An interactive Car Audio Community History
By The Legendary radio disc jockey “Shotgun” Tom Kelly
Inside the Daily Grill in Los Angeles, legendary radio disc jockey “Shotgun” Tom Kelly casts a smile from ear to ear as he recalls 1987, the year Wall Street would crash on what would become known as “Black Monday.” But the year was anything but black for car audio, as Kelly recalled, stroking his midnight black beard with his eyes peering from underneath his trademark Smokey-the-Bear-like hat.“What a year,” said Kelly, a DJ for Los Angeles’ K-EARTH 101, and former spokesman for Alpine Electronics’ Car Audio Nationals (CAN). “Thirteen cities promoting car audio. Going city to city, staying at great hotels. It was just amazing.”
Born out of the parts and concepts of pro and home audio, the car audio industry was on the verge of a revolution as it entered the ‘80s. By the end of the decade, the pounding the industry would make would even reach the footsteps of the Oval Office.
Alpine’s CAN was a two-year promotional event that ended in 1988 when it merged with the National Autosound Challenge Association (NACA) to form the International Auto Sound Challenge Association (IASCA). The NACA was another competition organization that fueled the 1980s renaissance of car audio, led by companies such as Rockford, Soundstream, Orion, PPI, a/d/s/ and Mitek. But it would be Kelly who would take it to the highest of offices, a place usually reserved for rock stars, actors and sports teams.
“We had just finished the finals (held at Sea World, San Diego, Calif.),” said Kelly, his excitement peaking as he was about to give his best impersonation of former President Ronald Reagan. “On my first day back to work that Monday I was told that Congressman Duncan Hunter was trying to get me to see the President. I got this letter saying, ‘Your presence with the President is approved.’ So there I was, back on a plane two days after finishing this 13-city tour for CAN, headed to Washington (D.C.). So I say, ‘Well Mr. President.’ And he says, ‘Well Mr. Shotgun. I hear you were the MC [for these car audio events.]’ So I told him about CAN, and he says, ‘That’s great.’”
The success the industry would experience throughout the ‘80s was, by all accounts, held atop the shoulders of the installers. But the vehicle that would showcase these talents would be competition ... or soundoffs.
“Competition really showcased the talents of the installers of that time,” said David Black, who now works for Marine Audio and was instrumental in Alpine’s ascent during the 1980s. “But this was also a time when companies were vying for market share (1986). We saw an idea (soundoffs), but so did the rest of the industry. We were going to have to meet the competition head on and see where it was going to take us.”
How It Came to Be
In between the era of the 23-band CB radio, which characterized the ‘70s, and the years of security and cell phones, which would take center stage during the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, lies the “Golden Years” of car audio.
“People were begging us to put Alpine in their car,” said Isaac Goren, owner of Sounds Good, Woodland Hills, Calif., a store that staged the first NACA (1988) and IASCA (1989) events.
Car audio dates back as far as 1929 when American Paul Galvin created the first car stereo. The next big invention for car audio came in 1964 when Bill Lear introduced a cartridge with eight tracks.
Car audio, however, wouldn’t become an industry until the 1950s when Al Brotsky (founder of Al & Ed’s Autosound) yanked the category out of the dark corners of stores like Federated, and from the back walls of automotive parts stores like Pep Boys. But it wouldn’t be until the late ‘70s that car audio would move beyond deck-and-two installs and 6x9-inch speakers, when companies like Clarion, Nakamichi and Jensen ruled the land.
A movement was started in the late ‘70s on the West Coast. The industry wanted more, and a group of manufacturers and enthusiasts -- whose ingenuity was matched only by the Jeff Spicoli-like persona that characterized them -- identified this need and began building 12-volt audio amplifiers. These were guys such as Jim Fosgate, founder of Rockford Fosgate, Paul Starry and Rich Coe, founders of Audiomobile, and companies like a/d/s/. These industry pioneers recognized the need for car audio to create sound that rivaled home and pro audio.
This evolution would take years, but this was a time of optimism and passion. America was about to give birth to car audio.
The First Boom Car
The first “boom car” dates back to the mid 1970s. It was created by Coe, who put down his guitar and his rock ‘n’ roll career in 1974 to join Audiomobile Inc. -- a company spawned by Paul Starry. Starry and Coe were audiophiles by nature, although Coe was the technical wiz that would make it happen. And they knew that the foundation behind the pro audio industry was the key to the success of car audio. These two were responsible for the first power supply design, an amplifier standard that has stood the test of time.
