Car audio's weird and wonderful
Innovative gear from the past that's still interesting today
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
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
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…
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.