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The End of an Era

While God may still be alive and well, according to the New York Times the factory-installed tape deck is not:

"According to experts who monitor the automotive market, the last new car to be factory-equipped with a cassette deck in the dashboard was a 2010 Lexus. While it is possible that a little-known exception lurks deep within some automaker’s order forms, a survey of major automakers and a search of new-car shopping Web sites indicates that the tape deck is as passé as tailfins on a Caddy."

That doesn't mean that car stereos with cassette decks are out of production altogether, but you will have to buy MustangiiRadios and install them yourself, even if "installing them yourself" means paying a stereo installation shop to do it for you.

This makes me a bit sad in a way. I'm old enough to have been around when car audio really took off in the early 1970s, although I was too young to notice at the very beginning. On the other hand, I was in my late teens and twenties when tape decks were the big things to have in your car and I remember how truly revolutionary it was to be able to listen to something besides the radio in your car. Lest you believe me a Luddite, let me be clear that I'm not exactly bemoaning the passing of the technology; even though my car is a 1978 I haven't had a tape deck in it for years. Matter of fact, I just got a new system that I can plug my iPod Touch into. But I still think that the humble cassette player is worth raising a virtual glass to in honor of its passing on to the Great Options List in the sky.

If you were born after about 1970 or so, you may have never experienced what car audio was like before the tape deck came along. Prior to the 1950s if your new car even had a radio it was probably AM only--FM wasn't available in cars until the early 1950s--and had a single speaker usually in the dashboard pointing up at the windshield. Some car makers offered a built-in record player on some of their high-end models, but they were generally only usable when the car was not moving and most often used proprietary media (i.e., records), so their acceptability was limited.

Like any other endeavor, enthusiasts could also  modify home components, like reel-to-reel tape players, and put them in the car, along with added Hi-Way Hi Fi speakers and whatever else they could think of. The main problem continued to be the size and awkwardness of both the equipment and the media: vacuum tubes still ruled the day which took up a lot of space (and juice) and the media were difficult to maneuver. Just try to imagine changing a record or threading a reel of tape while barreling down the highway and you'll wonder why anybody's making a fuss about 'driving while talking.'

Before I continue, I should mention that I used to be something of a stereo geek. I never quite ascended the heights to reach "audiophile" (i.e. freak) status, but I did spend many an hour reading every word of Stereo Review magazine and debating with friends the plusses and minuses of turning on the "Loudness" button. I'll try not to go too far off into the weeds.

The game changer came in the 1950s with the introduction of--whether bequeathed to us by aliens or invented (more or less) by Bell Labs--the transistor, which allowed electronic components to be both smaller and use a lot less electricity. Then in the mid-'60s Philips came out with their compact "cassette" (of French origin, meaning 'small case') and William Lear (yes, that Lear) invented the much-maligned 8-track. The tapes were pre-threaded in their own case, so no messing with bulky reels and the tape itself was protected in a hard-shell case so you didn't have to worry much about it unraveling all over the place.

RCA had produced its own version of a cassette in 1958, but it was fairly large and the pre-recorded music offerings were few and it failed to make much of a splash. The cassette itself was originally designed as a simple voice recorder so the sound quality wasn't great. 8-track had an advantage in that respect because the tape moved past the read-heads faster, and the design was simpler. Thus, 8-track   8track_inside caught on earlier and by 1965 most manufacturers were including 8-track players as an option on several models. But it had its drawbacks. The tape was a continuous loop so you couldn't rewind it and start over whenever you wanted, and it had a tendency to get stuck because the tape was always rolling over itself and required lubrication which eventually got dirty and wore off. Plus, the cartridges were pretty bulky--especially compared to cassettes.

Probably the worst offense was that often songs had to be chopped in half to fit on the tape. This happened because, as the tape wound around, the heads physically moved to a new track and started playing there; you could only fiddle with the song order and tape length so much to fit an album on a single tape. I never had an 8-track in my life because the first time I heard one it faded out a song and then started it again on the next track. That, I thought, was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard and could never figure out why it became popular in the first place.

