When Car Stereo Shops Ruled

Earl “Madman” Muntz made the front page of the May 27th, 1967 edition of Billboard Magazine, which reported the grand opening of his Detroit tape cartridge retail store at 15268 Gratiot Avenue. The former Kaiser-Frazer used car salesman was a marketing visionary, creating innovative products and selling them with crazy costumes and outrageous sales pitches. Muntz invented the Stereo-Pak 4-track tape cartridge, the direct predecessor of the Stereo 8 cartridge, developed by Bill Lear.

His Detroit operation, which ultimately sold both 8 track tapes and the automotive stereo gear that played them launched in a former Nash Rambler dealership in the heart of the Motor City’s “Auto Row” of car dealerships.  The concept soon spawned competitors, 27 year old “Crazy Jack” Frankford’s Michigan Mobile Radio and former Detroit DJ Mickey Shorr were two of the names we often heard advertised.

Broadcast radio in automobiles was still primarily consumed through the AM radios that were standard installation. FM was becoming popular in our homes and many of us spent a month’s pay on expensive stereo systems to render the increasingly complex production that went into the records we bought.

Taking those sounds on the road was appealing and it wasn’t long before Earl Muntz was negotiating with record companies to be able to purpose their content onto Stereo-Pak cartridges, based on the endless-loop Fidelipac cartridge, which was a fixture in hundreds of radio station control rooms.

As interest in FM began to grow, vendors created converters that broadcast FM signals to in-dash AM radios. It wasn’t long before full fledged stereo systems were being installed under car dashboards and adapters were created to put enhanced radios where the factory units once were. Michigan Mobile Radio advertised “Stereo Sonic Sound”,  which involved installing a second speaker in the back of the vehicle with a delay unit that created poorly simulated stereo. Such was the speed of innovation that the compact cassette, invented in 1962, soon supplanted 8-Track. The format was abandoned in 1982, but car stereo stores like Mickey Shorr’s still exist to this day.

Earl “Madman” Muntz

As for “Madman” Muntz, A 1968 Los Angeles Times article noted that in one year he sold $72 million worth of cars, five years later he sold $55 million worth of TV receivers, and by 1967 he had sold $30 million worth of car stereos and tapes. Shortly before dying of lung cancer in 1987, Muntz centered his retail business on cellular phonessatellite dishes, a motorhome rental company dubbed “Muntz Motor Mansions”, and prefabricated aluminum houses. He made headlines in February 1985 as the first retailer to offer a Hitachi cellular phone for less than $1,000 ($2,300 in 2018), when just two years earlier most cellular phones had cost about $3,000 ($7,500 in 2018 dollars). At the time of his death, he was the leading retailer of cellular phones in Los Angeles. (Wikipedia)

Only Ron Popiel, the man who gave us the slogan, “But wait, there’s more!”, sold a greater variety of items. He’s famous for inventing the Veg-O-Matic and the Showtime Rotisserie, hawking his Ronco products himself in extended commercials and popular informercials.