Hi folks -- I never had an 8 track player -- maybe just too poor when they came out, or maybe not interested in tunes at the time, or maybe I went directly to the cassette, but in any case I certainly missed a major cultural event. Every once and a while you'll find 8 track tapes at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Below is some information on the 8 track and the critical role the auto industry had in this technologies acceptance by the consumer.
The next thing Kususto decided was that Motorola would develop the playing mechanism, and that Lear Jet Stereo would develop an absolutely reliable cartridge, a more difficult job than it appears. The first design criterion they decided on was that the tape would have to have 8 channels of information, twice what the Muntz tape cartridge had. Only in this way could they get enough music in each cartridge to make the cartridge practical.
What Lear did to make the tape cartridge what it is today is something that only highly skilled engineers can really appreciate. It wasn’t simply a question of making a device that would reliably pull a continuous loop of tape at a constant speed. That was difficult enough in itself and got him involved in such things as lubricants for the tape which would make the tape just so slippery, and which would neither dry out, losing their slipperiness, or come off the tape and make things that shouldn’t be slippery – the traction wheel, for example – slippery. He also had to make a device that was inexpensiveto manufacture (so that it could compete with phonograph records, which are really nothing more than a couple of cents worth of plastic) and which could be manufactured in large quantiiites. This meant he had to design not only the cartridge itself, but the machines which would make the cartridges as well. Oscar Kusisto, while Lear was spending much time and vast amounts of money developing a reliable cartridge, was spending many engineering hours and vast amounts of Motorola’s money developing a reliable playing mechanism.
What he had to do was design a machine that (a) would turn itself on when a cartridge was inserted; (b) pull a continuous loop of tape at an absolutely precise 3.75 inches per second (otherwise the music would sound horrible); (c) detect from two thin strips on the tape (each 1/32 inch wide) information which could be amplified with fidelity almost as good as the phonograph provided; (d) shift from one set of 1/32 inch wide strips to three other sets (in turn) of strips and then back to the first set (thus providing eight channels, or four stereo programs). The machine that did that had to be rugged enough to be operated in a car, wholly immune to both mechanical vibration and to hums, buzzes, and whistles generated by other electrical equipment in the car.
Actually, because of wind and engine and other noises inside a car, the passenger can’t really hear sounds below, say, 100 or 150 Hertz, nor above about 7,000-8,00Hertz. Some 8-track cartridges and playing equipment, however, can reproduce sound from about 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz, which is to say both lower and higher than the human ear can detect.
By the fall of 1964, Kusisto and Lear had a new ally, RCA. RCA said that if Motorola marketed a decent 8-track tape player, RCA would make tapes available, using artists from RCA’s large stable. Then in October 1964, Lear and Kusisto went to Henry Ford II. They hoped that Ford would be impressed enough with this new gadget to order it placed in the normal production system. Both knew it took at least two years, and more often three, before a new item appeared on a new model car. It took that long to get anything new into the system. What they hoped Ford would do would order his production department to include the tape player in the 1968 Fords. Henry Ford II recognized a good thing when he saw it. And unlike his counterparts at other manufacturers, he didn’t have to bother making proposals to be put to a vote after committee deliberations.
“We’ll shoot for July 1965,” Ford said. “I want a tape player available as an option on all 1966 Ford passenger cars from the Lincoln down to the Mustang.” In 1966 8-track players were featured as an option on Ford models; 1967 Mopar and VW followed. During 1967 every record manufacturer in America went into the tape-making business.In 1972, 450,000 units were installed in cars at the factory, and 3 million units were installed by either dealers or people in the electronics equipment business.
The story of the 8-track ended rather suddenly, but not unexpectedly. The major record labels announced their decision to stop supporting the 8-track format between 1981 and 1983. However, some continued to issue top-10 pop albums for some time. Also, 8-tracks of most popular releases were available well into the 1980s via the mail order record clubs. Also, there were numerous small labels that supported the format for some years.