The First Car With a Radio

All cars have radios today, but they didn't always. When was the first car radio made, and what was it like?

The First Car With a Radio

Nowadays, we take the ability to listen to music while driving our cars for granted. For many people, the notion of driving around in silence is almost unthinkable. But in the old days, that was just a given: radios existed, but they didn't exist inside of cars yet. It was totally normal to ride with no noise other than fellow passengers or the wind through the windows.

Thankfully for all of us, radios eventually became commonplace within the world of cars, so today we can enjoy music wherever we may roam. But when did cars first get radios? Which manufacturer did it first, when did it happen, and how much did it cost? We're going to talk about all of that today.

The First Car Radio

The very first car radio to ever be introduced came about in 1922, courtesy of Chevrolet. But it wasn't at all like the car radio you may envision these days. It wasn't a nice, relatively small box that could fit neatly into your dashboard. In fact, it was anything but convenient: it was a monstrosity that took up a ton of space.

It needed an antenna that was so large it pretty much covered the roof of the car. The speakers were massive and had to be attached to the back of the seat, and the batteries to power the whole setup were so large they barely managed to fit under the seat of most cars. To top all of that off, this entire setup cost $200.

If that doesn't sound like much, it's because you are forgetting that it is 1922 in this scenario. $200 in 1922 was approximately $3,153 in today's money. If you wanted music with your ride, it was not going to be cheap. Such is the way of technology when it is almost brand new. It takes a long time for it to become cheap!

It's worth noting that this doesn't really tell us the exact make and model of the first car to have a car radio. Chevrolet didn't make a car radio as a built-in feature of a particular model in 1922, they just made a car radio that could be fitted to different Chevy cars if a customer was willing to pay that crazy price for it.

The Evolution of the Car Radio

As with all things, while people were happy to have new technology available to them at all, the notion of making car radios more convenient and accessible for everyone was on the minds of many an inventor. At first, the leap just went from Chevy-specific radios to custom-installed radios available in 1926, but they still cost a small fortune.

But in 1930, Paul Galvin, an engineer by trade, figured that the main way to make car radios huge (as well as make a ton of money for himself!) was to make them more affordable for everyone. And so, he invented a car radio that was only half the price of the conventional market contemporaries and installed it in his Studebaker.

He then waited for the annual meeting of the Radio Manufacturer's Association in Atlantic City, and drove 800 miles to get there and show off what he had achieved. His much cheaper car radio was a huge hit, allowing him to start the well-known company Motorola. This company became one of the biggest names in early car radios.

Of course, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. Like with all new technologies, there were just as many people against its implementation as there were for it.

Controversy Surrounding Early Car Radios

In the modern era, a major concern in driving is how distracting and dangerous texting and smartphones, in general, can be. These things cause drivers to take their attention away from the road in front of them, which increases the danger of car accidents and overall reckless driving. This was a concern when radio became a thing too.

Major organizations on both sides of the argument laid out their beliefs. In 1930, laws outright banned radios in cars in Massachusetts and St. Louis. Those who argued against car radios used the same arguments we are familiar with when it comes to texting: they were dangerous distractions that could cause accidents to occur more frequently.

The Auto Club of New York, full of car enthusiasts, even had a majority agree of their members with this assessment. 54% of their members agreed that car radios were dangerous in a 1934 poll. On the other hand, the Radio Manufacturers Association argued that car radios could be used to warn drivers of dangerous conditions or keep them awake when drowsy.

Ultimately, things swung the way of the radio. Most of the laws trying to prevent them from becoming a regular component of cars failed to stick around for long, even in the few situations where they were passed in the first place. This is a far cry from the many anti-texting laws that are going strong today.

Radio's Growth to the Norm

Radios didn't become a given aspect of a car overnight, even when they started to become more accepted. Thanks to those aforementioned cheaper and less cumbersome Motorola radios, it became more feasible to put radios in as many cars as possible. Within the same decade, preset options and push-button tuning reduced the distraction of radios while driving.

By 1946, roughly nine million cars in the United States had radios in them. Soon after, the invention of transistor technology managed to make radios even smaller and even cheaper, so the number of cars with radios shot up to fifty million by 1963. That was more than 60% of all cars in the United States at the time.

From there, it didn't take long to get to the point we are familiar with today. Radios became so affordable in both money and space that there was no reason to not include them in every car manufactured, as they were a major selling point. Nowadays, it's almost impossible to find a car that comes out of the factory without a radio.

Whether or not Chevrolet predicted such development in 1922 is a mystery, but chances are, they had no idea it would become such a phenomenon.