All information below was previously part of www.roadkillontheweb.com and was written by Lee Exline, National DeSoto Club.
Highway Hi Fi 16 2/3 rpm Record Players
It seemed like a good idea at the time! Of course so did 8 track tapes! Back in the 1950s radio stations were not as plentiful as today. And if you did not like the choices that were within range about your only option was to suffer through what you could find or shut the radio off and listen to the road, engine noise and the sounds of bugs going splat on the windshields. They say necessity is the mother of invention, well Peter Goldmark of Columbia broadcast system research department to the rescue. In time for the 1956 model release Chrysler corp. was able to offer new car buyers a choice in their listing pleasure. The players were made to mount on the bottom edge of the dash directly above the transmission hump and plug directly into the car radio (top of the line radio of course). By pressing the button on the front cover of the player the door to the player would be open. The turntable could then be slid out to aid in loading the record. Flip the red switch on the left-hand side of the player and the player is on bypassing the radio tuner. The amplifier circuit in the radio was used to boost the signal from the player and volume, tone, balance, etc. were controlled by the regular radio knobs. There were a few problems that needed to be dealt with for the players to work properly in a car environment. Besides the obvious keeping the needle on the record. One of them was safely operating the unit while driving! In order to fit the player had to be small so the 45-rpm record size was ideal. Only one problem you would have to change the record every few minutes, this is not only a chore but also it would be dangerous while going down one of the new superhighways at warp speed. So the new 16 2/3 rpm speed was used (ultra-microgroove) with the 7” format (same as 45s) but this would give extended long play and this also added the benefit that the slower speed was less likely to kick up the needle. And with up to 60 minutes per side of entertainment you could drive quite a distance. The records were also easy to load, unlike the standard phonograph the tone arm was not lifted then lowered onto the start of the record. The tone arm only swiveled across the record; the stylus (needle) was mounted on a pivot at the end of the tone arm. And worked like a see saw with the stylus on one side and a red button on the outside of the arm opposite the needle. By depressing the red button this would lift the needle. Moving the tone arm over the record would start it spinning, when the bottom of the red button would hit a stop next to the turntable the button would be released and the needle would be placed in the starting groove. Then the turntable could be pushed back in and the front cover closed. A light shining through a red plastic lens on the cover would inform the driver that the player was working. Once you got used to it you could do it with out looking. Let me now dispel a couple myths about these players 1. They were never mounted in the glove box 2. The needle was not spring loaded to keep it on the records causing excess record wear (plastic shavings on the floor give me a break!) 3. The records are thick to keep them from warping inside the car in the summer not to make them last longer or keep them from jumping when you hit a bump! If you were to order one of these on your new Chrysler, Desoto, Dodge or Plymouth you received with it the first 6 records in the series in a box set, along with a registration card and order form for more records and a carrying case. Only 36 were available when the option first came out with an additional 6 added in early 1956 for a total of 42 available to the general public.
Dealer Demonstration Records
The only other records that were made specifically for this player were not intended for distribution to the general public were dealer demonstration records. When a salesman would bring a prospective buyer out for a test drive in the option loaded demo car these records would be put in the player and the customer would be told about all the new bells and whistles by a strange voice coming from the radio speaker. I have seen these for the 1956 cars only. Also available but not intended for this player are storybook records that used the 16 2/3 rpm 7” format when you went for a test drive in a new 1956 Demonstrator model the dealer did not have to go along! There were dealer demo records available that told the prospective customer about the new features of the car through the record player as they drove. I currently have the Chrysler and Dodge demo records in my collection. they are one sided and came in plain white sleeves! the dodge record carries the #ZR120 and the Chrysler record caries the #ZR122. I have seen one for the Plymouth and it carries the #ZR12? I have never heard of one for the Desoto series and I can't believe that it would be the only series that did not get one.
These are probably the rarest highway HI-FI records of all! I never even knew that they exsisted until I found two of them. I had the good fortune to locate a Gentalman that used to work for Columbia records. He was hired by Peter Goldmark (inventor of the Highway HI-FI) after World War II and was one of the service techs that would service the units in the field when they were having problems. He still had a player that he had used to practice and approx. 18 records. When I bought out his collection i recieved the test records with the package deal. He could not remember what was on them and I do not have a player at home that runs 16 2/3 rpm and my car is far from finished. they came in plain brown sleeves and were single sided like the demo records but with no label at all. one has the #ZRD688-1B and the other is #ZRD688-1C the number is melted into the record with a small stamp near the middle.
1957 Model Year
The option died at the beginning of the 1957 model year. It does show up in some early model year literature and service bulletins. But getting info about things like the proper brackets to mount them in 1957 model cars is a difficult task. I have heard reports of them showing up in cars up to 1959 but they were no longer a factory approved option as of the first part of 1957. The dealer could have easily installed one in a later car as long as it had the top of line radio with proper plug receptacle on the side. Why did the option die so soon? If you read between the lines on the service bulletins related to the player you can see that they had service problems. After a short time the dealers were to send customers to authorized radio repair shops instead of trying to fix the units themselves. My suspicions are that this was not an idiot-proof machine. The record skipped when we went over the railroad tracks doing 90, must be something wrong with it! I don’t understand the road I use to go to work was just paved in 1924 it’s not rough! They work fine on good roads and on decent highways but lets face it you can’t go four wheeling with a record player and expect it not to skip! Limited availability of records could not have helped either! Records had to be ordered from Columbia records and of course only artists on contract with Columbia records were available!
Suggested Additional Reading Material on the Highway Hi Fi
Nov. 1955 popular science
Apr. 1956 radio and television news
Highway HI FI service instructions
Maverick Inventor (Peter Goldmark)
Sams Photofact # 383-6
1960 RCA Version
Chrysler corp. licked its wounds and tried again in 1960 this time the unit was made by RCA the RCA victor. It played 45 rpm records. So those owners could go to the local store and pick up a record for it not order through the mail. You could even get Elvis, something that would never happened as long as Chrysler executives were picking out your choices for you. You could stack up to 12 records at a time in the player so that you would not have to change all the time! Take everything your home player would do and reverse it the records loaded from the bottom. The tone arm would come up on the bottom of the record. As the record was finished playing the tone arm would move out of the way, that record would drop to the bottom of the spindle and the next record would start playing. This time the option lasted a full 2 years 1960 and 1961 but I am sure it suffered the same problem as the first, skipping! The next time you had a choice like this in a Chrysler corp. car was 1968? With 8 track tapes.