It was in the mid ‘70s that Coe and Starry would begin revealing their ideas to the world, behind a 1969 Volkswagen Bug they called Audiomobile 1K VW. Armed with two Philips home audio 15-inch subwoofers, Polydax 5.25-inch speakers and Philips hard-dome tweeters, the vehicle toured Hollywood record companies where crowds of entertainment execs would gather in awe at what Coe and Starry had created. And in 1978, the VW was unleashed on the consumer electronics industry at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show, where people like Gene Czerwinski (founder of Cerwin Vega) would get a glimpse.“People thought I was freakin’ nuts,” said Coe. “Paul even thought I was nuts.”
Coe and Starry were way ahead of their time, as their designs and concepts wouldn’t be realized in the retail shop until the early ‘80s. Even the installation techniques Coe used in the VW, using fiberglass and other materials, wouldn’t become commonplace until later in the next decade.
Red Badges of Courage
The 1970s would provide the foundation for the 12-volt explosion of the ‘80s, as installers trudged through the era of hole saws, bulky air hammers, and wrist-breaking tin snips.
The vehicles during this period were just as crude. Cars didn’t have easy-to-identify speaker, ground and power wires. This was a time when speaker polarity was key and the dash was yet to be explored. Air chisels were commonplace as installers found themselves trimming metal dashboards to mount aftermarket car stereos. Door speakers were just as tough, as air saws were the key to getting speakers into the door.
“In the ‘70s, I had what I thought was a permanently sprained wrist from when a hole saw caught metal and twisted my arm around,” said Eddie Runner, owner of River Oaks Car Stereo, Houston, Texas. “Using a one-inch hole saw to install antennas was also an everyday affair. I remember back in the ‘70s when most cars were purchased without a radio, which meant we were installing radios into blank spaces most of the time.”
According to Runner, when amplifiers started to make their presence felt in the late ‘70s, most head units didn’t have an amp remote wire to turn the amp on when the radio was powered. Most installers, he recalled, were required to install toggle switches up front to make that happen. The more advanced installers figured out how to solder a remote wire directly into the head unit.
When cassette and 8-Track players rose to prominence in the ‘70s, another problem was created for installers. “In the old days, many cars that had a radio had just an AM radio, and a lot of the installation consisted of under-dash cassettes and 8-Tracks,” said Runner. “It was easy enough, but we had to share the antennas with the AM radio. And if we shared speakers we had to wire up what we used to call an isolation switch. This switch allowed us to share the speakers so that the two units driving them would not be on at the same time.”
Then there were the red badges of courage, the cuts and bruises that symbolized the period inside the installation bay. “With so much metal in the cars, the installer wounds were a lot more fun,” said Runner. “A group of us installers would go to the pool hall on Friday nights back in the ‘70s and compare our wounds to see who would pay for the pool.”
The Stage is Set
The 1980s represented the move to “self”: self-improvement, self-motivation, and self-help manuals. It was also the decade of gadgets -- from digital watches to cappuccino machines to cellular phones to personal computers (even though the Commodore 64 was the pinnacle of this computing excellence). “Yuppies,” an acronym for Young Urban Professionals, was coined in 1984. Designer clothes, high-tech cars and high-speed jobs characterized those that took up this label. Greed was in, and “work hard, play hard” was the call to arms.
Autosound competition, which hit the mainstream by the mid ‘80s, was the perfect elixir for this time, as it fed into the attitude the industry was ready to share with the buying public. “By that time customization was growing,” said Sounds Good’s Goren, characterizing the time as high-end audio sold at 40 points, with $3,000 installs being as good as it got. “But we had no way of promoting it. The soundoffs, they took the egos, that energy and transferred it to the consumer. There was only one problem: we created a need but we had no idea how to price it.”
Autosound competitions grew out of the industry’s need to move away from head units and speakers; categories dominated by overseas companies.
“We had to move the emphasis away from head units,” said Ron Trout, managing director for the Rockford Fosgate brand. “Amplifiers were an afterthought and subwoofers weren’t even thought of.”
The early ‘80s is marked as the dawning of audio amplifiers and subwoofers. But it was also a period when equalizers such as Clarion’s EQB100 were king, and the wild and crazy were Pyramid’s Mind Blowers (two 6x9-inch speakers attached to an amplifier). And as the mid ‘80s approached, the industry was in need of something that could bring it all together. The answer would lie in the very thing American companies tried to move away from: head units.
The compact disc was created in 1983 by Sony Corp. and NV Phillips, the same year Installation News was born. By 1984 the car audio industry would begin seeing its first CD head units. And although pricey, these products would pave the way for what was next: competition.“The year 1984 was the CD revolution,” said Todd Van Zandt, manager of product promotions for Alpine. “It was like the silver bullet and everyone got behind it.”
