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Widget Of The Week

POM Park-O-Meter Model S, 1964?

Believe it or not parking meter collecting, as a hobby, never really got going in the UK. Over the years most of us have stuffed a fair amount of money into these things, so why wouldn’t you want to own one (or several) of them? It could a great investment and you might even get some cash back as something as rare and aesthetically pleasing as an old parking meter can only increase in value… Over in the US there is a thriving collector’s market, and it’s not hard to understand the attraction, especially of the more ornate vintage models, made before they turned into soulless ticket dispensers. The traditional parking meter is a brilliant example of pure and functional engineering design and you would be mad not to want one (though you might have difficulty explaining that to the missus, so here's a couple of bullet points to help strengthen your case)..

 

It’s a machine, but one that has to work unattended, outdoors, often for several decades, under constant attack from everything that nature can throw at it. They also have to be able to withstand continual physical abuse from disgruntled users, and more determined attacks from n’er-do-wells, trying to extract the coins inside. As they are replaced most get sold for scrap, so it is up to us to help save them from extinction. The good news is that a few survive to make it onto the market, and this is the story of one of them.

 

It’s a POM Incorporated Model S, probably made in the early to mid 1960s, but it’s hard to be exact as this now classic design came into service in the late 50s and remained virtually unchanged for the best part of 20 years. By the way, the name POM derives from early designs, called Park-O-Meters. This model is made in the USA, in Russellville Arkansas to be precise and POM was, and still is a really big noise in the business; according to its corporate video it makes almost 30 percent of world’s parking meters, so they’ve clearly got the hang of it…

 

There are basically two parts to a parking meter of this type (three if you count the mounting pole, but we’ll take that as read). The lower half is the secure coin box and for obvious reasons this a heavy-duty item, designed to be vandal and thief proof, yet readily accessible to those responsible for emptying them. It’s basically a thick walled cast iron box with a hinged door, secured by a tubular type lock – more about that in a moment. Money falls into the security box through a slot in the top, which in turn is fed by a coin chute, that’s immediately below the meter’s coin feed and timer mechanism, in the top of the unit. The car-parker pops a coin into a slot on the side of the head unit and it rolls into a little coin-shaped holder. (This is easily changed or adjusted to accommodate different coin sizes and currencies). If the coin is too large or too thick it won’t get past the outer slot but if it is too small it will go in; it won't activate the mechanism but it will still be deposited into the coin box – and there are no returns.

 

Providing the coin is exactly the right size, as the handle on the front is turned a small lever engages a set of teeth on the clockwork timer mechanism, simultaneously winding the spring, moving an indicator to the amount of time that has been paid for, and lowering the yellow and red Expired and Violation flags. When the handle reaches its limit the coin, drops or rather is propelled by a small spring, into the slot in the top of the coin box. It is elegantly simple, there is very little to go wrong and it uses what I suspect may be a high quality Swiss-made timer movement.

 

There are numerous clever touches that can only have come from decades of experience in manufacturing these things. For example, the top part is hinged and it opens flat into the ‘service position’ allowing easy access to all of the innards. The timer mechanism and the display parts (time remaining pointer, flags etc.) are combined into a single module, held in place by just three screws so it can be removed and replaced in just a few seconds. It would also be a relatively simple matter to adjust or recalibrate a unit, which is clearly an important consideration when there may be hundreds or possibly even thousands of them in a city or municipality. Whilst it will take a sledgehammer to damage the case the viewing windows at the top are doomed to be scratched, cracked or broken, though they are made from a thick Perspex material. Replacing one or both of them is another routine task and each window is held in place by a handful of screws and there’s a rubber seal, to keep the weather out.

