Thursday, 3 May 2007

Wireless on Wheels-

- A Brief History of Car Radio By Mark Savage and Chrissy Brand
(First published in Radio User, March and April 2006)
A set of useful links is at the foot of this article
Above photo of Skoda in Bohemia © C Brand
Mark Savage writes 2 blogs- one on life, one on radio!

As you settle into the driving seat of your car, white van or LGV today, it’s more than likely the first control you operate after the ignition is for the vehicle’s entertainment system- if it hasn’t switched on automatically along with the engine. We take the partnership of wireless and wheels for granted, while for some the latest piece of in-car kit gives more ‘street cred’ than the motor itself.

Hard though it may be to believe today, it hasn’t always been like this. Although radio and audio technology began to develop pretty much at the same time as the internal combustion engine, it took thirty years or more after the first cars hit the road for a practical car radio to be marketed, and another fifty, perhaps, before it became standard equipment in any new British car. Quite apart from technical considerations, car manufacturers and broadcasters alike seem to have been very slow to recognise the appeal and practicality of the combination of information and informality radio users have enjoyed in their homes since the roaring twenties.

One maker though recognised even in the depression-hit thirties that there was a budding market for their particular combination of frequency on the dial and speed on the freeway. An American, Paul Galvin, generally gets the credit for inventing and patenting the first car radio in 1930, and his cleverly-chosen name for the company founded with his brother two years earlier to produce “battery eliminators” for home sets still thrives as one of the leading names in mobile communications- Motorola.

Motorola came from words meaning “motor-car” and “sound”. The company’s first set, the 5T71, could be fitted in most modern automobiles, and retailed for around $130- about the price of a basic RDS radio/CD today, but a luxury item in those deprived times for all but the few. Nevertheless, Motorola’s early trading years saw healthy growth and the 5T71 was widely endorsed, with one leading name advising drivers to “insist on Motorola Auto Radio”, with its “Approved Automatic Push-button Tuning” to give “happier miles in your Pontiac”.

Yet while Motorola were quick to dominate the market in the USA, in Europe another name was soon to rise to prominence in the mobile media market. The company that is now pumping up the volume with a bassy beat and cuddly toys in its advertising to proclaim that it is “the advantage in your car” started out with a tiny trademark which was the symbol of technical competence in its native Germany.

The “Ideal” radio company started life in Berlin in 1923 as a manufacturer of headphones, the same year that radio was introduced to a nation still struggling to recover from World War I. Such was the reputation of its headphones, however, that people soon began asking for “the blue dot” or Blaupunkt brand, and the nickname stuck- being adopted officially as the company style just before the outbreak of World War II.

However, while it may have been strong on quality, the first European car radio was anything but “ideal” for its purpose, at least as far as its dimensions were concerned. The Blaupunkt AS5, equipped with short medium and longwave, took up about ten litres of space in vehicles much smaller than their American counterparts, and weighed about as much as a modern microwave! (By 1970 it had reduced to one litre of space).

One of the main problems to be overcome before car radio could match its stationary counterpart in listening enjoyment, of course, was the question of an aerial. There’s a world of difference between picking up a signal inside a pile of bricks and mortar going nowhere, and a moving metal machine driving all over the place. Early broadcast engineers were well aware of this limitation, and the British Broadcasting Company, as it then was, experimented with car aerials from 1922 onwards; the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu features a rare mock example – used in a BBC promotion- on a 1928 Bean Short car. It took many more years though for cars to be manufactured including integral antennas, so conventional antenna wiring was mounted either in the roof line or on the car’s running boards.

Also because of its size, it was not possible to position Blaupunkt’s AS5 within easy reach of the driver. To get round this obvious shortcoming, and in an early precedent for the remote controls of today’s top-range equipment, a point was made of mounting the radio controls within the steering wheel- but at a price. The AS5 hit the market at 465 Reichsmark, which was around a third of the cost of a Volkswagen or similar small car of the time.

As with the ongoing arguments over the invention of radio itself, car radio is also a grey area. Although generally attributed to Paul Galvin, car company Daimler also stake a claim. In 1922 their Light 30 car had a Marconi eight-valve receiver fitted in the rear compartment, with a large frame aerial on the roof as an experiment. It received perfect reception from Marconi House in London. After this, some cars were factory equipped with radios but as the price was almost 25% of the cost of the car, it was not a great seller and the option was dropped.

