Gizmos by Category
Gizmos A - Z
Decimo Vatman 120D Calc
You really are showing your age if the words Radio Rentals means anything to you. For the benefit those under fifty, it was once a well respected household name and for more than 60 years the company played a leading role in supplying the British public with affordable home entertainment products. More about the glory days shortly.
This striking Medium Wave radio actually dates from the late seventies or early eighties; it was probably a promotional item, and for a novelty radio, quite well made. It resembles the classic ‘cathedral’ style valve wirelesses, popular between the 1930s and 50s. The originals were typically housed in wooden or Bakelite cases and stood 50cm or more high. This one is a little smaller, roughly one-third scale at 16cm tall but it’s quite convincing and probably fooled a fair few people into thinking it was proper old-tyme vintage radio. Ironically, even for the seventies or eighties it is quite old fashioned. Inside the plastic case there’s a basic Hong Kong made 6-transistor superhet receiver. The only things setting it apart from the multitude of cheap ‘trannies’ of that period is a large 90mm speaker and faux rotary tuner display on the front. Thanks to that larger than average speaker it doesn’t sound half bad, compared with the usually tinny noises coming out of most other small radios. Normally that might even make it useable as a tabletop radio. Unfortunately there are only few stations left on the medium wave band and the tuner has serious sensitivity issues. Unless you can actually see your local AM transmitter mast it is unlikely you’ll ever hear anything worth listening to…
Vintage transistor radios from the late 50s to the early 80s, with a decent chance of working, have become a rare sight at the car boot sales and antique fairs I frequent, which is why this one caught my eye. After a brief haggle the stallholder agreed to part with it for £4.00, a sum I was happy to pay as for once it came with a battery and was demonstrably in good working order, very tidy on the outside and no corrosion in the battery compartment. Several decades of dust were easily removed with a light brushing inside the case and a wipe over with Mr Sheen was all that was needed to have it looking almost like new. It had obviously been well cared for and probably spent most of the last 40 or so years in the back of a drawer, in its original plain cardboard box.
What Happened To It?
Radio Rentals was established in the 1930s, as the name suggests, renting out new fangled radios to a tech wary public, but the company really took off in the post war years. Eventually they became a familiar sight in almost every high street, playing a significant role in the successful UK launches of colour televisions in the late 60s and a decade later, leading the way with home video recorders. The premise was simple; new TVs and VCRs cost the thick end of £1000.00 when they first appeared. Early colour TVs were notoriously unreliable and costly to maintain. In today’s money a colour telly would have set you back the equivalent of £12,000 and £3,000 for a VHS video recorder. That was simply too much for the mass market to bear, so rather than buying them outright you rented them for a modest weekly or monthly payment. If your TV or VCR packed up, (which it definitely would…), you wouldn’t get stung for repairs and if you kept up the payments, you would be rewarded with a new model every few years. Sound familiar? That’s not unlike the way a lot of people can now afford to drive expensive new cars.
The timing suggests that this little Radio Rental radio may have been part of a campaign to revive the company’s flagging fortunes. By the late seventies the cost of colour TVs and VCR was on a steep downward spiral. Electronic gadgets were also becoming more reliable and once the Japanese started making TVs, much less of a gamble when it came to reliability. All this made the rental model look increasingly unattractive, compared with an outright purchase or buying on HP and credit cards. In fact the writing was on the wall a decade or so earlier as the company was shuffled around the various divisions of the Thorn EMI empire, who took control of the company in 1968. Radio Rentals, as a brand had all but disappeared by 2000, though apparently the name still lives on in Australia.
Novelty radios and especially the earliest transistor models remain popular with collectors, and prices can and often do reach three figures for the rarest and most sought after examples. This one is not in that league and when one occasionally appears on ebay it typically sells for between £20 and £30, depending on condition. It is not known how many were made, though if indeed it was a promo or give-away, it could even be borderline rare, but don’t get your hopes up just yet, prices are unlikely to change very much over the next few years, but your grandchildren might thank you if you can snag a good one for a decent enough price.
First Seen: 1979?
Original Price: £ possibly free?
Value Today: £20.00 (0922)
Features: Single band (AM) 6-transistor superhet receiver, 90mm speaker, pulley driven rotary tuning dial, volume on/off & tuning rotary controls, internal ferrite antenna
Power req. 1 x 9-volt PP3 type battery
Dimensions: 160 x 120 x 60mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Murphy U602 FM Radio, 1961
The BBC’s VHF FM service goes back a surprisingly long way with regular broadcasts starting in 1955. However, it was a slow burner and didn’t really catch on for another 10 years. Coverage in those early days was patchy and even if you could get a signal, there were only three stations to listen to: The Light Programme, The Third Programme and The Home Service, later to become Radios 2, 3 and 4 (Radio 1 FM wasn’t launched until 1982). FM’s popularity was also limited by the fact that receivers were thin on the ground and they tended to be rather expensive.
This Murphy U602 FM-only mains-powered tabletop receiver is a prime example. If it was meant to drum up support for the VHF/FM service it didn’t get off to a very good start with a retail price of £14 14s 0d. That’s around £14.65, which doesn’t sound too bad, until you run the numbers through an inflation calculator, which suggests it cost over £350 in today’s money. That would have been a lot to pay for any radio, let alone one that could only pick up three stations, assuming you were lucky enough to live close to a transmitter. And it wouldn’t have had much appeal to under 25s either, as it couldn’t pick up Radio Luxembourg.
On the plus side the styling was a fair stab at sixties’s chic; something a trendy wannabee would be happy to display on their spindly-legged ‘Space Age’ coffee table. However, it was mostly window dressing. Inside the curvy black or red and white Bakelite case there lurked a 6-valve tuner that took a good half-minute to ‘warm up’. To be fair, transistors that operated at VHF frequencies hadn’t been around for very long, but British companies like Murphy had been slow on the uptake, seemingly oblivious to changing tastes, especially amongst the young, and the rapid advances in semiconductor technology being made in the Far East.
In spite of that it does appear to have sold in quite respectable numbers, possibly helped by a fairly swift price reduction a year or so after launch to £10, and what I suspect may have been a clever con trick; more on that shortly. Murphy’s solid British roots and good reputation, the clean modern lines and simplicity of use would have been strong selling points. Ironically the fact that it used valves may even have won a few converts amongst the elderly and die-hards who firmly believed that transistors were the work of the devil and just a passing fad.
It has just three controls. The large, brightly illuminated tuning dial with slow motion drive dominates the front panel. There’s an on/off volume knob on the left hand side and the slide switch nestling under the tuner dial is a two-position tone control. That brings us back to possible sharp practice and I have a feeling that more than a few buyers were duped into buying a U602, thinking the tone switch was a waveband selector. Why wasn’t it labelled? Could it have been a deliberate ploy to mislead? There’s not a lot to see on the sides or back, just a discrete two-pin socket for an external antenna, and it is worth pointing out that this was not an option. The U602 simply doesn’t work without a decent aerial, and that usually meant installing extra metalwork on the roof, or a loft aerial, but only if you were within spitting distance of the local mast.
Sixty-plus years on, and with a purchase price of just £1.00 at a local car-boot sale last year, all of its many shortcomings were instantly forgiven, though it might have been a different story had it not worked straight away. I hate working on valve equipment, and have the scars to prove it! It did need a thorough spring clean, though, and the tuner mechanism benefited from a few drops of oil. Build quality is precisely what you would expect from an old school British manufacturer, all hand-wired circuitry on a substantial metal chassis, secured in the case by a single screw. If there were any problems everything would be easy to get at. Most of the components have easily available modern replacements though one or two of the valves might be difficult to find. Performance is really rather good, when coupled to a good antenna. The speaker cone, by now nicely matured, produces a mellow sound, though the age of the valves and capacitors may be responsible for some noticeable distortion as the volume is wound up.
What Happened To It?
Murphy Radio, founded in 1928 in Welwyn Garden City by Frank Murphy, became something of a British institution in the following 40 or so years. It began manufacturing valve radios in 1930, starting with what, at the time, was a revolutionary four-valve portable. By the mid 30s the factory was churning out more than 30,000 radios a year. During the Second World War the company became a major supplier of communications equipment for the armed forces and it is clear that their later experience with military VHF transceivers stood them in good stead with civilian radios like the U602. By the late 1940s Murphy began working on television receivers and in 1955 expanded into a new factory to accommodate the increase in production. This was the beginning of the end, though and in 1962 Murphy was taken over by the Rank Organisation. It stopped making TVs and Radios in 1964 and in 1969 the Welwyn Garden factory was taken over by Rank’s Xerox division for manufacturing photocopier components and assemblies. The Murphy name lives on as licensed brand and pops up on Chinese-made consumer goods from time to time.
Vintage Murphy radios have a small but loyal following and because they are generally well built, a lot have survived. There’s usually a good assortment of models to choose from on ebay and they are no strangers to antique markets and car boot sales. Ebay prices tend to be quite reasonable and if you know your way around valve circuitry there are often real bargains to be had. 50s and 60s fixer-uppers start at under £20; the U602 featured here might make between £30 and £50 on a good day. But serious collectors arel mainly interested in pre-war models and are prepared to pay in excess of £200 for anything half decent.
First Seen: 1961
Original Price: £14 14s. 0d (£14.65)
Value Today: £30 (0222)
Features: 6-valve, 7-stage FM-only Superhetrodyne receiver, VHF coverage 87 – 102MHz, illuminated slow motion tuning dial, 13cm speaker, rotary volume on/off switch, 2-step tone control, 2-pin external antenna socket
Power req. 200-250V AC
Dimensions: 290 x 180 x 130mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Ekco Vanity PT378 MW/LW Transistor Radio, 1961
The word ‘Vanity’ in the name of this early 1960s transistor radio is a bit of a giveaway about the market the manufacturers were aiming for; we’ll take a closer look at the styling cues shortly. For the moment the key facts are these. This hugely popular little radio’s full name and model number is the Ekco Vanity PT378. Model numbers are normally pretty meaningless but in this case they are useful to collectors of Ekco products as there were several variations including one optimised for Radio Luxembourg reception (PT208, geddit?). There were also badge-engineered versions branded for Invicta, Pye, Ferranti and doubtless several others that haven’t come to light yet. But it’s this bright red and cream PT378 that we’re interested in and it was far and away the most popular variant, reportedly notching up sales in the high hundreds of thousands, maybe a million or more according to at least one source but as usual corrections, clarifications and background stories are always welcome.
It’s has a 6-transistor design, this model, an early one -- we’ll call it the Mk 1 -- uses all Mullard devices, later designs (the MK II etc.) had Newmarket transistors. It’s one of those fascinating facts that get vintage tech geeks quite excited; If you are thinking of becoming one, or looking for a novel chat up line at parties, you may like to know that you can tell the difference between the Mks from the feet. On the Mk 1 they are made of metal, on the Mk 3 they’re plastic. Other points of interest include two-waveband coverage (Medium and Long Wave), and a smooth slow-motion dial for precision tuning. The volume on/off switch and waveband selector are on the right hand side of the case, next to a socket for a car radio aerial -- very few cars had radios in the olden days. Admittedly that’s a rather brief feature list but radios and life in general were a lot simpler in the sixties…
Back then affordable mass-market products transistor radios were a relatively new phenomenon; Hong Kong and Japanese manufacturers were getting into their stride and well on the road to global domination. It was an easy market for them to conquer. European radio makers were mostly still stuck in the 1950s, churning out fusty brown-box and Bakelite-cased valve receivers. True, there were a few lumpy transistorised tabletop models around, but UK companies had yet to cotton on to the fact that things were changing, and quickly. The new buyers were the young. They wanted small portable and pocket size radios to listen to in their bedrooms and carry around with them. Ekco were one of the few British manufacturers to see it happening, albeit rather late in the day, and they decided to do something about it. There is little doubt from the shape, size and cosmetics that the Vanity was designed to appeal to girls and young women, but the styling wasn’t too heavy-handed. The smart move was not putting the word Vanity on the case, and the fact that it was available in what may be described as more masculine colours (two-tone grey, blue and brown etc.), meant that it would appeal to both sexes. And it did.
It is superbly well made. The case is a thin, shaped plywood shell, covered in leatherette, with a mixture of polished brass and fairly discreet plastic trim. Inside the circuit board is mounted on a metal chassis and hand assembled. Another sign of the amount of effort put into the design is the relatively small number of interconnecting wires in and around the circuit board. This also makes disassembly and fault finding a whole lot easier, though in this instance that wasn’t an issue.
I bought this one a while ago at a large Midlands antique fair and from the outside it looked like a veteran of many previous open-air markets. The seller had probably given up on it; serious collectors mostly don’t like getting their hands dirty and prefer to buy their retro tech looking like new, and working. This one appeared to be a real basket case and no guarantees were offered (or expected) that it worked. On closer inspection I could see it was complete, apart from the battery connectors. There were no signs of corrosion inside; it was just filthy dirty. The stallholder’s opening gambit was to ask £20 it but after pointing out it’s many shortcomings we quickly whittled that down to a £8.00, and from his satisfied expression that was probably a couple of times what he paid for it. After getting it home I couldn’t resist connecting it to my bench power supply. Expecting it to be stone dead I jumped when music from an off tune a Medium Wave station came blasting out of the speaker. After adjusting the volume and tuning dial it sounded pretty good, thanks mainly to the old and by now really supple speaker. It is common for 60-plus year old transistor radios to suffer from one or more dud electrolytic capacitors and normally one of the first things I do with non-working radios etc., is swap them out for modern replacements. Thinking back it only became a routine because most of the vintage electronic widgets passing through my hands were made in the Far East. It has happened before, which suggests to me that British made capacitors were made of sterner stuff.
A quick wipe over with Flash was out of the question with this very mucky little radio. The only thing to do, therefore, was whip out the speaker and circuit board and strip the case down to its component parts. Here's a quick word of warning, if you ever find yourself poking around inside an old radio, looking for screws to undo. Never, ever touch the screw or nut on the back of old speakers. Doing so almost always results in instant destruction as it holds the speaker’s magnet in place and the chances of you ever getting it back together and working again are next to zero. Dismantling the Vanity turned out to be a surprisingly easy job, just two screws, on the circuit board and one under the tuning dial. Most of the fittings are held in place by nuts and bolts, the only exception being the front grille and surrounding brass trim, which relies on bent wires. Disassembly only took about half an hour. A very thorough clean of every part and a lot of Brasso on the shiny bits took only 2 –3 hours and it was all back together an hour after that. As you can see from the photos it was well worth the effort and although not quite minty factory fresh, it’s not far off.
What Happened To It?
For those unfamiliar with Ekco, it was a venerable British brand, founded in the 1920s by a gentleman called Eric Kirkham Cole (and no prizes for working out how the company came by its name). Ekco was originally based in Leigh-On-Sea in Essex, where they made radios and mains power supplies or battery eliminators for radios. A few years later in 1930 the company opened a huge factory in Southend-On Sea, this time making mains powered radios and soon afterwards, radios for cars. Ekco kept busy during WW II, manufacturing communications equipment for the military. After the War they quickly returned to consumer products, including radios, radiograms, televisions, tape recorders and so on. However, Ekco kept their hand in with defence equipment, including advanced military and civilian radar systems. Ekco acquired another and in the mid 50s it bought up Dynatron (makers of Hacker radios) and a couple of years later teamed up with Ferranti. In 1960 they took over Pye, another old British electronics company, but it wasn’t a happy marriage. Increasingly stiff competition from Japanese electronics companies were eating deeply into their market share, forcing the closure of the Southend factory. Eventually what remained of Ekco and Pye was bought by the Dutch consumer electronics giant Philips. That didn’t go well either and by the mid seventies the Ekco and Pye brands had effectively disappeared.
Ekco’s early Bakelite radios are eagerly snapped up especially iconic Art Deco and ‘Architectural’ designs from the 1930s. Three-figure and four-figure price tags are not unusual. It will be a very long time, though, before Ekco’s early transistor models attract that much interest. Nevertheless clean Vanity PT378s and later variants are no strangers to ebay where they often sell for £50 or more. Of course earlier models are the most desirable so if you find one and are in any doubt, don’t forget, just look at the feet.
First Seen: 1961
Original Price: £10?
Value Today: £30 (0122)
Features: 6-transistor hybrid reflex/superhetrodyne receiver (3 x OC45 & 3 x OC81), Medium and Long Wave reception, slow motion tuning dial, internal ferrite antenna, car radio aerial socket, 10cm speaker, carry handle
Power req. PP7 9-volt battery
Dimensions: 238 x 140 x 75mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Domico 125 Megaphone Radio, 1970?
If you think that the object in the photo opposite looks a lot like some sort of toy cine camera, you may well be right. At least that’s probably what it was supposed to be, when it left the drawing board in Hong Kong, possibly in the late 1960s, but more on that in a moment. Whenever it was made, though, quite soon afterwards it appears that it was re-purposed and became the Domico 125 Megaphone Radio.
To say the least it’s a curious combination of technologies and design cues. It also has to be said that cheap transistor radios do not make very good megaphones, not even toy ones. But that hardly matters, and if genuine, it provides an interesting insight into the early days of transistor radios, when they first started to appear in a bewildering assortment of unlikely and bizarre shapes and styles.
We’ll begin with the radio, which is a common or garden 6-transistor AM only type with superhetrodyne tuning, and a push-pull audio output amplifier probably knocking out a couple of hundred milliwatts into a 55mm speaker, fitted into what would have been the camera's lens hood, if it were still a model movie camera. The megaphone function is selected by pressing the handgrip-mounted trigger. This operates a simple leaf switch that disengages the tuner and routes the output from a small condenser microphone, inside the viewfinder, to the input of the receiver’s amplifier. It sounds straightforward enough, and undoubtedly hours of fun for children of all ages, but you probably won’t be too surprised that neither of its two primary functions are much to write home about…
But before we come to the performance report, some more basic data, including the power source, which comprises a battery holder for four 1.5 volt AA cells. The controls, apart from the megaphone trigger are confined to rotary volume on/off and tuning knobs on the top of the case, and it comes with a wrist lanyard fitted to the base of the hand grip; anything else that might look like a knob or switch is a cosmetic frippery.
Thanks once again to good old ebay for this unusual find, and thanks also to the seller for accepting my offer of £8.00. It was in astonishingly and almost unbelievably good condition for its apparent age and even came with its (slightly battered) original box and guarantee. The only problem turned out to be the exposed brass contacts on the handgrip switch, which had become a little crusty and intermittent. It responded well to some light cleaning with the tip of a scalpel blade. All you really need to know about sound quality is that the radio sounds quite tinny, and the megaphone goes into feedback mode the moment the volume control goes beyond the halfway point. That’s makes the megaphone just a little louder than a normal human voice. That would have been welcomed by parents and neighbours, at least... The same cannot be said of the super shrill feedback, which probably resulted in a few of them mysteriously disappearing. Could that also account for this one having no obvious signs of ever being played with…?
What Happened To It?
It’s all a bit of a mystery. The Domico label on the side of the case almost certainly belongs to an importer or distributor; there is no clue to who made it, apart from ‘Made In Hong Kong’ on the side of the case and printed on the presentation box. That doesn’t really help much with dating since it had disappeared from products manufactured in the ex-colonial territory by the mid to late 1990s. However, it’s not unknown to find it reappearing on faux vintage products made several decades later, after Hong Kong became part of China. The only other apparent clues are essentially dead ends or highly contradictory. The electronic components used, which include silicon transistors were commonplace from the late 60s onwards. On the other hand the sub-miniature condenser microphone, as far as I recall, was rarely seen back then, especially on cheap toys. There are no integrated circuits, which reinforces a pre-70s date of manufacture, and then there’s the shape, which looks a lot like an early seventies 8mm cine camera. But the printing on the box is a curious mish-mash of styles; a suspicious-minded person might even speculate that it’s almost as if someone had been trying a bit too hard to emulate a graphic design from that era. So all in all the 1970 date is purely speculative and I would not be at all surprised to learn that it’s a lot younger than it appears but for the moment I’ll stick with my initial guessimate.
Although novelty transistor radios have been a perennial favourite with collectors of vintage tech, most sell for relatively modest sums. The exceptions are very early models from the 1950s, and notable ‘firsts’, unusual or promotional cosmetics or technically interesting designs, especially if they were made by companies that went on to bigger and better things. This one’s lack of provenance makes it hard to value but it does seem to be quite rare, at least for the moment. I’ve put an estimated value of £20 on it but that could change quite drastically if they suddenly start popping up on ebay more frequently than the one or two I’ve spotted on the site in recent months.
First Seen: 1970?
Original Price: £2
Value Today: £20 (1121)
Features: 6-transistor superhetrodyne AM receiver, Switchable ‘megaphone’ function, 55mm speaker, rotary volume on/off and tuning controls, wrist lanyard
Power req. 4 x 1.5 volt AA cells
Dimensions: 180 x 60 x 185mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Lamie TR-263 2-Transistor ‘Boys Radio’, 1961
Prolonged, complex and fraught international trade negotiations have been all over the headlines recently. In truth they’ve been going on since the year dot. Usually it concerns quite mundane things, like food, drink and tractor parts, but something rather strange happened in the late 50s and early sixties, when the US and Japan got into a spat over transistor radios.
When transistor radios first appeared in the late fifties the US became concerned that Japan, where labour costs were comparatively low, would dump cheap radios onto the American market. So they slapped a tax on them – apparently quite a big one -- that threatened to damage the fledgling japanese electronics industry. It didn’t take long for the Japanese to find a loophole, and that was the beginning of a brief phenomenon known as ‘Boys Radios’, and this little Lamie TR-263 is one of them. The Japanese dodge was elegantly simple; reduce the number of transistors in a standard pocket size radio from 6 to 2, at which point they’re classified and toys, and subject to a lower tariff.
From the outside most Boys Radios looked exactly like their regular 6-transistor radio cousins. In many instances they used the same cases, but to avoid confusion, and those higher tariffs, they were prominently badged, front and rear, with ‘2-Transistors’ and ‘Boys Radio’ labels and mouldings.
Inside the case, instead of a multi-stage superhetrodyne receiver was a much simpler radio design called a TRF or tuned radio frequency circuit. Essentially it’s a fancy crystal set. The first transistor and a diode plus a variable capacitor, ferrite antenna and a few other bits and bobs, work their little socks off, detecting the radio signal and amplifying both the radio and detected audio frequency signals (known as reflex operation). The second transistor, a pair of small impedance matching transformers and a few other simple components drive the speaker.
Getting the same sort of performance as a vastly more sophisticated 6-transistor radio from one using only 2 transistors was clearly not going to happen. However, some of them were actually quite good. By the mid 1960s there were a hundreds of models to choose from. They typically only cost a few dollars -- a fraction of the price of conventional 6-transistor pocket radios -- so not surprisingly they sold in large numbers, and not just to kids. Whilst the circuits tended to be very similar there were some really colourful, stylish and eye-catching case designs. Some of them also came with leather carry cases, folding stands and telescopic antennas. Two transistor radio circuits also turned up inside a wristwatch or two and there were some really tiny cases; they had no speakers but came with an earphone.
If my ears are to believed the Lamie TR-263 may have been one of the better ones. True, it’s not very loud but it’s fine for personal listening or through an earphone. It manages to pull in several strong medium wave stations and the sound quality is really quite good, considering how basic it is. The controls are identical to a regular pocket tranny with simple rotary on/off volume and tuning controls. There’s a 2.5mm jack socket for an earphone and it runs from a standard 9-volt PP3 type radio battery.
Sales of Boy’s Radios were largely confined to the US so they don’t show up on this side of the pond very often. In the early sixties a few models briefly appeared in British magazines (this ad is from the April 1964 edition of Practical Wireless), but the price differential -- with 6-transistor radios -- wasn’t as significant as it was in the US, which would have made them less attractive. I came across this one on ebay. It appeared to be exceptionally clean and listed as in good working order. Knowing that well-preserved ones were few and far between I put in a last-minute bid of £20.00, expecting it to be swiftly beaten. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when my rivals gave up at just £16.00. I’ve seen others, in a much poorer state, sell for two or three times as much. The seller’s description was spot on; but for a few very light scuff marks it almost looked as though it had just come out of its box. And yes, it worked without any interventions from me; at the very least I was expecting to have to replace the electrolytic capacitors. That might even have given the volume a small boost, but on reflection I decided to leave well alone and keep it in as original a state as possible.
