Take a survey and ask what were the biggest product failures of the 20th Century and chances are the Edsel would come out on top, followed by "New Coke", and the 8-Track Stereo.
Actually a 4-track stereo had preceded the 8-track. It was developed by Muntz. The June 7, 1963 issue of CHARGE announced that the Lear Jet Industrial Division was now a distributor for Muntz selling either a 12 volt Model MP-5 or a 110 volt Model M-1. Either for $ 139.95.
According to Jack Graham, Bill Lear had loaned Muntz $50,000 after WWII. While Muntz eventually offered to pay back the loan, Bill shrugged it off. When Muntz developed the 4-track, Bill who had a great love of music, got involved.
At some point Bill decided he could build a better unit. One of Bill's options was the cassette that is still around today. Initially, they were used primarily for voice applications. The data density and tape speed of the cassette was not adequate for music with any kind of high fidelity. So, Bill opted for the 8-track. His contributions:
- Designed the 8-track player
- Designed the 8-track cartridge that would hold two hours of music
- Got all of the major labels to record on the cartridges
- Ford made the players optional on the Mustang and Thunderbird.
By July of 1966, the Stereo Division in Detroit was producing a 1,000 units a day and cartridge volume was now in excess of 700,000 units per month. Just as Bill pioneered the idea of a radio in cars which led to the founding of Motorola, Bill developed the idea of high fidelity sound in the automobile. Now we could choose what we wanted to hear and when we wanted to hear it, in high fidelity stereo sound.
Technology marches on. Somebody figured out how to increase the data density on the smaller cassettes, make the tape thinner. In spite of the lower tape speed of the cassettes, it became possible to get two hours of high fidelity music in a much smaller package. It was the end of the line for the 8-track.
Was this evolution any different than what took place in the computer industry? When personal computers first emerged, many used an 8 inch disk. In a few years technology allowed more data to be stored on the 5 inch floppy, which was eclipsed by the 3.5 inch floppy. Then came the CD.
Was the Lear Jet Stereo 8 a failed product or a step along the way?