The Birth of Sound offs
The first competition is said to have occurred in 1980 when a Champaign, Ill.-based store called Good Vibes kicked off an event called Car Wars. With the “Star Wars” theme song as its call sign, these competitions would span over 20 years, and would influence organizations like CAN, NACA and IASCA.
The first national finals, called Thunder on Wheels, was held in 1984 at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. But this was not an idea that was spawned solely by Good Vibes, as the community in Texas was demonstrating to the industry that it was primed for car audio. It is said that the roots of that event came from inside a parking lot located in a small Texas town. It was there that a Rockford rep named George Reed noticed a group of high school kids congregating. Runner remembered the story.
“They called the area White Sign,” said Runner. “When the CB radio went out, and car audio was in, these guys would start competing to see who had the loudest system. They had this guy standing on the other side of the parking lot while these guys would crank up their stereos. Whoever that guy could hear the loudest, won.”
Reed would take it from there, giving his competition its Thunder on Wheels name and the backing of companies such as PPI, Orion, Rockford, Soundstream and a/d/s/. Reed’s events would introduce the industry to a 22-year-old engineering student named Wayne Harris, the founder of dB Drag Racing. Harris would return the favor by introducing the industry to upgraded alternators and stiffening capacitors.“Those were great times,” Harris said. “I remember manufacturers showing up with pallets of subwoofers for the competitors to blow up. I guess you can say that those competitions were the beta-testing ground for many of those companies.”
Wayne won the 1984 event with a 1978 Buick Regal he named after a Van Halen song called “Eruption.” Harris would take it a step further in 1985 when he won again with a new vehicle called “The Terminator,” one that would go down in car audio lore. Boasting an interior that resembled an airplane cockpit, Harris’ 1960 Cadillac hearse utilized an Apple II computer to monitor and activate four 12-inch woofers he installed in a 50-cubic-foot enclosure. It also boasted a navigation system, seven amplifiers, 23 speakers, a mobile phone, VCR, and a CD player.
The Hearse would also lead to a successful career for Harris in the car audio industry, one that started with Orion and ended with Rockford where Harris gave birth to the Hafler MAX-410 electronic crossover (1989) and the Symmetry Mobile Audio Control System (1991).
The Marketing Wars
While Harris was tearing up Reed’s Rolling Thunder competitions, a couple of West Coast car audio enthusiasts noticed that installation and sound quality were afterthoughts for Reed’s competitions.
“The coolest install I had ever seen was in 1984 when I saw this vehicle owned by this California guy named Scott Schmidt (a Western regional rep for Rockford at the time),” said Harris, who retired The Terminator in 1986. “The engineering element was something I appreciated, but he had these panel covers that I never thought of using. His system was not only functional and high tech, but it had great cosmetic integration. Compared to his install, mine was primitive. The only reason I won is because mine was louder.”
One of the first retailers to realize this was Sounds Good’s Goren, who staged his first sound-quality event, called Autosound Challenge, inside his store’s parking lot in June 1986. The year following, Goren would launch a series of events called SoundQuake. “That was such a beautiful time in my life,” said Goren as he thumbed through a folder of old competition score sheets, providing a story with each name he crossed. And when asked if the energy of that time could ever be relived, his wife Bonnie responded: “Can you recreate Woodstock?”
Present at Goren’s 1986 event were Trout and Schmidt. It was on their plane ride back to Arizona that the two thought up an idea for a sanctioning body for events such as Goren’s. At CES the following year, Rockford hosted a meeting with several big-name companies to discuss Trout and Schmidt’s idea. And in 1987, at a hotel near the LAX airport, the industry came together to begin planting the seed for an organization called NACA.
Alpine, however, would do its own thing (CAN) for the next two years. The NACA would also go forth. And in a sense, a marketing war was born.
“This was a marketing war,” said Coe, who had since left Audiomobille to join the Alpine team that launched CAN. “Technology was evolving quickly and companies like Nakamichi and Rockford were handing our butts to us. We were in a fight, and we needed to meet the competition.”
Trout recalled the time fondly. “It was a healthy competition, and obviously there was tremendous growth,” he said. “This is when enthusiasts were running the companies, not accountants. It was a fun time and there was passion. Everyone was focused on how to introduce good products. Innovation was high and the camaraderie was high.”
Rockford’s marketing strategies also included training, a key element to the rise of car audio. It was also key to Rockford’s ascent in the industry, one that would push its competitors even further.