What Happened To It?
The Boy’s Radio era lasted from approximately 1960 to 1968. It’s difficult to be precise as the historical records, such as they are, have largely ignored them. All that can be said with any certainty is that they were made to sell at a very low price. The rapid growth of the far-eastern electronics manufacturers throughout the sixties meant that the price of more advanced pocket radios quickly fell to the point where the once wide price difference had eroded to almost nothing and so they simply faded away. Adverts flogging off old stocks of Boy’s Radios appeared sporadically in the US until the early seventies. Given that they were worth little and performed so poorly, it is probable that the vast majority of them had a very short life and ended up in the dustbin.
Because of their even greater scarcity on this side of the Atlantic they make only infrequent appearances on ebay. The handful of Boy's Radios I followed sold for between £5 and £50. Condition is obviously important but I dare say a fair few really good ones get overlooked by collectors, especially if they’re not accurately titled or categorised. It’s a different story in the US where there is a small but lively collector’s market. Even though there are more of them, prices can be surprisingly high. At the time of writing (early 2021) the cheapest one I could find was priced at almost £80; a couple of mint and boxed examples were listed at over £200. The moral of this story is clear; if you have one, hang on to it, or if you buy one cheaply to flip on ebay, make sure your listing is visible in the US.
First Seen: 1962
Original Price: £2.00
Value Today: £30.00 (0221)
Features: 2-transistor TRF AM medium wave receiver, ferrite antenna, 50mm 8 ohm speaker, 2.5mm jack earphone socket, rotary volume on/off & tuning controls
Power req. 9 volt PP3 battery
Dimensions: 100 x 65 x 27mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Sinclair Q16 Loudspeakers, 1969
One of Clive Sinclair’s more successful forays into the home entertainment market was Project 60. It launched in 1969 and comprised a set of ready-made audio modules. Over the following year or so more were added and eventually the system included three power amplifiers, a preamplifier, an active filter unit, a stereo FM tuner, a selection of power supplies and matching speakers. The idea was any moderately adept DIYer could assemble the parts, into a housing of their choice, and by building it yourself and spreading the cost, create a relatively competent custom Hi-Fi system; sometimes it even worked…
The Project 60 speakers are the focus of this episode of dustygizmos, they’re Sinclair Q16s, an upgrade of an earlier and slightly smaller shelf speaker called the Q14. Project 60 modules sold well and initially, and in common with many of the company’s products received a fair amount of favourable publicity. This was thanks, in part, to Sinclair's genuinely fresh and stylish looking designs, and a somewhat imaginative approach to marketing.
Whatever else has been said or written about the Q16, there is no getting away from the fact that they were, and still are quite striking. If you know anything of sixties audio then you can imagine how they stood out against the mostly dull and dreary competition that had changed little over the years. The elegantly simple square shape, solid teak surround and oddly shaped backside had an almost futuristic -- for the 1960s -- appearance. Sinclair’s famously over the top advertising blurb only added to the impression. Phrases like ‘sealed and contoured pressure chamber’, and ‘specially designed driver system’ promised a bold new era of audio excellence.
The actuality was a little more mundane. Inside the enclosure there’s a single, and pretty much bog-standard, elliptical speaker nailed (really…) to a slab of chipboard. It’s identical to the sort of speakers used in countless radios and television sets of the time. The ‘pressure chamber’ reference concerns the Q16’s sealed rear cover. It’s moulded from what looks like a resin-bonded paper or fabric and has no openings. It’s a well established speaker design technique and the key advantage is that because sound pressure waves can’t escape from the back of the speaker they act on the moving diaphragm like a sort of acoustic spring, resulting in a cleaner, crisper sound. The downside is it is less efficient because no sound comes from behind the speaker, via openings or ‘ports’ in the front or rear of the enclosure. To overcome this the speaker has to be driven harder to produce the same kind of sound levels as an un-ported speaker. Fake screw-like mouldings on the rear cover add to the illusion of compexity implying there’s more going on inside the box than there is. As you can see from the photos it is all quite basic, and the less said about the ‘special cellular foam front, chosen for its ability to pass audio frequencies’, the better. (It had a tendency to crumble into dust)..
To be honest it is doubtful that many in the late sixties were much concerned by the finer points of Hi-Fi. That was still to come and for those who did take it seriously, it could be a very expensive business. The home audio market, such as it was, was awash with clunky mono record players and stereo radiograms – the latter more an item of furniture than an audio system -- but things were about to change. Project 60 was at the leading edge of a minor revolution providing a low cost route into something a little more refined.
In the scheme of things Q16 speakers didn't sound too bad, they were a touch pricey perhaps but other parts of the system -- the amplifier modules in particular -- had a bit of a reputation for reliability, or rather, a lack of it. As was often the case with early Sinclair products the design of the electronics could be innovative but was let down by unreliable and sub-standard components, or failed from being pushed beyond their limits.
The Q16s featured here came from ebay and were fairly described as being in good condition and full working order. Bidding was surprisingly subdued and I snagged them for £53. This was a tad more than I meant to pay but it was a moment of weakness as I had been after a pair for years, since they first appeared in fact. They had been lightly restored and this included replacing the original foam front covers with a smart-looking suede material. Unfortunately the dense structure muffled the sound somewhat, so they had to go.
Fitting acoustically transparent speaker material to the front of the enclosure, without it looking really tacky or doing damage, proved to be a challenge. In the end I decided to mount the material on a lightweight frame made out of thin rigid plastic. The material was then stretched over the frame and glued to the edges. It fits snugly and invisibly inside the teak surround and a future restorer would have no trouble removing it and should they desire, return it to its original state. The rear support foot on one of the speakers had come adrift at some point. It’s supposed to be held in place by a screw attaching to a threaded clip inside the rear cover. The clip had fallen off, making it next to impossible to get it back into place. A previous owner had re-attached the foot with a couple of small angle brackets and although they couldn’t be seen in normal use. It just didn’t look right so the only thing to do was remove the rear cover and retrieve the clip.
This also turned out to be easier said than done. It was tightly bonded to the chipboard baffle board by thick glue that wasn’t about to give up without a struggle. Cutting into the cover simply wasn’t an option so I tried a variety of techniques to prise it off. The only one that showed any promise was softening the glue with a solvent, sparingly applied with a cotton bud, then slowly excavating the now sludgy residue with a thin 1mm drill fitted to my Dremel rotary tool. It took nearly two hours eventually it came away, with no damage to the cover or baffle. The screw clip was bonded to the inside of the cover, so it shouldn’t get away again. I resisted the temptation to permanently glue the cover back in place so I could carry out a side-by side comparison with the other, still securely sealed Q16, to see how effective the pressure chamber business was. Younger and more discriminating ears than mine might be able to detect differences but even in a blind test, to me they sounded exactly the same. With all due allowances made for age, advances in Hi-Fi equipment and so on, bass is still in short supply but otherwise they produce a quite mellow sound that’s not too far off what you might expect from a pair of top-end budget speakers.
What Happened To It?
When Project 60 first appeared there really wasn’t much in the way of competition, for the price at least. The home build aspect was also a lot less intimidating back then; you can’t imagine anyone today building a Hi-Fi system, case and all, from scratch. The first nail in the coffin, though, was Sinclair’s change of fortune in the mid 70s, following the ill-fated Black Watch incident and a subsequent change of direction, from home entertainment to computers. The final blow was the rise and rise of the Japanese and Far Eastern consumer electronics industry, churning out countless well-specified and very attractively priced Hi-Fi products.
Project 60 modules and systems pop up on ebay every so often and generally sell for quite sensible amounts but Q16 (and Q14) speakers are amongst the rarest of Sinclair’s earliest products. I haven’t been able to find out how many were made but the survival rate seems to be very low indeed, if their ebay presence is anything to go by.
Vintage loudspeakers from iconic manufacturers or noted for performance can do well but Q16s lack the heritage and sonically they're nothing to write home about so most intetrest is likely to be from the small band of Sinclair fans. I'm happy to admit that I'm one and they’ve been on my ebay watch list for a decade or more. In all that time I've only seen a handful come up for sale. Buy It Now items are generally snapped up really quickly and the few auctions I’ve followed have attracted some quite lively bidding that rapidly exceeded my pay grade. The lack of numbers makes it hard to put a value on them but I would not be surprised to see a pair in tip-top condition selling for £100 or more. If you are lucky enough to find a pair they could turn out to be quite a good investment as they can only increase in value. As a matter of interest, according to web inflation calculators the original selling price of £8.98 is roughly equivalent to £150 in today’s money.
First Seen: 1969
Original Price: £8.19.6 (£8.98)
Value Today: £80.00 (0121)
Features: Single 145mm, 8 Ohm impedance elliptical driver (possibly Audax), max 14 watt rms rating, claimed 60Hz – 16kHz coverage, ‘sealed pressure chamber’ construction, cellular foam driver cover, solid teak surround, chipboard baseboard, screw terminals, foot stand
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 265 x 265 x 102mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 9
It is just as well that Isis Electronics of Hong Kong is no longer in business. Nowadays a contentious name like that can invite unwelcome attention… Back in 1973, when the company was founded, the world was a more innocent place and a transistor radio, in the shape of the word ‘RADIO’, was a refreshing change and a rather clever gimmick. Almost half a century later the design still looks novel and fresh and holds up really well. The date of manufacture was probably not long after the company’s formation as it is an AM only model; later versions had FM coverage as well. They are more common and easily identified as they have a band switch and a small folding antenna on the rear of the case.
On paper at least the 20-2 RADIO is a fairly ordinary 6-transistor superhetrodyne receiver with a ferrite rod antenna, hooked up to a 55mm speaker. But rather than shoehorning an off-the-shelf radio into the case the circuit board is purpose made to fit the shape. Speaking of which, the plastic case is a fine example of the injection moulders art. Small details, like the screw brackets for back panel, have been made separately and mounted on sliding rails, suggesting the complex shape posed a number of challenges for the manufacturers.
There are just two controls, for the on/off volume and tuning thumbwheels. The latter has a simple tuning scale visible in a small window next to the knob. Both controls are mounted in the ‘O’ part of the case behind the speaker. The holder for the four AA cells that power it live in a compartment behind the upright of the ‘R’ letter. Here the designers faced another problem, or rather caused one because the space is only just about wide enough for AA cells. It may have been deliberate but it’s likely it was only spotted after the moulds were made so they had to come up with a custom holder with a very thin profile. This made it weak and thanks to pressure from the spring contacts, prone to breaking on the thinner parts. This one was no exception and finding a drop-in replacement proved nigh-on impossible. In the end I managed to squeeze a modern holder into the slot, but only after grinding away a lot of plastic, so that too is doomed to fail.
Production of the Isis RADIO appears to have continued throughout the 1980s. Although the size and shape remained the same, countless custom versions were produced, in a wide range of colours. Most of them were promotional items, either given away or for rewarding loyal customers or employees. For obvious reasons they proved very popular with US radio stations and it looks like the Avon cosmetic company commissioned quite a few of them, judging by the number of distinctive white and blue versions for sale on ebay US, where most Isis radios are to be found.
How my one ended up on this side of the pond and selling on ebay is anyone’s guess, but previous owners had treated it well. Aside from a few light scuff marks and the broken battery holder, it is in remarkably good condition. It’s conceivable the battery holder was responsible for its early retirement and survival. Assuming it failed early on it's life it probably spent most of the intervening years in the back of a cupboard or drawer. Nevertheless, it was a little grubby and has, at some time been left with its back to a sunny window, just below the sill. That’s clear from a distinct yellow band along the top edge of the rear panel. After a strip down and thorough clean up, inside and out, it was reassembled and tested, using a bench power supply. It worked first time and the lack of crackle on the volume control was more evidence that it had been only lightly used. Sound quality, as expected was quite tinny; certainly no worse than most small portable radios coming out of Hong Kong in the 70s and 80s. I paid £10.00 for it, the one and only bid, possibly because it was vaguely described as a vintage AM Radio, and the auction ended at 7.30 on a Monday morning -- often a good time to snag overlooked bargains.
What Happened To It?
Isis Electronics specialised in novelty radios and in particular promotional wares. In addition to the 20-2 RADIO and possibly the BBC FM Radio 1 radio as well (it’s shaped like the number ‘1’) they were responsible for more conventional pocket radios. These have featureless front panels designed to be over-printed with logos and images. There’s also a slightly larger tabletop model, and for some reason it was popular with US cigarette and soft drinks brands. It is uncertain when Isis shut up shop, or taken over but it doesn’t look like they lasted much beyond the mid 90s by which time the market was awash with manufacturers churning out cheap promo tat.
The quirky and distinctive RADIO shape set it apart from the largely characterless transistor radios in the seventies and eighties, and doubtless contributed to current interest in it, thanks to the ongoing retro revival. Strangely it looks as though the design was never copied; at least I have yet to across anything quite like it. From the evidence of the survivors that pop up on ebay and antique fairs it seems safe to assume that a lot of them were made, or the crappy battery holder consigned faulty ones into storage. Presumably they were kept because of the unusual shape, or maybe sentimental value, especially if it was some sort of award. Promo stuff and give-aways are generally quite cheap so it probably didn't cost more than £10 or so when new. It’s hard to say what they’re worth right now, though. The ones I've seen on ebay US tend to be priced at between £25 and £50, though the odd optimist has been known to pitch as high as £120 for a mint boxed example. Either way it’s an unusual and eye-catching little radio, even in non-working condition. Sadly the potential for it becoming a sought after future collectable is slight but if you can find a decent one -- preferably the scarcer AM-only model -- for less than £30, say, you are unlikely lose out if you later decide to sell it.
First Seen: 1973
Original Price: £20?
Value Today: £50.00 (1220)
Features: 6-transistor AM-only superhetrodyne receiver, ferrite rod antenna 55mm speaker, rotary on/off volume and tuning controls
Power req. 4 x 1.5 volt AA cells
Dimensions: 254 x 62 x 77mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
Sony TR-1819 ‘The Cube’ Radio, 1968
In the beginning there was The Cube, and it was good. So good in fact that a few months later Sony gave us The Tube, but that’s another story. The Cube or TR-1819, to give it it’s official designation, was one of the first – if not the first -- examples of Sony’s long-running passion for cube-shaped radios, radio-alarms and electronic gadgets, which have been appearing on dealers shelves at an average rate of between five and six new models per decade since the late 1960s.
In spite of it being a radical departure from the near standard design format for small transistor radios of the 1960s, the guts of The Cube are actually fairly conventional, not to say surprisingly basic. It’s a no-frills 6-transistor Medium Wave receiver with just two rotary controls for on/off volume and tuning, with the latter’s huge knob dominating the top (or front – depending how it is placed) of the brown plastic wood-effect case.
There are some important differences though, between the TR-1819 and the many thousands of small transistor radios doing the rounds at the time. The most noticeable ones – apart from the shape – are mostly on the inside. It was a sign of things to come. In the sixties Sony were still relatively small beer in the world of consumer electronics, though it was steadily building a reputation for innovation, having been one of the first companies in the world to develop a pocket-size transistor radio (the TR-55) in 1955 and all transistor TV (TV-8-301) in 1959.
Most small transistor radios of the time were hand assembled in the Far East in small factories using cheap components and materials. The circuitry tended to be somewhat flaky and a sure sign of corner cutting was the thick dollops of wax on the tuning section. This was to stop components moving around which would affect stability and alignment. There’s no wax inside The Cube indicating that the densely populated circuit board had been carefully designed and thoroughly tested. The components used are quality items and the case is a notch up on the thin and flimsy plastic housings used by most other manufacturers. There’s a couple of other points of interest and they are the speaker, which is a little larger than normal resulting in a slightly less tinny sound, and the use of three 1.5 volt AA cells as the power source when the norm, at the time, was a 9-volt PP3 type battery. That last point is another sign that more effort was put into the electronic circuitry, to reduce power consumption, allowing it to run for longer on cheaper batteries.
I came by this TR-1819 at around the same time as the TR-1829 (The Tube) radio mentioned earlier, though this one was found on ebay and being the only bidder, it was mine for only £5.00. I suspect the low price was due to the very brief title and description, which basically said small square radio and not working. It also didn’t help that the single photo was out of focus, and the auction timed to end at around 7am...
To be fair it wasn’t a pretty sight but it was just accumulated dirt and grime, probably from being stored for several decades in a loft or garage. Batteries had been left inside, and leaked, but again it was all fairly superficial and looked a lot worse than it was. One of the battery wires had come adrift but there was only very slight damage to the contacts, which cleaned up easily with a dunk in some vinegar and a few minutes in the company of a small rotary wire brush. The crusty brown gunk in the battery holder also shifted following a few hours in a vinegar bath and after a new battery wire was fitted, switch cleaner squirted into the volume control and a set of AA cells in the holder it came back to life. Sound quality is largely irrelevant on AM only radios, but the bigger speaker does help and the few stations remaining on the Medium Wave band all came in loud and clear, with plenty of volume to spare.
What Happened To It?
Needless to say Sony are still with us, and it is still a prestigious brand, but alas no longer the slickly marketed, hugely productive, cutting-edge consumer electronics innovator they became from the seventies to the early noughties. It was a remarkable period, and still unequalled in the sheer diversity of products, like the Trinitron colour picture tube, Betamax VCRs, Video 8 camcorders, Walkman, Discman, the Aibo robotic dog, Mavica electronic camera, Playstation, eye-catching mobile phones, and the list goes on. And throughout that time, until the present day Sony have had an obsession with cube-shaped gadgets.
At very rough count there have been at least 25 distinct cube radios in the five decades since the appearance of the TR-1819. That’s probably an under estimate and doesn’t take into account the many regional variants and model variations, like a short-lived white cased FM Cube from 1969 called the TFM-1837W, which I suspect may now be quite rare, and probably worth a few bob. That’s not to say bog-standard TR-1819’s are selling for peanuts. Far from it. It was very popular and although quite a few have survived, they are becoming increasingly hard to find at sensible prices. The Sony name attracts a premium and the distinctive and groundbreaking design has caught the attention of collectors so prices are going up. Clean, working examples regularly fetch £50 plus on ebay and if you can easily double that for one in mint condition, with its original box and paperwork. The one featured here, whilst working and in good working order has a few scuffs and scratches; even so it might still achieve between £30 and £40 on a good day, with the wind in the right direction, possibly…
First Seen: 1968
Original Price: £20.00
Value Today: £35.00 (1120)
Features: 6-transistor Medium Wave AM superhetrodyne receiver, 200 mW audio output, 70mm 8 ohm speaker, ferrite antenna
Power req. 3 x 1.5 v AA cells
Dimensions: 84 x 84 x 82mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Grundig Yacht-Boy 210 AM/FM Radio, 1970
‘Classic’ is used a lot these days, usually for no good reason, and often misleadingly, especially when used to promote new products. Sometimes, though, it means something. The golden age of transistor radios (from the late 1950s to the early 80s – after valves and before microchips) spawned a number of genuinely classic designs and the Grundig Yacht-Boy 210 was one of them. It’s the complete package, a quality 4-band tabletop-portable radio, battery or mains-powered, built like a brick outhouse, ultra reliable and it looks and sounds wonderful.
It’s timeless and difficult to believe that this radio first appeared over half a century ago. Back then the majority of transistor radios tended to be either cheap, tinny and plasticky pocket jobbies or quaint leatherette-covered wooden boxes that already looked 20 years out of date. Of course there were exceptions but Grundig ignored the prevailing conventions, that transistor radios either had to appeal to teenagers or senior citizens; and in both cases it often didn’t matter how good they sounded. Yacht-Boy was aimed at people who cared about sound quality and style. But it came at a price and inevitably, was mainly bought by well-heeled, middle aged, middle class punters.
The receiver was state of the art when it was launched, a well-designed superhetrodyne tuner coupled to an equally competent 2-watt amplifier. It used 10 transistors and covered the Long, Medium, Short and FM/VHF wavebands. Useful extras include switchable automatic frequency control (AFC), a wide backlit moving pointer tuning scale, a tone control with switchable bass boost – more about that shortly – a battery level meter, external aerial inputs and an extra long telescopic antenna for Short wave and VHF reception. It’s powered by six 1.5 volt D cells or an optional mains power pack that fits into a compartment in the back of the case. Incidentally the adaptor is the same size, and uses the same connector as a 9-volt PP9 battery. One can be used instead of the D cells, though it’s not recommended as the back has to be removed to fit it in place and the dial backlight remains on all of the time – the radio assumes it is being mains-powered – so a battery doesn’t last very long. It’s versatile too and there’s also a phono input for a record player, enabled by pressing the Long and Medium band selector buttons together.
Back now to that tone control and a commonly heard complaint that Yacht-Boys can sound a bit ‘bassy’. It’s true, they do, but that’s often because the bass-boost function is effectively switched on by default. In fact unless you read the manual you probably won’t even know it is there, or discover how to switch it off. The trick is to pull out the tone control knob. It wasn’t one of Grundig’s best ideas and doomed to be pushed in all of the time. It would have been better to make it off by default, and more clearly signposted. But even when it is turned off it can still sound a tad rumbly. A lot of the time this is due to the way radio stations apply compression to their broadcasts, sometimes way too much. It started in the 1990s, with the advent of digital recording and processing so that wasn’t Grundig’s fault. In truth it’s not a big deal and teccy purists have an easily reversible workaround that involves shorting one of the capacitors (C617) on the volume and tone control circuit board. Be warned this is not a recommended mod so only try it if you know what you are doing.
I hesitated asking the Sussex boot sale stallholder how much wanted for the Yacht-Boy you see here. It was getting on for midday; most other stalls were packing up, and for it still to be on show that late in the day suggested he had been a bit optimistic with the price. I was therefore a little surprised when he said five pounds. From the outside it appeared to be in really good condition, so I said yes please, paid the man and made a hasty retreat before he had a chance to change his mind.
My guess is earlier visitors to the stall may have looked inside the battery compartment and walked away. I waited until I got it home before looking – always a mistake -- and it was a truly scary sight. There had been a leak, and a serious one at that. At first glance it looked like all of the contact plates and springs had been eaten away by corrosion; the foul brown gunk was everywhere. It was only after I’d taken it apart, to see what might be salvageable, that it became clear the Yacht-Boy was made of sterner stuff.
Grundig had opted for springless battery contacts, which explained their absence, and used an unusually thick gauge of metal, so the damage was nowhere near as bad as it looked. The thick battery residue had dried long ago and came away easily from the plastic. What remained dissolved with the aid of many cotton buds and white vinegar. The half dozen spring metal contacts came out whole, after a bit of a struggle and cleaned up well, firstly with a dip in some diluted hydrochloric acid, then after drying, cleaned to a conductive shine with wire bush on my Dremel multi tool. There was still some surface pitting but the metal underneath was sound and retained all of springiness. That was the only serious fault. It worked the first time batteries were inserted and the only other thing that needed attention was a dozen or more foam pads on the main chassis module, presumably to prevent vibration. All of them had turned to dust and had to be removed and replaced. It appears to have been well looked after throughout its long life, just a few light scuff marks on the back; the rest of the case was near pristine and cleaned up with nothing stronger than some spray polish and a soft cloth.
Audio quality was as expected, thanks in equal measure to the large elliptical speaker and the really well designed tuner and amplifier. It produces a rich and detailed sound, with plenty of volume in reserve. Noise levels are low and the tuner is super sensitive, across all bands, pulling in stations on the Long, Medium and VHF bands I didn’t know existed. Short Wave coverage was fairly limited though (5.8 – 7.3MHz), apart from a lot of hiss there’s nothing to listen to, at least not without a seriously long external aerial.
What Happened To It?
