To garage-salers and flea market buffs, they seem to be everywhere. Most folks walk right by boxes full of them with their nose in the air and an attitude of indifference. For collectors, though, boxes of unwanted 8-track tapes are pure gold.
Monthly sales of 8-track tapes number in the thousands on eBay, with prices sometimes exceeding $100 for rare quadrophonic tapes. There is even a brisk market for broken 8-track tapes, because collectors regularly disassemble and repair tapes to gain access to their favorite music format. 8-track enthusiasts claim to love the feel of the tape cartridge in their hand and to crave the full-bodied analog sound of the music contained therein. To collectors, 8-track tapes are the embodiment of the 1970s.
That’s not how I remember them. I remember 8-track tapes as being the most aggravating music format ever invented.
For starters, the tapes were on a continuous loop, which meant I couldn’t fast-forward or reverse to search for a particular song. If I was cruising down the highway listening to “Freebird” on my Lynryd Skynyrd tape (it was the ’70s, after all) and wanted to hear the song again, I’d have to listen to every other song in the set first. As tapes were played repeatedly, the rollers wore away and they would get dirty and fill with grime. The tapes would jam, break, and sometimes change programs in the middle of a song (No! Not on “Freebird!” Not again!). Stretching would cause tapes to lose firm contact with the playback head, and sound quality would suffer. Worst of all, I would occasionally unwrap a brand-new tape only to have it break on the first playing, sending me back to the store for a replacement.
Nevertheless, 8-tracks were the state-of-the-art automobile music system of the day. Although consumers could buy 8-track systems for their homes, vinyl records were the preferred format for home use (for all the reasons I’ve listed above). Technology with a definable lifetime and a clear cultural impact is almost always collectible, and that’s the case today with 8-track tapes.
Personalized Music in the Car
The 8-track tape—also known as Stereo 8—systems were marketed as a solution to the decades-old problem of poor radio programming and reception. The first monophonic radios for automobiles were developed in the 1930s by William Lear (of Lear Jet fame) and Paul and Joseph Galvin. They named their dashboard radio a “Motorola,” or motorized Victrola. Motorolas were sold by the millions, but the best they could offer was whatever was being broadcast at the moment on any particular radio station. Not only would broadcast signals fade in and out as one drove down the highway, if you didn’t like what was being broadcast you were just out of luck.
In order to give car buyers an alternative to radio, Chrysler in 1956 briefly experimented with an under-the-dash phonograph (known as the “Highway Hi-Fi”). First iterations of the device required specially-made, 7-inch, 16 2/3 RPM records that would play for up to an hour. Consumers could collect up to 42 records, all on the Columbia label. Sales of the units were so poor that Chrysler dropped the option after the first year. The first failure didn’t stop the company from trying again, though, and in 1960 Chrysler offered a phonograph that played standard 45 RPM records. The records would stack twelve on a spindle and play in sequence. This device was a little more popular than the 1956 version, since drivers could play records that they already owned. But two years later, this option was dropped as well: the records skipped with every pothole in the road that was hit.
In the early ’60s, Lear assigned his engineers to develop a tape system for his airplanes. Self-contained tapes had been in existence for about 10 years (notably Nash’s 4-track Fidelipac CARtridge) but Lear wanted a player with a simple interface that wouldn’t distract pilots. In 1963, Lear engineer Richard Krause developed a tape cartridge with self-contained pinch rollers (pinch rollers are usually part of a tape player, not a tape cartridge). The benefit of having the pinch rollers in the cartridge itself was that the user didn’t have to thread a tape through pinch rollers on the tape player in order to play a tape.
The audio format was expanded to eight tracks (a track is a layer of magnetic data on the tape itself) comprised of four stereo programs. The Ford Motor Company offered 8-track tape players in their cars beginning in 1966. Consumer response to the players was overwhelming: Ford installed 65,000 players in the first year alone. By 1968, 8-track tape players were offered as optional equipment by most auto manufacturers and a new automobile “after-market”—stereo system installation—was begun as well.
Retail demand for 8-track tapes was strong, and record companies struggled to get their catalogs into the new format and onto retail shelves as quickly as possible. Most music that was produced on vinyl from the late ’60s through the early 1980s was also produced in the Stereo 8 format.
Collecting 8-Track Tapes
Collecting 8-track tapes is a bit like collecting old shellac 78s: it’s not likely that there will be any more of them manufactured; we have all we’re ever going to have. So for the rest of this decade, at least, prices of 8-track tapes should continue to rise. 8-track tape cartridges and players are still relatively cheap: tapes can be acquired for less than $1 each at estate sales, flea markets and garage sales. It’s not unusual to find boxes of them for $5. Most tapes are sold individually on eBay for $2-$6, and prices average even less when they are bought in box lots. The trick is to know what to look for. Here’s a primer on how to buy 8-track tapes, along with a few words on what to pay (or charge) when you buy or sell them.
When you’ve acquired a box of tapes at a sale, the first thing you’ll want to do is separate the good ones from the bad ones (it’s unlikely that the seller will let you do this before you buy, so assume that they’re all bad and don’t pay more than 25 or 50 cents apiece for them). Do not put the tapes into a player and try to play them; if problems exist, you will only make them worse by attempting to play the tape.
Detailed instructions on how to inspect and repair 8-track tapes are beyond the scope of this article, but you’ll find good photos and clear instructions at Barry’s 8-track Repair website. Also, you can find dozens of 8-track repair videos on YouTube by searching the phrase “8-track repair.” You’ll see from the videos that the repairs are easy to make (once you get the cartridge apart) and require little in the way of parts.
If you decide to repair your tapes and must remove the label to access the clips that hold the cartridge together, be sure not to tear the label. Just as with LPs, the condition of the graphics affects the value of the tape. Be sure to buy 8-track storage boxes whenever you find them because they’re not making those anymore, either. 8-track storage boxes sell for $5-$15 depending on their condition and the number of tapes they hold.
If you find yourself acquiring a supply of duplicate tapes (and they’re in playable condition), set up a sales table at a “classic car cruise-in” in your town to sell off your excess. You’ll find that muscle car owners almost always have 8-track players installed in their cars, and are usually looking to expand their tape collections.
Previously published by WorthPoint.com
Originally posted 2014-03-27 15:41:00.