8-Track Mind

In 1964, Bill Lear and the engineers at the Lear Jet Corporation, in conjunction with the contributions of several other corporations that included Motorola, Ampex, RCA, Ford and General Motors, released the Lear Jet Stereo 8, the first consumer 8-track tape player. Magnetic tapes encased in a housing had been around since the fifties, most notably in 4-track form. Radio broadcasters had been using a similar cartridge in the mid-50s, to make it easier to play jingles and commercials on demand.

The 8-track cartridge as introduced by Bill Lear consisted of 4 programs, 2 tracks each, building on earlier inventions. In previous incarnations, the tape was set to run in a continuous loop. Tracks were switched by the means of a metal foil that activated the sensor in the playback mechanism. Lear’s main alteration in the cartridge was moving the rubber pinch roller, formerly part of a playback mechanism, into the cartridge itself.

By 1967, Ford offered an 8-track player as an option to all its vehicle models, and RCA began releasing 8-tracks for its catalog of artists. This combined effort helped the 8-track gain credibility and popularity. Once consumers saw its portability and convenience, the era of the 8-track was underway.

Plagued with consumer problems from the start, the 8-track cartridge proved large and kinda clunky, filling up interior console bins and making storage inside a car more difficult. That notwithstanding, what irked most people Mister Boomer knew was the constant tape hiss and loud ker-chunk heard when the tracks were changing, which often happened within the middle of a song. Restricted to the tape’s eight tracks, albums had to be readjusted to conform to the technology’s requirements. This meant reconfiguring song order in many cases, songs being broken between tracks, and, in some situations, songs repeated or content added to fill the tape.

By the 1970s, the 8-track was on the way out. Cassettes, though introduced in 1963, didn’t overtake the 8-track until the late 70s. Consumers discovered that cassettes were cheaper than 8-track tapes, and record companies had to take a hard business look at the various formats they were publishing: vinyl, 8-track and cassette. By the time compact discs gained in popularity in the early 80s, the 8-track’s day in the sun had waned.

Mister Boomer’s entry into the world of the 8-track began in the summer of 1972. His brother had installed a unit in his own car a couple of years earlier, and now was selling that car. He removed the 8-track player and, since his newer auto would have a built-in 8-track player, offered the older unit as a hand-me-down to Mister B.

Mister B's 8-track player
That's right, boomers. This is an actual scan of the owner's manual for Mister B's in-car 8-track player.

Brother Boomer helped Mister B install the unit inside the glove compartment of his 1964 Plymouth. The Mini-8 fit perfectly. Instead of permanently securing it to the included hanging bar, though, a locking mechanism was installed in the roof of the compartment. The male counterpart was attached to the top of the unit. This allowed it to slide and lock into the bracket so the unit could be removed and carried when leaving the car, providing an extra layer of security. Tape players were a common target of auto break-ins. Employing a hacksaw blade from their father’s toolbox, the two boomer boys cut holes in the door panels and back window deck to house the speakers. True stereo sound would now be achieved. A few wires and a fuse later, the unit was ready for a test drive.

Despite the easy fit of the player in the glove box, the 8-track tapes themselves were six inches long. Inserted into the unit, approximately two inches remained outside the entry slot to enable the cartridge to be grabbed and removed. This meant that when Mister B wanted to activate the unit, the glove box needed to remain open, as the tape extended beyond the compartment. It also meant the tape would be out of reach while driving. It was portable music on demand all right — as long as you inserted a tape before getting underway.

Nonetheless, the floodgates now open, Mister B began buying 8-tracks, and added more titles to his annual family Christmas list. His girlfriend at the time had an interest in Elton John (Rocket Man), Cat Stevens (Peace Train) and Chicago (Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?), so naturally those purchases had to be made. Sitting in the passenger seat, she could control the volume and, since there was no rewind, click through the tracks to her heart’s content. Yet there was more. Mister B took this new in-the-car portability as the chance to discover new music he might not be able to play on the home “Victrola,” as Mister B’s mother called the family phonograph. This experimentation resulted in Jethro Tull (Aqualung; Thick As A Brick), The Doors (Best of the Doors), Santana (Abraxas), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Deja Vu; 4-Way Street) and even Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida) joining the collection. As a free-thinking, red-blooded American male, classical music on 8-track sat side by side with the rock ‘n roll in the Mister Boomer 8-track library (Best of Beethoven; Best of Tchaichovsky; Mozart Symphony in G Minor; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos).

It may have been clunky, annoying and inconvenient, but it was your music when you wanted it. In the early 80s, Mister Boomer was heading out to seek his fame and fortune away from Middle America. The entire 8-track collection, numbering in the vicinity of 80 tapes, were quickly sold, along with their storage cases, at a garage sale. Never climbing on the cassette bandwagon, Mister B’s personal portable music would have to wait until the introduction of the iPod before he forayed back into the realm.

