From Innovation to Laughable Derelict: 8-Track Tapes

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Today the 8-track tape is considered a failure of technology, a “laughable derelict from the Seventies,” but at one time these tapes were an important innovation.


8-Track  Tapes, HCHM Music Collection

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, several new technologies were developed including the 4-track tape, 8-track tape and the Play Tape format. The reel-to-reel was the first prerecorded tape format available to consumers in the 1950s. The 8-track format was developed by an unlikely group that included the  Ampex Magnetic Tape Company, Lear Jet Company, RCA Records and Ford Motor Company. The success of the 8-track tape over the other technologies can be attributed the Ford Motor Company.

In September 1965, Ford Motor Company offered 8-track players as an option in their 1966 model cars.  A Ford spokesperson reported that 65,000 players were installed in the first year.  As a result of the popularity, the 8-track player soon became standard in all Ford cars.

Now the driver had the ability to listen to music of their choosing while in the car.  The 8-track tape was the first tape format that was widely available across the nation and easy to use. Music became portable for the first time.

Eight-track tape players for the home were not introduced until 1967-68.

The popularity of the 8-track tape was relatively short from 1968-1975. There were problems with the 8-track tape. Perhaps the biggest problems were that the tapes were unreliable, sound quality diminished over time and they were more expensive.

While the outer casing was virtually indestructible, the internal parts were cheaply made and broke easily.  Anyone familiar with 8-track tapes might remember how easily the tape could become a tangled mess.  When brand new, the sound on the 8-track was good, however over time problems occurred. Sound would also fade out or bleed through from one track to another over time. A person could not rewind the tape. As one blogger on Flashbak noted, “the eight-track would play for all eternity . . . or at least a few hours before it busted.” Finally, cassette tapes became more affordable and the quality was better longer.

By 1980, 8-track tapes were obsolete thanks to the much cheaper, more reliable cassette tape. After a brief moment of popularity, the cassette was replaced by the CD and then iTunes and mp3s.