From the archive: The arrival of the compact disc player

Driving and audio entertainment have been a natural fit since the very beginning, and the in-car radio receiver had become a realistic prospect by the early 1930s.

By 1960, there were 445,258 in-car radio licences taken out (at the cost of £1, or about £23 today) in Britain – although the fact that there were six million cars on the road rather suggests that this fee was easy to dodge.

Anyway, the ubiquitous mode of listening to music when stationary was a 12-inch long-playing phonograph record – popularly known as the LP, or today ‘a vinyl’.

That year, Dutch electronics company Philips revealed at the Earl’s Court motor show its Auto-Mignon, a curious device that played the new seven-inch extended-playing (EP) records. It was suspended under the dashboard on coil springs, and Autocar enthusiastically stated that it was “virtually immune” from road shocks. In reality, your £23 (today £534) paid for plenty of flutter, needle jump and, after a short while, worn-out records.


Soon came a viable solution for avoiding whatever rubbish was being played on the BBC Light Programme (nowadays called Radio 2): the eight-track tape, a collaborative invention of Ampex, Ford, General Motors, Motorola, RCA Victor and, erm, the boss of Learjet. It was named so because the magnetic tape reel on which the music was stored was divided into eight literal tracks – not because it had only eight songs on it.

“A mains-powered, programmable deck will cost in the region of £400 [around £1422 today], while discs will be priced at around £4 [£14]. Thirteen of the world’s major electronics firms have accepted the Philips/Sony CD system as a new standard and will be making equipment for it.

“For the record companies, the very high reproduction quality means that demand for CD records will be high – but unlike cassettes, we, the general public, will be unable to re-record onto them.”

CDs indeed took off quickly, notably popularised in this country by Dire Straits’ 1985 album, Brothers in Arms. The big three musical formats would co-exist for a while, but global CD sales would eventually overtake those of records in 1988 and cassettes in 1991.

Of course, the biggest ever change came with the advent of digital MP3 files, which could be stored on a portable drive and later personal devices such as iPods, and their integration with cars. Streaming via the internet, which recently became available to drivers, has only accelerated the decline of physical formats; CD sales have been plummeting lately, while a resurgence in vinyl record production has led to this format, once thought dead and buried, generating more revenue than CDs for the first time in three decades.