fi” starting with the 1956 Chrysler, Desoto, Dodge, and Plymouth. he technology that The Highway Hi-Fi played records specifically designed for the system, with 7-inch discs pinning at 16⅔ rpm and 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.
Columbia initially released six records including “I’ll Take Romance” from Percy Faith and His Orchestra, Cole Porter’s score for the Broadway show “Kiss Me, Kate” and “My Old Kentucky Home” played on a Wurlitzer organ. And there were also 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.”
The Highway Hi-Fi hada short life span only being offered for two years. Perhaps the $200 price tag was too steep (over $1,700 today) and the constraint of buying proprietary records from Columbia.
The Highway Hi-Fi wasn’t the only record player for your car. Sears had a model in the early to mid sixties that played standard 45’s. Yes, you’re right. You get one 3 minute song before you have to restart it or flip the record. Its obvious why this one didn’t last too long. RCA also offered a cheaper player (~ $52.00) after the Highway H-Fi was dropped, but it didn’t have much more success.
Read more about the politics of the Highway Hi-Fi on Mental Floss.