Automotive history

Great inventions: the car radio

by Nik Berg
21 May 2020 2 min read
Great inventions: the car radio

Pity the pioneers of motoring who had to endure their journeys without any form of in-car entertainment. There was no singing along to Abba, Hendrix or Springsteen, no Today programme breaking the stories of the day and Just a Minute was still to be created. All they could do was shout at the man with the red flag walking ahead and tell them to hurry up.

When Karl Benz introduced his Patent Motorwagen in 1886 it was still a full ten years before Marconi was granted a permit for his snappily-titled “Improvements in transmitting electrical impulses and signals and in apparatus there-for.”

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Early car enthusiasts were quick to respond, experimenting with radios before there was even anything worth listening to. At the World Exhibition in 1904 in St Louis, Lee DeForest  – an American inventor who pioneered sound for film – demonstrated a radio in a motor car. Although given that the first recorded radio broadcast didn’t take place until 1906 it can’t have been very interesting.

It was in the 1920s that radio really took off as an entertainment and information media. The first news broadcast was in 1920 and the BBC was founded in 1922. That same year saw George Frost, president of the Lane High School Radio Clubs of Chicago, install a radio in his Ford Model T, while Daimler showed off the “Marconiphone” at the Olympia Motor Show in London.

In the USA Mr and Mrs JC Davenport toured the country, covering some 40,000 miles as they proudly showed off the “Dashboard Special” installed in their own Ford – entertaining crowds wherever they went with music played from inside the car.

Mass production of car radios began soon after, with the 1925 Airtone 3D from Radio Auto Distributors in the USA, the Batt. 115-1926 by the All American Mohawk Corporation and the 1927 Transitone from Philco.

These early devices make your Naim Audio option in a modern Bentley look like a bargain. In 1930 the Motorola branded radio receiver sold by American Galvin Manufacturing Corporation was $130. At the time a Ford Model A was $540. Car radios were no cheaper in Europe, with a Blaupunkt AS 5 medium wave and long wave radio selling for 465 Reichsmark in 1932 – about a third of the price of a small car. And this was no neat in-dash affair, the Blaupunkt took up ten litres of space and had to be mounted in the boot and operated by remote control cable.

Despite the costs, radio boomed and by 1946 it was estimated that there were some nine million AM car radios in use in the USA alone.

FM broadcasts, DAB and satellite radio would all follow, improving the quality of audio transmission and giving us concert-quality performances and crystal clear news on our daily commutes. Today our ICE provides navigation, communication and seamless integration with the mobile devices that we’re all addicted to. What would those first motorists make of it all?

Could you live without a radio in your car? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Andy Gill says:

    My first “car” radio was actually a battery powered portable transistor radio of now un-known provenance. But it sat on the front shelf of my Hillman Imp, with an aerial that plugged into the back of the tranny and had a nice chrome plated clip that went over the door glass on the passenger side. The aerial itself was then standing vertically on a small horizontal bracket in order to clear the roof gutter. worked fine, to pick-up the ( then worth listening to ) Radio 1 broadcasts of Tony Blackburn et al. Heaven !

    • James Mills says:

      Brings back slightly similar memories for me, Andy. My first car was a Ford Anglia 105 E, and it didn’t have a radio. Instead, I put a cassette player on the passenger seat and played mix tapes or recordings of John Peel’s radio show. Not sure what Euro NCAP or the BBC would make of that…

  • Grant Cratchley says:

    My first car radio was in the early 70s. I had an old by then, Ford 105 E Anglia. A friend at work bought a Motorola radio and sold me hi old Philips VALVE radio. This consisted of two units to be fitted in the car. I was at the time, an apprentice radio & TV engineer, so I modified the radio so that I could connect my Philips cassette tape recorder to play through the radio amplifier. The cassette recorder was then mounted on the transmission tunnel along with a home made power-supply with which I could run it from the car battery. Certainly impressed my friends at the time and cost me all of around £2.00 for the whole installation.

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