There’s a summary of Grundig’s long and eventful history elsewhere in dustygizmos, on the Melody-Boy write-up. Incidentally that model appeared a year or so after the Yacht-Boy 210 and they are quite closely related. The big difference though, is what people are prepared to pay for these two radios. Working Melody-Boys typically sell on ebay for between £15 and £20, and that’s not a lot of money for a very decent AM/FM radio. On the other hand useable Yacht-Boys for less than £50 are few and far between, and prices can go as high as £150 for mint and boxed examples. What is even more telling is the apparently lively market for Yacht-Boy spares on ebay. They’re mostly things like case parts and knobs, indicating there’s a steady demand from restorers, and they’re not cheap either. At the time of writing a replacement sliding cover for the rear sockets was selling for £15.00 and a front panel Grundig badge would set you back £17.00. The point is Yacht-Boys, even if they are non-working write-offs, can still be worth a few bob for spare parts. If you find a runner for less than £40 or so snap it up, it could be a decent investment, as well as a damn fine radio.
First Seen: 1970
Original Price: £100.00
Value Today: £100 (1020)
Features: 4 wavebands (Long Medium, Short & VHF FM), superhetrodyne tuner, 2 watts audio output AFC, tuner scale light, battery meter, 180mm elliptical speaker, rotary tuning, volume and tone controls, bass boost, sliding station tags, 8-section telescopic antenna, earphone jack, DC supply connector, phono input, folding carry handle
Power req. 6 x 1.5 volt D cells, optional 220VAC adaptor
Dimensions: 400 x 240 x 125mm
Made (assembled) in: Germany
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Nytech CTA-252XD Series II Stereo Tuner, 1980
Any idea what this is? No cigar if you said desktop calculator, though that is exactly what the Nytech CTA-252XD was supposed to look like. It is actually a stereo tuner with a built-in power amplifier. In audiophile circles it was given the nickname ‘Calculator Amp’, and not in a mean or unkind way. It was, and still is highly regarded, to the extent that it was often bought just for the very fine amplifier it contained. The calculator comparison doesn’t stand up too well nowadays but you have to remember that when it first appeared, in the mid 1970s that is what calculators looked like. However, one of the original design goals was for the tuner to be part of a component-style music centre, with the sloping lines of the hinged black cover matching those of a Dual turntable. In the end that didn’t work out too well and Nytech wisely decided to play to their strengths and focus on the high-end audio market.
The basic design and shape continued until the early 1980s. The one featured here is a Series II model, dating from 1980 (according to the inspection label inside). The most significant differences between this and earlier models is an uprated toroidial transformer, beefed up output stage delivering 25 watts rms into 8-ohm speakers and a redesigned phono input circuit for magnetic cartridges.
The FM tuner, although fairly conventional works very well and was spiced up with an array of three moving coil meters, where the calculator display would be. They are basically window dressing, showing signal strength, tuning and frequency; although functionally unnecessary they look really smart and probably went some way towards justifying the hefty £100 price tag. That’s the thick end of £1000 in today’s money (Autumn 2020).
It has four station presets, adjusted by small bank of thumbwheels concealed beneath a sliding cover. Above that the larger single thumbwheel is for manual tuning and above that is a set of five slider controls for Balance, Bass, Middle, Treble & Volume. Other tuner function on the main keypad include the AFC button, four station presets and the FM mode selector. The remainder of the keys are for power on/off, bass and treble cut, bass and treble boost, tape and phono input selectors, mono sound and the two speaker output selectors, Around the back there are 2-pin DIN sockets for the six speaker outputs (two switch, one direct), more DIN sockets for tape input and pre-amp output, an aerial socket and two flying phono sockets for phono input.
You only have to pick it up to tell this is a quality item. It weighs a hefty 4.5kg, most of which is due to the toroidial transformer and all metal chassis. The quality of construction is outstanding with neat wiring and excellent ease of access, should anything go wrong. At the time the amplifier and power supply circuitry were considered somewhat unconventional but it quickly won over the doubters with a sound that was favourably compared with the best amps of the day. As an added bonus it proved to be kind to speakers, unlike a lot of 60s and 70s power amps, which had a nasty habit of popping their cones. Speaking of power, you might be surprised by the seemingly weedy 25 watts per channel output. It’s a mistake to equate power with quality; when a well-designed amplifier is used with a pair of carefully matched speakers power ceases to be an issue. Nytech urged owners to audition speakers at one of their dealers and stressed the CTA-252’s audiophile credentials in the instructions, pointing out that tone controls are only necessary when the source material is of ‘inferior quality and requires optimisation’…
I came upon this one a while ago at a car boot sale. It almost escaped but I caught sight of the Nytech logo on the instruction leaflet underneath what looked like a rather grubby and uninteresting black box. The name rang a dim and distant bell and although I can’t remember ever reviewing one of their products, I knew they were once a respected high-end brand. I asked the stallholder what it was and he thought it might be some sort of sound mixer. The answer to the next question was ‘a fiver’. It must have been a cold or wet day because I don’t remember haggling. It was a bit of a gamble as there was no way of telling from the outside what sort of condition it was in, but I reasoned that there had to be at least a fivers worth of salvageable components inside…
It was well worth the punt and apart from a thorough internal and external cleanup the only minor issues were a couple of blown bulbs illuminating the meters, a noisy headphone socket and a loose DIN plug, none of which took more than a few minutes to put right. Even the sliders, which are notorious for becoming noisy, were as smooth as silk. The amplifier is indeed a cut above the average and would have deserved the praise it received back in the day. Even on my mediocre test setup it produces a smooth and mellow sound, with plenty of volume in reserve despite its apparently modest power output. One day, when I get the time I will give a thorough work out using a decent turntable and some carefully matched speakers.
What Happened To It?
Nytronics, later to become Nytech was founded in Portishead, in a converted Stable near Bristol 1972 by Richard Hay, Paul Hamblin and Dave Alner. They were all experienced electronic engineers, previously working for Hi-Fi manufacturer Radford Electronics. Their first products included tuner amplifiers that would be sold in Woolworths. The origins of the CTA-252 lie in another early project, to design an audio system for Philips. This didn’t pan out but Richard Hay’s brainwave of taking styling cues from calculators led directly to the CTA252. The first models went on sale in 1975 to critical acclaim, and some sales success, particularly in Scandinavian countries. Over the next few years it went through a series of upgrades and at one point, sprouted companion turntable and cassette decks, but mounting debt forced the company into liquidation in 1977. Richard Hay purchased the unsold stock from the liquidator and revived the company, this time in new premises in Chew Magna, also close to Bristol. The XD version was launched in 1978 and an estimated 30,000 CTA-252 were built over the course of the model’s production run, which lasted until 1982. Nytech was eventually wound up in 1992 but some of the original circuitry was adopted by high-end audio manufacturer Heed, and Nytech Audio emerged from the ashes, to service and repair original Nytech products.
The CTA-252 has become something of a legend in the hi-fi enthusiast community and because they were so well made and sound so good, they have become a sought after, and very useable collectables. It’s not unusual tosee one or two on ebay, and in good working condition they can fetch between £100 and £150, sometimes more. I don’t expect to ever see another one at a car boot sale, at least not for a fiver, but you never know…
First Seen: 1975
Original Price: £100.00
Value Today: £100 (0920)
Features: Stereo FM tuner, four station presets & free tuning, 2 x 25 watt rms power amplifier, toroidial mains transformer, tape & phono inputs, pre-amp output, signal, strength, tuning & frequency meters, stereo pilot tone indicator, AFC, mono output, treble & bass boost, bass & treble cut, headphone socket (std jack), twin speaker outputs
Power req. 220VAC
Dimensions: 117 x 210 x 35mm
Made (assembled) in: Chew Magna, England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Spectra Radio Spectacles, 1963
Over the years the reinvention of the wheel has been a recurrent theme in dustygizmos. Adding to the list of apparently modern gadgets that have been around in one form or another for 50 years or more are these Spectra Radio Spectacles, dating from 1963 or thereabouts. In fairness today’s ‘wearables’ tend to have rather more exotic functions than just a simple AM radio. But the point is, whether the spectacles in question have a Bluetooth connection to smartphone media apps, tiny video screens, cameras or 3D vision LCD ‘shutters’, the idea of cramming a shed-load of miniature technology into the confines of a pair of sun glasses is nothing new. Back in the early 1960s shoehorning a three-transistor Medium Wave radio into such a limited space would have been seen as every bit as remarkable as today’s high tech specs.
The Spectra Radio Spectacles look pretty normal head on. The black frame and dark glass lenses are a timeless sunglasses design that has never gone out of fashion. However the Temples – the side parts that go over the ears -- look a bit odd. They’re unusually thick, and each one has a small round knob. Needless to say they's also quite heavy.
The one on the wearer’s left is for on/off and volume and the one on the right is the tuner control. The electronics are split between the two temples. In the left one there’s a two-transistor amplifier, the earphone module that pipes sound to left ear through a transparent tube, and the battery, or rather a single 625A 1.5volt button cell. The right side houses the tuner components. This is back to basics, super-regenerative circuitry, involving just a handful of components, most noticeably a tuning capacitor, a diode, a single transistor and a coil wound around a ferrite rod, which makes up the antenna assembly. In truth it’s little more than a fancy crystal set but sensitive enough to pick up strong medium wave stations in the vicinity. It’s a very tight fit on both sides and it has to be said that the standard of construction is quite average and they look hand assembled. This is in contrast to the rest of the item – the glasses are a quality item – but if the radio fails they suddenly become a lot less interesting, which probably explains why so few of them have survived.
This one came my way via ebay a few months ago at the height of the C19 pandemic. Rare, unusual and novelty radios tend sell quite well so I didn’t think the chances of me grabbing a bargain were very high. Even so I tagged it, more out of curiosity than any expectation. I followed it for a week and was surprised to see it had no bids on the morning the auction was to end. Still anticipating a last minute scramble I entered my £15 bid in the last few seconds and was amazed when it won, unopposed, for the opening price of £6.00.
The seller truthfully described it as being in good cosmetic condition but non-working. After a thorough internal and external wash and brush up, removing the thin layer of corrosion on the battery contacts seemed like a good place to start the repair process. All that achieved was to change its status from totally silent to a very faint click when it was switched on. There were no loose or broken wires so the next step was to use an AF/RF injector and tracer, to find out how far down the line signals managed to progress before they disappeared. It turned out that the amplifier stage was where it all went wrong. The two transistors checked out, which pointed to a pair of electrolytic capacitors as the prime suspects. 1960’s caps are notoriously prone to failure after a couple of decades. Authentic-looking replacements that would fit in the very confined space are hard to find so I replaced them with a couple of tantalum capacitors close the correct value. That did the trick with a loud hiss and couple of stations coming out of the earpiece tube when the tuner knob was turned.
The fact that it still works – admittedly after a few simple repairs -- more than excuses any shortcomings in its performance. Not that there’s much to listen to on the Medium Wave these days. It was then, and still is a genuinely innovative example of micro engineering. It is also worth remembering that transistors had been developed barely 10 years before this radio was built, and the miniature ones it uses had probably only been in production for a year or less when it rolled off the production line.
What Happened To It?
Nothing is known about the Hong Kong manufacturer who made it; like so many other small companies around at that time they either disappeared or were swallowed up by larger concerns, leaving little or no evidence of their existence. This particular model was probably commissioned for a UK company called Dragon Wire Products of Smethwick. They’re mentioned on the box as the sole distributors and along with a Design Reg. Number. This refers to registrations made between March and June 1963, which is reasonable indicator of the date of manufacture. That’s about as far as its online history could be traced; a visit to the Records Office might reveal more. Even less is known about Dragon Wire Products of Smethwick – as always any information is welcome.
This design of radio spectacles appeared to have had the market pretty much to themselves; the only other examples I’ve been able to find from that era clearly came from the same factory but with small variations in branding (Sakura, New Transistor & Ross) colour and styling; there’s also a distinctive ‘cat’s eye’ version for the ‘ladies’. Things go quiet from the late 60s onwards then, at some point in the late 70s or early 80s, radio sun glasses make another appearance, thanks to further advances in miniaturisation and circuit design. They never really go away after that and the next big change occurs in the 1980s with the arrival of stereo FM reception, and newly developed ‘radio-on-a-chip microcircuits. The most recent advances include things like the ill-fated Google Glass, essentially a head mounted smartphone, and countless Bluetooth equipped sunglasses that connect to a wearer’s smartphone. And very impressive they are too; like most modern microchipped widgets they’re cheap, but sadly just a bit soulless.
Vintage radio sunglasses like this Spectra model don’t appear very often on ebay, and when they do the sellers are often in the US where it looks like most of them were sold; I have yet to see one at an antique fair or car boot sale. This either indicates that not many were sold in the UK, or they simply didn’t last very long, which judging by the electronic circuitry seems the more likely explanation. Their apparent scarcity isn’t currently reflected in the prices they sell for, if my admittedly brief monitoring of sales is anything to go by (between £20 and £40 plus the same again for shipping from the US), so if you ever spot a pair in the UK going cheap, you will know what to do…
First Seen: 1963
Original Price: £15.00?
Value Today: £30.00 (0720)
Features: Medium Wave receiver 6-transistor super regenerative tuner, ferrite rod antenna, built-in earphone, rotary tuning and volume on/off
Power req. 1 x 1.5 volt 625A button cell
Dimensions: 145 x 45 x 170mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9
Sony TR-1829 ‘The Tube’ AM Radio, 1968
‘Luxurious wood grain, reminiscent of a fine cigarette lighter, inspired by executive desk accessories’. Hats off to to the Sony PR wonk who came up with that one... As descriptions of small AM radios go, that one’s a corny classic. It belongs to the Sony TR-1829, also variously known as the ‘Tube’, ‘Can’ and ‘Barrel’, for fairly obvious reasons. And because it was made by Sony and with the help of some very clever marketing and, it soon became something of a cult object.
All this happened in the late 1960s. In fact Sony started a bit of a trend amongst Japanese manufacturers with wackily shaped radios. At around the same time they launched the TR-1819 Cube shaped radio with the tag line ‘This cube is not for Squares’. Within a couple of years they were all at it. Panasonic’s Toot-A-Loop and Panapet are good examples. But it was the 1819 and 1829 that set the ball rolling and thanks to Sony’s astute and agile designers the 1829 was swiftly re-launched in a range of bright colours and special editions, to appeal to a much younger audience and steer it away from the original fusty ‘executive desk accessory’ image.
Of course it is all mostly window dressing and inside the tubular case there’s a fairly ordinary 6 transistor AM Medium wave only receiver. In fairness the build quality of the circuit board and case is a cut above the vast majority a small radios coming out of the Far East at that time. There are a few very neat design touches, though. The most prominent one is the large tuning dial on the top; a small window in the turned aluminium band shows the frequency. It looks and feels like a class product. It’s all very smart but where’s the speaker? This is another eye, or rather ear-catching feature. The speaker is mounted in the base of the tube, effectively projecting the sound downwards. This only makes sense when you see the radial vanes on the underside, allowing the sound to escape in all directions.
Power comes from three AA cells that clip into a holder; this fits into the base of the tube and is held in place by a simple bayonet twist-and-pull arrangement. The volume thumbwheel sits just below the tuning window and that really is all there is to it. There are no earphone or external power sockets, in fact nothing to spoil those sleek minimalist lines.
This one has been in my collection for a year or so. It was a boot sale find and as far as I can remember it cost me £3.00. It had been quite well looked after though the fake ‘wood grain’ finish is a little faint in places, especially around the area of the volume control and tuning window. Apart from that it was in pretty good shape, though as the stallholder pointed out, it didn’t work. I wasn’t too surprised as at the time as I spotted that one of the battery contacts was a bit crusty and guessed it wouldn’t take long to fix. As it turned out that wasn’t the only fault and it soon became clear that a previous owner had been tinkering. I spotted the problem as I was about to take it apart. The battery holder and speaker module is connected to the PCB by three wires, red, black and white and all of them were all soldered to contacts on the battery holder. Inside the speaker compartment all was revealed and only wire was connected to it. Whoever carried out the bodged repair must have seen the loose white wire and assumed it was a battery connection. Luckily the mistake hadn't done any damage and reattaching the wire to the other speaker terminal produced an instant hiss. A quick twiddle of the tuning knob confirmed it was working properly.
The downward facing speaker has only a marginal effect on the volume, there’s plenty to spare, but it doesn’t do much for sound quality, not that it makes much difference on Medium Wave broadcasts. The volume knob was a bit crackly but nothing a squirt of contact cleaner couldn’t sort out. Other than a quick cleanup, inside and out it was good to go and now looks quite presentable.
What Happened To It?
The TR-1829 was in production between 1968 and 1971 and by all accounts sold very well. As we know Sony stayed the course and over the years has crafted a more up-market image. The few battery-powered radios in its current range are best described as worthy but dull little black boxes. Back in the day Sony had its serious side, but there was a fun and funky element too,. These days you would be hard pressed to find much evidence of it outside of the games division.
Vintage Sony products can command a hefty premium, especially iconic and cutting edge ones, like its first transistor radio, the TR55 launched in 1955, the Walkman in 1979, the Aibo robotic dog from 1988, the CM-H333 ‘Mars Bar’ phone in 1993, to name just a few. The TRs 1819 and 1829 aren’t in that league, at least not yet, but they are quite collectible and steadily increasing in price. There’s often one or two on ebay priced at between £40 and £50, though the cheaper ones they tend to be either in fairly poor condition or sold as non-working, for spares and repairs. A pristine example with its original box and paperwork can cost upwards of £80.00. Colour is also a factor; if you can find them a complete set of white, yellow, orange, wood grain and the super-rare leather covered and brushed aluminium special edition versions could be worth a very tidy sum.
First Seen: 1968
Original Price: £20.00
Value Today: £45.00 (0720)
Features: Medium Wave receiver 6-transistor superhetrodyne tuner, 55mm speaker, ferrite rod antenna
Power req. 3 x 1.5 volt AA cells
Dimensions: 125 x 78mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Perdio Strand PC44 MW/LW Radio, 1963
From the mid 1950s onwards Japan and Hong Kong led the way with small, cheap portable radios using the (then) newly introduced transistors. British radio makers tended to be somewhat slow to make the transition from valves and fully embrace the transistor; even when they did the radios they made still managed to look like something out of the ark. No doubt this was to avoid scaring the notoriously conservative British public. There were exceptions, though, and one company, formed in the mid 1950s, bucked the trend by making only transistor radios from day one. Perdio was their name and the Strand PC44 is the subject of this edition of dustygizmos. It was one of their later and more refined products, appearing in 1963 and like previous models it was attractively styled and priced to appeal to a younger audience. For a while it was hoped that Perdio’s pioneering attitude would be enough to give Far Eastern manufacturers a run for their money… We’ll see how that worked out in a moment.
On the face of it the Strand PC44 seems to be a relatively ordinary two-band (Medium & Long Wave) receiver but it does have a few novel features. The first one is on the top and it’s the ingenious carry handle. It’s mounted on a clever curved hinge and when stowed away it merges invisibly into the rear of the case. On the side there’s a pair of sockets for an external antenna. That’s not unusual, I hear you say, but this one is different. The sockets are designed for use with an optional accessory mounting and rooftop aerial kit, to allow the radio to be used in a car. Remember, back then car radios were still a rare and expensive aftermarket accessory. It has a moving pointer tuning scale, again not uncommon on sixties radios, but rarely seen on inexpensive British made portables. Then there’s the case design; the smooth clean and uncluttered lines – very sixties in style -- the absence of fake leather and wood and big clunky controls combine to make this a very un-British looking radio.
Inside, apart from the surprisingly densely packed circuit board, it’s business as usual with a 7-transistor superhetrodyne receiver. The busy PCB isn’t due to any particular circuit complexities but the size of the components. The tuning coils, capacitors and resistors, the majority of them British made, are at least twice as big as anything you would have found in a typical sixties Far Eastern transistor portable. The rotary wave-change switch and tuning capacitor are getting on for three or four bigger than their Japanese counterparts and the transistors rise high above the board on long insulated legs, further cluttering the layout. One slightly worrying sight is a pair of copper heat sinks on the audio output transistors, suggesting they are being pushed to close to their safe working limits. Reliability was always an issue with early Perdio radios, though in their favour they had a well-deserved reputation for no-quibble return and repair. The overall standard of construction and quality of materials is actually quite good; even the drive mechanism for the tuning pointer – a very common cause of failure – looks like it was built to last.
For once I really did stumble across this little radio; it had been left in the street and since it was refuse collection day, safe to assume that it had been thrown out with the rubbish. It looked pretty miserable and it had rained the previous night, so I wasn’t expecting too much from this unexpected find but knowing that Perdio was an old brand I reckoned it might have a few salvageable vintage components. It was filthy inside as well but out of curiosity I connected it up to a PP9 battery and quite remarkably it produced a loud hiss, with at least one off tune station in the background. That changed everything and the first job was a complete strip-down. It came apart easily yielding yet more dirt and dust but it was all loose surface stuff and either brushed away or came off using a cleaner spray. It took around an hour to get it looking like it is now, and it’s not half bad, showing very few signs of wear and tear, no cracks or bits missing from the case. In short, it’s now a very presentable little radio. With a good MW signal the sound quality and volume are both okay, and about what you would expect from a vintage radio, though the IF stages could probably do with a tweak.
What Happened To It?
The company was founded in 1955 by ex-RAF pilot and head of a research group at Decca Radar Derek Willmott, and J.D Heslop, a draughtsman and work colleague. By the way, the name Perdio came from personal radio. Derek Willmott had already designed a simple transistor radio by the time the company was formed and together with J. D Heslop and assistance from a local engineering firm they had a working prototype in late 1956. It took additional finance and another year to develop the first production radio, the PR1, which went on sale in the summer of 1957. Sales were slow and it proved to be somewhat unreliable but they soldiered on. Most of the glitches were sorted out on their next model, the Super 7, which launched in 1959 and such was its success that the company moved to a new factory in order to meet the demand. The company went from strength to strength in the early 1960s, opening new factories, developing an innovative all-transistor portable TV (the Portorama) in 1961 and becoming a public limited company in 1962. However, the flood of cheap transistor radios from Japan and Hong Kong was beginning to bite. Shortages of vital components needed to develop 625-line TVs, plunging profits, impending changes to retail taxes and mounting debts all took their toll and by 1965 the company went bankrupt and into liquidation.
The Perdio name lived on for a while, on a few rather boring radios and tape recorders made in the Far East, but a few of the original British made radios have survived and they are of interest to collectors. Prices can appear to be quite modest, however, but be careful, condition and working order can be very variable. The Portorama TV has become a sought after collectable, though, and working examples are very rare indeed, with prices to match. The Strand model featured here also seems to be quite rare. I have yet to find another one on ebay, past or present, so valuation is difficult however, in view of its condition and good working order I’ll take a stab in the dark and price it at an optimistic £20.00, and amend it if and when any others appear.
First Seen: 1963
Original Price: £5 guineas?
Value Today: £20.00 (0620)
Features: Medium & Long Wave receiver 7-transistor (3 x AF117, 3 x OC81, 1 x OC71) Superhetrodyne tuner, moving pointer tuner scale, external earphone & car antenna sockets, 70mm speaker, ferrite rod antenna, 0.35w audio output, folding carry handle
Power req. PP9 9-volt battery
Dimensions: 206 x 125 x 61mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
This story begins at 7am on Saturday the 30th of September 1967, the launch date of Radio 1, Britain’s first national ‘pop’ music station. It broadcast on a frequency of 1215Mhz (247 metres) on the Medium waveband and was the BBC’s dull but government approved response to the huge success of the illicit Pirate radio stations. These had been transmitting from anchored ships and abandoned wartime forts in the North and Irish seas and English Channel, mostly just outside of British territorial limits. The arrival of Radio 1 and stricter legislation eventually saw off the pirates and popular music radio settled into a safe, predictable and boringly uncontroversial routine.
