The evolution of the soundtrack to our drives
From 8-tracks to audiobooks, what’s playing in the car sets the mood for the ride
If you imagine a highlight reel of your favorite car ride memories, there’s a good chance more than one of them will come back to what you were listening to along the way. Maybe it’s the cassette tape of your childhood, the timeless perfection of your “Summer ‘99” mix CDs, or today, your favorite podcasts and audiobooks for breaking up long rides.
For some reason, everything just sounds better in the car — especially the songs about the car — but we couldn’t quite put a finger on why. We talked to experts and every day drivers alike to find out what exactly makes driving and audio such a timeless pair, from radio and 8-tracks to the streaming options we enjoy today.
A car radio is born (1930s–1950s)
In the earliest days of driving, the only soundtrack was the engine itself. As cars became more widely available in the 1930s, brothers Paul and Joseph Galvin set out to change that with the first commercial in-car radio: the Motorola 5T71.
Named to blend the words “motor” and “Victrola,” the system used battery-powered vacuum tubes and sold for around $130 (around $2,000 in today’s money). Back then, listening to the radio in the car was actually considered to be as unsafe and distracting as texting while driving is today. It’s hard to believe, but maybe that’s why some of us still feel the need to turn down our music in order to “see better” when parallel parking.
Clearly, the fear subsided enough to make car radios a sensation, as 9 million cars had them installed by 1946. The rise in popularity led to technological innovations as well: In 1952, the German company Blaupunkt sold the first FM car radio.
A bump in the road (1950s)
In 1956, Chrysler introduced the first and only in-car phonograph, called the “Highway Hi-Fi.” It was mounted on the bottom of the car’s dashboard and wired directly into its radio. But there was just one problem: Any time you hit a bump in the road, the record would skip, so Chrysler phased out the invention within a few years.
Making music mobile with 8-tracks (1960s)
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that something better came along. In 1965, Ford began offering 8-tracks in all its sports and luxury cars. Soon after, most major record labels released their catalogs on 8-tracks.
Bassist, music producer and car enthusiast Bryant Wilder claims that 8-tracks had the best sound quality of any kind of audio in the car. “Eight-track tapes were exactly what they sound like. The device had eight tracks on it, four on each side,” he explains. “The quality wasn’t as good as vinyl, but it was better than cassette, which was better than CD, which is better than what we listen to now, as far as the fullness of the sound.” If that’s the case, we’re crossing our fingers that the Zoomers have a plan to bring them back à la record players and film cameras.
The rise of cassette tapes (1960s–1970s)
When cassette tapes became popular in cars in the late ’60s, they totally changed the game. The big reason why? For the first time, people could make their own personal mixtapes. They’re basically the precursor to the playlists we know and love to drive to today.
For Chris Molanphy, chart analyst, music critic and host of Slate’s Hit Parade podcast, the rise of cassette tapes paved the way for his personal driving mixtape. “I have a driving mix I still listen to today that was originally a tape,” he says.
The customizable appeal and ease of cassettes marked a new era for audiophiles: While 8-tracks represented around a quarter of all U.S. music sales in 1973, the format was almost completely outshined by cassettes at the end of the decade.
CDs take the front seat (1980s–1990s)
In 1984, Pioneer debuted the first ever car CD player, the CDX-1. And two years later, Sony introduced the car CD changer, which held 10 CDs and felt like the future. CDs held up better than cassette tapes, and the ability to skip songs without fast-forwarding or rewinding made them way easier to use, especially while driving.
Even though CDs were the hot format at the time, not all cars came with players, which meant some drivers needed a workaround. “My favorite accessory when I was a teenager in the 1980s was a Rakuten tape adapter with a wire sticking out of it so I could plug my Discman into the car stereo,” Chris says.
For some, the CDs they listened to in the car influenced their music taste for years to come. “We took a lot of road trips when I was a kid, and my parents always played great CDs on the way,” says Madison, a Zillennial who spends her free time road-tripping around the country. “I have such distinct memories of sitting in the backseat as a kid while my parents blasted Elton John or Queen or Abba. That’s how I learned about music.”
Once she started driving, music meant even more. “Music is such a huge part of the driving experience,” she says. “I used to make everyone mix CDs, and my dad still has the one I made him in high school in his car. The first track is “It Takes Two,” and the rest of the mix is mostly ’90s songs. I keep telling him I can make him an updated one, but he loves it just as it is.
Shifting toward digital (2000s–2010s)
Everything changed (again) when Apple released the first iPod in 2001. Before long, MP3 players became the go-to for portable music, but it took cars a little longer to catch up.
“CD players became standard in cars just about when iPods became a thing in the aughts, which was a problem because if you didn’t have a tape player in your dash anymore, there was no easy way to play an iPod through the car stereo,” Chris explains. “Aux jacks weren’t common in cars as recently as 10–12 years ago. The auto industry was always one step behind, getting caught up to the last technology.”
When MP3 players first became popular, people still had to buy and download music, which meant your library was still fairly limited. That changed in 2011 when Spotify launched in the United States and more streaming audio options became available.
Without track limits, there’s less pressure to create the perfect playlist before hitting the road. “My step kids are Gen Z, and they’re all about playlists,” Chris says. “When we’re in the car, they play the most eclectic mixes — there will be a Panic! At the Disco song followed by a song from the ‘Hamilton’ soundtrack.”
The golden age of audio (today)
Today, music isn’t the only thing keeping us company on the road. In the last few years, podcasts and audiobooks have taken the wheel, which makes sense considering the car is the perfect place to focus without interruptions.
“My wife and I overwhelmingly listen to podcasts in the car,” Chris says. “And speaking as someone who hosts and writes a podcast, I know it’s well-suited for road trips because the episodes are so long.”
Historically, reading hasn’t been an activity that’s recommended while driving due to the whole “keeping your eyes on the road” thing. But today, audiobooks make it possible to safely crack open a book (figuratively) in the car. If you’re the person asking, “are we there yet?” two hours into a days-long road trip, our friends at Audible have you covered with a huge library of podcasts and audiobooks — plus a special surprise for Wazers. You might actually wish your drive was a little longer.
For Madison, audiobooks offer a welcome change of pace on her long drives. “On my last road trip, I started to get tired of music, so I listened to Matthew McConaughey’s book Greenlight,” she says. “I loved it, but I don’t think I would have read a hard copy because the best part was hearing him tell the stories in his voice.”
We’ve come a long way from the early days of radio static. Between Bluetooth, touchscreen in-car sound systems, the rising popularity of podcasts and audiobooks, and nearly limitless playlists, it’s easier than ever to set the mood for your drive
Of course, some things never completely change. “I burned my driving mix to a CD in the early aughts, and now, it’s preserved forever as an iTunes mix,” Chris says. So, what makes the perfect driving playlist? He lays out his road-tested method: “I’m a firm believer that a really quality mix is 75–80 minutes long so it would fit on a single tape or CD. A driving mix should acknowledge that it’s being listened to in a car, with the lyrics or with the rhythm, and it should tell a story.”