Cassettes started to take over when sound quality improved, largely due to the development of the Dolby system for noise reduction (a consequence of low tape speed) and chromium dioxide tape. The Dolby system worked by boosting the high frequencies during recording and then suppressing them during playback; the 'hissing" from tapes is mostly in the higher frequencies, so when you reduce those frequencies at playback you get rid of the hiss, but the previously-boosted music portions are brought back down to their original level. It worked pretty neat, but most of us, I think,  1978-8-Track didn't even turn the Dolby on because it sounded better without it. We have a tendency to like high frequencies in our music--it sounds brighter--so theory be damned, I guess.

At any rate, cassettes finally caught up to 8-track on sound quality and its other advantages--being able to rewind and fast forward, smaller size, greater length, and NOT HAVING TO SPLIT THE STUPID SONGS BETWEEN TRACKS--won the day. Eventually, 8-tracks went the way of the dodo and left the field to the cassette player, both at home and in the car.

Now, lest you young folks think you invented the idea of pirating music, listen up: we were there first. One of the big controversies in the 1970s and '80s was whether blank home-recordable tapes were legal or not because, let's face it, most people used them to record their friends' albums ('LPs' or 'records' to you young'uns). Everybody knew that's what they were being bought and used for, by and large, but the tape manufacturers argued (successfully in legal terms) that owners of LPs had the right to make Home_taping_is_killing_music additional copies of the albums they owned, albeit only for personal use.

Truthfully, a lot of people used them for that purpose, in a way. Many if not most of us made up "mix tapes" by copying favorite album tracks to tape, thus becoming their own DJs of a sort. I guarantee I am not the only one with a couple of tapes marked "Road Tunes" for playing while cruising the highway. For a while I was in the habit of buying an LP, listening to it a couple of times, and then putting the tracks onto a tape in an order I found pleasing. You may roll your eyes now, I don't care.

It's a little difficult nowadays to recall how revolutionary this idea of playing whatever you wanted in your car really was. Before, you only had commercial radio to listen to. Not only did they only play what they wanted to play, but you had to deal with commercials, static, dropout (damn power lines), relatively poor sound quality, and when driving long distances--especially well out of urban areas -- having few or no decent stations within reach. But with 8-tracks you could at least listen to an entire favorite album, and with a cassette you could have two albums on a single tape! Or you could make up a mix of your own songs to play depending on your mood! No more having to hear only the "hits" on the local pop station; you could listen to your entire Genesis album, complete with 11-minute songs! In your car!

As an aside, I didn't get my first cassette deck in a car until about 1983 or so when I was in college. I used to hate the drive between Madison and Fond du Lac (WI), about 70 minutes, because in the middle of the drive I'd fall out of the Madison radio stations and be not quite in range of the Fox Valley stations. It was maddening. When I finally installed a tape deck, it was heaven. My mother was worried that it would distract from my driving, but in reality the opposite was the case: no more getting frustrated with the radio, I could pop in a tape and listen to that the whole way. It was actually quite calming. As a conservative estimate, I would say I listened to Ammonia Avenue (Alan Parsons Project) and Can't Slow Cassettes Down (Lionel Richie) approximately three million times.

But alas, both time and technology march on. When the CD was introduced in the 1980s it signaled the death knell of the cassette deck--not for several years perhaps, but the fix was in. CDs had way better quality, were much less bulky, and had much longer playing times (eventually). Plus, instead of having to rewind or fast-forward, you could hit a button and skip around anywhere on the disk. And perhaps of a bit less immediate importance, they also lasted longer as the surface never came into contact with the playback mechanism. Tape manufacturers initially fought back with the introduction of digital recording tape, but recordable CDs ended that little foray quick enough. And so, the tape deck began its eventual decline and fall into obsolescence.

Yeah, I still have a few cassettes laying around (see photo), sitting in one of those ubiquitous faux-leather carrying cases. Despite my doubts about manufacturer's claims that they would eventually wear out due to simple degradation, most of them have now become virtually un-listenable. I now have only a single machine capable of playing them, a 10-year old Sony boom box. I still have an old Hitachi tape deck sitting in a box somewhere, but it's been inoperable for years as well. Both of those will probably hit the Goodwill (or the trash) in the near future. One of these days I plan on playing whatever is left of my mix tapes and then recreating them as playlists on iTunes/iPod and getting nostalgic about my youthful musical tastes every now and then.

I wonder how long even OED manufacturers will build them. I did a quick search on the Interwebs for cassette car stereos and only found about five manufacturers that still make them. And they have adapters for MP3 players so you can technically keep the one in your car for a while and use your iPod or whatever. Eventually I guess they'll just be quaint devices that are only really kept in old vehicles that owners want to keep totally stock.

