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Car audio's weird and wonderful

Innovative gear from the past that's still interesting today

A

t first, we were going to call this article "Car Audio's Greatest Misses." But the more we thought about it, calling any old product a "miss" just felt wrong. The actual "misses" were the design ideas that never made it out of the first team meeting and the prototypes that caught fire and melted in the testing lab. Sure, some products sold better than others, but there haven’t been a whole lot of truly risable failures in car audio since everyone finally gave up on the in-car turntable concept.

So, what follows is a totally subjective collection of interesting things found while leafing through four decades of Crutchfield catalogs. Some of them look kind of quaint today, while others were important milestones along the road to where we are now. You’ll see a few "next big things" that never were, some things that really were big until they weren’t, and some things that were probably a little weird back then, too. Plus, just to be fair, we threw in a few of our greatest misses.

And when you finish reading this article, check out its companion piece, Car stereo's greatest hits. It's a celebration of some of the truly game-changing car audio products of the past. 

Talk to the stalk

Blaupunkt Berlin

This was a very sexy receiver back in the late seventies. The power specs were decent for the time, but the control stick was the star of the show. Steering wheel control was still way off in the future, but with this very cool-looking device, the future was a little easier to see – and to reach from the driver’s seat. In the original catalog copy, we said that this Blaupunkt was for "the truly discriminating and affluent person," and we weren’t kidding. Our 1977 "sale" price of $850 works out to roughly $3669.21 today.

Tools of the trade

Clip tool

Bored? If you still have one of these in your toolbox, put it front of the grandkids and challenge them to figure out what it is and what it’s for. No phones, no computers, and a cash prize to the winner. Fun for the whole family — well, mostly you, but still….

Regarding your memo of 9 June…

In dash recorder

The whole "talking into something while driving" thing didn’t start with cell phones. Long before seemingly everyone on the road was yammering into a phone, busy people were composing notes to self with devices like these. Micro-recorders (tape and digital) came later, of course, but if you needed a high-tech way to remind yourself to pick up fondue ingredients, receivers like this Sanyo were the way to go in 1979.

Under the dash and dreaming

Under-dash

Drivers really loved underdash stereos because they were an easy-to-install way to add a tape player to a car that needed one. You know who really hated underdash stereos? Tall passengers. That said, these were some of the best anywhere in 1981, provided that you were polite enough to remind your friends to watch their knees.

Forward-facing, forward-thinking

Pioneer speakers

No, this is not an art project involving taco trays glued to some old speakers. Pioneer’s wild-looking TS-1600 speakers were an innovative, distinctive attempt to get more performance out of the tricky rear deck location. Back in the day, putting a pair of these in your car's rear deck told everyone that you were serious about sound.

The awesomest thing of 1983

Music shuttle

Yes, this once-innovative cassette deck looks goofy and clunky now, but the first time I saw this Music Shuttle ad in a car magazine, I wanted one so bad my brain hurt. An in-dash receiver with a built-in Walkman? THIS IS THE COOLEST THING EVER! Of course, teenage me didn’t have a car, a driver’s license, or $340, but those were mere details. Dreaming is free, especially for car- and music-crazed kids.

Color your car audio world

Colorful speakers

The late eighties and early nineties were a colorful time in many ways. With these Stillwater speakers and subs, you could design a car audio system that matched your collection of Alexander Julian shirts. They sounded pretty good, though.

Gold Clarion

Speaking of colorful, receiver faceplates got a taste of the rainbow a decade later. This Clarion was available with optional faceplates in gold (shown), grey, red, blue, and black, but the beauty was way more than skin-deep here. With three sets of high-voltage preamp outputs, an excellent display, and one of the best FM tuners around, it’s no wonder this receiver was so popular. We liked ‘em, too. In the words of Robert, one of our editors, "This was one of Clarion’s best stereos ever. Their ProAudio line of car stereos were legendary and they sounded amazing!"

A big block of bass

Isobarock bass

Good gawd, would you look at this thing? The Advent Isobarock looks like something Wile E. Coyote would try to drop on the Roadrunner, and the name sounds like a character from a young-adult novel about life in a dystopian hellscape. And yes, "Nu-Stone" could've been the the genre that came along after Emo. All joking aside, this wild subwoofer brought plenty of thump to the party back in the nineties and we salute it for being utterly awesome in every way.

