Thursday Trivia

Thirsday Trivia
Welcome to Thursday Trivia where we offer up a historical automotive trivia question and you try and solve it before seeing the answer after the jump. It’s like a history test, with cars!
This week’s question: Who invented the 8-track tape player?
If you think you know the answer, make the jump and see if you are right.
Have you ever listened to the exhaust note of a curved dash Olds? How about a Model T? Early automobiles, with their meager putt-putt-putt engine sounds did not captivate riders the way the staccato brawl of say the modern Alfa 4C or Ford Mustang GT do. This lack of auditory engagement was a significant hole in the motorists’ experience, and one that, as proven by Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, sometimes required additional help in the form of an occupant singalong. Since not everyone is Dick Van Dyke or Sally Ann Howes even that wasn’t always an option.
The void in in-car entertainment was first filled in a significant way by Motorola, who offered a radio receiver for the car, hence the name, an amalgamation of Motor and Victrola. Car radios became, if not standard fare, then very popular options, but they didn’t address the desire of many to play audio content that they wanted to hear instead of what was made available on the AM spectrum. Today we play that kind of content wirelessly right off our phones, but that modern convenience was a long time coming and along the way there were many dead ends.
One of the first of those was an under-dash record player. Considering the size of the media and the onerous machinations of trying to change them out in a moving auto – meaning impossible – that proved a less than optimal solution. So too were wire recorders, which were offered by company’s like Muntz in their short-lived Jet autos. Those were also bulky and their sound reproduction was poor.
1977_00039_08It was magnetic tapes, in various formats, that eventually became the de facto standard for both self-directed mobile music and mix tapes for lovelorn teens. Not all magnetic tape formats were created equal however, and while Phillips’ Compact Cassette ruled dashboards and boom boxes until the advent of the Compact Disc, the 8-track also vied for mobile music honors.
The 8-track’s birth has ties back to Mad Man Muntz – again of Muntz Jet fame – but Earl Muntz didn’t originally invent the technology. Instead, the 8-track was created to specifically get around his company’s licenses and patents for an earlier – and pretty much long forgotten – 4-track technology.
From Total Media (emphasis added):

By 1963, Muntz’s 4-track players had started to catch on, especially with celebrities. They could be found in the cars of such notables as Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, James Garner and Red Skelton. And soon major record labels began issuing new releases and old favorites on the 4-track.
Around 1964, William Powell Lear, the man who became famous for the Lear Jet, signed on as a distributor for the Muntz 4-track in order to equip the plush Lear Jet with the revolutionary mobile audio technology. Unhappy with the technology, however, Lear made two modifications to the hapless 4-track cartridge.
First, in order to circumvent the Muntz 4-track patent, he incorporated the pinch roller inside the cartridge instead of inside the playback deck. This helped reduce, but never quite eliminate, tape jamming. He then doubled the record time from the 40 minutes offered by the 4-track to 80 minutes with the 8-track. Lear lined up the 8 individual audio tracks parallel to each other on a 1/4 ”-wide lubricated audiotape. The lubricated tape was needed on the back side of the tape because on an endless loop 8-track, tape is pulled off from the center and the tape has to be loose because it’s constantly sliding against itself.
But Lear’s genius was, like Muntz’s, in his marketing savvy. Lear had known Henry Ford many years earlier and had a good relationship with the Detroit automaker. He approached the company with the idea of offering an 8-track car stereo as an option in their cars. In 1965, Ford debuted built-in 8-track players as a custom option on select Mustang and Fairlane vehicles. That proved so successful that all 1966 Fords offered a factory-installed in-dash 8-track player as optional equipment. The response, in one Ford spokesman’s words, “was more than anyone expected.” 65,000 of the players were installed that year alone. The decks were initially manufactured by Ford’s electronics supplier, Motor Victrola, better known to us by the name of Motorola.
Thanks to Ford’s backing, the 8-track format eventually won out over the 4-track format.
Lear made four basic units in 1965: two under-dash units and two in-dash units. They were either straight 8-track players, or a combination 8-track and A.M. radio.
In the 1967 model year, Chrysler and GM offered the 8-track players in some of their models as well.