I finally put a new stereo in the old Mustang that accepts a USB input (for my iPod), but it still has a CD player in it, so at least that format is carrying on for a while yet. I'm guessing CDs will be passé in a few years, to be replaced by ... who knows? Digital devices will probably become scarce pretty quickly as our music collections begin to reside on distant servers and are only accessed through the Ethersphere. Plus, streaming music of our own devising--the article mentions Pandora, but I use Rhapsody at home--is becoming more common so even radio, whether HD or satellite, may have its days numbered.

 -Anthony J. Cagle

Credits: The 8-track interior shot is from Wikipedia and the in-dash 8-track is from StationWagonForums.com. The Hi-Way Hi Fi is from the Imperials Club. The anti-recording graphic is from The Straight Dope. I got the brochure at the top via the Mustang II forum, and it's hosted on Hans Tore Tangerud's web site. The smattering of old tapes is from my own collection, including that rare unopened tape. Also thanks to Fiona for pointing the article out to me in the first place. FWIW, these are a few of the songs on my "Early '80s Fashion Bands" mix tape:

-- Take On Me (Ah-ha)
-- Love Plus One (Haircut 100)
-- Heartbreak Beat (Psychedelic Furs)
-- Don't you want me (Human League)
I also have one that begins, bizarrely, with the theme from Mission:Impossible and Swingin' (John Anderson). Yes, I was probably drunk a lot. (Okay, not 'probably', I was definitely drunk a lot)

 

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My first car radio install was a cassette player. I put it in my '78 Corolla, and then later put it in my '75 Impala. When I bought my '88 S-10 to replace the Impala, it too came with a cassette player, though I quickly pulled that and put in a CD player. I've gone through a handful of CD players since in various vehicles. And then about 18 months ago my father-in-law gave us his old 2001 Dodge Caravan, and wouldn't you know it...cassette player.

Thankfully I have both a RF unit to plug into my iPod, as well as a cassette adapter so I'm not limited by the caveman quality of sound storage, nor by the lesser sound quality of the cassette.

But back in the day I listened to a lot of music via cassettes. I literally wore out 2 cassettes of Run DMC's Raising Hell Album.

And the funny thing is, from time to time I get out a cassette and pop it into the minivan's player and get some sort of perverse nostalgic joy from it still working. But the tape doesn't play for long...

I had an aftermarket deck in the '78 Monza (the installation of which doubled the car's fair market value!) and the official Honda dealer-installed unit in the CRX. I had two full cases of tapes (mostly albums, some custom-mixed) for the car, and it was nice to be able to listen to a full uninterrupted album of "planetarium music" (Tangerine Dream, Kitaro, Vangelis) on those long hauls from Youngstown to Cincinnati and back.

In the CRX, the cassette deck permitted me to conduct a series of rigorously-controlled experiments proving that playing "Refugee" in the car cuts a full second off your 0-60 time.

Yes, we can thank him for the Learjet and curse him for the 8-Tracks LOL.

I'll go one further on "pirating" music back in the day. At the end of every year the local radio station would play the top 100 songs of the year. I would record the entire thing on many cassettes, then mix that down to the songs I really liked on a double cassette boom box. Then I would get requests from friends that liked certain songs to make them a tape or 2. All they had to do was provide the blank tape. On a more personal note, I currently live about 15 minutes south of Fondy and work alot in central Illinois. That drive between Fondy and Madison still sucks for radio station reception.

Raise a glass for the cassette? I'll raise a whole boombox!!

I was raised on cassettes and was reluctant to turn to CDs.
But it worries me that somewhere there are rare, unreleased tracks of one's favorite artists, recorded in master tapes, probably never to be released due to legal crap, while record companies keep releasing the same versions of the tracks in "special compilations"... meanwhile, the masters slowly whither away, if not already worn out due to their use for various recordings.

THIS is sad:

http://www.smartgiftsolutions.co.uk/images/full/usb_stick_tape.jpg

But the rest of the page is pretty cool:

http://centralcomputing.blogspot.com/2010/12/interesting-updates-from-crookedbrains_10.html

You know, I can't even remember the last time I saw a car with a cassette deck in it. Thought they stopped putting them in new cars a long time ago.

Our 99 Camry and 01 Outback both came with factory CD/tape player combo decks, although I haven't had a cassette in my music collection since...oh, high school? I still remember using a cassette adapter on our discman to play CDs in our 89 Nissan truck, and when we finally pulled the trigger on getting an aftermarket CD player installed, that was a big deal! Ahhh memories.

Too young for 8-track to be anything but ironic, but I do wonder what memories my young son will have of music. What's to compare to the tactile experience of opening a fresh new record or tape or even CD, and putting it in its respective player for the first time? Streaming and downloaded music is probably the future, but there's something very physical and real that's being lost in the process.

i installed a 4 channel quadraphonic 8 track player and four speakers in my 1972 chevy caprice coupe when i was about 20. it was uber cool.

I never had a CD player in any of my cars until about three years ago, when I bought a used 99 Explorer. Before that, I had the fabled cassette adapter, which worked a little better than the micro FM transmitter to move those CD tunes from the Discman to the car system. Plus, there was a power supply plugged into my cigarette lighter in the Civic, so whomever rode shotgun on roadtrips had a bunch of wires to contend with. There was also a period when I used to rip CDs full of ITunes songs to play in the Explorer before i got a newer truck with an adapter to plug the IPod into.

LOL, never mind pining for cassettes and 8-tracks. If you want to talk nostalgic obsolescence... has anyone here read about the demise of CD players?
http://www.thecarconnection.com/marty-blog/1048928_were-calling-it-the-in-dash-cd-player-dies-in-2015

I think it's becoming obvious to car manufacturers that trying to keep up with escalating technology is unobtainable. Looks like the new strategy is providing the conduit for entertainment by way of head unit interfaces and speakers and expecting owners to provide the entertainment sources via iPads, iPods, smartphones, etc.

When you consider how long it takes a car-maker to develop, test and implement the hardware for current tech, by the time they manufacture it, it's way past obsolete. So I suppose it makes sense to offer hardware infrastructure in cars compatible with current devices that won't become antiquated before it's built.

For our last new car purchase (fall 2001) we narrowed our choices to the 2002 Camry vs. the Altima and our opinions of the 2 were so close that the tie-breaker was the fact that we could get a stereo with a cassette deck (and CD) in the Camry, while Nissan offered a CD-only stereo. Still driving that Camry and love it, though I'm sure no cassette has been played in it since 2003.

I had no idea anyone was still offering a cassette player.

My last new-bought car (2001), I had to specify a downgrade to get the cassette player instead of the CD player. Didn't want to lose the ability to play all my old tapes, y'see... For the last five years I've used one of those cassette converters with my MP3 player(s).

I bought a used Toyota a couple of months ago. High on the gripe list is that it has no aux-input jack for an MP3 player. A six-slot CD changer, factory installed, and a decent set of speakers, but I don't care much. No aux input jack. Oh, and the manual explicitly warns against trying to play CD-Rs in it. Store-bought Audio CDs only.

I remember how amazed my parents were when I installed an FM converter in their 1971 Buick Skylark. A few years later as a junior in high school later I bought my own car and, nerd that I was, installed a cassette player in my car instead of the more socially acceptable 8 track. I remember the blank cassette tape controversy and making my own "mixes". However, I can't figure out why the kids today think their downloading, play lists, and "mixes" makes their parents technological dinosaurs. Like a good percentage of their music, they are simply following the path we blazed for them.

I have a 4-track setting in my garage that I am planning on installing into my 65 Corvair.

How about that for memories?

My seat-of-the-pants guessimation is it was about 1964 (because I was still in high-school in rural-Indiana) that a buddy of mine took me & bunch of our pals for a ride in his '57Chevy to excitedly demonstrate his new self-installed 8-track player w/ extra speakers. We were very impressed, never minding he'd slung-it under the dash using erector-set pieces. Soon however, one of our friends topped him in a '58Pontiac, by including a reverberator-kit set-up to go along w/ his own 8-track home-garage installation. Seems JCWhitney-company had some hand in these things.

One of my most formative moments as a young engineer was an argument with a group of other engineers at work over the viability of CD players in cars. I was convinced that CD players would supplant tape decks, for reasons that are now obvious. But the other engineers were unanimous that I was dreaming.

