The era of compact audio: how tapes came into cars

Last time we talked about Fidelipac, which was the first commercially successful film format. Today we’ll talk about his heir – Stereo-pak, which paved the way for magnetic tape in car players. A short story about his story is under the cut.

Photo by Leonard Nevarez / CC BY

How did the Stereo-Pak

In the mid-1950s, the Fidelipac format with the “endless” tape began to be used on radio stations, primarily for playing jingles and commercials. The fact is that, in addition to the stereo pair, the film in the Fidelipac cartridge had an official track for index tones. They controlled the operation of the tape recorder during the broadcast – they stopped playback, rewound the tape and performed other functions. But Fidelipac cassettes did not go further than the radio stations. In part, this fact is due to the fact that they kept only ten minutes of music. It was not very convenient to listen to such recordings, as we often had to change the cartridges in the player.

American businessman Earl Muntz, who owned the car company Muntz Car Company, took on the task of rectifying the situation and popularizing the cassettes. His company has released almost four hundred sports roadsters Muntz Jet, among the owners of which were silent movie star Clara Bow, singer Vic Damon and saxophonist Freddy Martin.

In the mid-1950s, Fidelipac cassettes with recorded commercials by Echomatic (it produced and still produces household chemicals) fell into the hands of Münz. He contacted Fidelipac author George Eash and suggested modifying the cartridge by increasing its capacity. To do this, the engineers enclosed a 6.35 mm wide tape with four soundtracks and a 3.75-inch pull speed per second in a plastic case. This approach slightly degraded the sound quality, but increased the playback time to an hour.

The modified format, called Stereo-Pak, is widespread. Mostly they listened to him in cars (we will talk more about this later), where, due to the large number of extraneous noise, a small loss in sound quality did not play a special role.

Having launched the production of new cassettes, Muntz founded the company MEC (Muntz Electronics Corporation). The Beatles, The Beach Boys, works by Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix were released on the Stereo-Pak. Many songs in Stereo-Pak were offered by Columbia Records.

Car Market

80 years ago, automakers installed only radios in their cars. Then, listening to your own recordings while driving was out of the question. The situation began to change in the mid-1950s, when Chrysler put on an audio player for records – Highway Hi-Fi.

For him, they even developed a special vinyl format:

But the player was not destined to receive mass distribution. Firstly, it was available only to Chrysler car owners. Secondly, the system was "capricious" in terms of service, and in the event of a breakdown, the owner had to contact the dealer – auto mechanics, as a rule, could not help with the new device. There was also a third obvious drawback: when driving over bumps, the player’s needle jumped off, which made it difficult to enjoy music and control the car.

Earl Münz decided that the Stereo-Pak is much better suited for listening in the car, and designed the appropriate car radio. The entrepreneur himself prepared the technical documentation and launched the production of cassette players. There were a small number of controls on the Muntz players so as not to distract the driver again. At the same time, the “endless film”, which was the basis of the Stereo-Pak, made it possible to play the entire music album in stereo format without removing or turning the cartridge.

But the system had its own problems – for example, it was still necessary to switch tracks manually using a special lever on the player. At the same time, due to the peculiarities of the mechanism winding the film, the cassette could not be rewound forward – this led to a rupture of the tape. The player itself was also quite expensive – $ 130 in 1963 (for comparison, at that time four liters of milk cost a little more than 80 cents, and two kilograms of sugar – 43 cents).

Despite the shortcomings, the Muntz systems sold well until 1970 – even large stars were among the customers. Frank Sinatra put the player in his Buick Riviera. His example was followed by colleagues from the group "Rat Pack" – Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and Peter Lawford.

Stereo-Pak remained one of the most popular film formats from the mid-50s to the early 70s. But a new format entered the market – 8 Stereo. And seized the initiative. He proposed an even greater number of tracks, and, consequently, a larger capacity. Despite the fact that the format was inferior in sound quality to its competitors, it quickly gained a foothold not only in American cars, but also in their residential buildings. How this happened, we will describe in the next article.

Further reading from our Hi-Fi World:

Radio recorders from the USSR: a brief history of audio systems in Soviet cars
Highway Hi-Fi: what began the history of car record players
Audio cassettes in pop culture: why the obsolete sound recording format is again considered fashionable
“Between Vinyl and Cassette”: The History of Tefifon

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