 

It has two locks and these have to be tough and secure, but this can be a huge pain for collectors as most of the time an old meter will not come with a set of keys. Basically there are only two ways to get these things open; either drill the locks, or pick them. Drilling is the quickest option but it can be destructive. Fortunately, on this model the top barrel lock can be opened without going through or damaging the keyhole. The lock’s latch mechanism is held in place on the rear side by a ‘blind’ bolt that has no slot, so all you have to do is drill it through the centre and the front will pop open. It can then be replaced with a screw or bolt that can be easily undone. The tubular lock on the coin box can also be drilled but it’s a tricky job, that snaps drills like twigs, and there is a good chance that it will visibly ruin the front of it. Surprisingly there is a fairly quick and simple picking method. If you know where to look on the Internet you can find pick tools for this type of lock for a few pounds, and they are very easy to use. The tricky bit is working out the exact type you will need as there are several variations in the size and the number of pins used, but this is something you can figure out with a little research, a torch and a magnifying glass. As an added bonus this type of picking tool can be used to derive a set of numerical values that any competent locksmith can use to create a new key.

 

And so to this one’s origins and I came across it at large open-air antiques fair that’s held in Surrey several times a year. The first time I saw it it was in a pile of half a dozen or more other meters of the same type, all without their mounting poles. The stallholder was asking between £50 and £80 for them, depending on the condition, and he was not open to haggling. That was well above what I was prepared to pay so reluctantly I passed them by. The next time I saw it, a couple of months later at the same venue, it was all on its own and clearly the runt of the litter. It was looking a bit battered and the windows were filthy so it wasn’t possible to see inside and check out the works. Since it was the last one, the chances of ever seeing another were small, but it being a wet and windy day, I managed to get the price down to £30. I asked the stallholder where it came from but he clearly didn’t know, or wasn’t telling, suggesting that they came from a council somewhere  ‘up north’. This was obviously a load of cobblers as I later discovered it was configured for US quarters (25 cents for 15 minutes), though how it got here and which American city they had been liberated from isn’t known.

 

As it turned out it wasn’t half as bad as it looked, the only real problem was the state of the windows and once I had it open it turned out to be just oily grime and all they needed was a thorough clean up with some detergent. The mechanism was in full working order but I treated the moving parts to a good clean and a light oiling. The big question was what to do with it? I was tempted to mount it on a pole, and turn it into a standard lamp but constructing a stable base for such a tall and top-heavy object would have been quite a challenge, so I opted for a simple round wooden plinth, culled from an old plant stand. As soon as I get time I plan to add a bulb holder and lampshade, to turn it into a table lamp. This should be quite easy to do, without damaging it, by bolting it to the thread in the back of the top lock. Even in its stunted form it’s great fun to play with. I keep a few quarters handy and it earns its keep; almost everyone who sees it insist on seeing what happens when they feed it with pennies, and ten and twenty pence pieces (I sometimes claim to have lost key to the coin box…).

 

What Happened To It?

Needless to say parking meters are still with us, and even mechanical models like this type are still in use in a few out of the way places. However, the vast majority are now digital, and this includes some Model S units as a few years ago POM produced an upgrade module, with an LCD display, that could be easily swapped for the clockwork mechanism. Stand alone meters are fast disappearing from the streetscape, though, as local authorities switch to ticket machines that serve multiple parking bays, and even they will be on the way out as mobile phone and on-line payment systems are introduced. This means that the already very limited supply of ex-council parking meters will dry up within a few years, which suggests, to me at least, that this is an area ripe for investment, so get one while you still can. Buy locally if possible but you really don’t see them very often, so you may have to be patient to find one at a sensible price. There are always a few on ebay, and at first glance prices seem quite cheap, but almost all of them will be in the US and shipping one across the Atlantic is likely to set you back the thick end of £50.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                 1958

Original Price          £?

Value Today            £50 (1214)

Features                  Coin operated (adjustable – set to US Quarters), 4-hour limit, high security coin box (tubular lock), adjustable violation flag delay

Power req.                    n/a (clockwork)

Dimensions:                  430 x 185 x 100mm (head unit, ex pillar)

Weight:                         7kg (ex pillar/mount)

Made (assembled) in:    Russellville USA

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


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