Well, boomers, what is your happy 8-track memory?

Mercury Blues

Mister Boomer note: Sorry about the length of the video, but the song (David Lindley singing “Mercury Blues”), and the great visuals of those classic Mercurys are worth the time investment!

Ford Motor Company has announced that the Mercury line of cars will be phased out in 2010. Originated by Edsel Ford in 1935, the brand was fashioned to fit between the regular Ford line and the luxury Lincolns. Thus, Mercury joins the other brands of our youth, particularly Oldsmobile and Pontiac, now relegated to the dustbin of boomer memorabilia.

Some of us inherited Mercurys from our parents, especially those earlier models with the rounded, bulbous profiles. Some early boomers set about customizing the things to boomers’ discerning standards. With new wheels, fresh paint, rolled and tufted interiors and a Coca-Cola rubdown of any chrome bumper rust, we could be crazy about our Mercurys. Others will recall them as the utilitarian family car, though at least they had some semblance of modernist style (even if it was misguided at times). As for Mister Boomer, Mercury held peripheral memories dealing with other people’s cars.

Mister Boomer’s family was all about the Ford and Chevy, so a Mercury was out of the price range. A neighbor two houses down, across the street, did have one at one point. What Mister B recalls of that early 60s model was mainly the roof line and back window. The neighbor was one of the few on the block to have a garage to house his vehicle, so we only saw it when he would back his Mercury out of his driveway. This gave us a full driver side and rear view of the vehicle. It was a single paint color, all shiny turquoise and, of course, chrome. The cut of the car made it look like an italic font from the side, zooming forward to make its point. The roof line had a bit of a rounded overhang in the back — like a small car soffit covering the back window, which slanted slightly forward as it neared the trunk.

Once the car was safely backed out onto the street, we could see the neighbor kids in the back seat, waving to us through the rear window. The glass was flat and sloped inward, with an inch of chrome molding framing the center two-thirds of the window. Mister B discovered one day that the chrome molding was more than decorative; it served a function. The back window OPENED — by a power switch, no less! As an impressionable youth, that seemed more luxury than our suburb deserved.

Another Mister B/Mercury connection happened in high school. There was this kid who got a used mid-sixties Mercury Comet from his aunt as we were heading into our senior year. It was in showroom condition and a sight to behold. Blazing red inside and out, the only “eye rest” was the shiny chrome. Mister B had ridden in this blaze of color on wheels a few times since the owner lived nearby and would, on occasion, drive a few of us to Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt High School. (Yes, some of us really did walk five miles in the snow to go to school!)

Somehow, the folks at Mercury exactly matched the vinyl interior to the paint color. The metal dash (remember when they were all metal?) was also painted the exact same red, accented with blinding chrome when the fall and winter sun was at the right angle. Now, red is a fine color, even transcendent in the candy apple variety that appeared on tricked-out hot rods in the area. This particular incarnation, however, was not Mister B’s cup of tea. Insert your rendition of “Paint it Black” here if you like. Mister B is humming it now…

A few years later, a neighbor was coming home from Vietnam. His exact story is hazy at this point, but the facts are he was discharged and ended up down south somewhere. Shortly after that, he walked into a Mercury showroom, bought a Cougar and married the saleswoman a few days later. He drove back to the Midwest with his discharge papers, new car and new wife. Well, the wife didn’t exactly work out and she was gone within a week (a not-so-humorous story for another time, perhaps). The Mercury Cougar fared a little better. Before he was drafted, he drove a Chevy Corvair. Since the back seat was positioned over the rear-mounted engine, Mister B recalls that riding in the back of that thing was like sitting on a griddle. We’d sit on our hands to avoid roasting our rumps. It was no surprise to this boomer when Ralph Nader announced the thing was “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Now sitting in his parent’s driveway was this gleaming, jade-green, V-8 muscle Mercury with a tan leather-like interior. It was the model that had the headlights flip out of the grille when activated. Pretty sleek, my man. This Mercury model was one of the early attempts by the auto industry to tempt the younger buyer into purchasing off-the-shelf, with no need to customize a vehicle to be “street-ready.” Though Mercury turned the Cougar into more of a luxury brand a few years later, car companies continued the muscle car lines for several years into the seventies. Surely this resulted in every boomer out there having a muscle car story.

Yet what about Mercury? Once a Greek messenger to the gods … and now, a car line soon to be gone. Will it, like its Greek god namesake, be forgotten? Do you have any memories of Mercury you’d like to share?