It should be noted that William Lear was an inveterate salesman. In the ’60s, he pushed for a steam-powered bus that ran on a secret compound that he claimed to be more thermally efficient than water and which he called Learium. After the project was abandoned it was shown that Learium was in fact, water. Bill Lear also named his first daughter Shanda. Yep, Shanda Lear.
Image: MustangAttatude

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  1. P161911 Avatar

    One of the very few that I have know the answer to. Seem to remember seeing an online article about it sometime in the last 10 years or so.

  2. NapoleonSolo Avatar

    I would have said Bill Lear of Lear Jet fame. Wikipedia lists a number of people who contributed to the design:
    The actual Lear Jet Stereo 8 track cartridge we are familiar with was designed by Richard Kraus
    while working under Bill Lear and for his Lear Jet Corporation in 1963.
    Stereo 8 was created in 1964 by a consortium led by Bill Lear of Lear Jet Corporation, along with Ampex, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Motorola, and RCA Victor Records (RCA). It was a further development of the similar Stereo-Pak four-track cartridge created by Earl “Madman” Muntz.

  3. Fred Avatar

    I remember how terrible that format was. Tape was always getting jammed or misaligned or it would break. I was so glad when cassette tapes came along, but then CDs were even better. I’m even starting to like mp3 on a usb stick. We might be going backwards with this bluetooth from a phone, or at least my Acura and phone don’t get along so well.

    1. tonyola Avatar

      Not only that, but with tapes containing longer songs, the music would actually fade out as the tracks were switched during playback. Annoying at best.

      1. Fred Avatar

        I forgot about that, some had long bits of silence before switching sides to avoid that problem.

        1. mdharrell Avatar

          Also albums in which the song order was scrambled to make the track lengths as equal as possible. Sometimes it didn’t much matter, but only sometimes.

    2. mdharrell Avatar

      Standard cassette tapes actually came along before 8-tracks but weren’t seen as appropriate for music at first due to the limited fidelity available from their slow tape speed, which was later corrected as better varieties of tape were developed. They were instead intended primarily for dictation and the like. Besides, before the development of automatic loading/ejection mechanisms, auto-play, and auto-reverse, they also would have been a bit fiddly for use while driving.

  4. P161911 Avatar

    So when did they drop factory 8-track players? I know a 2010 Lexus SC430 was the last to have a factory tape player.

    1. Fred Talmadge Avatar
      Fred Talmadge

      Really 2010 Lexus? I thought my 2007 Audi was old fashion because it still had a cassette player.

      1. marmer Avatar

        My parents’ 1978 Chevrolet Silverado truck, which was quite luxurious for its day, had a factory 8-track. I’ve never seen a later one.

  5. nanoop Avatar

    Grmpf, wrong again – I thought it was King Lear.

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      He did some preliminary work on 3-track, quickly revising it to a 2-track format. Despite considerable fooling around with the results it didn’t end well, mostly due to fidelity problems.

      1. nanoop Avatar

        Yeah, it was a tragedy.

      2. Vairship Avatar

        Meanwhile, King Arthur was working on an early version of the turn table. His version didn’t turn, though, so it was imply called a round table.

  6. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar
    Lear also foundedn Lear Siegler who was was the vendor for the Gen3 Taurus interior (at least at launch)
    So there are a few strikes against this guy.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      Lear Siegler is a huge automotive OEM vendor for seats. They have done lots of different ones. Everybody has a few misses.

      1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

        Yeah sure, and they’re usually pretty good with them. In fact i blame Ford more for this one, that entire project was doomed to fail.
        Their background in interiors is also the reason I wasn’t surprised at the connection to Eight-Track players.

  7. Manxman Avatar

    I first heard an under dash 8 track playing the Buffalo Springfield’s first album. I was blown away by the fidelity compared to AM. In the confines of a car the sound was thick and rich. 8 track had problems for sure, but, wow, what a sound.