Radio 1’s next most notable anniversary occurred 20 years later, on exactly the same day in 1987, with the launch of the station’s FM service. It was accompanied by a suitable amount of fanfare and razzmatazz plus the inevitable mountains of tacky merchandise. It included this novelty Radio 1 FM ‘Number One’ radio. Initially they were mostly given away as promotional items, at Radio 1 Roadshows or as competition prizes and by several other organisations, including, for some obscure reason, the Midland Bank. A fair number were also sold, though anyone buying one may have regretted their purchase, especially if they hoped to listen to anything other than Radio One on the FM band. VHF coverage had been deliberately limited to Radio 1’s primary frequencies, though there was just enough leeway on the tuning to catch a few other stations. Fortunately it is more than just an eye catchingly shaped one-trick pony, it has AM as well, with more or less full coverage of the Medium Wave band.
The radio is based around one of the first and most successful ‘single chip radios’, the TDA 1083, which first appeared in 1976. Basically it is a microchip containing almost all of the analogue circuitry needed to process AM and FM signals, along with a small audio amplifier, to drive the internal speaker. It needs a few extra components, though, to turn it into a functioning radio. These include a handful of coils and capacitors and a ferrite antenna, which are simply too big to fit into the confines of a microchip, plus the necessary ancillaries like the tuning capacitor, volume control, on/off and band switches, earphone socket, telescopic antenna and loudspeaker.
Although there are no visible maker’s marks on the case the Number One was probably made in Hong Kong or possibly China. There are a few give-aways that generally rule out Japanese manufacture, like the untidy wiring, great dollops of wax on and around the ferrite antenna and RF circuitry (to improve stability) and a crudely hand assembled printed circuit board. The most noticeable feature, though, is the number ‘1’ shape of the case. It is possible this was inspired by another now iconic promo item, the very collectable Isis 20-2 and CKSW 570 or ‘Radio Radio’, which first appeared in the early 1970s. If the name and model number is unfamiliar you’ll almost certainly recognise it as the radio in a case in the shape of the word RADIO. (Incidentally, Isis was a Hong Kong based company and it’s not inconceivable that they also made the Number One, though until someone tells me different this is pure conjecture).
This Number One came from ebay a while back and as far as I recall it cost around £5.00, due to its non-functional state. When I first opened it up it looked a lot worse than the auction photo, close to a basket case in fact, so it went straight into the To-Do box. The most obvious problem was severe damage to the battery compartment and speaker from leaked AA cells. It was just too depressing to work on but several months later, with time on my hands thanks to the recent (or current if you are reading this in Spring 2020) C 19 pandemic lockdown, prompted me to have another look at it.
Outwardly it was quite presentable but the mess inside the case meant the first job on the list had to be a thorough clean up. To do this properly it was completely stripped down. As it turned out it wasn’t as bad as I feared and the brown gunk in and around the battery compartment came off following a short soak in warm white vinegar. Crusty deposits on the speaker scraped off and although the wiring was in a very bad shape, it was easy enough to figure out where the loose and broken cables went. To be on the safe side every wire was replaced, along with the badly damaged earphone socket and legless LED power indicator. The printed circuit board had escaped virtually unscathed. At first glance it looked like parts of it had been eaten away by a white and brown coating over much of the underside. This may have originated from chemical reactions on the battery contacts. If it had been corrosive it never got past the previously mentioned wax coating, which also protected the component wires and copper traces. It was easily removed with some isopropyl alcohol and a soft brush. The battery contacts were beyond repair; I have a good assortment of new ones on hand for just such eventualities. The earphone socket also had to be replaced but again, it’s a readily available part.
Once everything was wired up, and contact cleaner applied to the slider volume control and switches, it was time to power it up. It was an encouraging start, just a whisper of hiss from the speaker at maximum volume and if I held the speaker up to my ear I could just about hear stations come and go as the tuning knob was turned. This indicated that the RF circuitry in and around the chip was okay but there was a clearly a problem with the audio output. The amplifier is in the chip and as it is unusual for one part of a chip to fail I started at the other end with the speaker. This checked out and the next component in line was a 220uF electrolytic capacitor. It read open circuit on the multimeter and a couple of minutes later, with a new cap in place it sparked up with loud hiss, and several very tinny-sounding stations on both wavebands when the tuner knob was twiddled.
What Happened To It?
Radio 1 is still with us, though its monopoly on broadcasting popular music to young persons has long since been diluted by countless rival stations. Novelty radios are still coming out of the woodwork so no change there either. What has happened, though, is vintage promotional items, like this little radio, have become quite collectable, though it has to be said, some more than others… Also pictured (see above) is another BBC give-away radio. This one, dating from 1994 promotes Radio 5 Live and it’s even more constrained than the Number One with fixed frequency station selection and only a very basic fine-tune option.
The Number One is a middle ranking example of the breed. You would be lucky to find one in good condition for less than £25.00 and I have seen them priced -- rather optimistically -- as high as £80.00. In its now clean and restored condition this one might fetch somewhere between £20.00 and £25.00. You could probably double that for one in mint condition, working properly with its original paperwork and packaging so don’t pass up the chance to get your hands on a Number One if you ever spot a bargain, and if you don’t hear anything when you pop in the batteries, don’t forget to check that speaker capacitor.
First Seen: 1987
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £25.00 (0420)
Features: AM/FM TDA 1083 based receiver, narrow band FM reception, 40mm speaker, telescopic antenna, earphone socket, slide switches for power on/off and band selection, LED power indicator
Power req: 3 x 1.5 volt AA cells
Dimensions: 160 x 88 x 35mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong?
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Clarke & Smith 1069 AM/FM School Radio, 1979
It’s a big, heavy, ugly AM/FM radio, built like a brick outhouse, with more input and output sockets than you can shake a stick. In other words not the sort of thing most people would give houseroom to – even back in the stylishly challenged 70s and 80s. That’s just as well as it was never designed to fit in with domestic décor. If you haven’t already worked it out from the title, the Clarke & Smith 1069 is one of those oddball examples of everyday technology, designed specifically for institutional users, in this case schools and colleges.
Inside the huge and mostly air-filled wooden box lurks a relatively ordinary AM/FM radio. There are few frills, unless you count the five coloured sliding station pointers on the front of the tuning scale. Though, to be fair there are some extra sockets that you rarely, if ever, find on ordinary radios. The 1069 can double up as a PA by plugging in a microphone or an amplifier for a record deck or ‘gram’ as the makers quaintly call it. There is also a front panel jack for a line-level input and around the back, another for an external speaker (with or without a 100 or 70-volt bias).
The incongruous, not to say unappealing design is not as you might think due to the manufacturer’s lack of aesthetic savvy; quite the opposite. It is very deliberate, firstly as an exercise of form following function. It’s big and sturdily built because it is expected to have to endure a lot of harsh treatment and careless handling in classrooms and whilst being transported to and from store cupboards. There’s no need for it to be small and pleasing to look at either. In fact, being downright hideous is a positive advantage. No thief in their right mind would bother pinching one of these. apart from it’s not inconsiderable bulk and weight, it would have been be nigh-on impossible to flog to anyone with an ounce of taste. Things have changed, though, and the current fad for all things retro and eighties styling means there is now a market for odd-looking lumps like this.
It was entirely British designed and built (Clark & Smith hail from Wallington in Surrey – more on them in a moment) and at the time this one was made C&S were one of the last surviving radio manufacturers in the UK. Technically it was hardly cutting edge. Inside the very well made veneered plywood case – as you can see it polishes up a treat – there are three assemblies. The circuit board on the left is the tuner, mounted on the back of the tuning mechanism. It’s a traditional vertical moving pointer design, complete with string and pulleys. The tuner is a superhetrodyne type, based around a couple of screened RF/IF modules for the AM and FM bands and radio signals arrive via an internal ferrite rod aerial, and a telescopic antenna on the top of the case. Behind the front panel is the preamp and input selection circuit board, and in front of that, the mains power supply and audio amplifier. Specs for this model have proved highly elusive but judging by the design of the amp it should be capable of pumping out somewhere between 10 and 20 watts into the Fane speaker, and in keeping with the rest of the unit, it is another British (Yorkshire) made item.
Little or nothing is known about how it came to be on sale at a Sussex car boot sale one wet and windy Sunday in December. The seller muttered vaguely about it probably being part of a house clearance but what wasn’t in doubt was the condition – outwardly excellent – and the ambitious opening price of £10, (swiftly whittled down to a fiver). Five pounds is about all I am usually prepared to pay for anything mains powered sold in damp fields. With no means of checking to see if it works it can be a bit of a gamble... Usually I’m fairly lucky though, and often these things either work, or the faults turn out to be easily fixed. This one fell into the latter category, it powered up and made a stab at tuning stations but clearly something was seriously wrong with the sound. It was heavily distorted and my first thought was a ruined speaker. It’s fairly common, especially when the gadget in question has spent time outdoors. Paper diaphragms are highly vulnerable to rats, damp and mould but this one actually turned out to be in really good condition. Attention turned to the amplifier and another common problem. One of the two ‘complimentary pair’ transistors in the output stage was shot. It was swiftly replaced and normal service resumed. The wooden case just needed a wipe over to remove mud splatter and following an application of high quality furniture wax, it looked almost new. Audio performance is pretty good, thanks to the throaty speaker, and loud enough to fill a large room. The tuner works well too and even though FM reception is mono it is fine for the sort of undemanding material it was designed to receive.
What Happened To It?
Major John Clarke and Alec Smith served together in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical (REME) Corps during WW2. After the war they teamed up and started a small business in a makeshift workshop, close to Wallington railway station. They made a modest living repairing radios but things really got going after submitting the winning bid for a tender to supply radio equipment to the local council. C&S began a period of rapid expansion, developing a specialised cartridge-based ‘talking book’ tape recorder for the blind, supplying radio systems to the police, and eventually audio equipment to hospitals, colleges and schools.
In the early 50s C&S moved into a newly built purpose-designed factory. In addition to manufacturing audio equipment for EMI in the early 60s they developed the first British all transistor tape recorder, a Braille computer and in 1972 they acquired the respected British tape recorder manufacturer Vortexion. During the 1980s foreign competition and the impact of digital electronics resulted in falling sales and a slow decline. Following the death of Major Clarke in the mid 90s, the company ceased trading. C&S were not alone though and other British companies in this small and highly specialised market, like Coomber, suffered similar fates.
There is no getting away from it; the 1069 is not a pretty sight. Even though it is a capable enough radio receiver its only real virtues lay in the currently trendy retro 80s styling, strong British heritage and apparent rarity – as far as I can make out only a tiny handful of them ever find their way on ebay. However, because of its size its appeal is limited but in its currently good condition and full working order it might fetch between £30 and £50 on ebay on a good day. That makes it a decent enough return on my initial £5.00 investment, but hardly a major contributor to the retirement fund.
First Seen: 1976
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £30 (0120)
Features: AM/FM superhetrodyne receiver, 180mm elliptical speaker, switchable AFC, external line, phono and mic inputs, aerial input, external speaker output, treble & bass tone controls, telescopic antenna, carry handle
Power req: 220VAC
Dimensions: 309 x 290 x 185mm
Made (assembled) in: England (Wallington, Surrey)
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9
Bang & Olufsen Beolit 609 EXP II, AM Radio 1960
It’s quite an achievement for an early transistor radio, made more than 50 years ago, to have survived intact, in good condition and in full working order, into the second (almost third) decade of the twenty-first century. It also requires a fair amount of good luck, and that’s something this superbly well made Bang & Olufsen 609 EXP11 AM portable radio has in spades. The first half-century was a doddle, though, compared with what happened to it when I got my sticky paws on it…
Following a thorough clean-up, and some minor repairs to contacts in the battery compartment, I hooked it up to my variable DC bench power supply. For me it is standard practice with untested vintage electronic devices that may not have been used for some time. The idea is to slowly increase the supply voltage whilst carefully monitoring current drain. If there are any problems -- short circuits, deformed electrolytic capacitors and so on – swiftly reducing the supply voltage may prevent damage to delicate components further downstream of the fault, such as elderly germanium transistors.
Long story short, at the first power-up attempt the 609 AM was stone dead, but drawing a fairly high current. For some reason I assumed that B&O followed normal conventions by making the metal chassis negative. They hadn’t, and this assumption resulted in some alarming burning smells and took me on a long and fruitless search for a fault that didn’t exist. Eventually, after carefully checking almost every component on the circuit board I got around to the wiring on the battery box. The error was suddenly obvious, I reversed the power supply leads and by some miracle the radio came to life. If ever a radio had come close to using up all of its nine lives, it's this one! What made this rookie mistake even worse was what I found in a tiny envelope glued to the inside of the battery cover. It was a mini service sheet with a set of disassembly instructions and a full circuit diagram, clearly showing the wiring scheme.
Not only did it work, it worked really well. B&O were then, and still are obsessed by design and build quality. On paper the specs do not look especially interesting but there are some hidden gems. It has an AM only tuner (the 609 FM was launched a year later), but in addition to Long and Medium wave coverage it has three Short Wave band. These are the less interesting portions of the band but back in the day it would have been alive with all sorts of weird and unusual transmissions from around the world. It also has a number of genuinely useful features, including one of the smoothest tuner controls in the business. The knob on the top panel is connected to a hefty flywheel and a reduction drive, which really helps with fine-tuning weak and closely packed stations. Sound quality, heard through the chunky 130mm elliptical speaker actually benefits from separate bass and treble tone controls. Waveband selection is via a set of 5 push buttons and the Bass knob incorporates a pull switch for turning the radio on and off (this took me a while to figure out in the absence of an instruction manual…). Two sockets on the left side of the case are for headphones and phono input. The latter was something of a rarity on early transistor radios but it could be handy for hooking up a turntable, using the radio’s amplifier -- only 1 watt, but still plenty loud -- to listen to records with something like half decent sound quality. On the right side there’s another socket for an external antenna – definitely required for serious Short Wave listening. The 7-section telescopic antenna on the top of the case is for picking up stronger and closer SW stations.
Inside the case it’s a minor work of art with a neatly laid out circuit board mounted in a hefty and grossly over-engineered metal chassis. Everything is really easy to get at, not that 609s would have gone wrong very often. If it ever happened I suspect service engineers would have actually enjoyed working on them. Power is supplied by a set of six 1.5-volt D cells; these would probably have lasted for several weeks, or months, even with frequent use. Topping the case is a simple carry handle and there’s an odd little viewing window on the base where you can see the model and serial number label, attached to the base of the chassis.
This 609 was an incredibly lucky find at a regular South coast car boot sale. As is so often the case it was tucked away in a large collection of boxes filled with mostly old junk, almost certainly the last knockings of a house clearance. Luckily for me it was grubby enough to deter casual buyers. The tiny B&O logo caught my eye, though – almost everything made by them is worth close inspection – and the stallholder shouting that ‘everything is a quid’, settled the matter. The usual coating of mud and ancient grime came away easily and it was clear straight away that it had been well looked after, or stored away for most of its long life. There were signs of light battery leakage in the holder but it had been quickly cleaned up and the only damage was to a pair of rivets that held the battery contacts. Two small screws were all that was needed to fix them back firmly in place. Once the sorry saga of the reversed power supply had been resolved the only other things that required attention were some sticky contacts on the wave selector buttons and a little light lubrication for the tuning mechanism.
What Happened To It?
There’s a potted history of Bang and Olufsen elsewhere in dustygizmos, but the basic facts are these. B&O are still with us and have been in the business of manufacturing high quality, high-end AV equipment for consumer, industrial and military applications since the mid 1920s. Radios like this 609 belong to one of the company’s most productive and innovative periods, lasting from the late 50s to the early 70s, and items from that era are popular with collectors. It’s definitely worth a fair bit more than the pound I paid for it. Recent examples spotted on ebay have sold for between £70 and £150, and that was for later 609 FM modes. This one could fetch something north of £80, maybe more on a good day if a couple of collectors got into a tussle. B&O equipment is always popular, though, and some rare items can sell for staggering amounts. That even includes some of their more outlandish products that at the time may have received less than enthusiastic reviews. Take it as read that almost anything made by B&O can be worth a punt, if the price is right, and don’t be put off by cheap basket cases and fixer-uppers. Even if you can’t get it going B&O enthusiasts are prepared to pay good money for hard to come by parts.
DUSTY DATA (Service Sheet)
First Seen: 1960
Original Price: £38.00
Value Today: £80.00 (1019)
Features: 5 band AM receiver (LW, MW, 3 x SW, 140 – 340kHz, 500 – 1550kHz, 2.5 – 7 MHz, 6.5 – 12.5MHz 11.5 – 22.5MHz), 7-transistor superhetrodyne tuner, slow motion flywheel governed tuning, 130mm elliptical speaker, 1 watt audio output, 7 section telescopic antenna, ext. antenna socket, phono input, headphone output, bass & treble controls, carry handle
Power req. 6 x 1.5 volt D cells
Dimensions: 30 x 20 x 10mm
Made (assembled) in: Denmark
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Bush TR 82C MW/LW Transistor Radio, 1962
Spot the difference? The radios opposite are both Bush TR82 portables but you may have noticed that the one on the left sports a telescopic antenna. However, the real difference between them is that the one on the right was made almost 60 years before the other, yet they look almost identical. If fact the case design first appeared in 1957, on a valve portable radio (Bush MB60), but the point is, the TR 82 is an instantly recognisable British classic from the very *earliest days of transistor radios.
Over the years the basic TR 82 design has been mercilessly cloned and copied, at home and abroad; you can even get TR82 ‘inspired’ biscuit tins and lunch boxes, should you be so inclined. More worryingly modern repros, fakes and knock-offs are frequently sold at antique markets and fairs and online as the genuine article so beware. Fortunately there are several really easy ways to tell new from old. Just pick one up; with a PP9 battery on board it weighs a little over 3kg so it’s quite a lump. Better still take a look at the top panel. An original TR 82 has just two waveband selector buttons, for Medium and Long wave. There is one notable exception, though, and we’ll come to that in a moment. The reason there’s only two waveband buttons is because the original TR 82 came out several years before the start of regular VHF/FM broadcasts, which also explains the lack of a telescopic aerial. You won’t see an earphone jack socket on the top panel either (it’s on the side on the original) and around the back there is no socket for a mains lead as vintage models were battery only operation.
The one shown here is the TR 82C variant. It is the Mk1 model with OC type germanium transistors. This example was probably made fairly late in the production run if the date stamp of August 1962 on one of the electrolytic capacitors is to be believed (it may be a replacement). But the many detailed articles on the web and in books and magazines largely agree that the Mk 1 lasted until 1964; the Mk 2 successor used AF type transistors. Oddly enough these weren’t an improvement; they turned out to be less reliable and consequently less desirable to serious collectors. If you want to get really nerdy about it, keep a sharp eye out for the super rare TR 82CL model. This is the exception to the two-wave selector button rule. It had a third button, marked 208, for receiving Radio Luxembourg on 208 metres, on the Medium Waveband.
Time to take a look inside and the first thing you’ll see or rather won’t see, is a printed circuit board. It’s a throwback to the days of valve radio with all of the components soldered directly to insulated pins fixed to the metal chassis. There’s another pointer to its valve-based heritage with ventilation slots on the front and base panels covered up by black tape, as they were no longer needed.
You can see three of the seven transistors in a row at the bottom of the photo, They're the three-legged jobbies between the intermediate frequency (IF) square tuning coil cans. Three more transistors for the audio frequency (AF) stage are mounted in metal heat sinks close to the two transformers on the right side and there’s one more, this time on the far right side, in the radio frequency (RF) stage, next to the tuning capacitor. By the way, the tuning dial on the front is connected to the tuning cap via a slow motion drive, which helped a lot back in the day when the Medium and Long wave bands were packed with British and European stations. In contrast the waveband selector switch is a simple design with the two buttons attached to a crank that works a 2-position rotary switch. The 120mm speaker is another small blast from the past with modern connotations. It’s made by Celestion who are still with us, and still making high-quality speakers.
I found this one at a local car boot sale; it appeared to be in good condition and ‘right’ in terms of age as it was a Medium and Long wave only receiver. It wasn’t until I did some research that I picked up the rest of the vintage tell tales. It may be that the stallholder wasn’t aware of its true age or value as he was only asking £5.00 for it on the basis that it wasn’t working. Five pounds seemed like a fair price considering its outward appearance and if indeed it was a sixties design I knew there was a fair chance that it could be fixed, or at worst, worth at least a fiver in salvageable parts.
Connecting a bench power supply to the battery clips confirmed that it was indeed dead, but whilst removing the crocodile clips there was a promising crackle from the speaker. Waggling the clips brought it to life. The clips were coated in some sort of waxy gunk. It wasn’t battery leakage or corrosion and it wiped off easily with a rag. In short there was absolutely nothing wrong with it, apart from some easily fixable crackles from the volume and tone controls. The speaker has a really mellow tone, with lots of bass; it’s just a shame there’s not much to listen to on the MW and LW bands these days, even so it is still a very useable radio, and with a surprisingly long battery life
What Happened To It?
In spirit at least the TR 82 lives on. It never really went away thanks to frequent retro revivals and prolific Japanese and Chinese imitators. Responsibility for the original design lies with David Ogle. He joined Bush Radio in 1948, having previously worked for Murphy Radio. After his stint with Bush he went on to found Ogle Design and bigger and better things. Amongst his most noted creations are the Ogle SX100 and Reliant Scimitar sports cars. Sadly Ogle died in 1962, in a road crash in one of his own cars.
Bush Radio is still with us, though in brand name only. Nowadays it’s owned by Sainsburys, which is not quite as mad as it sounds, Sainsbury’s also own the catalogue store chain Argos, which uses Bush and Alba as house brands for budget, Chinese made home entertainment products. Bush goes back a long way, though and was founded in 1932 and from then until the early sixties was a well known maker of pretty decent radios and TVs. Over the years it has merged with and been taken over several times by the likes of Murphy, Rank, Harvard and more recently The Home Retail Group (owned by Homebase, who at the time also owned Argos, before the Sainsbury’s takeover). But enough of that; the important thing is the Bush name still appears on TR 82 radios, which also includes models with DAB tuners, so it looks like it might be around for a while yet.
There’s no getting away from it though, if you are serious about collecting very early transistor radios then only an original Mk 1 or 2 will do, and thanks to the quality of the materials and how they were built quite a few of them have survived. It’s important to know what you are buying, though. Be sure to look for C (or CL) in the model number. However, be careful with B & D designations as they have also used on much later versions. Telescopic antennas, VHF buttons and mains connector indicators are all fairly reliable indicators of post eighties manufacture. Oddly enough the real thing isn’t that expensive, and sometimes cheaper than modern copies. If you want to own a little piece of history that’s always going to look trendy then you should be able to find one in good working order on ebay for between £25 and £50, half that for a fixer-upper. If you do go down that route just make sure you known your way around a multimeter and which end of a soldering iron to hold...
* By the way:
The very first commercial all-transistor radio was the US made Regency TR-1, which launched in 1954. The first British transistor radio appeared a couple of years later, in 1956. The Pam 710** was huge – compared with the pocket-sized TR1 -- and was designed and manufactured by Pye of Cambridge, who used the Pam brand name as a precaution, in case the traditionally conservative radio-buying public didn’t take to the new-fangled transistors…
** And another thing…
My thanks to Duncan Longman for an interesting snippet about the PAM 10, which was actually made by Pye. However, they chose not to use their name on the radio. This was due to concerns that the (then) new fangled transistors might not work out and harm Pye’s reputation, following an unsuccessful involvement with a valve-based memory device called a Selectron.