Great moments in copywriting

Copywriting

Back in 1994, we apparently invented the first-ever t-shirt that could be worn indoors or outdoors at any time of day by anyone. Ahem. It was actually an ordinary Henley that would still be cool today. Alas, some of the copy is waaaay out of fashion:

"Sure you can wear them on the field, but we bet you know a certain someone who'd look awfully cute in one at bedtime, too."  Really? Yeeeeugh…. Nowadays, that line’s about as cool as a tuxedo-clad lounge singer sending one out "to all the ladeeez out there…" 

Bass for your butt

Bass shaker

Disco was dead by the mid-nineties (Narrator voice: "Or so they thought…"), but you could still shake your booty — literally — with Bass Shakers. With a pair of these incredibly popular bad boys mounted under your front seats, you and your passenger could feel the beat like never before. Lost to the mists of time is the answer to the question left begging in the copy above — "Um, 50 percent harder than what?"

The momentary magic of MiniDisc

Mini disc

We went big on Sony’s MiniDisc back in the nineties. The idea was fantastic – compact, recordable digital discs that were smaller and tougher than CDs and sounded way better than cassette tapes. The reality was that early marketing miscues and tough competition from cheap CD-Rs and a little gadget called the iPod® combined to shove the MiniDisc into that weird gap between "ahead of its time" and "past its time."

Mimi disc package

The good news is that the format still boasts a small-but-devoted following, so if you have a well-preserved MiniDisc player in your attic, you might want to dust it off and see what you can get for it. Or just plug it in, grab that box of discs, and rock out with your old mixes. Starter jacket optional, of course.

Getting juiced with the C.H.I.L. Pack

Bazooka innovations

High-performance amplifiers and subwoofers generate a lot of power, but they also generate a lot of heat. That’s not good for the gear or the car, so heat dissipation has long been one of the biggest engineering challenges in car audio.

Bazooka’s C.H.I.L. (Custom Heatsink Integrated Liquid) Pack Cooling Kit ran a mixture of antifreeze and water through plastic tubes inside their amps and subs. Sounds wild now, but it kept the gear reasonably cool, looked totally rad, and was soon replaced by something a bit less liquid-intensive for all the reasons you can probably imagine.

As nifty as this idea was, we do worry that somewhere in a backwoods junkyard, the fluids from an old C.H.I.L. Pack have mixed with dirt and swamp gasses to form a sentient being. And we all know what’ll happen if that creature is accidentally disturbed by a group of fun-loving teens getting in one last crazy night of partying before heading off to college.

Great moments in catalog art

Catalog ear art

Be careful out there – the roads are gonna get waxy. Seriously, though, don’t put your finger in your ear, because your finger makes it very hard to hear.

Flip out with a built-in speaker

Flip out speaker

This innovative Panasonic receiver included a flip-out center channel speaker that improved your sound staging enough that you’d probably really miss it after you forgot it was open and accidentally snapped it off.

Someday, your phone will do all of this

Auto PC

Back around the turn of the century, Clarion AutoPC was the bee’s knees when it came to in-car "infotainment." These days, we’re kind of used to high-tech receivers that work with our phones, play music, give us directions, and respond to our commands, but the AutoPC was a mind-blower back then. This receiver really was a computer, with an operating system developed by Microsoft and optimized for this application. We didn’t sell a ton of them, but this remarkable Clarion was a sign of things to come.

Buttons, buttons, buttons

Buttons on hu

Once upon a time, there were simple, basic receivers that did everything they did with a mere three buttons. I know, because I owned one. But as aftermarket receivers became more popular, power/volume, balance, rewind, fast-forward and play just weren’t enough anymore. More features were added, which meant more buttons, which eventually led to an era in which buttons grew like kudzu. No one really kept track of button expansion around here, but it’s probably hard to top the 31 we counted on this early-aughts Baskin-Robbins Alpine CD receiver.

Hidden charms

Flip face

These days, it’s almost normal to see a great big screen sitting proudly in the center or even on the top of a dashboard. That’s a big change from twenty years ago, when the only thing cooler than a receiver with lots of buttons was a receiver that could disappear. Stereo theft was easier and more common back then, so customers were really into receivers with removable faces and motorized faceplates.

El Kameleon

With a display and buttons that faded away to leave nothing but a flat, blank panel. this JVC receiver would be cool even if it didn’t have a name that sounds like a masked wrestler.

Keg party!

Music keg

Meet your pocket-sized digital music player’s fat (phat?) drunk uncle. Digital music was here to stay by 2002, and the Music Keg was one of the coolest ways to enjoy up to 200 CDs worth of downloaded tuneage in your car. Yes, there were multiple steps involved, and yes, it only worked with select Kenwood receivers, and yes, the software was called "PhatNoise", but this was the absolute cutting edge back in the day. We should note that "Music Keg" was a great (phat?) name and it would still be perfect for a Bluetooth® speaker.

