IMAGINE modern cars without what is now called an ‘audio system.’
Salespeople wouldn’t be able to give them away, because they’re viewed as essential components and to many of the ‘infotainment’ slaves –they’re almost as important as the engine or the wheels.
What? No multi-speaker and woofered Bose, Alpine, Bang and Olufsen or Bowers and Wilkins?
Or any other brand for that matter.
Oddly, car radios had a rather slow start, first appearing in the 1930s, but only gaining real popularity in the 1940s – and then as an optional and pretty pricey extra.
Elmer H. Wavering, William Lear and Paul Galvin were the pioneers of car radios, no mean feat considering many homes in the 1930s had no electric power and home radios were often dependent on batteries.
Wavering, who grew up in Quincy, Illinois, was fascinated by radio and spent all his time after school and weekends working in a radio parts store run by Bill Lear – the same man who, decades later, founded the Lear Jet Corporation.
Lear, five years Wavering’s senior, had worked as a radio operator for the US Navy in WWI and was quick to see the potential the medium had in future aviation.
The two young men tinkered with parts, much of them from wartime surplus, that allowed customers to build their own radios.
But it wasn’t long before they set their sights on developing a radio for cars.
It turned out to be a hell of a task.
The radio was made up of a receiver, a sizeable box with vacuum tubes and an octagonal box that contained a single speaker and was mounted under the dashboard.
Another box housed a tuner and volume control and was mounted on the steering wheel.
The receiver was connected to two batteries under the seats and the aerial was hidden in the roof lining.
It worked, but components such as the generator and spark plugs sent noisy, pitching static through to the speaker, drowning out whatever was on air.
The lads went to work, finding and suppressing the manifold sources of interference until they finally got it right.
Next, they took their bulky, complex creation to a radio convention in Chicago, where they met Paul Galvin, head of the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation, makers of the Battery Eliminator — a big selling item that allowed battery-powered radios to run on household AC current.
Galvin was taken with the product, especially since more homes were steadily being wired with electricity and his Battery Eliminator was clearly headed for obsolete status.
Lear and Wavering went to work in a section of Galvin’s factory, refined their crude creation and mounted it in his Studebaker.
Galvin next went to apply for a loan to expand the operation and headed off to see his bank manager.
To prove how good the radio was, he had one fitted to the banker’s Packard – which minutes later went up in flames.
Did he get the loan?
Next stop was to Atlantic City, some 1200km away, which hosted the 1930 Radio Manufacturers Association convention.
He didn’t have the cash to pay for a display stand, so he simply parked his Studebaker at the convention centre’s entrance, opened the car’s doors and windows and cranked up the volume.
Bemused attendees liked what they heard and Galvin got enough orders to put the radio, which he initially called the 5T71, into production.
Galvin was pretty smart at marketing and figured a name would be better than a number, so he called the radio the Motorola.
Sales were still slow because the product cost about $110 in 1930, and installing it was more than an effort.
It took two technicians three to four days because the dashboard had to be removed and modified to accommodate the receiver and speaker, and the roof lining had to be taken out and refitted after the aerial was put in place.
The radio also had its own battery, which was usually fitted under the floor.
The installation manual had eight diagrams and 28 pages of instructions.
The price was also a big problem because the average new car of the time cost about $650, and the country was sliding into the Great Depression.
Ford came to the rescue in 1933, when it offered Motorolas as a factory-fitted option on its cars and a year later the B F Goodrich tyre company sold them at its nationwide chain of shops.
By 1935, the price of the radio, including fitting, had dropped to $55, which was somewhat more appealing.
A few years later WWII intervened and in 1947, just two years after the end of hostilities, Galvin Manufacturing changed its name to Motorola and with the help of Elmer Wavering, who had by then taken over as company president, developed many new and advanced products.
In the 1950s he developed the first mass-produced automotive alternator, replacing the notoriously problematic generators of old.
That, in turn, allowed car makers to introduce luxuries such as power windows, seats, steering and brakes, central locking and air conditioning.
”The radio may have made the car fun,” Wavering once said, “but the alternator made everything else possible.”
He also helped to build Motorola into one of North America’s top companies before retiring in 1972.
In between, Motorola introduced the world’s first pager and, in 1969, its radio and television equipment was used to give the world voice and footage of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon.
That milestone was followed in 1973 with the world’s first handheld cellular phone.
Yep, the thing nearly everyone today owns and refers to (in Oz) as a mobile.
Motorola remains one of the largest cell/mobile phone manufacturers in the world.
But what became of the two pioneers of the car radio?
Elmer Wavering stayed with Motorola, but never forgot where he came from.
He put his hometown of Quincy on the map and created a great many jobs by building three plants there making radio parts.
The grateful town responded by naming a central city park in his honour.