First Seen: 1959
Original Price: £22. 11s. 6d (plus purchase tax)
Value Today: £40.00 (0919)
Features: 3-stage superhetrodyne receiver, 7 transistors (& 1 diode), two-band operation (Medium and Long Wave). 120mm speaker, headphone and external aerial sockets, ferrite antenna, carry handle
Power req. 1 x PP9 9volt battery
Dimensions: 330 x 235 x 90mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Persuading gullible and simple minded consumers to splash out on products simply because they sport a currently trendy brand name or label when near identical products are available at a lower price is a marketing ploy that’s as old as the hills. Cheaper versions are often made by the same company on the same production line using the same components, with just a few minor cosmetic changes, and a less well-known name. But why do it when presumably a manufacturer could make more money just flogging the dearer product? Well, in the case of this 1960s vintage Stella ST415T 2-band transistor radio it was to maintain the impression that the Dutch company Philips was a prestige brand and keep its network of approved dealers happy by supplying Philips made, but differently-branded products to the hoi-polloi through wholesalers and chain stores.
Apart from a slightly more rounded case and faired-in handle mountings the ST415T is virtually identical in all the ways that really matter to its Philips cousins. Other variants also came with Pye and Cossor badges, both companies being Philips sub-brands. The Stella brand has a slightly obscure history, which we’ll look at in a moment, but first a quick run-down of the ST415T’s notable features. Don’t worry it doesn’t take long. Remember, this mid-sized portable radio dates from the early sixties; transistors had only been around – in consumer products – for a few years, and wireless broadcasting was still mostly confined to the Medium and Long Wave bands. In fact the only thing that’s a little unusual on a small portable transistor radio is the tuning dial. It’s more sophisticated than it looks as it incorporates a very smooth slow-motion drive, as an aid for precise tuning. The Medium and Long wave bands were a lot more crowded in the olden days. As well as the mainstay BBC stations (Light Programme, Third Programme and Home Service – later to become Radio’s 2, 3 and 4) also listed on the Medium Wave portion of the dial are stations from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as Hilversum, in Holland, Rennes in France, Luxembourg, Paris and Brussels; doubtless there would be more if there were any room left.
The other controls are limited to an on/off volume thumbwheel and a pair of push buttons to select the waveband. On the left side of the case there’s a minijack socket for an earphone or headphones and on the right side, a socket for an external aerial. It runs on a 9-volt PP7 battery thats fit into a small recess inside the case on the right hand side. Access to the battery is via a removable back panel, held in place by two captive screws. The single circuit board, which occupies a little over half the width of the case, is a fairly routine 6–transistor superhet tuner and push-pull amplifier. A ferrite antenna is attached to the board and lives at the top of the case. The transistors are early AF and OC series Germanium types and remarkably they all survived intact.
It was a boot sale find and by the looks of it, part of a house clearance. Although it appeared to be in quite good condition, just a little grubby, the nondescript looks and unfamiliar brand name probably contributed to the modest asking price of just £2.00. As you can see it scrubbed up well and sprang into life when coupled up to a bench power supply. The only things that needed attention were the scratchy volume control and intermittent band switch. Both responded well to a few squirts of contact cleaner spray. The large speaker produces a warm sound, certainly every bit as good as the Medium Wave allows and there’s volume to spare.
What Happened To It?
Legend has it the Stella name was derived from the Philips logo, which featured a number of small stars but it appears that the company predates Philips by several decades. Stella Television and Radio Co. Ltd’s story is a tad convoluted and there’s relatively little to go on but it appears to have been founded in the 1930s as Stella Works. Its first products included headphones and speakers. The origin of the name is a mystery but the early advertising shows a woman’s face, presumably called Stella, and a star emblem. Stella eventually switched to marketing Philips products under its own brand name in the early 50s. They later acquired the company, going to some trouble to preserve Stella’s British identity, and distance it from its Dutch parent company. In the ST415T’s instructions Stella’s address is shown as Astra House, 121-3 Shaftsbury Avenue, London WC2, and that it was also the sole UK Concessionaires for Ajax Domestic Appliance Co Ltd. Unfortunately the brand didn’t survive very long under Philips’s ownership and it was liquidated just a few years later, in 1966.
Both the ST415 and its Philips-branded counterparts appear only occasionally on ebay which may suggest that that this model wasn’t especially popular. At the time the market was being flooded by cheap pocket-sized portable from Hong Kong and Japan, which proved very popular with youngsters. Slightly larger and more expensive portables like this one were targeted a more mature audience but being made of rather brightly coloured plastic it wouldn’t have stacked up well against larger, more traditional and respectable-looking table top radios from the likes of Roberts and Hacker. As for value, all I can say for sure is that ‘s worth a bit more than two quid, but probably not much more, thanks to the brands relative obscurity and lack of any really distinctive features. Nevertheless, the design is unusually clean and unfussy for a radio from that era, almost contemporary in fact, and given the current fondness for 60s tech it might fetch £20 or more on ebay, on a good day, with the wind in the right direction…
First Seen: 1960 (Manual)
Original Price: £10.00
Value Today: £20.00 (0819)
Features: 2 waveband (MW & LW), superhetrodyne tuner, 100mm speaker, slow motion tuning dial, earphone & external aerial sockets, push-button waveband selector
Power req. 9-volt PP7 battery
Dimensions: 240 x 150 x 66mm
Made (assembled) in: Belgium?
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Rene Mayer Headphones? 1940?
The next time you’re at a loose end strolling down your local high street – assuming you can find one -- try counting headphones. Yes, they’re everywhere. Almost everyone is wearing them; you can even buy them in shops (remember those?) that have nothing whatsoever to do with audio technology. How long before someone starts flogging designer headphones for dogs? On second thoughts it’s probably been done… Anyway, at a very rough guess there must be several thousand different makes and models available, costing between £1 and £100,000 plus (if you want the optional diamonds and gold trimmings).
Once again it’s dustygizmos solemn duty to point out that there is nothing new under the sun. We are almost certainly living through the third age of the headphone, and as before they’re still being flogged with the same sort wildly optimist performance claims and eye-watering prices.
The first outing for headphones, as a consumer product, was in the 1920s, in the early days of broadcast radio. Headphones were a necessity back then. Most early radio receivers were crystal sets, which lacked amplification. Only valve radios could drive loudspeakers but the first ones were alarmingly expensive and a rich kids only product. Hundreds of companies sprang up to manufacture headphones for the masses and meet the huge demands of the rapidly expanding market. This first boom lasted well in the 1940s by which time the cost of valve radios had fallen to the point where almost everyone could afford one.
Headphones had a big resurgence in the 70s and 80s, initially as home hi-fi accessories but the big breakthrough followed the arrival of the Sony Walkman personal stereo in 1979. It wasn’t the actual Walkman cassette player that started the ball rolling – similarly sized devices had been around for years, it was a combination of clever marketing and the genuinely revolutionary MDR-3 headphones that came with it. Thanks to the use of powerful rare earth magnets and lightweight mylar diaphragms they out-performed headphones several times their size and weight. Headphones became fashionable once again around ten years ago, again thanks to a mixture of crafty marketing, big name brands and technological developments, like wireless connectivity.
The Rene Mayer (probably) headphones featured in this episode of dustygizmos, almost certainly hark from one of the earlier periods of the headphone’s long history, but their exact age, like almost everything else about them, is something of a mystery.
The only indisputable facts are these. They are high impedance types (4k ohms), which marks them out as being designed to work with crystal radio receivers. They have a well-made leather headband, a snazzy cotton covered cable terminated in two ‘bullet’ type plugs and the earpads are made from what looks a lot like vulcanised rubber. There are no markings anywhere on the body of the ‘phones’ but on the inside of the removable earpads there are small round stamps bearing the name ‘Rene Mayer Paris’. Of course, this could be he name of the company that made the earpads. For a while I thought they may have come from made a company called British Thomson-Hudson or BTH, but this was short-lived and based solely on the box that that they came in. BTH, a large engineering concern did indeed make speakers and headphones but these bear little resemblance to the ones shown on the box, or any other BTH phones I could find on the web. My best guess as to the date is somewhere between the mid 30s to the early 50s and that is largely due to the design, which appears to be noticeably more refined than the earliest types, the materials, which are also typical of the pre and post WW2 era. As always I urge anyone who knows about such things on to get in touch (mail@dustygizmos) and put me right.
It was the interesting looking BTH box that first caught my eye at a local antique market and prompted me to see what was inside. There I found the headphones and an old friend, an Ivalek crystal radio. At first glance it looked like a complete outfit but on closer examination it was clear that the three items had been packaged by the seller to make it look like they belonged together. It was the Ivalek radio that made me ask how much? They are quite rare, especially in such good condition and this one was the earlier type, with a manually adjustable ‘tickle’ crystal. After a little good-humoured haggling £20 changed hands.
The box and its contents had all been well cared for and only needed some light dusting and a polish. Everything worked as well, though the headphone’s rubber earpads had lost their flexibility and become quite hard over the years. There may be some means of restoring them and it’s something I will look into when I get a spare moment. Otherwise they are sturdily made and the only slight niggle is the lack of any adjustment. Fortunately for me I seem to have what the manufacturers clearly decided was a standard sized head so they’re actually quite comfy. Sound quality isn’t an issue on headphones of this era; suffice it to say they’re fairly loud and okay for speech.
What Happened To It?
Without knowing anything about the manufacturer, or even if they were manufactured by Rene Mayer in Paris makes it difficult to say when they were made, whether they were the first, last only headphones made by the company, how much they originally cost and so on. So, if anyone can fill in the gaps I would be very pleased to hear from you. There are several accounts of the history of headphones on the web, though most are quite short and weirdly similar… They generally agree that the first ones appeared in 1881 and were developed for telephone operators but rather than regurgitate a rather thin narrative if you want to know more, you know where to look.
Headphones are collectible and they cover a
wide range of interests, from collecting early radios, militaria, telephony and
hi-fi. There are some high prices too, especially for what are regarded as
audiophile classics from the 80s and 90s. So far Rene Meyer -- if that’s what
they are -- have had no impact on the market or the web, as far as I can see,
which either makes them extremely rare or grossly mis-identified. Either way I
doubt very much that they are worth much more than £20 - £25. On the other hand
they do work and are perfectly matched for use with crystal radios. Since there
are no modern equivalents that adds to their appeal, especially when paired
with something like the little Ivalek radio. Collecting headphones is a specialist
area but not that difficult to get into. Simply following the comings and
goings on ebay, using the search keywords ‘vintage headphones’ will give you a
good insight into what’s selling, and what the big money is being spent on.
First Seen: 1950?
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £25.00 (0719)
Features: High impedance (4k ohm) magnetic headphones, metal diaphragm, vulcanised rubber ear cups, leather padded spring headband, cotton covered cable
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 70 x 35mm (each ‘phone’ module)
Made (assembled) in: France
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Sony ST-80F AM/FM Tuner, 1969
If you think Apple have been clever in the way they’ve developed and marketed their products, they are mere amateurs compared with what Sony got up to in their heyday, from the early seventies until the late nineties. Like Apple today, Sony’s creativity wasn’t just confined to their products; they also had some really memorable advertising campaigns. Take the one (see below), with the somewhat wordy strapline: ‘It’s a good thing people don’t buy cars the way they buy Hi-Fi’. Not especially catchy, but combined with that wacky image it definitely made you look. However, like so many ads – more so these days -- it takes a while to work out what product is actually being peddled. If you look closer at the smaller photo, in amongst the hi-fi components, you might just spot a Sony ST-80F AM/FM tuner, just like the one featured here.
It’s a shame it is so hard to see in the ad. It was one of the Sony’s most elegant products; it still looks as fresh as a daisy and is arguably as eye-catching as the weird car. The advert must have worked, though. The ST-80F and its companion Hi-Fi components sold by the bucket load, which is even more impressive given that they weren’t cheap, and the performance of the tuner, whilst generally rated as okay, didn’t exactly excite the Hi-Fi reviewers of the day.
The ST-80F was an upgrade of the ST-80, launched a year or so earlier. Outwardly they look the same but the F in the model number denoted the use of newly developed and rather exotic Field Effect Transistors (FETs) in the front end of the tuner, promising improved sensitivity and reduced noise. What really makes it stand out though is on the outside and that large circular tuning dial, with its soft green glow. It is framed by a sleek yet understated brushed aluminium panel, sitting atop a discrete control panel. But it’s not until you turn the tuning knob that you realise where the all money went. Behind the scenes the knob is coupled to a substantial flywheel, which drives a slow, precise and silky smooth pulley mechanism that makes tuning stations a truly tactile treat. There’s also added eye candy in the shape of a small tuning meter. Together they make it look and feel like a precision instrument, rather just another joyless button encrusted black box.
Staying with the innards for a moment longer, build quality is excellent, not to say vastly over-engineered for something that will spend its entire working life sitting on a shelf. There really was no need for all that heavy-duty metalwork, but if nothing else it meant that a fair few of them have survived, which is more than can be said for most of its rivals. The whole ensemble is housed in a simple but elegant wooden, teak veneered case. It smells great too, more so when treated to a wipe over with a good quality furniture wax. Around the back is a bank of screw terminals for external AM and FM aerials, and in a slot at the top of the panel there’s a mysterious black cylinder pokes out, that can be moved from left to right. This turns out to be the tuner’s ferrite rod antenna for AM reception; the adjustment allows the user to align it to the local transmitter for the best reception.
Short story short; I found it at a local car boot sale; the asking price was £15, I offered a tenner and we settled on £11, on the stallholder’s solemn promise that he had it working only the day before. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered but it seemed to be in unusually good condition and even if it didn’t work it looked smart enough to become the base for wacky table lamp (only joking, though such atrocities have occurred!). I needn’t have worried; following a thorough internal clean up and exterior waxing, then a quick mains test, it was powered up and it worked, and worked well. I can appreciate some of the comments in the reviews of the day, though. It is by no means bad, far from it, but it really needs a good rooftop or loft aerial to get the best out of FM reception, especially in a weak signal area. To be fair it should be heard through its companion amplifier, the TA-88, and matching Sony speakers, like SS-5088s. It’s on the to-do list and I ever manage to get my hands on them, at a fair price, I will update this item. Who really cares though? There’s pleasure to be had just twiddling that tuning knob and watching the dial turn – yes, I really do need to get out more often…
What Happened To It?
In the 80s and 90s Sony and many of its rivals updated their product ranges with alarming regularity, in some cases twice a year. But the early seventies were simpler times and the ST-80F probably hung around for 5 years or more. It’s hard to say exactly when the end came but the late seventies saw some seismic changes in home Hi-Fi design and manufacture. The introduction of integrated circuits, digital electronics and fancy displays brought with it a multitude of innovative features and functions, lower prices and the rising popularity of stacking systems, to accommodate new components, like high quality tape and CD decks.
The ST-80F was a product of an earlier, analogue age. It's life-
span was, therefore, limited but by all accounts it was a commercial success. The solidity of the design can be judged now by how many seem to have survived and how often they appear on ebay and specialist dealer’s websites. A decent quality runner will set you back around £30 - £50; expect to pay £80 or more for a well cared for example. On the other hand you will be very lucky to find a matching TA-88 amplifier for less than £100, so keep your eyes peeled for boot sale bargains, they are out there, and this setup is still capable of sounding good, even when compared with flashy modern digital squarkboxes.
First Seen: 1969
Original Price: £80.00
Value Today: £30.00 (0519)
Features: 2-band (AM/FM) stereo superhetrodyne receiver, frequency coverage FM: 87 – 108MHz, AM: 520 – 1605kHz, rotary flywheel-balanced tuning, moveable ferrite antenna, manual/auto AFC, illuminated tuning dial and signal strength meter, line-level stereo output (phono), antenna connections (screw terminals, teak-veneered wooden case
Power req. 240V AC
Dimensions: 225 x 158 x 130mm
Weight: 2.6 kg
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Goodsell Type TC Record Player, 1985
If ever there were to be an award for ugly record players then this Goodsell Type TC would definitely be in the running. To be fair there is a good reason for its complete lack of style or indeed any attempt to make it look appealing. It was designed for the rough and tumble of life in the British education system, with an amplifier that’s powerful enough to fill an average sized hall, and still be heard above the hubbub of a couple of hundred kids, and above all, to be so big, heavy and visually unappealing that it would dissuade anyone from pinching it. In short it’s a classic schools record player, possibly the sort of thing that you listened to or maybe even boogied to in the eighties.
The huge wooden box is mostly empty and meant to protect the three main components inside, namely a BSR P-232R turntable, a mono transistor amplifier, control panel and power supply module, and a single forward facing speaker. The BSR turntable turns out to be an interesting choice. It is not a common model but clearly intended for budget and mid-range home audio systems. Design-wise it is a trimmed down version of a more aspirational ‘transcription quality’ BSR deck with what appears to be a precision gimbal bearing, an adjustable counter weight plus that curvy S-shape tone arm. However it’s mostly fake or window dressing and in reality quite ordinary; definitely nothing special in performance terms, and that’s being kind, judging by some contemporary reviews. Generally speaking BSR turntables did have a reasonably good reputation for reliability, which may explain why it was chosen but whether it was deserved in this case is open to debate. The small handful of Goodsell record players of this type that I have come across all use the classic and highly regarded Garrard SP25 turntable.
Since the designers were going for volume, rather than sparkling hi-fi sound quality, the amplifier is a fairly straightforward mono push-pull design, probably knocking out between 10 and 15 watts into a beefy 160mm elliptical speaker. There are bass and treble controls but with a limited frequency range they have only a marginal effect on what comes out of the speaker. All of the controls are mounted on a metal chassis plate that also holds the amplifier circuit board and mains transformer. Knobs and switches poke out of opening on the right side of the cabinet. The panel also has the mains lead connector, the on/off switch and a quarter-inch jack socket for a microphone (so the amp can used as a PA system). There’s also a gram/mic/aux input selector button and a 6-pin DIN socket for external line input and output connections.
Whilst the case is an utterly charmless and feature-free brown box, it has been well made. The wood is mostly solid (possibly teak), not some cheapo chipboard jobbie, and definitely capable of standing up to the rigours of being constantly on the move and clumsily handled.
I almost didn’t bother when I saw it at a Sussex car boot sale, but curiosity for the better of me and the reasonably clean condition and £2.00 asking price clinched the deal. I reasoned it would be worth that even it was only good for salvaging spares and the wooden parts. The stallholder said that it worked, but it sounded a bit funny, which I took with the normal pinch of salt, fully expecting it to be a dead as a doornail.
But I was wrong and he was an honest man. The turntable turned, and the sound quality, was more dreadful than funny. The first and most obvious problem though was speed stability, or rather the lack of it. Replacing the ancient elastic band where the drive belt should be (yes, an actual elastic band, and way too big), with a proper drive belt made a huge difference. It was still a bit wobbly but a few squirts of spray grease on the platter bearing got it back on track. It still sounded truly terrible, but again that was easily fixed by re-locating the stylus, which had slipped out of its tiny cradle in the pickup cartridge. Now it was firing on all cylinders and all that remained was to introduce the volume and tone pots to a can of switch cleaner and it was not sounding half bad.
What Happened To It? (Updated Feb 2020)
Until fairly recently Goodsell Ltd of Brighton was something of a mystery but thanks to former employee Tim Sargent, a few of the many gaps have been filled in. The company was founded in the late 40s or early 50s by ex-police officerStanley Goodsell. The first products were mostly tuners and amplifiers, based on designs published in Wireless World magazine. Most of what they made, which included cassette players in the 70s and 80s, was designed for use in schools etc., though some of its products also found their way into the consumer market. The company’s eventual fate isn’t clear but based on the probable manufacturing date of the turntable it seems likely that it ceased trading in the mid to late 1980s..
Without much in the way of background or context it’s almost impossible to put an accurate value on this or any other Goodsell products. They are rare and seemingly well made, but that counts for little in the world of vintage audio so the best I can say is that the turntable and amp on this one has to be worth at least £10.00, possibly more to someone looking for spares. I found no mention or suggestion of anyone collecting Goodsell equipment, and apart from a handful of queries about the make and model number of the stylus, the enthusiast forums have very few references. Supplying schools and colleges with audio equipment used to be a specialist business. Nowadays most schools seem to use off the shelf consumer products, which tend to be much cheaper, and whilst they won’t be as durable as things like this Type TC record player, it still works out cheaper in these throwaway times. Sadly, as a domestic record player it is sonically and aesthetically hopeless, though connecting the turntable to a decent stereo amp might make it an interesting conversation piece. It doesn’t stack up too well as a collectable either, but hopefully this modest mention might help stop it vanishing into complete obscurity.
First Seen: 1985
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £10.00 (0519)
Features: BSR P-232, 2-speed 33 & 45rpm), belt drive turntable, 10 watt mono amplifier, volume, treble & bass controls, microphone input
Power req. 220V AC
Dimensions: 420 x 350 x 225mm
Weight: 7.2 kg
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Grundig Melody Boy 1000 AM/FM Radio, 1971
Over the years makers of radios have taken a variety of approaches to naming and identifying their products. Mostly they take the easy way out and slap on a simple alphanumeric model number. Some go a little further with a catchy name as well and others go down the wacky or descriptive route, then there’s Grundig...
Since the late 1940s Grundig have obsessively and at times, weirdly riffed on the word ‘Boy’ when naming their radios. Deep breath. There’s Music Boy, Concert Boy, Hit Boy, Prima Boy, Party Boy, City Boy, Ocean Boy, Top Boy, Elite Boy, Challenge Boy, Mini Boy, Micro Boy, Record Boy, Automatic Boy, Car Boy, Export Boy, Beat Boy, Europe Boy, Clock Boy, Solo Boy, Teddy Boy, just Boy on its own, the all time classic Yacht Boy, and this one, the Melody Boy 1000. You get the idea and there’s probably quite a few more out there but tracking them down and noting all of the various versions saps the will to live, or becomes a lifelong obsession, depending on your point of view and how often you get out.
So, we’ll focus on the Melody Boy 100 and it is a real piece of work, tipping the scales at almost three and a half kilos, and that’s before it's load with six D cells. It also works on mains power with the transformer probably accounting for a fair chunk of the all-up weight. The spec is impressive, though, with 5 wavebands (LW, MW, VHF and two SW). It’s a big radio with a fat bassy sound, thanks to the 170mm elliptical speaker and a pokey amplifier pumping out a respectable 2 watts. It’s a typically clean and shiny seventies design with lots of chrome trim, faux leather case parts, discrete push button controls and a pair of sliders for the volume and tone. There’s a wide, illuminated tuning scale with a moving pointer and in a nod to its more full-bloodied communications receiver cousins, a purposeful-looking tuning knob with a fingertip recess for rapidly cranking across the band. For more precise control the knob can be pulled out and finely adjusted. There’s an 8-section telescopic antenna and a push-button on the top for a small lamp that lights up the tuning scale. Sockets and connectors abound on the back panel for an external speaker, headphones, line output and external aerials. It has a carry handle, compartments in the base for the half dozen D cells and a mains lead and plug, and a removable panel for a pair of mains fuses.
The standard of construction is outstanding and generations of engineers will have appreciated the ease of access for all of the important parts. It has to be one of the simplest radios to open up with just two screws holding it together, but the case can only be removed if you know the trick with the tuning knob (it has to be pulled off then the spindle has to be pushed back in). Grundig’s choice of plastic material for some of the chassis parts leaves something to be desired. Over the years small parts on this one have become quite fragile, There always seems to be a small piece of mounting bracket or a not so springy retaining clip rattling around inside. My guess this is due to a heat damage caused by years of continuous mains operation. The transformer does get quite warm and the case is poorly ventilated, which doesn't help. So far nothing important has dropped off but it may be only a matter of time before something big or heavy breaks loose.
Somehow this old Melody Boy ended up in a manky cardboard box at a muddy car boot sale in Kent. It was probably part of an estate sale and this clearly wasn’t its first outing. Luckily for me it looked sufficiently off-putting to have been ignored by fellow car booters, and the stallholder was happy to part with it for just £2.00. After getting it home, and before applying any power I treated it to a thorough strip down and spring clean. Underneath the dirt and paint splatter it scrubbed up quite well and in its previous life seems to have been looked after. It had got quite wet at some point -- possibly a previous boot sale appearance – so the first thing to do was attend to speaker. The paper cone had parted company with its rubber support ring. Normally that’s the kiss of death but otherwise it looked to be in good shape and I decided to try an old radio engineer’s trick and reattach it. The method involves running a thin bead of Copydex rubber adhesive around the tear. This maintains flexibility and, in theory, doesn’t affect performance too much. It was a success; fortunately M/FM radio doesn’t make too many acoustic demands on loudspeakers so I suspect that any changes in sound quality have been minimal.