Great adaptations

Cassette adapters

When it comes to out-of-favor formats, only 8-track tapes get more snark than cassettes. But for Boomers and GenXers, having a cassette deck in the car was an absolute must. Sure, compact discs eventually rose to the top of the format food chain, followed by digital music and satellite radio, but that took longer than you remember.

Those old cassette receivers stayed relevant through all of those changes thanks to handy adapters like these. If you couldn’t (or didn’t want to) replace your cassette deck, you could use an adapter to connect a portable CD player, a digital music player, or even a satellite radio tuner. There was even a 64mb MP3 player in cassette-like form. The sound wasn’t the best, but as transitional gear goes, these adapters were a big deal.

Great moments in political prognostication

Radar detector laws

Hahahahahaha.... Here’s a definite miss, and it’s all ours. Our beloved Commonwealth’s General Assembly did not repeal the radar detector ban in 1978. Or in 1988, 1998, 2008, or 2018, for that matter. They didn’t repeal it in 2019, either, which is why we’re still using a variation of our original warning paragraph four decades later. As they say in baseball, "Maybe next year." Or at least maybe in time for our 100th anniversary in 2074.


What strange car stereo items did we miss? 

This was a fun look back at the world of car audio, but surely, there are other products that were even more strange and "of their day". Do you remember anything that needs to be added to our list? Let us know in the comments below, or better yet, on our Facebook page

Last updated 3/13/2019
  • Jeff from Lynnwood

    Posted on 8/10/2019

    I still have a music keg in my garage. Ran across it the other day when I was going through some old boxes.

  • Matt

    Posted on 8/6/2019

    Alpine 3 disc I dash changer! When they worked they were awesome!

  • Ray mcdonald

    Posted on 7/26/2019

    I think the pioneer bodysonic should have been included as well as the cassette version of the supertuner that was marketed at the same time as the 8 track shown. They were twins cosmeticly. Tp 900 and kp 500. I have many of these units new in the box that i saved over the years.

  • Tiny Tim from URBANA

    Posted on 7/14/2019

    I had the Pioneer 8-track under dash I bought used,in my first car,in the early '80's Some of this stuff I don't remember ever hearing about,even as ancient as I am

  • Sam DeVor from Cleveland

    Posted on 6/26/2019

    I'd say the cassette adapters are still relevant, although rather quirky.

  • Andy Wichita KS

    Posted on 6/4/2019

    No list like this is complete without mentioning DAT, I was disappointed not to see one. Also, Nachamichi had that autoreverse tape deck the flipped the entire cassette over instead of moving the playback head.

  • Mike from Boiling Springs, SC

    Posted on 5/19/2019

    I would love to see some of the old catalogs shared online. I've bought lots of stuff over the last 3 decades. Would be fun to reminisce!!

  • LOUIS D from phoenix

    Posted on 4/25/2019

    What about the good ol Orion cheater amps raed at 4ohms, but were 1/2 or 1/4 ohm capable? Also ppi had those funky art series amps, still have an a300 working my highs.

  • Marshall from Pittsburgh

    Posted on 4/22/2019

    How about single din Eq's with spectrum analyzer. Still have an old Alpine myself. Not currently using it though.

  • Emmanuel O from Riverside CA

    Posted on 4/20/2019

    Kenwoods 911. The KVT-911 with the built in TV tuner! I used to love unpacking and installing those units.

  • David

    Posted on 4/5/2019

    I remember alpine had a slide bar feature on it's faceplate. That you had to use your finger pressure to scroll. It sucked in reality, especially driving on bumpy roads.

  • Kevin keller from Watertown ny

    Posted on 4/3/2019

    Just to let you know, I still have my Panasonic head unit with the flip out center. channel that I bought from you guys. and it still works !!

  • Brandt from Thousand oaks

    Posted on 3/30/2019

    Pioneer bodysonics

  • Brian H from Raleigh NC

    Posted on 3/30/2019

    1991 Sony XK8D was a 1/2 DIN drawer loading tape deck that was an add on to the CD receiver deck. Was the coolest thing that this young sailor had in my Beretta at the time!

  • Chris Holtgrewe from Lewes

    Posted on 3/29/2019

    Just took a pioneer RM 510 cockpit stereo out of my fathers 69 mustang. It was a awesome feature, nobody knew the radio had been changed till you looked up. Don't know what to put in to replace it.

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield on 3/29/2019 Chris, That's kinda cool. Give us a call and talk to one of our advisors. We can help you choose the right gear and give you the right advice on how to install it.
  • Bee from Apple Valley

    Posted on 3/29/2019

    Pull out tape decks from the late 80's! This was the hype before detachable faceplates became available.

