Chrysler Corp. takes customers for a spin

Under-dash phonograph in a 1956 DeSoto.

DETROIT – Back in the early 1950s there were many fewer music radio stations, and if you didn’t like those that were within range, your only choice was to shut the radio off and listen to the road, the engine noise and the splat of bugs on the windshield.

Then in 1956, Chrysler Corporation stepped up to offer car buyers a new listening option – an in-car phonograph.

The players, made by Columbia, were mounted on the bottom edge of the dash, directly above the transmission hump, and were wired directly into the car radio. Pressing a button on the front cover of the player opened it, allowing the turntable to be slid outward. Flipping a switch on the left side of the player bypassed the radio tuner, and the radio’s amplifier then could boost the signal from the player while volume, tone and balance could be controlled by the regular radio knobs.

Bandleader Lawrence Welk in a '56 Dodge.

There were a few problems with the idea of a car player that needed to be solved – besides simply keeping the needle on the record. One of them was safely operating the unit while driving.

The player had to be small, so the 7-inch size of the 45-rpm record was ideal; but using 45s would have meant changing the record every few minutes, a little risky at highway speeds. To solve that problem, 7-inch records for the player were produced in the new 16⅔-rpm format (ultra-microgroove) offering up to an hour of playing time per side and the added benefit of a slower speed that was less likely to kick up the needle. The records also were easy to load. Moving the tone arm over the record would start it spinning and, in a few seconds, the needle would automatically lower into the starting groove. Then the turntable could be pushed back in and the front cover closed.

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If you ordered the option for your new 1956 Chrysler, Desoto, Dodge or Plymouth you also received the first six of 42 special platters available exclusively from Columbia Records.

That limited availability – which also meant you could only listen to artists under contract with Columbia – was part of the problem with the option, which died at the end of the model year.

Chrysler didn’t completely give up, though. The automaker tried again in 1960. This time, the unit was made by RCA and played regular 45-rpm records.

You could stack up to 12 records in the player so that you would not have to change them every three or four minutes.

An in-dash eight-track tape deck.

The unit worked “upside-down”. The tone arm came up to the bottom of the record. As one record finished playing, the tone arm moved out of the way, and that record would drop to the bottom of the spindle. The tone arm then swung back to play the bottom of the next record. This time the option lasted two years.

What happened? The records skipped – just like they often did with the first version – if the ride and the road weren’t smooth as glass. It was an insurmountable problem.

The next time customers had a real music option choice in a Chrysler Corporation car wasn’t until 1968.

What was it? The eight-track tape deck.