The bank of push-button switches on the top panel were partially seized but several applications of switch cleaner and a dob of grease freed them up. The complex tuning pulley system was also treated to some light lubrication and whilst poking around I noticed that the pea-sized tuning panel light bulb had blackened. It had blown but rather than waste time hunting for a replacement I decided to see if I could shoehorn in a white 5mm LED, which looked about the same size. It turned out to be a near exact fit and with a 150-ohm resistor in series to limit the current it was as bright, if not brighter than the original bulb.
The mains supply checked out for shorts and leakage so it was powered up, probably for the first time in several years. There were no bangs, pops, smoke or smells, just a loud hiss from the speaker, and with a twiddle of the tuning knob, more stations and transmissions than you could shake a stick at, on all five bands. Battery power also worked well, though keeping this beast fed with D cells could be a costly exercise.
What Happened To It?
Grundig dates back to the 1930s, initially as a radio retailer. After the Second World War its founder, Max Grundig, spotted a growing demand for radios and began producing home-build kits, and the first of the portable Boy radios. It was launched in 1949 and became a instant best seller. By the early 50s Grundig was making televisions at a newly opened factory in Bavaria. Expansion was rapid with new facilities opening in Frankfurt and Nuremberg. It continued to grow throughout the 60s and 70s, at which point Dutch rivals Philips started buying shares in the company, resulting in a majority interest by the early 90s. During the late 90s, things started to go downhill and by 2003 money troubles forced Grundig into bankruptcy, resulting in a breakup of its divisions and buyouts by Alba in the UK and Turkish brand Beka. Beko took full control in 2007. Grundig has survived and still headquarted in Nuremberg with some German manufacturing facilities. The brand now appears on a range of small and large domestic appliances and consumer electronics products.
Grundig Boy radios have become collectable and because of the high build quality (of most pre eighties models) they can fetch good prices on ebay. However, Yacht Boys are the most sought after, and in particular classic seventies models like the 210, routinely sell for between £70 and £100 on ebay, depending on condition, of course. Even tatty or non-working fixer-uppers can do well; they are quite easy to work on and there is a good source of spare parts. In spite of the Melody Boy 1000 being closely related to Yacht Boys of the same vintage it doesn’t get the same sort of attention. Really clean ones might fetch £25 or so, which makes them good value for money. At the time of writing there were ebay auctions of parts for restorers; one seller in Germany was offering a recovered tuner assembly for an eye-watering £50.00! Either way, whether restored or parted out they can be a good investment, and in good working order they're a very decent, useable and eye-catching retro radio, with a big gutsy sound that puts many modern portables and table-tops to shame.
First Seen: 1971
Original Price: £70.00
Value Today: £15.00 (0519)
Features: 5-band superhetrodyne tuner (LW: 145 - 260 kHz, MW: 510 - 1620 kHz, FM: 87.5 - 108 MHz, SW1: 5 – 12 MHz, SW2: 10 – 20 MHz), volume & tone controls, push-button on/off, scale illumination & wave selection, telescopic antenna, carry handle
Power req. 6 x 1.5 volt D cells & 220V AC
Dimensions: 375 x 210 x 95mm
Weight: 3.3 kg
Made (assembled) in: Portugal
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Panasonic RP-8135 Stereo Microphone, 1976
Microphones are everywhere and these days a great many of them are unseen or concealed, and quite possibly listening to every word that you are saying. Isn’t that right Alexa, Siri and Google? And if you’ve recently downloaded some malicious software on your laptop could be earwigging on your private conversations. But not so long ago microphones were a lot less discrete, and some of them, like this National Panasonic RP-8135 stereo dynamic mike was definitely meant to be seen. It first appeared in 1974 and originally marketed as an accessory for home recording enthusiasts.
It certainly stands out -- no pun intended -- and that brushed aluminium T-shaped holder is an eye-catching combination of form, function and classic 70’s styling. There’s another clever touch. The right and left channel mikes are removable modules, either of which can be inserted into a supplied stick adaptor, for hand-held use or used with a stand in a two mono microphone desktop setup. Each module has one metre’s worth of cable terminated in standard 6.3mm (1/4-inch) mono jack plugs. Later versions had 3.5mm jacks and the outfit included a couple of 3.5mm to 6.6mm jack adaptors.
The microphone capsules are of the dynamic or moving coil type. Inside there is a thin diaphragm attached to a small coil that fits around a permanent magnet. Sound vibrations cause the diaphragm to move the coil within the magnetic field that surrounds it. This generates a tiny current that’s fed, via the cable, to an amplifier or recording device. Essentially it is a speaker in reverse, and capable of excellent quality. Dynamic mikes have a Cardoid response, meaning they are most sensitive to sound at the front and sides, and least sensitive at the rear. They are also rugged, reliable and simple to use in that they do not need fancy wiring or a separate power supply. In short they’re the workhorses of the microphone world and the type of mike most frequently used on stage, for vocals and louder instruments.
The RP-8135 capsules have no markings but knowing a little about how Panasonic operated in the 70s and 80s, they tended to avoid cheap components and it is possible they were sourced from one of the leading manufacturers. That’s born out by contemporary reviews and comments from users which suggested it was suitable for serious and semi-pro applications
The RP-8135 you see here came from a local car boot sale a while ago and was another lucky find. The cardboard box looked a bit tatty but the National Panasonic branding and logo pointed to what might be lurking inside could be a good age (National was dropped from the name in the early 80s). The contents of the box didn’t disappoint and the £1.00 asking price was too low to haggle over so the deal was done. It had been hardly used and may have lain undisturbed in the box for at least the last 10 years. The clue was smears of the polystyrene packing bonded to the vinyl-covered cable. It’s evidence of the very slow chemical reaction that occurs when the two materials are in contact with one another over a period of several years. Fortunately, if caught in time it’s not permanent and the residue scrapes off fairly easily, leaving the surface of the cable undamaged. All of the metal parts cleaned up well and with some gentle polishing it now looks like it just rolled off the production line. Luckily it had been stored in a dry atmosphere and the twin microphones produced a crisp, clean, well-rounded sound that I’m guessing wasn’t too far off what it was like when new.
What Happened To It?
Sub miniature electret microphones are used in the majority of today’s gadgets and devices. They are basically variants of the condenser or capacitance principle that has been around since the year dot. The key features of modern electrets are that they can be made to be very small and sensitive; the tradeoff is quality and they’re not really suitable for music or complex sounds. Larger electrets can be designed to sound a lot better and they have made inroads into the desktop mike market. But where quality really matters, in radio and recording studios and so on, traditional condenser and ribbon mikes are the only way to go.
Vintage microphones have become highly collectible and very expensive, especially if they have an association with a particular artist, institution or event. The RP-8135 is not in that league, or anywhere close, but it does have some value. It’s not especially rare and two appearing on ebay recently were priced at £15 and £100, and both were being sold as possibly faulty or in need of attention. A more realistic £30 was the Buy It Now price for two boxed and claimed working examples. That would be a fair amount to pay for something that can potentially out-perform most of the USB type desktop mikes currently on offer, though be warned, being entirely analogue in nature, connecting it to a PC or laptop can be a bit of a palaver.
First Seen: 1974
Original Price: £14.00
Value Today: £25.00 (0419)
Features stereo dynamic microphone, 500 ohm impedance, ‘T’ shape desktop stand, handle adaptor, 1 metre connecting cables, 6.3mm mono jack plugs
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 168 x 80 x 92mm (assembled)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Binatone Moontime Mk3, LED Clock Radio, 1984
It could be argued that the technology to wake us up in the morning peaked in the mid nineteenth century following the development of the first user-settable wind-up alarm clock. However, the need to invent, improve and innovate is hard-wired into the human brain and the devices and methods devised to carry out this simple task now numbers in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. Part of the reason for this, and the cause of a noticeable surge in products in the 70s and 80s, was the coming together of three technologies, namely low-cost 7-segment LED displays, cheap digital clock chips and inexpensive transistor radios. In short LED clock radios, like this Binatone Moontime MK3, were coming out of the woodwork. Manufacturers churned them out, like they were going out of fashion, as indeed they did, with amazing rapidity. Some companies ended up selling three of four models side-by-side, replacing them with new ones after just a few months.
The Binatone Moontime Mk3 was one of them; it replaced the Moontime Mk2 in mid 1984, and disappeared shortly afterwards, presumably usurped by an Mk4, though if it existed it seems to have had an even shorter shelf life. The headline feature of the Moontime series was a built-in, fold-away lamp that changed in size and position from one model variant to the next. The lamp on the Mk3 is mounted on a hinged arm that tucks into a recess on the left side of the case. For the record the Mk2 had a bigger, flatter, console-style case, with the lamp mounted in the centre. However, the basic spec appears to have stayed pretty much the same with a 3-band radio (Long, Medium & FM/VHF bands), a simple LED clock with single alarm function -- to switch the radio on at the appointed time -- Sleep and Snooze functions and a battery backup for the clock, to keep it running, and store the alarm setting, in case of a power failure.
Binatone tended not to be too adventurous when it came to styling and this Moontime is no exception. The cosmetics are simple and unobtrusive; the clock and tuning display are on the front and the controls discretely mounted on the top and side of the case. The white colouring was a bit unfortunate though. Not only is it prone to discolouration over time – it’s now a grubby and uneven shade of cream -- it also responds poorly to heat. There’s a light brownish stain on the dummy speaker grille on the left side of the case, which happens to be where the mains transformer lives. Heat is a bit of a preoccupation with this model. The back panel is festooned with labels including one with a stern warning about switching off the lamp before folding it back to its stowage position, to avoid heat damage. There’s another, bigger label, warning of the potential hazards of electric shock, taking it apart, using it in the rain and so on. No wonder it’s called an alarm radio… The only other oddity is a short length of knotted wire poking out of a hole in the back. Yet another label, above the hole, invites the user to pull it out to its full length, to act as an aerial and improve reception.
Other than the off-white case this one appeared to be in reasonably fine fettle when I found it at a car boot sale. The asking price of just one pound sealed the deal. Being mains powered it seemed wise to open it up and check for heat or fire damage. It seemed okay, no burn marks or suspicious smells and the thick coating of wax on the circuit board hadn’t melted. After a quick mucking out it was ready to power up and it worked straight away. Except, that is, for the folding lamp. The darkened bulb suggested that it had blown but it turned out just to be loose in its holder and after tightening it came on. The radio works well on all bands, the alarm functions properly and even the rotary volume control was crackle free. Theoretically it is a viable clock radio though I have reservations about leaving old and cheaply made mains-powered devices permanently switched on and unattended. It gets quite warm but apart from anything else it’s just wasting electricity.
What Happened To It?
Nowadays you can choose to be awoken by a bewildering array of gadgets, from simple clock radios like the Moontime, to devices that turn on the TV, make smells, bathe you in light, emit soothing voices and sounds, vibrations, electric shocks, your preferred morning playlist, cups of tea and coffee and no doubt, in the very near future, a gentle shake or back massage from your friendly household robot. Character alarms have become a bit of a thing recently; my personal favourite is a diorama featuring Homer Simpson with a spilt container of radioactive waste and a very loud nuclear alert siren... In short bedside alarms haven’t gone away; quite the opposite in fact. They may well be one of the most diverse and prolific domestic appliances ever but apart from a very small number of antique and vintage contrivances they seem to have been overlooked by collectors. By rights this should make them a good investment opportunity. Or not. Alas clock radios are mostly quite boring things so it is unlikely that more than a handful of them from the late twentieth century to the present day will ever appreciate in value, at least not in the foreseeable. Nevertheless it would be a pity if they disappeared without trace, especially the more outrageous ones. As far as I am aware no one has yet bothered to document their history. Maybe there’s scope for someone with a camera to put together an illustrated coffee table book, whether or not anyone would buy it is another matter…
First Seen: 1984
Original Price: £25.00
Value Today: £5.00 (0319)
Features 3-band (MW, LW, VHF) receiver, LED clock/alarm, folding lamp, Snooze & Sleep functions, push-button controls, rotary volume & tuning controls, clock backup battery, extendable wire antenna
Power req. 240VAC (9v PP3 backup battery)
Dimensions: 240 x 100 x 78mm
Made (assembled) in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Heathkit Oxford UXR2 MW LW Kit Radio, 1963
Sometimes it is difficult to decide if a potential restoration project goes ahead or is abandoned. Mostly it’s down to a simple calculation, weighing the time, effort and cost involved against the rarity, interest or historical value of the item concerned. Using those criteria this Heathkit Oxford radio should have been left to rot in the cardboard box where it was found, at a cold and windy car boot sale in Kent. It was in a terrible state, hard to see where the mud and grime ended and the case began. As you can see it was saved and that was all thanks to the Heathkit name and a loose case back.
The Heathkit Oxford UXR2 first appeared in 1963 and unlike most radios of the time, it was sold as a home build kit. The US company Heathkit or Heathkit Daystrom as they were known, were legendary, supplying kits of parts for a wide range of electronic devices, from everyday items like radios and amplifiers to specialised test instruments and Ham radio equipment. Kits were more common than you might think; scores of companies produced them throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. They were really popular; in many cases kits were cheaper than their mass-produced counterparts but the big attraction was in the assembly. Electronics had become an increasingly popular hobby and Heathkit was the Rolls Royce of the kit industry. Their kits were justly famous for the high quality of the designs as well as being challenging and comprehensive, appealing to both beginners and experts.
The Oxford is a two-band receiver, covering Medium and Long waves, with the kind of features found on the top-end tabletop portable radios of the day from the likes of Roberts and Hacker. These include a competent 3-stage superhetrodyne tuner, push-button band selection, two-position tone control, a large elliptical speaker and a full set of sockets for an external antenna, headphones and power adaptor. However, it also has one fairly unique and very unexpected feature and that’s a leather case. No, not a removable soft leather carry case, but the actual outer case, made from thick (and I mean thick!) slabs of cowhide. There doesn’t appear to be any technical reason for using leather instead of plastic, metal or wood. Processing and manufacturing almost certainly added to the cost. It’s could be difficult to keep clean; if ignored it will deteriorate and it’s not especially light. On the plus side it is super-tough. It won’t crack, break or bend if dropped, and properly looked after it can look very classy. Unfortunately this one wasn’t didn’t fare well and is in need of attention, but even in its present rather tatty state it still does an excellent job of protecting the innards.
Talking of which, the Oxford is a real time capsule of early transistor radio technology and a good example of the lengths Heathkit went to, to ensure that builders stood a really good chance of it actually working. The position, orientation and polarity of every component is very clearly marked on the circuit board. Delicate components, like the germanium transistors and diodes, are mounted on stand-offs, or ‘spills’ as Heathkit call them, to reduce the chance of for damage during soldering and components that require adjustment, like the IF coils, are pre-tuned and only need trimming to complete the initial set-up. The well-written instructions also include details of how to adjust the tuner using the sort of test instruments that many electronics enthusiasts would have. There’s also a detailed explanation of how it works, a lot of background information on semiconductor theory -- at the time new and cutting edge -- and a useful glossary. Building a kit like this one almost certainly encouraged a lot of youngsters to become interested in electronics and maybe even pursue it as a career.
The loose case back was what prompted me to pick up the unpromising looking brown box and take a closer look. Inside I spotted some very old friends, namely a small assortment of vintage germanium transistors (AF115, OC71, OC81 and OA81 & OA82). The AF117s in particular I remember really well… They were designed to handle high frequencies and notoriously easy to zap – sometimes just looking at them was enough – so I wasn’t hopeful any of them had survived. Other components like the electrolytic capacitors were also likely to have failed, possibly several decades ago. Nevertheless, I reasoned there had to be a few salvageable parts, like the ‘Fane’ speaker. This was a quality item and looked okay, but it was the price that finally won me over and I handed over a £1.00 coin without argument.
Although I had no expectations I decided to see if it could be made to work but I started by giving it a thorough clean. It was pretty disgusting but the further I delved into the case the better it got. The push buttons had seized but few squirts of switch cleaner got them moving again. Tuning mechanisms with moving pointers, pulleys and cords have plenty to go wrong, but this one was still working, and a few drops of oil had it moving really smoothly. At some point in its long life the power switch attached to the base of the volume potentiometer had broken off and a previous owner had jury-rigged a elaborate external switch on the back of the case. It had to go and the wiring was put back to its original state. It was now ready for a test and connecting it to a bench power supply produced an encouraging pop from the speaker. This suggested the audio output stage and speaker, at least, were working. A few more squirts of contact cleaner on the push button contacts and the volume pot resulted in a reasonably loud hiss, and the unmistakable sound of radio stations in the background. Incredibly it was alive with some more tweaking and fiddling, Radios 2 and 4 came though loud and clear on the Medium wave.
A big question mark still hangs over the leather case, though. It is complete but in quite poor condition. A thorough chemical clean bought back some of the original colour but there are areas where the stitching has failed and several deep stains that won’t ever go away. However, the biggest problem is the base and the top, which had warped. This is probably due to these parts drying out in the absence of any recent applications of wax or polish. Hopefully some flexibility can be restored, allowing it to be straightened out but it is going to be a very slow business.
What Happened To It?
There’s more about the rise and fall of Heathkit in the GR-78 item on the Radio & Audio archive page but the gist of it is DIY kits flourished from the late 40s until the 1980s. Following years of decline the company stopped producing kits in 1992. Since then there have been several changes of ownership and at least three attempts to resurrect the brand. At the time of writing the rights to Heathkit’s designs and trademarks have been have reacquired and plans are afoot to launch a kit from new offices and a warehouse in Santa Cruz in California.
Heathkit products have a loyal following, especially in the US and a few items are highly sought after and can change hands for staggering amounts. The Oxford radio is not one of them, sadly, and when occasionally one comes up for sale on ebay it rarely goes for more than £30 or so. A mint example might go a little higher and I suspect there could be real money to be made on an unmade kit, assuming any still exist. In its present state this one has relatively little value to anyone other than an enthusiast looking for spare parts, or a replacement chassis. No doubt the leather case could be professionally repaired or refurbished but it would probably cost many times what the radio is worth. The real value, though, is in the satisfaction of bringing a 50 plus year old radio back to life. Especially so, considering the odds against it working, let alone surviving, were stacked against it from the get go. Hand built kits can be a nightmare to fix. Luckily this one was put together by someone who knew their way around a soldering iron. Then there’s the years of abuse it must have endured; but it made it into the twenty first century and if anything that has appeared on these pages deserves a second chance, this is it.
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First Seen: 1963
Original Price: £14 8s (£14.40)
Value Today: £25.00 (0219)
Features 2 waveband (Medium & Long wave) receiver, 3-stage superhetrodyne receiver, 7 transistors, 150mm elliptical speaker, push-button tine switch and waveband selection, rotary on/off volume and tuning with moving pointer scale, external antenna, headphones and power supply sockets. leather case & carry handle
Power req. 1 x 9volt PP9 battery
Dimensions (headphones): 280 x 205 x 98mm
Made (assembled) in: UK & USA
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the way components used in the manufacture of cars, consumer goods, industrial products and so on made in this country are sourced from many different countries. The dreaded Brexit has highlighted just how much companies depend on the free flow of goods across borders but this is by no means a new development. It has been going on for decades if not centuries, and certainly long before the mid nineteen sixties when this Estyma travel clock-radio was assembled from parts made in Germany, Hong Kong and probably several other countries. The travel clock-radio sub-genre of timekeeping and technology has not been well documented but it’s a fair bet that it was one of the very first fully portable transistorised travel clock radios but as always, clarifications and corrections are welcomed in the dustygizmos email box.
There are three quite distinct parts to this little neat little device, namely the case, the clock and the radio. The case comprises the outer protective hinged ‘clamshell’ and an inner fascia plate, also hinged, on which the radio and the clock modules are mounted. It’s a really sturdy design, as befits something that’s going to suffer a lot of rough handling. The frame and facia are made of steel and outer shell is plastic, but it doesn’t end there; the whole caboodle is encased in a lively shade of orange dyed leather. It’s a quality item, showing the same kind of workmanship found on classy jewellery cases. The clock is another fine example of German craftsmanship, almost certainly made by a company called Blessing-Werke and handily date-stamped 1965. It’s a simple but sturdy 24-hour clockwork movement with a balance wheel escapement and 12-hour alarm function. This is linked to a small switch that can be set to turn the radio on at the desired time. A small two-position slide switch on the fascia selects always on or ‘Manu’ (Manual) operation or Auto, which is the alarm setting.
One unexpected feature on the clock is the luminous hands and dial. Of course this isn’t unusual but the vast majority of clocks and watches with luminous dials made from the late 50s onwards the glow in the dark paint would typically be of the phosphorescent type. This glows for few hours, but only after it has been exposed to a fairly bright light, to charge it up, as it were. The Estyma clock is different because it uses radioluminescent paint. The radio bit is short for radioactive and this time the glow is created by a radioactive isotope (Radium). Tiny amount of Radium are mixed with phosphor based chemicals and the particles emitted by the Radium cause the phosphor to glow. On the plus side it glows all the time, often for several decades. The downside is the paint can remain radioactive for several thousand of years. It’s not a huge problem when safely sealed inside the clock’s dial face but over time it can turn into a fine dust. If the face breaks or the clock is smashed up or dismantled the dust can escape and potentially inhaled or digested. In short it’s nasty stuff and not something you ever want to get inside your body. Radioactive luminous paint was widely banned on consumer products in the mid 1950s so it was quite surprising to discover that it was still being used on a clock made a decade or so later.
And so to the radio, which is a two-waveband receiver (Medium and Long Wave) using six Germanium transistors. Apart from the small size it’s a relatively common design and no doubt it, or something very similar, has been used in countless other small radios made in Hong Kong (or the ‘Empire’ as it is referred to on the back panel) during the 1960s. Power comes from a standard 9 bolt PP3 battery that lives alongside the circuit board inside the clock and radio module’s removable back cover. The speaker is a common 50mm type, mounted behind the gold coloured grille on the fascia panel.
There’s almost no need for an instruction manual. To set the alarm simply press the button on the front of the case to open it. Using a knob on the back of the clock turn the short gold coloured hand to the chosen time, wind up the clock (it runs for around 30 hours) then tune the radio to your favourite Medium or Long wave station and set the slide switch on the front to ‘Auto’. You can also listen to the radio by leaving the switch in the ‘Manu’ position. The case can be either closed, or left open by propping the fascia up against the lower clamshell.
This Estyma was very clean and looked like it been well looked after. However, when pressed the stallholder at the antiques fair where I found it admitted that the clock and the radio probably didn’t work, hence his ‘bargain’ price of £10. That sounded a bit steep and after a shot discussion, where I pointed out that it might need a lot of work and spare parts for old timers like this were hard to come by, we settled on a fiver. Luckily just one commonplace new part was needed and the remaining problems were relatively minor in nature. The clock had been over wound and clearly hadn’t been lubricated for decades. A good clean up and a few drops of clock oil were all that was needed to get it ticking. The radio was a bit more challenging. It was completely dead and that was traced back to an open circuit battery connector, which only took a few minutes to replace. Afterwards there was a quiet pop from the speaker when it was switched on but nothing else, not even a hiss. Tracing that fault took a little longer. Using a simple signal injector it was possible to establish that the speaker, output stage and first two IF stages were all okay. Isolating the faulty component(s) can be very time consuming, so I took a gamble and swapped the two electrolytic capacitors in the vicinity of the disappearing signal. Old sixties capacitors are notoriously flaky and the second one turned out to be the culprit, having gone completely open circuit. As a precautionary measure I also replaced the other two electrolytics, as they were also a very long way past their popping their clogs date.
The radio is now just about loud enough to be useful as an alarm clock, providing you don’t mind the very limited choice of stations to wake up to. However tuning up and down the bands I discovered even louder and more irritating sounds produced, I suspect, by a mixture of mis-alignment, interference and the mysterious data transmissions dotted around the broadcast bands.
What Happened To It?
Surprisingly little is known about the Estyma brand; at least I was unable to find out much after a fairly extensive internet trawl other than it is German in origin and seems to have disappeared from view in the mid 1970s. Once again if anyone can tell me more please get in touch. Although Estyma has a very small web presence there is no shortage of small clocks bearing the name on ebay. They range from travel alarms, with and without radios. There’s a similar model to this one with a mechanical alarm and a miniature barometer and thermometer, instead of the radio. They were also responsible for a lot of conventional alarm clocks, fake carriage clocks, anniversary clocks and quite a few novelty clocks. The one thing most of them have in common is that they are cheap to buy on auction sites like ebay. Most are priced at between £5 and £25, even mint examples. There are some exceptions and they include radio-alarms like this one, which fetch a little more and in good order can go for as much as £50. The point is most Estyma clocks you’ll see are now more than 50 years old and so very typical of the periods in which they were made. Clearly the brand wasn’t in the premiere league and doesn’t do much for today’s collectors but that’s an opportunity not to be missed. Estyma and some of the more outlandish clock designs are long overdue a place in the limelight, and it could happen sooner rather than later. My advice is to start hoarding or expect to be rather annoyed in a few years time when you’ll see an Estyma clock on the Antiques Road Show being valued for an eye-watering amount.
First Seen: 1965
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £30.00 (0219)
Features Medium & Long Wave 6-transistor superhetrodyne receiver, 50mm speaker, rotary on/off volume & tuning controls, spring-driven clock with alarm operated switch, luminous (radium painted) dial and hands, folding leather covered carry case & stand
Power req. 1 x 9 volt PP3 battery
Dimensions: 180 x 100 x 40mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong (radio) & Germany (clock movement & case)
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
Archer/Realistic AM Headphone Radio, 1973
Here in the UK the high street chain Tandy -- and there actually was one on almost every high street -- is little more than a distant memory. It’s US parent company, the once mighty Radio Shack Corporation lingers on, as a minor online retailer with a few franchised stores, but there remains a huge legacy of electronic gadgets, nowadays mostly gathering dust in attics that are starting to interest collectors. And it’s not just the stuff they sold. In the last couple of years Radio Shack and Tandy’s free store catalogues have started to climb in value. Even comparatively recent ones from the 70s and 80s have been changing hands for £20 or more on ebay.
That bodes well for this 1973 vintage Realistic AM Headphone Radio, which came into my possession recently. By the way, Realistic and Archer were Radio Shack house brands. Headphone radios have a chequered history and there have been plenty of attempts to popularise the concept. It seems like a good idea but they were often large and heavy, uncomfortable to wear with a tendency to fall off. Virtually all of them suffered from poor reception, especially the ones with FM tuners and no external antenna, which didn’t respond well to movement or a weak signal, and they generally looked really naff. This Realistic design ticks almost all of those boxes though to be fair this was the 1970s, ground zero for questionable style and design.
Key features are clearly labelled on the side of headphone brackets, namely that it has two speakers and five transistors; it’s just as well the labels are quite small because that’s more or less all there is to it. It has two control knobs for on/off volume and tuning on one side, and on the other there’s a compartment for the 9v battery that powers it. The soft cushioned ear pads deserve a passing mention and the twin headbands are bearable for short periods, but hey, what do you expect for £8.99? The receiver is mounted inside the earphone with the control knobs, it’s a compact superhetrodyne circuit, typical of the radios coming out of Hong Kong and Japan at the time. The two 55mm speakers are also straight out of a cheap pocket radio. That’s fine if you’re not too worried about sound quality, but positioned a few millimetres for each ear their shortcomings will become quite obvious. But again, it’s worth pointing out we were all a lot less fussy when it came to sound quality back in the seventies and the fact that someone managed to shoehorn a radio into a set of headphones costing less than £10 was actually quite impressive.
This one was a swapsie with a fellow collector. The Realistic branding is unusual and suggests it was bought in the US as most of the ones sold here were branded Archer. It had been well cared for, was in good working order but it needed a clean up. Rather than a quick wash and brush up I stripped it back to its bare bones and re-built it from scratch – it only took an hour or so -- so it should be good to go for a few more decades. The cushioned ear cups were on the way to needing some attention; the soft plastic covering was at the very early stage of turning brittle. To restore them I treated them to a couple of days inside a large zip lock bag that had been given several very generous bursts of silicone spray. This is formulated to rejuvenate rubber and plastics and it works like magic. When they came out they looked and felt like new.
What Happened To It?
Headphone radios have all but disappeared, and with good reason. Should you suddenly feel the urge to listen to a radio station or anything else for that matter, though a set of headphones for the last decade or so the simplest solution has been a pair of Bluetooth enabled cans and your smartphone. Thanks to the Internet the choice of stations isn’t limited to local AM and FM broadcasts. They look and sound a whole lot better than a pair of chunky plastic boxes with cheap speakers and now, with prices starting at less than £20 they are not going to break the bank.
Whilst these radio headphones still work, finding something worth listening to on what remains of the Medium Wave band is a challenge. Even when you find a station the novelty of listening to hissy mono sound on tinny speakers quickly wears off. It is safe to say that devices like this are more decorative than functional but their real worth lies in the now obsolete, but increasingly collectable, design and technology of a bygone era. Seventies stuff appeals to a very wide audience, from nostalgic baby-boomers to retro-hungry millennials, and everyone in between with an appreciation for kitsch and over the top design. They also rack up a few more points from collectors of vintage Radio Shack and Tandy wares, but it’s still very early days. Headphones like this can be found on ebay; most of them are in the US, usually selling for under £20 (and allow for the same again for postage). Occasionally they turn up on ebay UK and one I spotted recently, apparently in near mint condition and with its original box, sold for just £20. Just do not expect to see many more of them as cheap as that as time go by.
First Seen: 1973
Original Price: £8.99
Value Today: £10.00 (0219)
Features AM only superhetrodyne receiver, 5-transistors, twin 55mm speakers, rotary volume & tuning controls, cushioned ear pads, adjustable headbands
Power req. 1 x 9 volt PP3 battery
Dimensions (headphones): 110 x 65 x 80mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Dustygizmo’s on-going quest to identify and catalogue the world’s weirdest novelty radios continues apace. This one from the early-ish nineties is definitely a bit of an oddball. It has a long way to go, though, to beat some of the stranger offerings, including a radio built into a pair of binoculars, as well as cameras and teacups with radios. Here we have the Academy fake camcorder radio. It’s a fair imitation of some of the budget compact VHS-C machines made by messers JVC and Panasonic’s during the late eighties and early nineties, but as always, the question is why?…
We’ll probably never know. Maybe some bright-spark thought it would fool gullible punters, or it could a feeble attempt to capitalise on the then huge market for camcorders. Either way they went to a lot of trouble to make it look authentic. This involved making the twisting lens barrel the tuning control, giving it a see-through viewfinder and – at a distance – genuine looking lens. Even the control layout looks quite plausible. The only obvious odd-man out is a small telescopic aerial mounted on the left side of the viewfinder.
The radio is quite an interesting, and surprisingly competent design. It is based around a Sony CXA1191S IC or integrated circuit. This is an unusually sophisticated AM/FM receiver and audio amplifier, contained within a single microchip. All it needs to turn it into a radio are a few ancillary components, including some tuning coils, a variable capacitor, and a potentiometer for the volume control plus a small speaker. This particular chip was widely used in radio-cassette players and personal stereos of the day. What’s more it played a significant role in the popularisation of personal entertainment devices throughout the 1990s, greatly simplifying their construction and helping to bring down prices. The attention to detail and the fact that it is quite well made and that several other cheaper (and more basic) radios on a chip were available at the time might suggest that the manufacturers were aiming this product at a slightly more discerning audience.
It’s very easy to use with just three controls. The on/off volume thumbwheel is on the back panel, there’s a two-position AM/FM selector switch on the side, and as previously mentioned, the lens barrel acts as the tuning knob, with the frequency scale visible through a small window on the side of the camcorder body. This looks exactly like the focal range or zoom setting indicator on a real camcorder. Needless to say the lens is a dummy, but it has been given a highly reflective black finish and sometimes you have to look twice to make sure it is not real. The viewfinder has transparent windows at either end, so you can look through it, but it’s a bit of a blur and all you really see are reflections inside of the case. There’s what seems to be a recessed hand hold on the right side of the case but this wasn’t well though out and turns out to be quite awkward to grab onto securely.
Fortunately there are a couple of mounting points for a carry strap on the top of the case but this probably got separated or fell apart some time before it came into my possession. That happened comparatively recently, at a local car boot store where I spotted it in a box of unrelated household possessions. Whether or not the stallholder was taking the piss, or thought I was a complete mug wasn’t clear but he changed his story, and the asking price as soon as I pointed out the obviously fake lens. It went from a five pounds to 50 pence in the space of 10 seconds and the deal was done.
As soon as I got it home I inserted a couple of AA cells and wasn’t terribly surprised by the silence. A light coating of rust on one of the contact springs – it cleaned up easily – and a bent metal contact for the second cell was way out of alignment; again this was a quick and simple fix. Once that was done it a hiss, and eventually, with some twiddling of the lens, a good selection of local stations came through loud and as clear as the 55mm speaker would allow. As unusual novelty radios go it works well, and it definitely stacks up as a phoney camcorder so overall it was 50 pence well spent.
What Happened To It?
The Academy brand doesn’t seem to have lasted for very long. It appeared on a number of radios and a couple of portable cassette recorders from the early eighties to the mid 90s. From the styling I suspect that this camcorder radio was one of the last products to bear the name. The chances are this and the other products were off the shelf designs sourced from anonymous Hong Kong and Chinese manufacturers, badged for a particular importer, which is about all that can be said about its origins.
No doubt collectors of novelty radios -- and it is a thing, with a healthy presence on ebay -- would be prepared to pay £10 or so for one like this in good working condition. A mint example in its original box might even fetch a little more, but even though it quite rare it will be a very long time before it has any significant value. Even so, if you can find one selling in the same price ballpark as this one it could be a sound – pun intended -- investment, and maybe even earn its keep as a wacky portable radio.
First Seen: 1994?
Original Price: £20?
Value Today: £10 (1218)
Features 2-band (AM/FM) receiver, Sony CXA1191S single chip receiver, 5-section telescopic antenna, earphone socket (3.5mm minijack), rotary tuning (lens), waveband selector slide switch, thumbwheel on/off volume,
Power req. 2 x 1.5 AA cells
Dimensions: 178 x 70 x 110mm
Made (assembled) in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Pye Q6 Two-Band AM Radio, 1961
In just about every restoration project there comes a time when you have to ask why on earth am I doing this? Despair often sets in soon after work has begun, or at around the halfway point, when it seems like it will never get finished. This Pye Q6 Medium and Long wave band radio felt like a disaster from the get go, shortly after I managed to prise off the back panel and saw the mess created by an old and leaky PP9 battery.
You have to believe you’ll get there in the end and ultimately it was worth the time and effort to bring this 8-transistor receiver back to life. It’s not especially rare or unusual but it was a something of a classic and marked the end of an era. It was made in the early sixties by Pye, then a venerable and very well known British company, but nowadays all but forgotten. This model was affordable and the no-frills spec, traditional shape and styling wouldn’t scare the middle-aged consumers it was aimed at. There was just a touch of modernity, though, with some bright red trim, and it used transistors, which was, at the time, still a relatively recent innovation. Above all it did everything a small portable medium and long wave radio was required to do, namely tune in the three major BBC radio stations that virtually everyone in Britain listened to, namely The Light Programme (now Radio 2), The Home Service (Radio 4) and The Third Programme (Radio 3).
The quality of workmanship is clear to see when the back cover is removed. The case frame is made of aluminium and it is a fair bet that construction techniques, materials and components owe a lot to Pye’s involvement in building radios for the British Army. The main circuit board is clearly hand-assembled, though this is a mixed blessing. Early germanium transistors were notoriously fragile and didn’t take kindly to prolonged exposure to heat. To reduce the risk of damage during soldering the leads were left excessively long, which meant most of the transistors stood high above the printed circuit board and therefore vulnerable to clumsy fingers poking around inside the case. To make matters worse the two audio output transistors were fitted with large metal heat sinks. They were not attached to anything, which left them flapping around with the fine wires liable to bend, weaken and eventually fracture with every hard jolt. And one of them did, but we’ll come back to that shortly.
The effects of the leaky battery were not evident when I discovered this Q6 at a Dorset car boot sale. From the outside it just looked like a tatty old radio. Since it wasn’t possible to remove the back I took the stallholder’s word that it was in good working order and, so he said, well worth the fiver he was asking for it. He also assured me that it dated form the 1930s. I helpfully pointed to the ‘transistor’ logo on the front, and apprised him of the fact that transistors didn’t go into production until the early 1950s. This did not help the negotiations and I judged that any further smart-arse remarks would only result in the price going up…
Needless to say the stallholder had also been a bit economical with the truth about it working. At a conservative estimate the battery had been festering away inside the case for at least 20 years. It also goes without saying that battery juice and aluminium is not a happy combination and once I removed the remains of the ancient PP9 the damage it had done became horribly clear. The worst casualty was the battery holder clip; all that remained was a thin piece of crusty, corroded metal. Fortunately it was easy to replicate; there was also a fair amount of corrosion on a case bracket used to hold the plastic back panel in place. Enough metal remained, just, for it not to need replacing, which was just as well as it is a complex shape, and riveted to the case. Even after a thorough clean up it’s not a pretty sight, but it does the job. There was also some drip damage in the bottom of the case but by the time the acid had got to it, it must have lost its potency and it cleaned up fairly well. It had also got on to the base of the back panel but apart from some discolouration it too escaped serious damage. The battery clips had dissolved but I had some modern replacements in the parts box. The only good news was that the circuit board and controls are all mounted at the top of the case, and the battery clip had taken the brunt of the leakage and acted as a protective shield, stopping any corrosive gunge getting on to the ferrite antenna and its metal clips below.
The last clean up job before powering it up was to remove the dried out debris from the old battery and the accumulated dust, fluff and dead spiders of the past 50 or so years. This is when I discovered the damaged output transistor. Two of the three wires had broken off at the base of the transistor’s case (a Newmarket flat can type), which is arguably the worst possible place. Only around half a millimetre of the broken wires were still exposed, which was just about enough to wrap a fine wire and solder it in place. However there is considerable risk of damaging the internal structure, as there is nowhere else for the heat to go. It had to be done quickly, in less than a second; even then there is a high chance of being destroyed. I checked the transistor to make sure it was still okay. It was, so after cleaning the wire stubs with a scalpel the new wires were fitted and soldered, and it actually worked! In truth it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if it hadn’t succeeded, replacements are easy enough to find, but it is still very satisfying to repair vintage components.
Once it was working the outside case could be cleaned up and some minor cosmetic damage attended to. This included the red flock band around the metal chassis. It needed replacing but flock material is surprisingly difficult to find, and alarmingly expensive for the small amount that I needed. My solution was rub off the flock with wire wool, which had become dull and patchy, back to the woven vinyl backing, and spray it red. If and when I manage to find a small piece of red flock I will replace it but for the time being the red vinyl doesn’t look half bad.
Performance is probably as good as it ever was, thanks to the large and nicely supple speaker. In spite of the metal case it manages to pick up all available stations without the need for an external aerial and there’s plenty of volume on tap. In short it is still a very useable little radio, provided you don’t mind the limitations of the largely deserted AM broadcast bands.
What Happened To It?
Pye was one of Britain’s oldest technology brands, being founded in Cambridge in1896 by Mr William Pye as a part-time enterprise, to manufacture scientific instruments. During World War One Pye turned his hand to the then new thermionic valve. This eventually led to the small but fast growing company developing radio receivers in time for the inaugural broadcasts of the BBC, in 1922. Pye were also in at the beginning of the BBC’s first television test transmissions. By 1937 it was producing its first commercial TV, with a 5-inch screen. During the Second World War Pye turned over a lot of its production to military communications systems and radar components. At the end of the war production of television sets resumed and in1956 they announced the first British-made transistor, produced by its Newmarket subsidiary. Pye’s first all-transistor radio, the Pam 710 followed soon after.
Pye diversified into broadcast equipment, including TV cameras for the BBC, but by the early sixties the domestic radio and TV divisions were going into decline. Intense competition from the Far East was starting to take its toll, especially in the rapidly growing youth market, which Pye failed to see coming. It continued to turn out large old-fashioned, family-friendly sets, like the Q6 whilst companies in Japan and Hong Kong went into overdrive making cheap pocket size portables, ideal for listening to pirate stations and eventually the BBC’s newly minted Radio One pop station. Dutch electronics giant Philips had been trying to purchase Pye for some time and in 1966 they managed to acquire a 60 percent share. A decade later they took complete ownership of the Pye group of companies and its last remaining TV factory in Lowestoft was sold to Sanyo.
Today the Pye brand is just a distant memory. It pops up now and again on some rather ordinary home entertainment devices made in the far East, but sadly, surviving products -- especially those from its final years -- have little or no interest to collectors. Traditionally styled radios like this Q6 often sell for significantly less than comparable radios from the same era. This one started out as a wreck and although it is now in good working order and reasonably presentable, it is probably only worth £10 - £15. Clean ones do not seem to fare much better and the few I have followed on ebay rarely edge much above £20 - £25. In time prices might improve a little but when it comes to small to medium-sized British-made tabletop portable radios it will always be overshadowed by better-known brands, like Hacker and Roberts.
First Seen: 1961
Original Price: £10,17s 6d (£10.75)
Value Today: £15.00 (1018)
Features 8-transistor superhetrodyne AM receiver, Medium & Long wave coverage, rotary tuning, wave change & volume on/off controls, ferrite antenna, 110mm speaker, external aerial socket, carry handle
Power req. 1 x PP9 9 volt battery
Dimensions: 250 x 190 x 90mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Harrier Pilot AM/FM/Air Band Radio,1978?
On the list of bizarre things that are illegal in the UK, listening to radio exchanges between commercial aircraft and air traffic control (ATC) is up there with it being against the law to ‘handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances’ (Section 32, The Salmon Act 1986…). In many other countries listening to the radio and Salmon handling are not an offence; you can even listen to live ATC on the web, from airports in the US, Ecuador, The Netherlands to name just a few but in the UK you’ll run afoul of Section 48 Wireless Telegraphy 2006, so look away now if you are of a law-abiding disposition.
Whilst it would be technically illegal to listen to ATC traffic using this Harrier Pilot AM/FM/Air Band radio, you would be hard pressed to actually commit a crime, unless you happened to live within a few hundred metres of a busy airport. But that’s not the real reason you’ll be lucky to hear anything of interest. This little radio has one serious design flaw, and you’re excused this bit if you don’t like teccy stuff, or simply don’t give one….
Aircraft radio operates on a band of frequencies on the VHF band, from 108 to 137MHz, which just happens to be immediately above the FM VHF broadcast bands. It’s a simple matter for radio manufacturers to extend the coverage of ordinary FM radios into the Air Band, but there is a problem. For reasons of quality radio stations broadcasting on VHF are frequency modulated (FM), whereas aircraft radio is amplitude modulated (AM). In case you are wondering AM VHF signals travel a bit further, Hi-Fi quality is not an issue for a speech-based communications system and it avoids so-called channel lockout. FM receivers lock onto a signal, excluding others on the same or nearby frequencies. AM on the other hand, allows more powerful, and potentially more important signals from air traffic controllers to punch through and make themselves heard. The upshot of this is the Air Band on the Harrier Pilot is simply an extension of the VHF FM band (88 – 108MHz). A few strong aircraft and ATC signals do somehow manage to break through, but as a serious receiver for listening to aircraft communications it is on very shaky ground…
Back to business and the Pilot also has AM reception and a rather nifty rotary tuning indicator, controlled from a knob on the top of the case. The other knob is for on/off & volume and around the back there’s two-position band selector switch. It has a 2.5mm jack socket for earphone listening and a 7-section telescopic antenna that extends to 64cm. Power comes from a single 9-volt PP3 type battery, which lives in a compartment in the back. For good measure it comes with a soft carry case a wrist lanyard and I am guessing it was made by a small company in Hong Kong at some point between 1975 and 1985, judging by the components, method of construction and so on. Speaking of which, it’s a relatively sophisticated 10-transistor superhet design with two separate IF stages for AM and FM reception and a ferrite antenna for medium wave reception. Sound is heard through a built in 55mm speaker, and the unusually elaborate tuning mechanism. This uses a cord and pulleys to turn the rotary action of the tuning knob through 90 degrees to move a pointer behind the tuning scale on the front of the case.
Appropriately enough I found this Harrier Pilot on a disused runway in the Midlands, the venue for a regular one-day antiques fair, and it was mine for a haggle-free fiver. Normally I would have bargained a bit harder but it appeared to be in pretty good shape, the end of the day was fast approaching and the trader looked like he’d had a lean time. Aside from a few light scuffs it was in great condition, no corrosion and apart from a scratchy volume control there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. The soft leatherette carry case was also in fine fettle, though what remained of the silver Harrier jet logo on the front rubbed off when it was cleaned. AM reception is fine, though the lack of stations these days means it’s not much use for anything. Broadcast FM is also good but it all goes a bit quiet and mushy as soon as you stray beyond 108MHz. There are one or two loud transmissions, which I suspect are beacons, and an automated aeronautical weather report from a local airfield was just about audible. Aircraft to ground transmissions were brief, few and far between, and always mostly drowned out by background noise.
What Happened To It?
The Harrier name or brand crops up several times on cheap 70s and 80s transistor radios from the Far East but it is difficult to say if they are connected. A couple of Hong Kong based companies, Norston and MTL Electronics, may have been responsible for this one but it is going to require a lot of research to verify its origins and the fate or current status of the manufacturer. Life is too short but if anyone has any inside knowledge, please let me know. My guess is it’s an off-the-shelf design and the Harrier branding was commissioned by the importer. The stylised Harrier Jump Jet logo (apparently drawn by someone who has never seen one…) suggests that it may have been a British company.
Harrier Pilots turn up on ebay from time to time. Two I followed recently on the auction site fetched a few pounds more than pocket radios of a similar vintage and sold for £10 and £30. This was probably down a combination of them being in good condition and the slightly unusual Air Band feature. Suffice it to say that whilst they are comparatively uncommon they are not sought after collectibles, but give it another decade or two and who knows?
First Seen: 1978?
Original Price: £20?
Value Today: £10.00 (0918)
Features: 10-transistor superhetrodyne receiver, AM 52 – 160kHz, VHF/FM 88- 108MHz. VHF Air Band 108- 137MHz, rotary tuning scale, 7-section telescopic antenna (64cm fully extended), 55mm internal speaker, earphone 2.5mm jack socket, wrist lanyard
Power req. 1 x 9v PP3 battery
Dimensions: 168 x 68 x 36mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
We tend to think that we are pretty smart, what with all the digital whizwangs and gewgaws we surround ourselves with these days but not everything that is new is necessarily better, or even cleverer than what has gone before. Prepare to be amazed by some ingenious old tyme tech. Behold the remarkable Pioneer Hawaiian Portable Phonograph, dating from the early 1960s. There’s nothing especially unusual in that; it’s battery powered, plays LPs and 45s, has a built-in speaker and outwardly appears to be little different to dozens of other portable record players available at the time. True, it’s a little smaller than most of its contemporaries but it was aimed at the youth market and its small size is surely due to it using transistors rather than valves? Wrong, and when I opened it up for the first time I felt sure that a previous owner had removed the amplifier circuit board, or it had been cunningly hidden or disguised. The simple fact is there is no amplifier, valve or transistor, yet somehow (after some minor restoration work), it manages to produce a room-filling sound from vinyl records – as loud as a transistor radio -- using just the pickup and the on-board speaker. So how on earth does it work?