The Marconi V2A radio was manufactured in 1923 and housed in a polished mahogany cabinet, selling for £24. A number of British motorists with the requisite technical skills managed to mount these on the running boards to produce an early car radio. Seeing is believing at:

Innovative though the early Blaupunkt, Motorola and Marconi radios undoubtedly were, clearly a lot of work still needed to be done before car radio could be brought to the masses at an acceptable pricepoint. It took the duration of another war and a revolution in car ownership in Europe a decade or so after it for that to happen.

Post-war boomWith car use increasing in Europe and North America after World War II, the car radio too became a much sought after accessory, although they were not to be fitted as standard in average priced cars in Britain until the mid 1970s. The BBC started transmitting on FM in 1955, but it was three years before that when the first FM car radio was manufactured. That honour fell to Blaupunkt in 1952.

In Britain the standard radio licence covered all wireless sets in the home but if you had a car radio you needed a separate radio licence for it. In the 1950s the radio licence changed so that car registration numbers could be inserted onto the licence.

Radio stations soon realised there was a new captive audience in the form of the driving commuter, with Radio Luxembourg being a case in point. They had a tri-lingual service on 208 metres medium wave and from May 1950 came up with a new schedule that shared that one frequency. This catered for all their markets starting with the Dutch and Flemish breakfast car commuters and housewives. They then provided light entertainment programming for Germany in the afternoon, a time that German television was not on air, going into the rush hour and the ‘lucrative German car radio audience in the early evening’. Luxembourg then had the slot to the U.K that they coveted fully exploiting the propagation qualities of medium wave under darkness.

In the 1950s the USA led the way as car radios became standard accessories Stateside, and radio received a big boost as Americans tuned in driving to and from work. It was the dawn of the ubiquitous traffic news and eye in the sky reports that now dominate today’s breakfast and drive-time output. In 1956 the car radio market caused station WOWO in Fort Wayne Indiana to have a makeover, bringing DJs into prominence, increasing news coverage and creating a new sound to target car radio listeners, 'the greatest mass audience of any medium'. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and it was another American who took Paul Galvin's invention to the next level. Earl Muntz was the millionaire owner of several car showrooms in California, and is widely credited with developing the first car stereo in the 1960s. This was a 110-volt system that was modified to run on the car's own battery to avoid the risk of electrocution for occupants.

Whilst the North American market led the way and western Europe followed with similar models, what of car radios east of the Berlin Wall? Surely the basic cars of Lada, Skodas, Dacias, Yugos et al didn’t possess such luxury items? Chair of the U.K Trabant and Wartburg Club Peter Frost says it was otherwise.For example, whilst Blaupunkt led West Germany’s car radio industry, even the East German Trabants were factory-fitted with a radio. 'The early cars had valve (tube) radios fitted such as the Aukoton Schönburg (an East German made radio designed to run off 6 Volts with a separate vibrator/amplifier unit). From around 1962 the all-transistor Berlin radio was fitted (again an East German make). There were a number of other radios fitted including a Tesla FM/AM unit, which was fitted after the cars gained 12-volt electrics in 1983. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a thriving East German electronics industry and the Trabant name was even used on a number of nice domestic radios, both transistor portables and earlier valve radios. Some of the valve radios in Bakelite or wood cases are now quite collectable and can change hands for surprising amounts of money'.In Peter's current collection are a 1963 Wartburg fitted with a 6 volt all-transistor 'Berlin' radio as was also fitted to Trabants. He also has a Schönburg and an AM/FM Tesla tucked away waiting for the right car to fit them to.

Another part of the world where car radios have differed from the western norm is Japan. The FM frequency band used in Japan is 76 to 90 MHZ, lower than the FM band of 88 to 108 MHz used in most parts of the world. This has led to problems for people in some countries who import second-hand Japanese cars with radios already fitted, as far apart as the U.K and New Zealand. Radio Band Expanders or Converters for Japanese imported vehicles are cheaply available to resolve that problem.

Modern traffic updatesMotorists in an earlier age would have enjoyed the sounds of big bands or classical music without having to worry unduly about traffic jams. When the car ceased to be a luxury item and became the norm for every household, there was an inevitable increase in road accidents and traffic hotspots. Radio stations reacted by providing travel news updates, which are featured on almost every UK domestic radio station. The drawback with this arrangement though, particularly in an age of hundreds of local stations, is that you need to know when a station will be transmitting the next traffic bulletin for the area you travel through in order to catch the announcements most relevant for you. It was BBC engineers at their Research and Development base at Kingswood Warren in Surrey who first addressed this issue in the mid 1970s, and there was a brief flirtation with a system called CARFAX (in imitation of the CEEFAX system for TV which came out around the same time) which operated on a test basis on AM.