Rockford began touring the country in 1986 behind a program called RTTI. This program would be key to what was seen at the competitions of the late ‘80s, and would be the main influence for many of today’s top installers, such as S&K Audio’s Ian Black (Olathe, Kan.).
“I attended my first RTTI in 1995 or 1996,” said Black, who was named Installer of the Year in 2002 by Mobile Electronics magazine. “There was this guy named Mark Lowe who was building show vehicles for Rockford and leading these seminars. He was doing these things with a router that just blew me away. I owe a lot to that. I would not be where I am today without going to that.”
And while training was a way for companies to gain loyalty inside the bay, competition would be the vehicle to showcase these newfound skills.
“Fosgate did a fabulous job,” said Dave Black, whose Alpine team would follow Rockford’s lead with the GAIT (Global Alpine Institute of Technology) program in 1991. “I think they spent more money on that than we did on CAN. Fosgate’s focus was more on the shop. GAIT went into the audio theory.”
Security Hits 12-Volt
The early competitions were dominated by an elite group of retail shops and installers whose cars gained as much notoriety as the guys that built them; names like: SpeakerWorks, Orange, Calif., and its 1986 Buick Grand National; Rich’s Car Tunes, Watertown, Mass., and its ‘Lil Yellow 1989 Honda CRX; Mark Fakuda’s yellow Chevy Blazer; Tommy Clark’s “Rocket Science” Ford Econoline van; and the Florida-based Speaker Warehouse, which would evolve into JL Audio.
These guys took sound to the next level, and their installations would revolutionize the industry.
This was all happening during the late ‘80s. Installation had finally caught up to sound quality, when guys like Roger Holdaway (SpeakerWorks) introduced the industry to concepts and theories such as path length for improved imaging, kick panels (1980) and Wave Guides (1986). It was also about this time that installers began learning the basics of crossovers, as well as the use of voice coils for subs. Separates were hitting the scene, although most weren’t packaged together.
“Soundoffs were a big deal back then,” said Eric Holdaway, one of Roger Holdaway’s two sons. “They ran pretty fairly and pretty smoothly. Of course, we did win everything.” By the end of the ‘80s, it was clear that something else was needed. But the need for security products was beginning to overshadow car audio. This was a time when BMW became known as “Break My Window.”
Competitions realized this as well. Alpine promoted its CAN events behind security, teaming up Tom Kelly with a career car thief named Don Bledsoe. Kelly, using his celebrity status, would get himself and Bledsoe on major talk shows to talk about vehicle security in hopes of slipping in a few words about CAN.
“I remember when we were in Boston talking to radio host Gene Burns (WRKO),” said Kelly. “We were supposed to talk about security for an hour. But he became so fascinated that instead of an hour, we went two. And all we talked about for the second hour was car audio.”
Even Goren’s SoundQuake events began molding in security competitions. “Soundoffs introduced the concept of separates and playing loud,” he said. “It also introduced the concept of security. It was about doing 99 different things with your remote.”
Calling the Fish
Cellular would have the same effect during the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s. But inside the install bays, installers were honing their skills, exploring new and exotic materials like Formica. Vinyl, during this time, was what fiberglass is today. Even product was beginning to move toward aesthetics with gold- and chrome-plated amps hitting the competition scene. The industry was getting ready for the ‘90s. “This was when people started putting fish tanks in their cars,” said Goren.
And along came a loud-mouthed, merengue-listening installer named Dave Rivera. He entered the scene in 1990, but would mark his territory in 1991 when he won the IASCA finals and gained the nickname “Fishman.” He did this behind a 1989 Toyota Corolla that featured, among other things, a fish tank.
“When I came onto the scene, the only car that blew me away was Mark Fakuda’s,” he said. “The JL Audio cars were cool, but to me, Fakuda set the pace.”
Rivera would be the impetus behind several creations during the 1990s, and much of what he did for the industry is still felt today. Many say that today’s big installs, such as Alpine’s Civic Si, combine what was learned during the ‘80s with what Fishman introduced in the ‘90s.
“I am a fabricator, not an installer,” said Rivera. “I am just really good with my hands. As a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, I was poor and I didn’t have money for toys. I had to build them myself.”
In the New Millennium
From the 6x9s of the 1970s to 5.1 surround sound processors of today, the industry has come a long way. But no longer is this industry about hardware; it’s about software.
The industry’s destiny rests in how well it overcomes obstacles such as vehicle integration. But one thing is for sure: car audio is in the right place to tackle what lies ahead. “We had no idea the industry would grow the way it is today,” said Coe, who now works for Eclipse. “I can honestly say that car audio is an American invention. It started here, man.”