The Cellular Revolution Will Be Televised, Thanks to Motorola and Radio Shack
Despite the fact that car phones had been around for decades as a niche item, they didn’t become more or less commonplace until the second half of the 1980s, just in time for yuppies and the culture of Wall Street. But their widespread adoption was neither a fast process nor an easy sell to those who didn’t drive a W126-generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class and didn’t have important things to talk about, like stock prices.
The 1984 TV spot produced by Motorola above gave Americans the hard sell on owning a car phone, as well as a more portable phone that could be carried, provided you had space for an item weighing a few pounds and were also willing to spend the money to join the car-phone owning elite.
Motorola had an early lead in the aftermarket car phone arena, but it also faced competition from Radio Shack in the U.S., as well as automakers themselves, at least in those big German sedans that offered a built-in phone as an option all the way through the late 1990s.
This TV spot is charmingly dated for a few reasons, most of them having to do with obsolete technology and the 1980s obsession with things digital. For instance, the “electronic computer” featured in this video looks equal parts pointless and a nightmare to operate—better to stick with an electric typewriter for word processing if that’s all the screen that you get—and the idea of electronic watches is presented as newfangled, too. Ahh, the things we take for granted today, including watches that use tiny batteries.
By 1989 the idea of owning a car phone had become easier to market for telecom manufacturers, but this didn’t mean that portable phones and car phones had gotten all that cheaper.
As the Radio Shack ad above demonstrates, a car phone cost a mere $1,399 in 1987 dollars ($3,176 and change in 2020, adjusted for inflation), while a truly portable phone was offered by Radio Shack for $2,495 in 1987 dollars, which works out to an eye-watering $5,665 today. But even taking the $2,495 price, in 1987 this amount represented about a quarter of the price of compact sedans, or something like a Jeep Wrangler. Needless to say, there are not that many car gadgets today aimed at consumers that add up to a quarter of the price of the car itself that aren’t, say, a trailer with a Sea-Doo on it.
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