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The bumpy story of vinyl record players in cars

by | Dec 8, 2022

As a lover of vinyl records, I’ve often thought over the years of how to install a record player in my car, so I could enjoy the superior sound quality of vinyl while I’m driving. Of course, there are naturally a few ways that this idea is not practical. First, a form of media that relies on a delicate needle making contact consistently with a record that is spinning is not well-suited to a situation where you frequently encounter bumps in the road. Second, trying to change records (particularly 12-inch records) while driving is probably not the easiest thing to do while keeping your eyes on the road. Third, the heat that builds up in cars during the summer is not compatible with storing vinyl records in cars.

However, that hasn’t stopped people from attempting to put vinyl record players in cars over the years, and they have used some rather interesting and creative techniques to do it. If they were undaunted, then I must be undaunted. To figure out the best bad solution, we have to know the (bumpy) path car record players took to where we are now. So let’s look at the options that were and are available.

From 1956 to 1959, Chrysler included the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player, as an option for Chryslers, Plymouths, Dodges and DeSotos. From 1960 to 1961, RCA produced the Victrola vehicle record player (not to be confused with the RCA Victrola record label). At about the same time, the Philips Norelco Auto-Mignon was sold from the mid-50s through the ‘60s and was only available in the UK.

 

Photo of George Harrison with his Philips Norelco Auto-Mignon

George Harrison with his Philips Norelco Auto-Mignon. Source: “The Beatles Book Monthly”, photo by Johnny Dean.

From the 1970s through the 2010s, vinyl record players in cars were largely neglected, as auto manufacturers and drivers focused on more car-friendly media: 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, iPods, and streaming services. However, vinyl records have recently been having a comeback. More than 40 million vinyl albums were sold in the U.S. in 2021, which is a 50 percent increase from just the year before. In fact, 2021 marked the 16th consecutive year vinyl album sales grew, and the largest year for vinyl album sales since MRC Data (a music sales data provider) began tracking sales in 1991.

Auto manufacturers seem to be taking note of the vinyl comeback. Last year, to promote their IS, Lexus partnered with musicians Madlib and Kaytranada, the music review website Pitchfork, and Hollywood effects house SCPS to create an in-car turntable for the Lexus IS Wax Edition. The result is reportedly a record player that doesn’t skip while driving. Unfortunately, this is just a one-off promotional vehicle, made simply to hype Madlib and Kaytranada’s collaborative single, and it’s not available to purchase.

In addition, this vinyl resurgence seems to coincide with people trying to figure out their own ways to install record players in cars. One ingenious example can be seen in the video below, where the car owner used a spider mount system (typically used on microphones to prevent unwanted movement) to install a Sylvania record player in his car. Unfortunately, as the turntable is mounted between the front seats, it doesn’t seem like it would be as convenient to change records as if it was mounted in the dash.

A possibility I’ve been considering is a vertical record player mounted between the front seats. It may not be as elegant a solution as the one demonstrated above, but it would be quicker and easier to install. These players come with a mounting bracket that holds the record in place. This is good because you need to find the right tension: it’s a fine line between enough to keep the needle in the groove and too much tension that would wear out your vinyl. That said, I don’t know how precise the arm would be on one of these that it wouldn’t skip when you hit bumps.

Another option is the Record Runner, a self-propelled record player shaped like a VW bus, that plays music while spinning on the record. However, the user would need a flat surface on their vehicle for the record to spin around on (which might make it a solution for a conversion van or RV). In addition, the Record Runner doesn’t have a jack to connect to a car stereo, instead playing the music from a speaker in the top of the miniature bus.

So why go through all of this effort to get a turntable in a car when there are so many elements working against it? There are debates on this issue, but I believe that vinyl is the best economical way to listen to music (audio reel-to-reel machines may be the overall best from an audio quality perspective, but those things are prohibitively expensive). Look, I’m not an audiophile, but even I can hear the difference in quality when I’m listening to an album on vinyl versus digital (CD, MP3, or streaming). As audio engineer Adam Gonsalves says, “Vinyl is the only consumer playback format we have that’s fully analog and fully lossless.” It’s the closest you can get to what the band or artist recorded in the studio, regardless of whether they recorded to analog or digital. There’s also the aesthetic aspect of vinyl: sliding the vinyl out of a 12” by 12” record sleeve, where the album artwork is allowed to shine and can be enjoyed in a larger format, and placing it on a turntable. CDs, MP3s, and streaming just can’t compete with that in my book. Now, place a record player in an older car dripping in chrome, and you’ve got maximum aesthetic nostalgia.

Will auto manufacturers continue to take note of the vinyl resurgence and start offering cars that come equipped with record players, albeit ones that address the skipping and convenience issues? Or will some vinyl-loving driver figure out the perfect aftermarket solution? As a vinyl lover myself, I hope the answer is yes to one of those questions!

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