However, FM soon became the transmission mode of choice for most drivers, aided by the BBC’s programme of re-equipping its VHF/FM transmitters from around 1975 with a system called “slant” polarisation, which gave better reception on portable or vehicle receivers. Partly as a result, CARFAX soon bit the dust, and the RDS (Radio Data System) became the norm on FM only. RDS overcomes the need for manual frequency adjustment on the move by automatically changing frequency depending on the circumstances.

A sub-audible “flag” transmitted piggy-back fashion on the normal signal can be used to do everything from choosing a stronger signal as reception from one transmitter fades, to finding you a broadcaster transmitting sport, news, music or a number of other options. However, this relies on the broadcaster choosing flags which allow the options, but the Traffic Announcement (TA) flag is now used by all but the smallest, as making a transmission RDS-equipped is a straightforward and relatively cheap tweak from the radio station. Once the relevant announcement or programme has finished, the car radio then switches back to either the station you were previously listening to, or even a cassette or CD, avoiding the need to do so manually.
Traffic Message Channel, or TMC, is a worldwide technology for delivering traffic and travel information to drivers, thus improving road safety. It is digitally coded using the FM-RDS system on FM radio broadcasts.

Drivers can therefore try and avoid road-works or other traffic-related hazards. It is particularly proving its usefulness in the longer road tunnels of Europe, and indeed following serious accidents in the Alps recently, tunnel operators are now required to equip their underground routes with technology to automatically interrupt car entertainment systems with emergency messages should the need arise. Many of these tunnels make use of special cabling systems which “inductively” transmit from tunnel wall to car.

Freewheeling with Freeview
Car radios have come a long way in 80 years: starting as a luxury item for the well-heeled, before becoming a standard fitting for most cars by the late 1970s. The past 30 years has seen an explosion with more and more innovations driving the industry onwards. The eight-track cartridge is long since a thing of the past, and car radio and audio cassette combos have gone the same way. RDS radios with CD players are the norm in the UK now, and DAB radios are being fitted in some new models, with MP3 players the latest technology to be integrated into the ICE (In Car Entertainment).

DVD players and digital tuners have brought video into the car as well as audio, at least for passengers.Current developments continue apace and hot on the heels of in-car DAB radios and MP3 players come car radios that can receive Freeview. Alpine, Becker and Sony manufacture a range of Digital TV Tuners to accompany in-car DVD players. Available from November 2005 these cost from £299 to £1000.

A DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) car radio is on the way too, a collaboration between DRM chip company Fraunhofer IIS and the Philips' "SAF7730" digital car radio platform. One wonders what the Massachusetts Public Works Commission would say about this latest development. In 1927, as car radio technology was taking off, they held a number of hearings concluding that car radios should be banned from vehicles because: (i) they distract the driver and cause accidents. (ii) The act of tuning would distract the driver and cause accidents. (iii) The music would lull the driver to sleep and (iv) the drivers of other vehicles would be distracted by the noise…

Passing pedestrians and fellow motorists who have their eardrums assaulted by the latest mobile beat boxes pounding away might well agree with the last objection, but most motoring authorities today agree that a car “wireless” system is an almost indispensable aid to keeping the traffic flowing safely, while commercial broadcasters in particular have cottoned on to what a lucrative source of advertising revenue lies in the captive car audience. Eighty years on, the love affair between mobile music and messages on the move has formed a marriage which seems destined to last as long as people keep on driving.

An I.C.E (In Car Entertainment) Timeline
This first appeared in BDXC Communication, June 2006 :
As is the nature of claiming ‘firsts’ in history, this timeline is not without contradictions, nor is it comprehensive. However, it gives a flavour of ‘what came when’ in I.C.E.

1924 A car radio is fitted to an Australian car built by Kellys Motors in New South Wales.

1927 A breakthrough for car radio is the invention of damp resistance. It becomes possible to listen to the radio when the motor was running, at least near a transmitter

1929 Several manufacturers make special radios specifically for cars. Wire aerials in the roof are installed

1929/30 Paul Galvin of Motorola, Chicago invents the 5T71 car radio which can be installed in most automobiles

1931 Loudspeakers are improved. Radio tubes with 6.3 voltage grids lead to automatic volume control

1932 A generator driven by an electric motor powered by the car battery is developed. Swedish company P.R. Mallory produce the vibrator power supply.

