Thursday, October 28, 2010

Were Eight-Track Tapes a Joke?

I am pretty sure that some time in my past, I have come into contact with an actual 8-track stereo system from back in the sixties. But I can't remember it. No, my generation remembers the 8-track tape as a joke, as a metaphor for for all obsolete technology.

The competing system, that eventually won out over 8-track tapes, was the compact cassette format.  They lasted into the 1990's.

Now you may notice another theme here, as part of the 8-track saga. It is the American 8-Track vs. the European Compact Cassette technology. Often, we here in North America assume American stuff is better, more advanced than European stuff, but I am not convinced at all. In so many cases, Europeans have machines that are better. I'm sure somebody could explain why, but I have no idea. But I know for sure that the 8-Track tapes were so bad that I wonder how anyone would think they could push them on an unsuspecting American consumer. Those must have been the days when it was thought that marketing muscle was all you needed, and that the actual technology could be utter crap, people would still buy them. Those days are over (I think).

Anyway, I'm getting off "track". My generation thinks of the 8-track tape as the joke. But I'm not sure my kids get the joke, as they sometimes get mixed up: 8-track or cassette, which one is the joke again? Both are pretty much obsolete, so to the next generation, both are funny. The actual joke was that 8-Tracks did not really work from day one, and the entire concept seems ludicrous in hindsight, while the Cassettes were far more functional and reliable. (and smaller, another European thing!)

I was thinking about this last week when I took a ride in my son's 1990 Audi Quattro. This car has a definite eighties "vibe" to it. The one thing my son was worried about when buying that car was not the age, nor the mileage, but the obsolete stereo system, which he quickly replaced with a modern one so that he could stick his MP3 player in and get some music. The generation gap is large for me, because my current car, a 2005, does not have any of this modern techno-wizardry. I still have more vinyl albums than CD's, Although my turntable has been on the fritz for over five years. Oddly, my son has a functioning turntable and vinyl CD's at home, but he considers them not as a basic music source, but as an art form, or a historical collector's item. The generation gap is so bad, that I don't even understand how he uses the twin vinyl DJ turntables, let alone the MP3 player. Several years ago he gave me an MP3 player for Father's day, and I have to confess I never figured out how to use it for music, but was happily suprised when he informed me it would also work as an 8 gig memory stick.

Just getting back to the Audi, I want to remark on something about his purchase, which involved trading in a two passenger Smart car for a five seater Quattro. I have always thought of two-passenger cars as "sports" cars, and four or more passenger cars as being "regular" cars, regardless of its horsepower, no matter how good handling. But this Audi Quattro, I would say comes about as close as you can be to a sports car while having more than two seats, and the Smart Car is about as far from being a sports car you can get, while still being a 2 seater. Here is a discussion on Jalopnik, on the topic of the 4-seater sports car. (and American sports cars vs. European)

Picture: This is the picture I took of the 1990 Audi in front of our house


  1. From the distance of 2010, it's difficult to put consumer audio, and especially automobile audio, systems of the late Sixties and early Seventies into perspective.

    During the Sixties, car radios were invariably an (added cost) 'option.' And when a purchaser did pop for the option, the 'factory' radio was generally a poor quality unit. So most drivers who wanted reasonable quality sound would install an 'aftermarket' unit.

    The 8-track system was developed by Bill Lear (of LearJet fame) and used 'standard' ¼" tape, running at the standard 'medium' speed of 3¾ inches per second (IPS). The innovation was in running the tape in a continuous loop, with the read head being shifted vertically to read each of four parallel 'stereo' paths (4 x 2, hence: 8 tracks). The storage capacity of the 8-track cartridge was
    ideal for duplicating LP (vinyl) albums.

    Although Phillips introduced their 'compact cassette' in the mid-Sixties, it was initially targeted at the dictation market. Because cassette tape was half the width and ran at half the speed (1/8" running at 1-7/8 IPS) of the 'normal' ¼" at 3.5 IPS, the sound quality was significantly poorer than 8-track. Early automobile cassette players were also unreliable, very expensive and produced unacceptable levels of hiss, wow and flutter.

    By the mid-Seventies cassette technology had been improved by the introduction of Dolby 'B' noise reduction to address the hiss, chromium dioxide tape for broader frequency response and improved transport mechanisms to reduce the wow and flutter. That, combined with the growing availability of prerecorded cassette material, killed off the 8-track market.

    So, although from the perspective of today's digital technology, 8-tracks seem clumsy, bulky and primitive, in their day they were the primary option for those who wanted to select their own tunes while driving. 8-tracks were certainly much better than the contemporary alternatives, such as under-dash phonographs!

    Since the Sixties, car audio has moved from AM-only, to AM/FM, to 8-track, to cassette, to CD, to MP3/CD, and there is much speculation that in the next few years even the CD player will be abandoned for purely digital media (USB, SD card, Bluetooth, iPod interconnect, &c.).

    8-track, a 'joke'? Hardly. More like 'state of the art' for its time   ;-)

  2. I don't really remember 8 track...

    What I wonder is how long was the life of 8 track, it seems in was a "flash in the pan" but did it really have a good run of more than a couple of years?

  3. Here's a quick timeline, probably presents a distorted view of reality though.

    1964 Born
    1975 Already the butt of jokes
    1982 Phased out of retail stores
    1988 Last non-bootleg 8-track release

  4. Your timeline is actually quite accurate; the heyday of 8-track lasted roughly from 1967 through 1976 - by which time the quality of cassette players had improved (and the price had dropped) to the point where cassette players were becoming the preferred choice for car audio.

    Not quite a 'flash in the pan' - 8-tracks were around for a decade.

    1966 - RCA and Learjet bring first 8-track players to market.
    1967 - 40% of new Ford Thunderbirds sold with 8-tracks installed.
    1968 - Chrysler introduces combined AM/FM/8-track.
    1970 - 'Floor-mount' (add-on) 8-track players attain popularity.
    1971 - 'In-dash' cassette players first appear, but 8-tracks continue to dominate the market.
    1972 - Dolby B noise reduction introduced.
    1973 - Chromium dioxide cassettes become widely available.
    1974 - Detroit considers offering cassette players.
    1975 - Sony introduces in-dash 2-shaft cassette/AM/FM stereo unit.
    1976 - Sales of 8-tracks fall off the cliff.

    What's interesting is the longevity of cassettes. Although by 1984 CDs, with their superior quality and reliability, had penetrated the auto sound market, sales of in-dash cassette players (at lower and lower prices) continue to this day!

  5. thanks for the time lines

    So yeah given born in '63...not surprising I only really remember them as "throwback" technology by the time I really became involved in stereos and such they were very much on the out

    Can't say I remember any of my Dads cars having 8 track...

  6. Beansbiker writes, 'I only really remember them as "throwback" technology by the time I really became involved in stereos.'

    When one goes back over the history of consumer electronics, 8-tracks actually had a relatively long run!

    Who, these days, remembers those other 'great products' that came and went ... quadraphonic records, laserdisks, Betamax, digital compact cassette, Selectavision ... oh, the list is endless :-(

    Which is why I find it so impressive that the compact cassette lives on (and on and on).

  7. number 2, 3 and 4--guilty as charged-although never owned any of them...

    I am somewhat "down the curve" when it comes to adoption of electronics

    Looking at the technology curve I'd have to say I'm--maybe a later early majority....

    for example we are looking at maybe getting an iPhone...