Eight-Tracks, Private Jets, One Man, And the Rise of Car Audio

At the end of World War One, the car and the radio were rarely thought of together. However, as broadcasting took hold in the early 20’s, enterprising drivers began to install home radios in their cars, creating the first rudimentary car audio. Unfortunately, there was so much interference from the car’s electrical system that they could only be used with the engine off, and the situation remained there throughout the remainder of the 1920’s.

A former U.S. Naval radio operator with an eighth-grade education, William Lear, was running a radio shop in Quincy, Missouri in 1929. Always tinkering, he and employee Elmer Wavering began to experiment with a radio that could work while a vehicle was running. With temperature variations, road vibrations, and electrical interference to account for, it was no easy task. Once they had a working prototype, they set off for a radio convention in Chicago, where they met manufacturer Bill Galvin. After they successfully installed a radio in his Studebaker, legend has it he set off in the automobile for the 1930 Radio Manufacturer’s Association Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. Too short on funds to buy entry to the convention and set up a booth, he instead parked outside and turned up the radio. He was soon able to secure enough orders to allow the company to move forward with the first radio for use in a moving vehicle called the “Motorola.”

William Lear didn’t stay with the new company long. Wavering remained, helping to develop the first massed-produced alternator and eventually becoming president of the company. But Lear had his sights set a little higher. In 1931, he bought his first airplane, a Fleet Biplane. The problems he encountered while flying led him to found Lear Developments, combining his love of flying with his love of radio. There, he produced radio direction finders, the first radio compass, and even autopilot systems, eventually receiving awards from the City of Paris and President Truman for his work in improving aviation safety.

It wasn’t until 1963 that he began to develop and build the first mass-produced business jet, the Learjet 23. Though Lear Developments had long made radio systems for both general and military aviation, here again, William Lear answered the challenge of bringing music to a moving vehicle. At 500 miles an hour, commercial radio signals would be left far behind almost as soon as they were picked up. With an eye toward the car market, the company developed the Lear Jet Stereo eight-track cartridge, making 100 prototypes for RCA and Automobile executives. Together with Motorola, RCA, Ford, and General Motors, Lear formed a consortium to standardize and distribute the new format, and by the late 1960’s, car audio had entered a new age where drivers were finally able to select their own music.

And if they were fortunate enough to own a Learjet, they could take the tape and play it on the plane. In Lear’s words, “Tape playback in automobiles is going to be the next big thing. I’m going to be in the position of a man with a boat full of life jackets following a ship he knows is going to sink. He won’t have any trouble selling them.” Car audio would never be the same.

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