"They're too expensive." (Moore's law was not yet widely known, even among engineers.) "They skip too easily." (The simple idea of adding a buffer had not yet been applied.) "The disks are too hard to handle while driving." (People still thought of CDs as fragile, and needing to be handled gingerly, by the edge only, like a record.)

This was one of the events that helped me to see that the opinions of technical experts are only valid within the narrow range of their particular expertise. Step even slightly outside it and their opinions are no more valuable that anyone else's (and in some cases less valuable).

As a teenager, my Dad brought home a case of blank 8-tracks from the swap meet - 50+ at least.

With a supply of metallic splicing tape (that's what triggered the track jump) and an overpowered 4-function calculator, I would reorder the album songs to fit a custom-length loop set to 25% of the total album duration. Unless someone held a gun to my head, the preference was to have a loooong pause at the end of the 4th track rather than fade-in, fade-out.

I didn't consider it stealing because for some odd reason, none of my friends wanted copies of Blood, Sweat & Tears 4 or Chase: Ennea.

Good times...

I still drive my 1995 Honda Prelude S, equipped with a factory tape deck that still plays my cassettes of Yaz, OMD, Depeche Mode, New Order, Erasure, et al.

Because I'm old skool.

I doubt CDs are going away anytime soon. Their quality still surpasses the various iTunes and Amazon, et al. formats. Don't get me wrong, online music is decent enough for car audio, but CDs (and their cousins, SACD and DVD-A) get the lion's share of play in my home setup.

So, I had the old, typical diamond needle - I searched around and got the Moon Rock needle; cost me $3 million bucks for that. ... So now I have the Googlephonic stereo with a Moon Rock needle — it's OK for a car stereo, but I wouldn't want it in my house.

My (first car at age 16 in 1993) 1982 Celebrity had a premium stereo (balance, fade, treble, base, ect) but no cassette. That Christmas I asked for and received a $30 cassette deck equipped replacement stereo and adapter plate. Made the switch and the only thing I didn't like was loosing the digital clock off the factory stereo.

Next car, 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme premium factory stereo, cassette tape equipped. Followed by a 1997 Ford Escort, cassette equipped. 2004 Ford F150 Heritage CD + cassette. The last time I played a cassette was in the Oldsmobile, when it was stolen I lost a collection of about 12 tapes and never replaced them. Honestly I don't own that many CDs but I have used the CD unit in the F150. I listen to www.pandora.com quite a bit and as long as you've got a "smart phone" you've always got that with you. My next vehicle will have a MP3/MP4, iPod, ect adapter sorry guys I'm not going to miss the cassette or the CD. (Maybe it's my age, being only 33.)

My wife's 2000 Volvo V70 still has the combined cassette-CD. I'm pretty sure the bulk of our combined tape collection went to Goodwill about 2-4 years ago, but we might have 1-2 tapes still knocking around. The stereo cassette deck finally went to Goodwill this past weekend.
I'll join in the salute to the cassette - from today's perspective it might seem antiquated technology, but it had a good run and frankly represented a pretty reasonable combination of fidelity, convenience, and durability. I agree that the physicality of the older formats seemed to give a bit more connection to the music and the act of listening. The cueing up of the record, full rewind of the tape, head cleaning (!) may seema PITA, but it demanded some involvement instead of clicking a mouse.
I occasionally get the same feeling for some other old formats - VHS, floppies, even vinyl. Like tigerstrypes, I also wonder how much information of all types is now simply gone and unrecoverable due to the march of technology.

My last commuter car (a 2001 Mitsubishi Mirage) had a factory CD player. I bought an aftermarket Double Din CD/cassette combination. I did this for one reason. I wanted to listen to CDs but have the option to listen to books on tape for my long commutes. In that capacity, it served its purpose well until more books started coming out on CD (eventually supplanting cassettes as the medium of choice).

The best thing about the cassette was that you could get Books on Tape. Could go through 4 or 5 books taking the kids to college and coming back. I have a collection of these that I can only use in the '02 Windstar or a Walkman as the '05 Accourd only has the CD player and XM radio and at the time they could'nt change it for a combined cassette and CD player as it's all tangled up with the tempiture controls.

Jim -- You can feed that Walkman's output to your computer's line input and then record the files digitally, and burn to CD for use in the Honda.

Of course, if you haven't figured out how to do this already, I would recommend paying the neighbor kid twenty bucks to set it up for you, but the process is relatively simple.

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