  • Elliott from San Francisco

    Posted on 3/29/2019

    Any chance you'd be willing to post previous catalogs in PDF format?

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield on 3/29/2019 Elliott, No idea what the retro future might hold (Our 50th isn't that far off....), but in the meantime, you might like our retro-themed Tumblr feed, http://crutchfieldvintage.tumblr.com/. Enjoy!
  • Rick Springfield from Fort Lauderdale

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    Panasonic CQ-TX5500. Tube DAC double din with that Clarion Gold you point out in the article.

  • Dave Reeves from Riverside, CA

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    Sherwood head unit (I forget the model), circa 1986, bought from Crutchfield. I LOVED that unit in my first car installation with a Pioneer amp and Cerwin Vegas. I was a serious tape geek in the 80's, and that Sherwood head unit had both Dolby C and DBX noise reduction. I had recorded dozens and dozens of CDs to blank TDK Metal cassettes at home using DBX noise reduction. DBX rocked back in the day!! My recorded tapes had incredible dynamic range and no audible tape hiss... sounded as good as the source CDs to my ears!...those were the days!

  • Mark

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    I still have two Alpine 7904 CD Players.

  • kevin P. from rocky mountains

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    how about a Concord am/fm/cassette head unit, was a top shelf item early to mid 80s !!!

  • Greg Lancaster from Belton, SC

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    When I saw the gooseneck EQ, I knew I was in the right place! My contribution would be the Phoenix Gold Cyclone. It was a servo sub in the late 90s(?). Due to the restrictive cost and vastly different technology, I never had the opportunity to install one.

  • Rick from Chula Vista

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    AM stereo!

  • John Watkins from Canton, GA

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    Pioneer had an underdash 8 track player with FM stereo insert. Came with surface mount 4" speakers for deck mount. (Unfortunately, they marked car for theft and player was stolen but not radio adapter!)

  • ChrisR from Loganville

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    Coustic Bass Pumps. I still have 2 pair of the 8" version and they still sound as mediocre as ever... but they look cool!

  • Stuart from St. Petersburg

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    i just purchased an ECLIPCE AVN2210P, i thought it was older, but maybe not 80's old, but it has a tomtom 3.5" screen that is also a touchscreen for radio, etc. and it's removable. putting it in an '85 Ferrari. was putting an older Alpine into it, but this one is so cool with the gps unit.

  • Scott from Stonington, CT

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    The Clarion ARX 9170, first headunit with NO inboard/onboard amplification AND had the coolest equalizer display ever that could be set to fireworks at night, a beach, or my personal favorite...PIG RACE!

  • Oliver from Olathe, KS

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    The Technics / Panasonic R9550 "3-face" which was the first touch sensitive LCD screen.

  • Ryan from Parrish

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    The alpine and pioneer bass pump boxes. Coustic and linear powers clamshell rear deck subs.

  • James from Jackson

    Posted on 3/28/2019

    The Pioneer 50 disc cd changer.

  • TK from Crozet

    Posted on 3/27/2019

    The insane Rockford Fosgate "stable to 1 oHm" Punch amplifiers running like 13 drivers with passive crossovers in the 90's? Or the Phoenix Gold Cyclone subwoofer?

  • Jeffrey from Pittsburgh

    Posted on 3/27/2019

    The Advent Temple of Boom.

  • Bubba Ashley from Baton Rouge

    Posted on 3/27/2019

    The pull out radio. Not that it was ineffective to detour theft. But the question of where do you put the radio once you pulled it out of your dash? Alpine and Clarion both sold a purse/bag with a shoulder strap. Their brand name proudly embroidered so you could look stylish while toting you car stereo everywhere you went.

  • Tbob from Orlando

    Posted on 3/26/2019

    That Polk C4 6x9 subwoofer box thing. it seemed wacky but it probably had the best sensitivity of any mass produced sub box ever.

  • Wallace from Tacoma

    Posted on 3/25/2019

    The pioneer CDXP-5000 50 disc CD Changer

  • Tyrone from Albuquerque

    Posted on 3/25/2019

    Alpines cassette changer

  • Cody

    Posted on 3/25/2019

    How can one forget the in car 45 player?

  • Tim

    Posted on 3/25/2019

    What about the spare tire well subwoofer by pioneer circa y2k?

  • Zack from Lubbock, TX

    Posted on 3/25/2019

    My dad still has the El Kameleon running in his truck today, it's the first CD player he ever had in a vehicle!

  • qaz from CLINTON

    Posted on 3/25/2019

    How about the FM tuner with 2 antennas and switching between them to avoid multipath interference.

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