When Car Stereo Shops Ruled

Once upon a time, Car Stereo Shops were a major center of popular culture. And their owners were as colorful as the products they pitched.

When 8-track stereo tapes became a thing, we wanted a player in our car. And the emergence of FM, with it’s crystal clear stereo signal became the necessity that was the mother of Car Stereo store invention.

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 car 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.

Entertainment in our automobiles in the 1960s was still primarily consumed through the AM radios that were ubiquitous since the Gavin Motor Company first introduced the idea in 1930. By 1967 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 albums we bought.

Taking those sounds on the road was appealing and it wasn’t long before Earl Muntz was negotiating with record companies to purpose their content onto Stereo-Pak cartridges, based on the endless-loop Fidelipac cartridge, 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 a second speaker in the back of the vehicle with a delay unit that created poorly simulated stereo. In time, a whole industry emerged to build the compact amplifiers and uniquely designed speakers that we now expect to be standard equipment in our vehicles. 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, the Popiel Pocket Fisherman and the Showtime Rotisserie, hawking his Ronco products himself in extended TV advertising and popular infomercials.

Today in History:

1837 Michigan is admitted as 26th US state
1954 Ground breaking begins on Disneyland
1956 Buddy Holly recorded what would become his first release, ‘Love Me’ and ‘Blue Days, Black Nights’.
1965 ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark was at No. 1 on the US singles chart. A young Jimmy Page had played as a session guitarist on the track, giving him his first US No.1 hit.
1965 Keith Richards had his shirt torn off after 50 fans invaded the stage during a Rolling Stones gig at The Town Hall in Brisbane.
1974 Ringo Starr went to No.1 on the US singles chart with his version of the Johnny Burnette 1960 hit ‘Your Sixteen’.
1980 Prince made his TV debut on the US show American Bandstand. When interviewed after his performance the singer froze and struggled to reply to the questions he was being asked.
1986 Allen Collins, guitarist from Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed his car, paralyzing him from the waist down and killing his girlfriend Debra Jean Watts. Collins had survived a plane crash in 1977 that killed two other band members.
2003 Billy Joel was airlifted to hospital after his car smashed into a tree. The singer lost control of his Mercedes S500 and skidded for 100 yards before crashing. The accident happened in The Hamptons, New York.
2008 Alicia Keys was at No.1 on the US album chart with her third album ‘As I Am’. The album sold over 742,000 copies in its first week the largest ever first week sales for any female R&B artist.
2011 American singer Gladys Horton died aged 66. She was the founder and lead singer of the Motown all-female vocal group The Marvelettes who had the hits ‘Please Mr. Postman’. Horton would later sing lead on Marvelettes’ classics such as ‘Playboy’, ‘Beechwood 4-5789’ and ‘Too Many Fish in the Sea’.

Today’s Birthdays:

Jean Knight

1880 Douglas MacArthur, American General in World War II, born in Little Rock, Arkansas (d. 1964)
1915 William Hopper, American actor (Perry Mason, The Bad Seed, Rebel Without a Cause), born in NYC, New York (d. 1970)
1924 James W. McCord Jr., American CIA officer who led the Watergate break-in, born in Waurika, Oklahoma (d. 2017)
1925 Paul Newman, American actor (Hud, Hombre, Hustler), racing car driver and charity food company founder (Newman’s Own), born in Cleveland, Ohio (d. 2008)
1925 Joan Leslie, American actress (High Sierra, Yankee Doodle Dandy), born in Detroit, Michigan (d. 2015)
1935 Bob Uecker, catcher/actor (Mr Belvedere), born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
1943 Jean Knight [Jean Caliste], American soul, funk and R&B singer (Mr Big Stuff), born in New Orleans, Louisiana
1944 Angela Davis, African American activist, author and professor, born in Birmingham, Alabama
1946 Gene Siskel, American movie critic (Siskel & Ebert), born in Chicago, Illinois (d. 1999)
1948 Laurence Corky” Laing, Drummer (Mountain)
1949 David Strathairn, American actor (LA Confidential, The Bourne Ultimatum), born in San Francisco, California
1949 Derek Holt (Climax Blues Band)
1955 Eddie Van Halen, Dutch-American rock guitarist (Van Halen – You Really Got Me”; “Jump”)
1958 Anita Baker, American singer (Giving You the Best That I Got), born in Toledo, Ohio
1958 Ellen DeGeneres, American comedian (Ellen Morgan-Ellen), born in New Orleans, Louisiana
1961 Wayne Gretzky, Canadian ice hockey hall of fame center
1993 Cameron Bright, Canadian actor (The Twilight Saga, X-Men), born in Victoria, British Columbia

And here’s what former Detroit DJ, Mickey Schorr looked like in a 1982 TV commercial for his car stereo shop.

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit