In my office is a clock radio and, if you are a child of the ‘70s or ‘80s, you already know which one. Made by GE, it has a red LED display, a plastic wood grain case and mounts one tinny speaker on top. It runs all day long, playing the greatest hits of the era in which it was built, and it fills the space with the cheerful din of bygone days. Everyone who sees it, thinks that I have owned it forever but the truth is that I spent long hours searching for that exact model. The fact I sought it out at all says a lot about me, that I have a strange attachment to old things, that I think history is important and, perhaps most obviously, that I am not an audiophile. Odd, it wasn’t always that way.
There was a time that most cars came equipped with a radio strikingly similar to the one on my desk. You know the kind, two knobs split by a row of five spring loaded buttons that were wired to whip the tuner manually from one point on the dial to the next. If you were lucky, in addition to those five buttons, your radio also had a little switch that would let you change up to the FM band. If you had that, you were a king.
Tape decks changed that. Although I imagine that they must have come as extra cost options in some cars as early as the very late sixties, I don’t really recall tape decks appearing in the cars my friends and family drove prior to about 1980. The few that did show up were outrageously expensive and of such low quality that most people simply went out and purchased their own. They weren’t at all hard to wire in.
I installed my first car stereo in my ‘74 Chevy Nova sometime in the summer of 1983. Like most modifications to the little car, I did it without my father’s permission and he was enormously unhappy, but the installation was smooth and, thanks to my brother Tracy who provided me with a pair of cast off, wooden speaker boxes that I seat belted in the back seat, I didn’t even had to cut the package tray to install my 6X9s.
The process was simple, I simply stood on my head under the dashboard of a car and went to work. The red wire with the fuse holder got stripped and twisted together with the red line on the car and the black wire got bolted to the firewall. Once the power came on, you messed around with remaining wires in sequence until one speaker or another made noise. A quadraphonic system added an extra layer of complexity, of course, but so long as you had the power on and were willing to work your way through all the combinations you could figure it out before the blood rushed to your head. It was fun and easy and, before I knew it, I had a successful little side business do it for others.
When I turned 20 and started working at Schuck’s Auto Supply, I was pleased to find out that my employee discount included a generous 20% off anything in the house, including the assortment of radios mounted in a large, lighted display off to the side of the sales floor. The brand was Kraco and it wasn’t long before I had one. The addition of a digital clock meant and extra wire, one that required an unswitched connection to the battery, but I made it work by routing that wire to the dome-light circuit ahead of the pin switch in the door.
As time passed, I found that the Kraco stereos came and went from our store with amazing regularity. When the old ones left there was a sale and, as a person who spent a lot of time after work fiddling around with the various combinations that display allowed, I always new what the best set-up was. Like a person addicted to cosmetic surgery, I found myself obsessed with swapping out my car stereo every few months. Looking back now, I think that the difference between the various units was negligible, but back then it was exciting and I always felt like was riding the cutting edge of technology. That stopped, however, when I bought my first new car, my Dodge Shadow, in February 1988.
I factory ordered the best stereo I could. A digitally tuned AM/FM Cassette that, among other things, featured a little joystick that adjusted both balance and fade in one fell swoop. Hooked up with four decent speakers on the factory floor, the little stereo made such a glorious noise that I never felt like I needed another. And so I was for a few years until one auspicious day shortly after I had returned from Operation Desert Storm.
I was prowling through the return section of a local electronics store and found something I had never seen before, it was made by Kenwood and was called the CD shuttle. It was an interesting concept, a trunk mounted multi-disk CD player controlled by a small hidden panel in the front of the car. It’s hard to remember now, but CDs were still a new thing in 1991 and even though I only had a single disc, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, I wanted in. Since the box was already open, I sat right down on the floor in the middle of the store and started going through it. According to the spec sheet, it was all there, and the installation looked simple. Some poor shmuck, I reckoned, had ordered the unit before deciding he had bitten off more than he could chew and, despite the fact he had done nothing more than look through the box, the store couldn’t sell the unit as new anymore. Their loss was my gain.
Back at home, however I learned the folly of my ways. Even though all the parts were there, I found the head unit had to be purchased separately and that once you had the system itself wired together, the outputs had to be run through an external amplifier in order to make noise come out of the speakers. The cost was exorbitant, but I was flush with easy Merchant Marine money and would not be dissuaded. $1000 later I had one of the most kick ass systems going and the best part was that it was all hidden. I didn’t even need to replace my own. stock stereo, I simply bought a switching unit that allowed me to control the CD player by remote. When I was done, the only sign I had anything extra in the cars was small LCD screen that sat in my car’s otherwise unused ash tray.
Overall, it worked really well but my ability as an amateur electrician, if there can be such a thing, was stretched to the limit and I knew then the handwriting was on the wall. In later years I changed the radios in a couple of older cars I owned, my JDM Supra was one and my 200SX was another, but never again did I try to build a system from the ground up, it was just too much work and, thanks to the quality of the systems coming out of the factory today, has never been necessary.
My most recent acquisition, the Town and Country we purchased last summer, came with a system that I couldn’t have dreamed of back in the days I was crawling around under the dashboard. AM/FM/Satellite radio, a CD/DVD player, a built in hard drive I can load from CD ROM, DVD or memory stick, blue tooth networking for cell phones and a navigation screen. Added to that is a blue ray player and two fold down screens as well as four wireless headphones that can operate independently of the main system so the kids can enjoy their own noise while I enjoy my own. It plays into the cabin through a dozen or more hidden speakers, and the entire experience is one of light and crystal clear sound. It is simply amazing. No amount of tweaking, I think could make it any better.
The odd thing is, other than my tinny little radio at work, I rarely listen to music at all anymore. And when I do, thanks to almost a half decade spent working in ships’ engine rooms, the many days I’ve spent staring down the barrel of one rifle or another and all those days I spent testing the limits of my own eardrums via the many aforementioned car stereos, the ringing in my ears never stops and it doesn’t really matter how good the quality is. Of course, it was never really about quality tunes anyway, it was about the fun. When you look at it that way, any radio, it turns out, can be a rock and roll radio.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.