8-Track (also known as Stereo 8) was a magnetic tape endless-loop cartridge format for music, created in 1964 by a consortium headed by the Learjet Corporation, that also included Ampex, Ford, General Motors, Motorola, and RCA.
It was developed from the 4-Track (Stereo-Pak) cartridge, which was itself a development of the Fidelipac cartridge. Unlike the 4-Track cartridge, the pinch roller was incorporated into the cartridge itself, reducing the complexity of the player. The cartridge was also simplified, with the removal of the tape tensioning mechanism, and the interlock that prevented tape spillage.
The ¼-inch tape was coated with a slippery coating, usually graphite, to allow it to be pulled from the centre of the reel from where it passed across the opening at one end of the cartridge and wound back onto the outside of the same reel. The spool itself was freewheeling and the tape was driven only by tension from the capstan and pinch roller. The tape could not be rewound.
As its name suggests, the 8-Track has 8 tracks for 4 stereo programmes, and could switch between programmes automatically, with the use of a small length of conductive foil at the splice joint on the tape, which would cause the player to change tracks as it passed the head assembly by shifting the tape head. This did mean however, that albums needed to be divided into 4 programmes rather than 2 sides as on an LP, and some songs were split into two parts, or song orders shuffled.
The booming car industry in the US meant 4 and 8-Track players were popular, with Ford offering 8-Track players across its range by 1967. Some players could handle both 4 and 8-Track cartridges, but the support of the car industry meant that 8-Track won out by 1970.
Home players were introduced in 1966, and quadraphonic 8-Tracks (Q8) were introduced in 1970. Home 8-Track recorders were also available for a time, but failed to gain widespread popularity.
Cartridges suffered from jamming, and wow and flutter, and these problems became worse later as manufacturers used cheaper materials such as plastic pinch rollers. As the Compact Cassette became a viable high-fidelity format, record companies were quick to abandon 8-Track.
In the US, 8-Tracks were phased out of retail stores in 1982, but some titles remained available from record clubs until as late as 1988. The last mainstream release on 8-Track was Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, but some independent artists still release 8-Tracks.