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So long, cassette players, it’s been good to know you

Published March 19, 2010


It’s the end of a musical automotive era.

Lexus has changed the stereo in the 2010 SC430 convertible, adding a new six-CD player. This replaces last year’s stereo, which contained what appears to be the last factory-installed cassette tape player on the market.

While I haven’t actually listened to any of them in years, that pretty much consigns my elderly cassette collection to the realm of eight-tracks, vinyl 45s, and Beta and VHS tapes. I don’t care if he is available from Apple; Perry Como just ain’t the same coming out of an iPod.

We do love our car tunes. The first receiver-equipped car seems to have been one dubbed “Auto Wireless No. 1,” displayed at a fair in Missouri in 1904. In the early 1920s, you could order a radio in your Chevrolet. It was an extra $200 on a car that only cost $875 and came with an antenna that looked like a metal fence and covered the whole roof.

Radio was pretty much it until 1956, when Chrysler offered an optional record player. It didn’t work very well – any bump on the road and the needle skipped – and didn’t last very long. But people now had the idea that they could play whatever songs they liked, instead of only what the radio offered.

When I started driving in the mid-1970s, my cars had just the AM band – if they had radios at all. Some of my friends had it made, though: they had eight-track players, usually an aftermarket one stuck under the dash.

Eight-tracks were fascinating because they were everything that could possibly go wrong in a playback system, all rolled into a single package. They used a single loop of tape, which often had a tendency to un-loop and wind around the innards of the player. The loop also couldn’t accommodate song length, and so on some, the music would fade out, the machine would click over the tape splice, and the song would pick up where it left off. The tape ran on rubber rollers, which didn’t age gracefully, and which tended to morph into sticky gunk that gummed up the machine.

And smokers generally had the best-sounding systems: they always had matchbooks, which they jammed into the player so the heads would line up properly with the tape.

Cassettes were a vast improvement: they merely added tape hiss and long periods of silence if the album’s two sides didn’t match in length. There were songs on both sides, and you had a really high-tech machine if your player automatically switched from one side to the other. I never did, and so I had to remove the tape at the end of one side – I couldn’t afford auto-eject, either – and then turn it over and reinsert it to hear the other side.

Cassettes often wound themselves inside the machine as well, but if the tape wasn’t too badly mutilated you could insert a pencil in the sprocket and wind it back in, unlike an eight-track tape, which I never saw anyone successfully open and repair.

All of that is now gone and, in its stead, we have music players that can get cranky when they’re connected to computers to be fed their songs, and CDs that, like their tape predecessors, will probably be relegated to the dust heap within the foreseeable future.

And we also have satellite radio which, in an unintended nod to AM radio, fades out when you drive under a bridge. Come to think of it, Lexus SC – and every other vehicle out there – still offers the old reliable AM band.

Maybe some things never change.

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