1932 Blaupunkt introduce the AS5 car radio with long, medium and short wave.

1933 Ford introduces a car radio tailor-made for the dashboard

1934 Philco introduce the first telescopic rod antenna to replace the running-board antenna

1935 The Great Depression in the USA, but there are still 60 million radios in use and a further 1.5 million car radios

1936 Motorola Police Cruiser mobile receiver, a redesigned car radio preset to a single frequency to receive police broadcasts, is the company's first entry into the new field of mobile radio communications

1936 Delco introduce the first in-dash car radios

1937 Pioneer founder Nozomu Matsumoto invents the world's first A-8 dynamic speaker

1937 Ford use a steel rod as aerial.1938 A car radio is introduced as an option on Buick cars

1939 Panasonic 'super receivers' (car radios) are designed exclusively for the Japanese Imperial household

1939 Powell Crosley (of American Crosley radios fame) introduces the Crosley car, having earlier produced the Roamio car radio

1940 Philco develop the first car radio in the world incorporating permeability tuning, to replace capacitive-tuning, and a standard of the industry until the mid 1980s

1941 Ford advertises a radio which can be preset for five stations and operated by a foot switch

1942 Motorola converts 125,000 automobile radios, with some of them ending up as chairside cabinet radios

1946 Motorola invents the first car phone

1948 Philco introduce the first commercial use of miniature tubes and search-tune radios

1949 An extra for the Austin A40 Devon Saloon (1200 cc with a top speed of over 70 m.p.h) is an Ekco car radio costing £25. 0 0d. plus £6. 18s 10d. purchase tax.

1952 Blaupunkt (Bosch) make the first FM car radio

1954 Philco introduce the first all-transistor commercially produced auto radio

1950s An in-car record player is produced (!)

1954 Panasonic produce their first genuine car radio, the A-606

1955 A germanium transistor intended for car radios is Motorola's first mass-produced semiconductor and one of the first high-power transistors in commercial production

1958 Car radios with a transistor converter instead of a vibrator are manufactured

1958 Motorola introduce the Motrac radio, the first vehicular two-way radio with a fully transistorised power supply and receiver. Its low power consumption allows the radio to be used without running the automobile engine

1959 The one millionth Blaupunkt car radio rolls off the production line. Each valve-based radio consisted of 1,693 separate parts

1960 Ever Ready produce three 'car portable' radios; Sky Leaders OC44, OC45(2), OC82(3)

1962 As with most British cars, a radio is still an extra when buying the latest MG, an MGB Roadster

1963 Philco-Ford offer an AM head unit, along with an AM radio with 8-track tape player

1964 First Panasonic FM car radio

1965 Motorola work with Ford and RCA to develop a tape player for use in the car- the 8-track cartridge

1966 Philco-Ford's AM/FM with pushbutton search tuning 1969 Blaupunkt (Bosch) make the first stereo car radio

1970 Appearance of the in-car cassette player, including Panasonic cassette car stereo CX-121

1973 Philco-Ford AM/FM Stereo with built-in 8-track player

1975 Pioneer invent the first compact car stereo

1970s Big car audio names of the decade are Harvard, Ferguson, Sharp and Kyoto

1980 First car radio with a CD player1980 First RDS Field Trial at Bern/Interlaken, Switzerland

1984 Pioneer introduce the world's first car CD system followed by the car industry's first three source DIN head unit with tape deck, CD player and radio tuner.

1985 Panasonic reach fifty million car stereo sales

1987 Ireland, France and Sweden introduce RDS. First RDS Receivers shown at IFA Berlin. Volvo markets world's first RDS Car Radio

1988 Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy and UK introduce RDS Blaupunkt, Grundig and Philips mass produce RDS Car Radios

1993 RDS portable radios become available RDS Forum created

1995 First tests in Sweden of DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting), appearance of the GPS function in car stereos

2001 The world's first DAB car radio with an MP3 player that records.

2004 Alpine Electronics produce a car stereo with an iPod interface built-in2005 Car stereos with Bluetooth functions introduced

References and further reading
About Com:


Age Net Vintage and Veteran Motoring:

Alternative Autos:

Audio Engineering Society, Chicago Section:


Car Audio U.K:

Chairside car radios:


Direct Source:

Freeview digital tuners:

Grow a Brain:


Mr Traffic:

Parrot newsletter:


Piet's Old Radios website:

Radio Licences:

RDS Milestones:



1 comment:

Unknown said...

Please check whether your original car radio has screen or NOT. If your car has original screen like this picture to show, autoradio gps page

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