8-Track Gorilla

I just sold an old Oldsmobile 8-track cassette player on eBay for $86. Yes, I sold an antiquated music player that takes a format no one has manufactured in over three decades for $86.

I pulled it out of the bus. It’s a stock item for a Cutlass Supreme from the late 1960s through early 1970s. I have no idea how it came to be in a 1969 Dodge Travco. What I do have an idea about is why I just sold it, as-is, could-be-working, could not be working, for $86.

8-track from 70s era Oldsmobile

In purely practical terms the current value of the 8-track is bewildering and when you first encounter it, you are thinking in practical terms.

Practical would be the brand new, reasonably high end car stereo that will replace the 8-track, which set me back a mere $45 on Amazon. It will play every digital music format you’ve ever heard of and dozens more you haven’t. It’s a knock off of a fancier name-brand model most likely made by the same slave laborers in the same factory. Capitalism1.

But even I would be the first to admit it’s also a complete piece of crap, made of cheap plastic and designed to be chucked in a rubbish bin the minute it starts to malfunction. In fact the advent of the car stereo wiring “harness” — which eliminates any need to understand soldering and reduces the installation process to clicking little plastic pieces into place — was designed to facilitated this kind disposability. Consumer capitalism.

The 8-track player on the other hand is not disposable in the same way. Nor is it installation-friendly. Whoever installs it will be soldering it in, or perhaps twisting and taping some wires, but either way there will most definitely not be any snapping of plastic. It will take time. Even after all the time it takes to repair it, it will take time to install it.

But there’s the thing. If it does turn out to not be working, it can can be repaired by anyone with the patience to sit down, take it apart and figure out how it works.

This is the first part of why I think the 8-track still has so much value to this day. The world is increasingly disposable, not just by design, but by inherent complexity vs price. The cheap stereo is fixable too — as anyone who’s tinkered with a Raspberry Pi can tell you, it’s not that hard to solder, though it does take some practice — but it requires more specialized knowledge and (often) a circuit diagram of some sort. And because a new one is only $45 it’s tough to come up with a convincing argument for fixing it.

schematic of 8 trackPurely mechanical devices like the 8-track, which consists of some machined bearings, a capstan, a solenoid coil and a couple other elements, are much easier to figure out on your own, without a schematic. It’s also made of things that are fixable, which adds a new dimension to ownership. This is not just a thing you traded for some tickets, which you traded hours of your life to get, but a thing you can fix should you need to. There is an element of self-reliance present that it is not present in the Amazon plastic crap.

There is a kind of satisfaction in taking something apart, wrapping your head around how it works and then putting it back together better than it was before. Sure, at this point you might have to fabricate some parts if they turn out the be broken, but with 3D printers that’s well within the realm of possibility (and, should 3D printers not be around there are still plenty of lathes in metal shops all over the place).

What’s more, no matter what the things is — a clock, a wood burning stove, a vehicle, a radio, a turntable, even a house — I guarantee there are people out there devoting their free time and energy to fixing it. These people have created forums and share knowledge, tips and tricks all over the internet, often you find people joining in who used to work in factories making the thing in question.

In the 8-track’s case there is 8trackheaven.com, which does not appear to be maintained, but has another clue as to why people find value in older stuff:

When you say yes to 8-track you’re generally saying no to the accepted wisdom of our hallowed consumer culture, decrying this religion of consumption as the worship of hollow, deceptive idols…. Commit an act of consumer disobedience with us and reject the unjust laws of a marketplace ruled by greed. Follow the way of the 8-track and reap the spiritual rewards that come with renewing and recycling instead of stepping in line with the cattle so captivated with the consumerist culture that ultimately benefits only landfill brokers.

I think this little manifesto-style rejection hints at something else in the appeal of restoration, something beyond the ability to repair things. I think that buying and restoring mechanical devices from earlier eras is also a way of traveling through time back to a world we may well have never personally known. There’s an element of nostalgia, but nostalgia for something never experienced.

1969 Dodge Travco photographed by luxagraf

I have no memory of 1969 Dodge Travcos, but in recreating one I’m connecting back to an era I never got to experience. It’s not nostalgia for that time, not really romanticism of it either. It’s something different, tangibly different. That time is gone, but echoes of it remain in the objects that come down to us. And I think that the world’s response to the Travco, the endless smiles and waves reflect that connection, that echo of the age that gave us the Travco.

