Sound for the road: The car radio is 100 years old

The sound of the street
The car radio is 100 years old

For more than 100 years, the car radio has evolved from a bulky tube receiver to a multimedia information center. To do this, it had to radically change and reinvent itself again and again. In the most recent innovations, it is then also integrated into a multimedia unit. So far it has been an exciting journey.

The car radio will celebrate its 100th anniversary this spring. In the early days of mobile radio reception, ridiculously oversized devices were installed in vehicles. Listening pleasure on the go was also reserved for amateurs and the super-rich.

But entertainment technology quickly became a mass phenomenon, and the radio is by far the most sought-after additional equipment, without which cars could not be imagined for decades. But with the current triumph of mobile internet, the once indispensable radio in cars may become obsolete.

George Frost is considered the inventor

From today’s perspective, early car stereos were clumsy devices. But optically and technically they could fascinate at the time.

(Picture: Mercedes)

George Frost is considered the inventor of the car radio. As an 18-year-old student and concurrent president of the Lane High School Radio Club in Chicago, he developed a portable radio that he installed in the door of a Ford Model T. Sources are not entirely clear, but probably early in April or May 1922, the fusion of radio and automobile was accomplished. A photo has survived from the period showing the tinkerer at his Model T with a sign on the windscreen advertising the first radio-equipped car.

A start had been made, but it was another eight years before Galvin Manufacturing Corporation (GMC) launched the first commercially successful car radio, the 5T71 model, in 1930. Although the device cost the equivalent of at least 1600 euros by current standards, it quickly sold like hotcakes. The Americans coined a word coined from the motor and ola elements to denote the device – the latter means sound, wave. In the late 1940s, GMC renamed itself Motorola.

Europe is late

A Blaupunkt car radio in a Porsche 356 Coupé

A Blaupunkt car radio in a Porsche 356 Coupé.

(Photo: Blaupunkt)

In Europe, the development started a little later. Autospur 5 was the name of the first radio model of the Ideal company in the early 1930s, which later changed its name to Blaupunkt. The 15 kilo monster with its five electronic tubes could sometimes overwhelm the on-board vehicle electronics with its high power requirements. In view of the solution, which by today’s standards costs several thousand euros, the Autospur has remained an absolute luxury item.

In the post-war period, devices became more compact and cheaper, but for the time being they remained luxurious rather than normal. However, the number of suppliers of inexpensive devices and the number of technical innovations have increased rapidly. One of the first examples that could be fully integrated into the dashboard was the Becker AS 49, which was available as an option for the Mercedes 170 S from 1950. Other milestones were the 1954 Blaupunkt A53KU with automatic search of stations or the first transistor car radio from Philips in 1961. At the same time, portable radios also became popular outside cars. Some manufacturers combined the two ideas and developed portable car radios that could also be used outside the vehicle.

From ultra short wave to DAB standard


From the 1980s, car radios became increasingly digital.

(Picture: Mercedes)

Early radios still received signals in the AM band, but in the 1960s ultra-shortwave became available, which enabled high-quality (“high-fidelity”) sound with less noise and stereo transmission at two channels. The technology first entered cars in 1969 with Bosch’s “Frankfurt Stereo”. Digital broadcasting has now replaced its terrestrial predecessor. In addition to even better sound quality, the DAB standard offers better reception and a wider range of specials.

Listening to the radio alone was soon no longer enough for drivers. As early as the end of the 1950s, turntables to be mounted under the dashboard appeared on the market, but they were never able to establish themselves due to their mechanical irritability. In 1968, Philips introduced the first car cassette player that didn’t stutter even on bumpy roads. Another useful innovation in 1974 was the introduction of automatic recognition of traffic reports through the ARI system.

From the beginning of the 1980s, there were already signs of the beginning of the digital age. During this time, radios with mini LCD screens became fashionable, which displayed radio frequencies digitally. Major innovations of this period included the Dolby button for noise reduction and anti-theft protection via a digital code. The latter made life at least a little more difficult for car radio thieves, who were particularly busy at the time.

Radio talent keeps growing


In the 1990s, radios became something of a multipurpose multimedia device.

(Picture: Mercedes)

In the early 1990s, when the cassette was still the undisputed number 1, automatic station search and traffic announcement technology improved. However, there were already signs of the near end of the cassette in the mid-1980s, when the first CD players were fully integrated into car radios or CD changers were connected. Another revolution of the 1990s was the use of double-DIN devices, which could then also display color navigation maps on screens. The aforementioned DAB radio followed in 1997, and from 2001 the first devices with MP3 playback technology.

In the 2000s, old radios were transformed into versatile multimedia devices with large touch screens, which were also equipped with radio reception rather incidentally. With a USB connection, DAB, touchscreen, DVD player, 30GB hard drive and dynamic navigation, what was once a radio quickly turned into a versatile digital device.

The digital revolution has brought many other innovations in quick succession, such as Bluetooth connections, WLAN hotspots and voice control. In the 10s, devices came into fashion that finally got rid of analog buttons and instead relied on gesture control and also allowed smartphone integration. Thanks to this connectivity, the Internet has meanwhile become a constant companion in automobiles, which offers great potential for further technical developments. This also includes doing without radio receiver parts, as in the base version of the Fiat 500e. There’s just one sound system here, which only gets acoustic input via connected smartphones, which, if desired, can still transmit linear radio via the internet.

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