When Music Went Mobile with 8-Track Tapes

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Recorded music made the first step in greater mobility when, on September 15, 1965, the Ford Motor Company offered 8-track cartridge players as an option in all its sports car Mustangs and Thunderbirds as well as luxury Lincoln vehicles. RCA Records soon after begins releasing its catalog on 8-tracks, and the other major labels follow suit.

Over the next two years auto companies start to offer the players as a factory installed option, and players for aftermarket installation are introduced. The 8-track becomes the option for listening to albums in vehicles and home players are introduced as a feature on many integrated home stereo systems.

The consumer stereo 8-track was invented by the Lear Jet Corporation, who also pioneered the private jet industry. As appealing as the option of playing your favorite albums rather than hearing whatever radio stations air becomes, the 8-track cartridge format has its issues. Albums must be divided into the four discrete channels (segments), meaning songs are sometimes interrupted as the channel changes. The tape inside the cartridges can sometimes break, stretch and get tangled. Despite its shortcomings, the 8-track nonetheless becomes popular with music consumers and car players become a symbol of hipness.

Watch this ad for the 1966 Ford Mustang, complete with a “stereosonic tape player”

Columbia House Ad

Do you still owe them money?

In the early 1970s sales of cartridges and players begin to decline as cassettes are introduced into the car stereo market. The cassette tapes and their players prove more compact and reliable. (A similar car stereo paradigm shift happened about two decades later when CDs supplanted cassettes.) By 1982 8-tracks are no longer sold at retail and only available via mail order record clubs. The last 8-track offered by a record label is believed to be Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits in 1988.

Today a small but avid group of aficionados collect 8-track cartridges and players. Cheap Trick offered a limited 8-track release of a 2009 album. As clunky as the format may have been, in the late 1960s it was considered by consumers to be at the technical leading edge and an innovation in recorded music portability.

Whoever is in charge of such things has designated April 11 as National 8-Track Tape Day.

Watch a primer on the evolution of car audio

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10 Comments so far

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  1. burtell
    #1 burtell 12 April, 2019, 12:55

    Does anyone remember 4 track tapes – they had only two programs instead of four.

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    • Bluzrider
      Bluzrider 12 April, 2020, 07:31

      You bet I do, they were the fore bearer of the 8 track tape, they didn’t last long, but they made their mark on the industry. 8 tracks only lasted a few years as well before the cassette became the answer to everyone’s prayers.

      Reply this comment
  2. Aud
    #2 Aud 22 April, 2019, 11:05

    I didn’t even know about 8-tracks till the early 70’s….?? Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was our first one!!

    Reply this comment
  3. WOP
    #3 WOP 12 April, 2020, 01:33

    Had an 8 track under dash installed in my 72 Dodge Colt. Great sound over the AM/FM radio. Brings to mind Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”

    Reply this comment
  4. Irbir
    #4 Irbir 16 September, 2020, 09:41

    The forerunner of the 8-track was the “cart,” a staple at radio stations for playing commercials (and sound effects). You can see a wild setup in early Mission Impossible episodes (2nd and 3rd season) when Mr Phelps (Peter Graves) gets his mission orders by playing what looks like an 8-track cart in a primitive car player.

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    • 122intheshade
      122intheshade 16 September, 2021, 12:35

      I worked at radio stations in the 70s and 80s. We carted commercials & PSAs, music, bits, news stories, everything. In the storage room of every station, was a cart repair and tape replacement area. Those carts had the same issues as the consumer 8-tracks.

      Reply this comment
  5. Shado
    #5 Shado 20 September, 2020, 17:55

    does anyone remember the under-dash car stereos that played both 8-track AND cassette tapes from the same bay?
    I had several in the day, a couple of different brands from Kraco (?) to Craig and I think there was even a Pioneer version … but I have only been able to find an ad for RadioShack’s Realistic brand … ahhh, nostalgic tech!

    Reply this comment
  6. jgelis
    #6 jgelis 16 September, 2021, 00:49

    Wow, this goes way back. My dad who naturally was the driver at first wore out an 8-track tape of “The Sound of Music”. It goes without saying I soon knew every song, not by choice, although I began to like some of them. Then I got my license, and it all changed to Jethro Tull, Zep, and Yes, which was so much better.

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  7. BSER
    #7 BSER 16 September, 2021, 17:08

    If you had a book of matches You were good to go.

    Reply this comment
  8. mak
    #8 mak 12 October, 2021, 08:26

    You wouldn’t think they were so groovy if you had been trapped in the back seat of a 60’s Chevy listening to Grand Funk Railroad Live clicking from one track to the next …on and on… all while under the influence of a certain recreational chemical…. Oh my god!!! This will never end!!!! I’m trapped for ever!!! Thank you Tim Leary and Ernie “Madman” Muntz.

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