That age had ideas about itself, about the objects that surrounded it, grew out of it. There is nothing like the Travco on the road now and that says as much about us now as it does about Travcos then. This often brings with it an implicit, or as in the 8-track manifesto, an explicit rejection of the perceived values of today in favor of either the values of the past or simply the value of stasis. The 8-track manifesto isn’t nostalgic for 8-tracks necessarily, it’s simply that 8-tracks become the stopping point of technological progression. They are good enough.

This is a big part of why I have the Travco. Not that it is the best RV ever built, but that it is good enough. It does not provide every comfort of home and in that sense it becomes a kind of critique of our modern conception of comfort. Do you really need two TVs in your RV?

More to the point the restoration is the embodiment of that rejection — by existing it says, look, here is an era when no one thought it necessary to have two TVs in their RV. It becomes a kind of nostalgia for a set of values — though you need to be careful about this since there are some really shitty values lurking back in the age of the Travco and 8-track — but I don’t know that nostalgia is quite the word. I’m not sure we have a word to describe the rejection and embracing.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in Wind, Sand and Stars, “To grasp the meaning of the world of today we use a language created to express the world of yesterday.”

I thought of this line when I was struggling to find a word in the last paragraph, but then I thought that perhaps we do the same thing with object. That is, you could easily change it read: to grasp the meaning of the world of today we use objects that are expressions of the world of yesterday.

Perhaps this is me getting old, but the Travco makes more sense to me than any vehicle being made now. And I don’t mean the technical, the engine complexity of now versus then, though that is certainly part of it, but there are less technical things too.

The way the engineers of the Travco looked at the world is reflected in what they built. The way the engineers who built the Honda maxivan I also currently own look at the world is reflected in their choices as well. And these are very markedly different ways of looking at the world. The engineers of the Honda assume me an idiot. They won’t let me open the side doors when the vehicle is in drive. They made it howl with beeping should I shift out of park while the door is still open. They decided not to tell me what the oil pressure is, but instead angrily flash an inscrutable light when the oil pressure getting low.

These are minor things that irritate me not because of their actual function but because of what they say about how the designers of the Honda think about me and the rest of the world. It doesn’t stop there either. The engineers of the Honda take a dim view of professional mechanics as well. Honda’s own workers are not mechanics, they’re certified technicians. The world of the Honda is exclusive, stratified, and specialized. It has no place for the mechanic of old and certainly now place for you and I2.

I cannot make sense of a world where designers believe they are better at knowing what I am capable of than I am.

This is true of the disposable stereo as well. It has stickers all over it and warnings on the box about voiding the warranty if you unscrew a certain screw to access the inside (as if not having a warranty were some horrible thing). All technology has moved in this direction, much of it to the point of using obscure torx screws and other deliberate attempts to stymie tinkering.

Why? What is so horrible that could happen if I take a think apart? That I might break it? Well then I would have broken it. And learned something.

This is a world that I cannot make sense of, nor can, I suspect, the buyer of my 8-track.

I can make sense of the design world the creators of the Travco came from. It feels more like home to me. It is built to empower the owner, not stymie them. There are access panels everywhere. A lengthy guide tells me how to disassemble most of the core components in the vehicle. Even ones you can’t reach without tearing out the walls — the 12V electrical system is shown complete with schematics. The designers of the Travco felt I might want to — indeed they knew I would have to — get to the engine, so the built a massive, awkward access hatch that’s half as large as the seats on either side of it.

It is, like all vehicles of its era, designed to be tinkered with. Because tinkering is the thing that makes us human. Or at least that’s the message I get when I sit in the Travco tinkering with things. I notice how there’s not just a vent at the back of the fridge, but a panel that opens to give access to the entire 2-way fridge internals. I also notice that in the original sales brochures the ease of repair is a central selling point. Not so long ago we liked to fix things ourselves.

The next line in Saint-Exupéry’s book is, “The life of the past seems to us nearer our true natures, but only for the reason that it is nearer our language.” Is the same true of objects? Are objects of the past nearer to us because they are nearer to our natures. Perhaps.

I don’t know who bought the 8-track, but I do suspect that she’s a bit like me — she’s looking for something to tinker with, something to take back in time to its original state, back in time to a world perhaps she never knew, but misses nonetheless. We are like Saint-Exupéry writes, “emigrants who have not founded our homeland”, and I wish her the best of luck in trying to create it.

  1. In an ideal capitalist system anyway. In fact we don’t live in a system like that. We live in a system where price of the new stereo is artificially low because we in the west have decided we’re okay with exploiting people in other parts of the world for the sole purpose of making sure we have $45 stereos. 

  2. This is not to say you can’t work on a Honda. You can and I have, but it’s certainly not encouraged.