The car radio: Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside No. 32/2021

The car radio: Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside No. 32/2021

Jun 18, 2021
  • From radio in the instrument panel to multimedia content in MBUX
  • Music and traffic notifications as the soundtrack for car journeys
  • “33 Extras”: Exhibits of motoring culture at the Mercedes-Benz Museum

Stuttgart. 160 vehicles and a total of 1,500 exhibits are presented in the varied permanent exhibition of the Mercedes-Benz Museum. The “33 Extras” are a particular highlight: they can bring the history of personal mobility and motoring culture to life using details that are often surprising. The Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside newsletter series draws attention to the “33 Extras” and focuses on their background stories. Todayʼs issue is about the car radio.

32/33: The car radio

Sound of mobility: Motor vehicles have been enabling individual mobility for 135 years and the car radio has been providing the accompanying sound for around 100 years. For many decades, all you did was switch it on, select the frequency and listen to your favourite radio station through the loudspeaker. The radio provides information and entertainment on the way to work or throughout the journey to the holiday destination. Contemporary media technology for networked vehicles even offers options that go far beyond entertainment, news and traffic notifications.

Mobile radio: The first car radios appeared in the early 1920s – initially in the US – as customised, unique items made by technology aficionados on the basis of contemporary radio valve technology. To begin with, this development was marvelled at in Europe. For instance, an article dated 13 August 1922 in the “Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung” newspaper reporting about the “wireless as a pastime – the most recent fashion in America”. The story featured illustrations of a radio installation including an aerial system spanning the windscreen. The passion for mobile radio reception quickly grew: German specialist magazine “Funkschau” wrote on 1 June 1931: “Without a doubt: cars and radios are a perfect match. The speed at which vehicles enable changing location is supplemented by the radioʼs spatial liberty.”

In-car radio for Europe: For instance, United American Bosch, a subsidiary of the German company, also contributed to technical advances in the 1920s. As a result, the first mass-produced car radio in Europe was made by Bosch. It was called Autosuper 5 (AS5) and was showcased at the 1932 Berlin Radio Show by Bosch subsidiary Ideal-Werke (which introduced the Blaupunkt brand name that very year). The device weighed 15 kilograms and cost the stately sum of 465 marks. However, such a price tag was hardly an issue for wealthy customers, given that car radios represented highly exclusive optional equipment in mostly luxury cars.

Integration: At the time, it was common to merely attach the compact control unit directly to the instrument panel whereas the bulky receiver component and the amplifier were installed at a different location, such as in the boot. By comparison, the AS5 was already comparably compact, making it possible to install the technology below the instrument panel. Only a few years later, the car radio was to be seamlessly integrated into the vehicle and its operating concept. For instance, using a round radio station dial directly next to the instruments within the driverʼs field of vision, just like Mercedes-Benz did, e.g. in the model 770 “Grand Mercedes”.

Compact and ex works: After the Second World War, car radios became significantly more compact and it was possible to completely integrate them into the instrument panel. For instance, in the Mercedes-Benz 170 S (W 136), the brandʼs first luxury class vehicle after the Second World War: radios, such as the Becker AS 49, introduced in 1949, were available as optional equipment for this model series from 28 February 1950. A closely related Becker Solitude car radio with a round dial is the exhibit from the “33 Extras” series at the Mercedes-Benz Museum.

Convenience and information: The Miracle on the Rhine in the 1950s also marked a new prime of the car radio. Radio broadcasts encoded by frequency modulation (FM) offered better signal quality. Further innovations in the 1950s included radio station buttons and station scan functions. Transistor technology, cassette tape slot and stereo sound followed in the 1960s. The 1970s saw the introduction of Autofahrer-Rundfunk-Informationssystem (ARI; “automotive driversʼ broadcasting information”), a system that automatically identified traffic reports broadcast as part of the programme and slightly increased the volume.

Digitisation: Ever since, in-vehicle radio units have been enhanced by an entire system of digital media and information technology. Crucial steps include the integration of a CD player in the 1980s and the combination with satellite navigation in the 1990s. The introduction of the COMAND display and operating system represents a milestone of system networking in Mercedes-Benz vehicles. It celebrated its world premiere in 1998 in the 220 model series S-Class. Nowadays, the car radio in a Mercedes-Benz forms part of the adaptive and customisable MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) infotainment system.

High fidelity: Be it digital radio reception, streaming via smartphones or MP3s from a USB pen drive: anyone enjoying music with top-notch sound in vehicles today is benefiting from the car radioʼs manifold technological history. Some ideas, such as mobile record players, never took off. Other inventions became popular, for instance CD changers in the glove compartment – however, they were soon superseded by digital media technology developments.

Audible attitude to life: Nothing has changed in terms of the fascination of having an individual soundtrack with top-notch sound to accompany you on your trip. Be it informative programmes or music, we all create our very own audible ambience within the clearly delimited space that is the vehicle. Some value spoken word content while others most of all prefer their favourite music to sing along to at the top of their voice. And it is said that some of us have missed a few junctions on the motorway because their podcast was just too exciting. In any case, entertainment is not just a backdrop of sound, it appeals to all senses.

Car radio: Historic, round-dial Becker Solitude car radio from the 1950s with wood panelling on the front, suitable for installation in the instrument panel. Exhibits in the “33 Extras” at the Mercedes-Benz Museum (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: D720131)
Car radio: On the left a historic, round-dial Becker Solitude car radio from the 1950s with wood panelling on the front, suitable for installation in the instrument panel. Exhibits in the “33 Extras” at the Mercedes-Benz Museum. On the right, the MBUX display of the Mercedes-Benz ESV 2019 experimental safety vehicle. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: D720134)
Mercedes-Benz 770 “Grand Mercedes” Cabriolet D (W 07), photo dated 1937. Telefunken-branded car radio with a round station dial that has been integrated into the instrument panel (in the centre at the bottom), the selection has been set to “Stuttgart”. The separate loudspeaker was installed on the right in the footwell. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 26352)
Mercedes-Benz 300 Cabriolet D (W 186), photo dated 1951. Becker Nürburg car radio that has been integrated into the instrument panel. Becker specifically developed this car radio for Mercedes-Benz 300 and 300 S models with a “magic eye” knob to make it easier to set the station. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 51058)
140 model series Mercedes-Benz 300 SE, photo dated 1991. Detailed shot of the cockpit with a Becker Mexico Cassette model car radio with features including station scan and digital station display, station memory for FM, short and medium wave as well as cassette tape slot. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: A90F1906)
Three car radio variants: Three devices were available for the 203 model series Mercedes-Benz C-Class – with satellite navigation system, CD player or cassette tape slot. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: A2000F797)
 203 model series Mercedes-Benz C-Class, photo dated 2001. The COMAND control and display system combined radio, navigation system and CD player in a single device. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: A2000F101)
Mercedes-EQ EQS, shot of the vehicle interior with MBUX Hyperscreen, photo dated 2020. The car radio forms part of the multimedia, customisable and adaptive infotainment system. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 20C0714_062)
A new shape for the car radio concept: MBUX has been offering Apple Music in the “Online Music” menu item of the Mercedes-EQ EQS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class since 2021. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 21C0347_003)