Bill Lear Invents the 8-Track and Brings in Ford, Motorola, and RCA Victor
Suddenly Bill Lear appeared on the scene, newly world famous for his spectacularly-successful Learjet business plane, and announced in 1965 that he had developed a cartridge with eight tracks that promised to lower the price of recorded tapes without any sacrifice in music quality. In 1963,he became a distributor for Muntz Electronics, mainly in order to install 4-track units aboard his Learjets. Dissatisfied with the Muntz technology, he contacted two of the leading suppliers of original equipment tape heads, the Nortronics Company and Michigan Magnetics. He specified a head with much thinner "pole-pieces" and a new spacing that would allow two tracks (or one stereo program) to be picked off a quarter-inch tape that held a total of 8-tracks. Although a departure from the Muntz player, the technology of the closely-stacked multitrack head was by the early 1960s well established in fields like data recording. Lear in 1963 developed a new version of the Fidelipac cartridge with somewhat fewer parts and an integral pressure roller. During 1964, Lear's aircraft company constructed 100 "Stereo-8" players for distribution to executives at the auto companies and RCA.
The early Learjet Stereo 8 player, pictured here, was designed with convenience in mind--and safety. The minimal knobs and controls were intended to make it quick and easy to play tapes while driving, without the driver taking his or her eyes off the road.
Just how Bill Lear managed to convince the auto executives to cram those players under the dashboards of Ford Mustangs and Fairlanes is a little unclear. Certainly Lear brought his reputation as the successful leader of a business, and had many personal contacts in industry. In a roundabout kind of way, he already had ties to Ford. In the 1930s Lear and Paul Galvin had together built Motorola into a leading manufacturer of car radios, and Motorola was now affiliated with Ford.
Whatever the details of Lear's selling job, the keys to the Stereo-8's spectacular success seems to have been linked to getting the backing of both Ford and the recording industry. After getting RCA Victor to commit to the mass-production of its catalog on Learjet Stereo-8 cartridges, Ford agreed to offer the players as optional equipment on 1966 models. The response, in one Ford spokesman's words, "was more than anyone expected." 65,000 of the players were installed that year alone. The machines were initially manufactured Ford's electronics supplier and the firm that had pioneered the "motor victrola" - that is, the Motorola Corportation.