It is ingenious and uses the ‘push-pull’ principle, first outlined in a patent dating back to 1850, for improving the efficiency of early telephones, and that is the clue as to how it works. The key components, indeed the only active components are the pickup and the speaker and they are both very closely related to the microphones (transmitters) and earpieces (receivers) used by most telephones made up until the 1980s.
Starting with the pickup, this is a small metal cylinder with a stylus attached on a short thin metal (brass) arm. I am not about to open it up as that would result in its destruction but I am reasonably sure that it is filled with fine carbon granules. In the centre of the cylinder there’s a thin metal diaphragm that is mechanically linked to the stylus. Metal connectors, insulated from the cylinder, are embedded in the ends of the cylinder. The speaker looks completely normal but it has two voice coils that push or pull the cone in opposite directions. The battery, comprising two pairs of 1.5volt C cells is connected between the case of the pickup and the central connection of the two coils in the speaker, via a variable resistor, which acts as a volume control. The other ends of the speaker coils connect to the end conductors on the pickup cylinder. Hopefully my rough and ready circuit diagram – see below -- will make it a little clearer.
Vibrations from the stylus, whilst playing a record, are transmitted through to the metal diaphragm in the cylinder. This causes it to alternately compress the carbon granules on either side of the cylinder. Carbon is a conductor so this results in proportionately higher and lower electrical resistances, relative to the metal case and the conductors at either end. The rapidly changing current passing through the cylinder and into the coils causes the speaker cone to move in and out, in sympathy with the vibrations, producing the sound that is heard. It is elegantly simple, and it works, though sadly there is one fundamental flaw, and one of the reasons the idea never caught on, and we’ll back come to that a little later on.
Otherwise the rest of the Hawaiian phonograph is entirely conventional. The Motor spindle acts upon a rubber liner inside the metal turntable. A 10 Ohm resistor mounted on the selector switch sets the speed (33 or 45rpm). There’s a variable resistor for fine-tuning the speed, as the 3-volt battery (2 x 1.5-volt C cells) runs down. A 500uF electrolytic capacitor, strapped across the motor, provides a little extra stability and a modicum of interference suppression from the motor. All of the mechanical and electrical components are mounted on a round piece of hardboard and it’s built inside a simple plastic clamshell case. There’s storage space inside the lid for half a dozen or so singles. A small metal pillar close to the speaker grille was probably for storing a spindle adaptor – now long gone -- which was used to play singles where the centres of the record had been removed (so they could be played on a jukebox).
I bought this Hawaiian from a fellow collector who, like me, initially dismissed it as an old transistor portable that didn’t work because the guts had been ripped out. He claimed to have paid ‘over’ £20 for it as it was in good cosmetic condition and came with its original box. However, since it didn’t work he was keen to offload it and after a bit of too-ing and fro-ing we settled on £10. I bought it on the basis that it was unusual and wouldn’t be too difficult to get it up and running with a simple home brew amp. After opening it up (the one-piece chassis is held in place with the single knob-topped screw in the middle), there were some signs of battery leakage. Fortunately it wasn’t too serious and the contacts cleaned up easily. At this stage I was also looking around for any cut wires and the place where the amplifier board used to be, but drew a complete blank. Dismantling the turntable assembly, to check and lubricate the bearing also showed no signs of there ever being an amplifier so at this point I did a little research. It turns out that it was complete. This was confirmed by the ad from Relda Radio that I found in an April 1964 edition of Practical Wireless and the very few references I could find on the web. This led me to take a much closer look at the pickup and speaker, and with the help of a multimeter, to try and figure out what made it tick.
Following a general clean up it was time to test it out. The turntable turned and there was a reassuring scratching noise from the speaker when gently stroking the stylus, so it was time to spin a disc. The sound it made was a revelation, it was loud, very loud in fact, and the volume control had to be backed off to around halfway to be bearable, but it was the sound quality that really got my attention. It was truly terrible! The record being played was barely recognisable. It was so bad that I cannot believe this is how it would have sounded when new. My guess is the problem lies with the pickup. Any ingress of moisture, however slight, would ruin the pickup’s ability to resolve even small variations in frequency. I doubt very much that it even qualified as a lo-fi device but it must have been at least good enough to be acceptable to the kids who bought them. It is tempting to speculate what might have happened had the technology had been developed. Using modern materials and manufacturing techniques it might even have sounded quite good…
What Happened To It?
The 1963 manufacturing date is based on a few fairly solid facts. Pioneer, which was founded way back in 1938, changed its name to Pioneer Electronic Corporation in 1961, and that is the name printed on a label on the box. This also ties in with a change in Pioneer logo in the sixties and its appearance in adverts in magazines like Practical Wireless. It probably wasn’t around for very long, though. Manufacturing the highly specialised pickup and speaker would have quickly become uneconomic at a time when the cost of transistors and conventional speakers were rapidly falling. My guess is that it only around for two or three years. Ebay is as good a way of any of estimating roughly how many were made, and have survived. In the few months since I acquired this one I have yet to see another so on that basis it seems to be quite rare. Putting a price on this oddity without anything to compare it with is rather difficult, though. However, based on its now fully restored and ‘working’ condition and the all-important box, I have valued it anything from £50 upwards. Vintage audio can fetch surprisingly high prices but that’s mainly reserved for high-end products. Whilst this is little more than a toy the Pioneer brand (the AV division is now owned by Onkyo) is quite prestigious and has a strong following so if you ever see one going for substantially less than my estimate it could be a good investment.
First Seen: 1963
Original Price: £4.19s. 6d (£4.97)
Value Today: £60 (0818)
Features: 2-speed direct drive turntable (33 & 45rpm), mono carbon pickup, rotary volume & speed controls, dual coil speaker, record storage, integral carry handle
Power req. 6 x 1.5volt C cells
Dimensions: 265 x 220 x 75mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 9
Monatone D 5151 De-Luxe AM Radio
It would be wrong to suggest that this little radio is the only one of its kind as it is likely that thousands of them were made back in the early 1960s, but after an exhaustive search on the web -- lasting at least 15 minutes -- the Monatone D 5151 De-Luxe seems to have come, and gone, without anyone taking much notice. In fact it's apparent rarity it not that unusual. There may be identical models out there under different brand names but if so they're very well hidden...
Outwardly it is fairly unremarkable, it’s one of countless pocket size AM receivers made in Hong Kong from the late fifties until the early seventies. There are a couple of slightly unusual features, though. The circuit diagram, printed on a label stuck to the back of the printed circuit board, suggests that it is a 6-transistor superhetrodyne design. It’s a very common spec in fact, except that there are only 5 transistors on the circuit board. The sixth one shown in the diagram is connected by only two of its three wires (base and collector) so it operates simply as a diode, and that is what is on the PCB. This may have been some sort of half-cocked marketing ploy. ‘6-Transistors’ was considered the gold standard for the pocket portables of the day, but there were stories of unscrupulous manufacturers either lying through their teeth and even fitting dummy or known faulty components to make up the numbers. These sorts of deceptions was almost certainly worth the effort; it is possible to build a small radio, with a speaker – albeit quite a nasty one -- with as few as 2 or 3 transistors and the risk of getting caught and brought to book for both the maker and the seller back then would have been minimal.
Whether or not this numerical mis-match was a deliberate ploy, or just a simple mistake is open to debate but the five functional transistors do a fairly reasonable job of receiving medium wave stations, with the usual provisos that the sound is heard through a small (50 mm speaker), or a cheap magnetic earphone, so actual sound quality is tinny, but no worse than most of its contemporaries. The other unusual feature is the case design. A 9-volt PP3/006P type battery powers it but instead of it being housed in a lidded compartment, to get to it you simply slide off the whole of the case’s outer cover. There are just two controls, rotary volume on/off and tuning knobs and only other minor points of interest are a 2.5mm jack socket for the earphone and a wrist strap or lanyard, attached to the case next to the tuner knob.
Undoubtedly the most noteworthy features are that it came with its original box and earphone. It is in near mint condition, and it cost me just £1.00 at a local car boot sale, and this was relatively late in the day when a lot of stallholders were packing up. Whilst in general the number of 60’s and 70s vintage radios has been in steady decline for the past few years, it’s refreshing to come across the occasional bargain, and more surprisingly, one that normally eagle-eyed fellow bargain hunters failed to spot.
I didn’t have a chance to test it at the time but a quick look inside showed it to be clean throughout, no loose wires and apparently complete. The asking price was too low to even think about haggling. For once I wasn’t too surprised when it powered up and worked straight away. The scratchy volume control responded well to a few squirts of switch cleaner and a drop of oil freed up the tight tuning knob. A quick wipe over with some spray polish and it looked as good as new. The only outward sign of its age was some very slight darkening of the cream coloured plastic trim around the two control knobs.
What Happened To It?
With only a tiny handful of Monatone products to go by (a couple of larger radios and a TV) and no record of the brand’s history it is difficult to say when the D 5151 first appeared, and how long it was in production. The only tangible clues to its age are on the circuit board and ‘Made in Hong Kong’ moulded into the case. The transistors are characteristic of radios made in the early 60s, and that sort of date tallies with the country of manufacture as up until the early 60s products from Hong Kong were often labelled ‘Empire Made’. By the late 60s Japanese companies had all but taken over the pocket radio market through a combination of more efficient production and lower labour and operating costs. All this points to the D 5151 only being around for a few years years. Pocket radio manufacturers in that part of the world tended not to be around for very long. The brand names that appeared on them were also short-lived, commissioned by an importer, sometimes for a short, single production run.
The lack of any particularly unusual or innovative features and no company history may explain why this model hasn’t left any obvious footprint. Although it is quite rare, in the fickle world of vintage radio collecting that doesn’t count for much. I have valued this specimen at £20, it’s probably a bit optimistic but it is in excellent condition and comes with its original box and earphone. To be realistic I doubt that it would fetch much more than £10 on ebay, and that’s on a good day, unless a couple of determined or specialist collectors took a shine to it. It has, however, earned this mention in dustygizmos, if only because this might well turn out to be the only record of its brief existence…
First Seen: 1963? (Insert label)
Original Price: £5.00
Value Today: £20 (0718)
Features: 5/6-transistor AM (535 – 1605kHz) superhetrodyne receiver, ferrite antenna, 50mm 8 ohm speaker, 2.5mm earphone socket,
Power req. 9v PP3/006P battery
Dimensions: 116 x 30 x 68mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 9
Bigston PS-5 Flat Panel Speakers, 1975
Stand by for some more industrial-strength weirdness. What you see here is some really bad art attached to some fairly awful loudspeakers. To be fair the art can be replaced, but the speakers are always going to sound horrible. They’re Bigston PS-5s, a brief, and almost certainly unsuccessful foray into the flat panel speaker market. Flat panel speakers have proved to be a bit of a minefield for the audio industry. It’s a difficult technology to get right; very few systems have managed to escape scorn from notoriously fastidious audiophiles, hi-fi experts and enthusiasts, and the few that received any sort of critical acclaim have tended to be eye-wateringly expensive. These Bigston PS-5s have no pretensions towards high-end audio, which is just as well as you don’t even need to hear them in action to figure that out. The enclosure, or frame, is moulded from cheap and cheerful plastic with a mock-wood finish.
Over the years there have been numerous attempts to perfect the flat panel speaker. Some of them are quite exotic, like electrostatic systems that require external driver circuitry, but the majority, including the PS-5s, are essentially variations of the electrodynamic principle, used by conventional speakers since the1920s. In a nutshell they work like a piston; an electromagnet, driven by the amplifier, pushes and pulls the centre of a flexible cone-shaped diaphragm, attached to a rigid frame. In some flat speaker variants the cone and magnet assembly is simply squashed flat, but this approach tends to produce an uneven sound or unwanted resonance, or both. One of the more successful workarounds is to condense the electromagnetic driver assembly into one or more compact modules, or ‘exciters’, which are mechanically connected to the flat diaphragm, and this is broadly the method used on the PS-5.
The exciter module on the PS-5 sits in the centre of the frame, set into a polystyrene surround, which presumably helps dampen vibrations in the frame. The diaphragm is another thin sheet of polystyrene -- with the image bonded to it -- and this is attached to the sides of the frame, and to the surface of the exciter module. Whatever method is used flat speakers generally suffer from a number of shortcomings. These include undesirable distortion and directional effects but the real deal-breaker is their inability to reproduce the all-important gut thumping, low frequency bass sounds. It’s an inherent flaw and it is simply not possible for a flat surface, with limited travel, to move the same volume of air as a beefy loudspeaker or sub woofer with a large, air-pumping, conical diaphragm. High-end systems usually get around this deficiency by including a separate sub-woofer, which inevitably bumps up the price and complexity.
The origins of the Bigston PS-5s are a bit of a mystery and there are almost no references to them on the web, other than a very occasional appearance on ebay. Even the date of manufacture is uncertain, though I had it on good authority from the seller of this pair, (at a large open air antiques fair in Surrey) that the person he obtained them from had owned them since new, in the mid 1970s. Apparently they were given to him in some sort of promotion. As usual any more information is very welcome.
The only technical data I have is taken from the printed label on the back of the exciter module. This claims that the impedance is 8 ohms; nominal power is 6 watts, and ‘music power’ - whatever that means… - is 20 watts. Frequency response is reckoned to be 50Hz to 20kHz. Some of those numbers can be taken with a pinch of salt and the only irrefutable fact is Japan as the country of manufacture. The less said about the dreadful images on the front the better. The only other feature worth mentioning is the speaker connections, which are a pair of screw terminals, just below the exciter module, on the back panel
They cost £20, haggled down from a very optimistic £35. Buying them was a bit of a risk, but the stallholder assured me that they worked. They appeared – physically at least -- to be in very good condition, and I was curious, having never come across this make or style, or anything quite like it, before. Later, on closer inspection the printed images were even nastier than they first appeared since at some point an attempt had been made to clean them. They were a bit grubby, but I suspect the main reason for the scrubbing they’d received was the smell. They had clearly come from the home of a very heavy smoker. I was able to neutralise the odour coming from the frame with some specialist plastic cleaners but litle could be done to improve the pictures, either smell-wise in or aesthetically, but since they are only held in place by double-sided sticky tape it shouldn’t be too difficult to replace them with something less offensive, or smelly. They did indeed work. This is another aspect of the design that we needn’t waste too much time on, though it is fairly obvious that they’re more of a novelty item than a serious piece of hi-fi kit. The short version is they have a thin, hollow quality; there’s little or no depth and no bass to speak of. Fiddling with the amplifier’s bass and treble controls helps a little, to the point where the best you can say is they’re not too bad, and with some assistance from a sub-woofer the sound is on a par with what you might expect from a budget audio system.
What Happened To It?
Flat panel speaker technology continues to improve and over the years several high-end systems have managed to impress the critics, but apart from specialist applications like PCs and so on, where space is at a premium, they have yet to make much of an impression in budget and mid-range hi-fi, where traditional speakers continue to deliver the best sound at an affordable price. It has proved difficult to track down the manufacturer. The most likely candidate is the Bigston Corporation, formed in 1972, as a US subsidiary of a Japanese company (possibly Kyocera). It now specialises in providing product sub-assembly and kitting services for the electronic industry. They do have a track record in audio equipment and speaker design and manufacture, but if they were responsible for the SP-5 it has been left out of the company’s history.
When it comes to vintage audio, heritage and quality are the main drivers of value. Rarity also counts for something, but without any real hi-fi credentials the SP-5’s are never going to tickle the fancies of hardened collectors. They do have some novelty value though, and the £20 I paid for this pair is probably about right. Mint and boxed examples might go for a little more, but this sort of thing is too far off the beaten track to excite much interest, now or in the foreseeable. It would be a very different matter if there was more than just a spark of sonic performance, in which case they might even be pressed into service, but as they stand listening to them for more than a few minutes is a rather disappointing experience, and even if you swapped the images those tacky brown plastic frames are not a pretty sight.
First Seen: 1975
Orginal Price: £?
Value Today: £20 (0418)
Features: 8 ohm impedance, nominal input power 6 watts, frequency response 50Hz – 20kHz, screw terminal connections
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 510 x 370 x 33mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Philips GF300 Portable Record Player, 1970
Mention portable record players to anyone old enough remember them the first time around and they’ll probably conjure up images of small suitcase-sized boxes like the iconic Dansette, Fidelity and Decca models. These were common from around the mid 1950s up until the early 1970s but to be honest the only justification for the term ‘portable’ was that they had carry handles. Almost all of them were heavy mains-powered lumps and portability simply meant they could be hefted from one room to another relatively easily. Truly portable record players, i.e. battery powered and relatively lightweight models were few and far between in the sixties and seventies and for obvious reasons they couldn’t play records on the move, though there were a couple of notable exceptions, which I hope one to get my hands on, so stay tuned.
The Philips GF300 featured here was one of those early battery-powered models. Unfortunately it was effectively obsolete by the time it appeared, in around 1970, as by then the Compact Cassette -- another Philips innovation dating from 1963 -- had totally revolutionised the portable audio market. The GF300 is a compact and very simple design; the lid of the case houses the speaker – there’s only one, the output is mono – and this is connected to the main unit by a short length of 2-core cable. The turntable is a three-speed type running at 33, 45 & 78rpm, with a detachable piezo/ceramic crystal cartridge and a flip-over stylus for 33/45 & 78 rpm records. The built-in amplifier is a straightforward 6-transistor push-pull design, delivering around half a watt. That might not sound much but it can fill a room, and it’s not quite loud enough to annoy the neighbours, so it’s ideal for teenager’s bedrooms and so on. Power comes from a set of six 1.5-volt D cells and there’s a socket on the side for what was probably an optional mains power adaptor
It has a few clever features, like the folding control panel. When you want to fit the lid the panel has to be flipped up and in doing so the bracket in which it normally sits becomes the carry handle. To prevent damage to the tone arm when it is being carried it has to be clipped to a spring-loaded transit pillar. The deck mechanism has a novel arrangement that does away with a separate power switch. To play a disc the tone arm is unclipped and moved to the right, which turns on the turntable motor and amplifier. There are just three controls, the volume knob and three-position speed selector on the flip-up panel, and a sliding manual/auto switch close to the tone-arm rest.
The turntable mechanism is about as simple as it can be. The drive motor has a stepped spindle that drives a rubber-rimmed idler wheel that comes into contact with the cast-alloy turntable platter. The speed control simply tilts the idler wheel onto the appropriate spindle step. The rest of the levers and arms are for switching the motor on and off, as the tone arm travels across the disc. The tone arm is lightly sprung to compensate for the weight of the plug-in cartridge. Unsurprisingly, on what is after all a pretty basic setup, there are no user adjustments. Everything is reasonably well made, though the plastic case feels quite brittle and because of its weight (a little over 2kg with a full set of batteries) there is little doubt it wouldn’t survive a tumble onto a hard surface.
It came from a large open-air antique fair in the Midlands and I almost passed it by. I thought it was a cassette storage box, or possibly a large cassette player, but the weight suggested there was something more interesting inside. It took a good couple of minutes to open the case, not that it had an especially complicated latch, but a film of grime had formed a tight seal between the case and lid. Eventually I managed to prise it open; inside the deck appeared to be in excellent condition, it had the original cartridge and stylus and the battery compartment was clean, apart from some decaying foam cushioning. I suspect it had been sealed shut for years and the grime had done an excellent job of keeping out moisture, and inquisitive punters. The stallholder appeared not to know or care what it was and when I held it up for a price he didn’t give it more than a glance before asking £3.00. No haggling was necessary; even if it was a pile of junk I reckoned the cartridge was probably worth the price.
Following a thorough clean up and a few dabs of light grease on the moving parts it was time to power it up. The motor ran smoothly and there was a welcome crackle from the speaker but the turntable wasn’t moving and the stylus didn’t respond to a gentle tickle. Sorting out the turntable wasn’t too difficult. A lever that was supposed to engage with the Auto/Manual switch and a small spring had come adrift. Using a signal injector I was able to check that the amp was working, right up to the contacts on the cartridge socket. I hoped it would be something simple, like a loose wire or some such but after pulling out the cartridge and removing the protective shell it was obvious that it was beyond repair. The crystal slab had delaminated and parts it crumbled into dust.
Sourcing a reasonably priced replacement proved to be a bit of a challenge. Luckily I stumbled across an ebay seller in South Africa selling compatible cartridges at what seemed a very reasonable price. Apparently they were part of a large a stock of vintage cartridges purchased from a recently closed hi-fi seller and were boxed and in as-new condition. At the time of writing I have yet to test the new cartridge. Hopefully it is going to be transported to UK by my brother, later in the year, on his annual visit. I was able to give the player a rough and ready road test, however, by jury-rigging a modern crystal pickup to the original Philips cartridge. It was a little heavier but the results were actually quite good, with plenty of volume and a well-rounded sound, including some unexpectedly beefy bass coming from the speaker. In short it sounds great and my guess is the new cartridge is unlikely to make much difference, one way or the other. This GF300 is never going to register on the Hi-Fi scale but that really doesn’t matter. It’s not for audiophiles or Hi-Fi nuts to analyse; it’s a cheap and cheerful portable record player, aimed at kids and teenagers and it does exactly what it was designed to do, play pop tunes, for the sheer pleasure of listening to music.
What Happened To It?
Philips and portable record players go back a long way, and they must have known at the time of launch that the GF300 was going to be one of the last of the line. By the late 1960s the Compact Cassette had become the dominant format for portable and personal music systems so it wasn’t surprising that production run of this model didn't last more than 2 or 3 years.
The runaway success of the cassette didn’t just affect the GF300, though. By the mid 70s record players and decks were vanishing at a rate of knots from Hi-Fi manufacturer’s ranges, though it would take at least 10 years, until the start of the eighties, before they finally disappeared from budget and mid-range one-piece Hi-Fi systems and separates. The market for high-end equipment also took a big hit, but a surprisingly large and dedicated band of enthusiasts kept vinyl alive long enough for the current revival, which began in earnest in around 2010. Philips is still with us and they too have managed to hang on in the face of stiff competition and major technological advances. However, these days the consumer electronics division is a fraction of the size it was in the 80s and 90s and now mostly concentrates on flat screen TVs and badged AV products made in the Far East.
Vintage portable and novelty record players like the GF300 are a bit of a niche area for serious collectors of vintage audio and technology. Nevertheless buoyed by the growing interest in anything to do with vinyl, rare and exotic designs, like very early wind-up portables, and later valve-based and even transistorised models like the Baird Emerson Wondergram and Audio Technica Sound Burger can sell for three-figure sums. Don’t be alarmed, though, GF300s, in varying states of repair can often be found on ebay for between £20 and £50, and as this one proves, a good deal less if you are lucky and keep your eyes open. Breathing life into old portable record players can be really satisfying and rewarding. The technology is mostly quite approachable and anyone with a modicum of electronic and mechanical skills can have a go at reviving cheap fixer-uppers and even complete basket cases. Just make sure they’re the real thing, though. There are a lot of modern retro portable record players doing the rounds and you can be sure that anything with a USB socket isn’t that old!
First Seen: 1970
Orginal Price: £30?
Value Today: £40 (0418)
Features: 33, 45 & 78rpm turntable, crystal pickup (switchable LP & 78 stylus), 0.5 watt amplifier, detachable 100mm speaker, volume & speed controls, carry handle, 45 single centre adaptor, external DC power socket
Power req. 6 x 1.5 volt D cells, external 9v adaptor
Dimensions: 310 x 160 x 105m
Made (assembled) in: France
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Hitachi TRK-8015 Stereo Cassette Recorder, 1982
There were some really weird and wacky electronic gadgets in the late seventies but one of the strangest has to be the Boombox, later derided as Ghetto Blasters due to their association with US urban society and the emerging hip-hop culture. What started out as largish portable stereo radio cassette players had, by the early eighties, morphed into bling-laden suitcase-sized sound systems, but it didn’t last long. Increasingly powerful amplifiers and giant speakers resulted in them being seen as a bit of a joke, branded a nuisance and widely banned in public places.
In the end the only people who mourned their passing were makers and sellers of batteries. Boombox manufacturers didn’t shed too many tears either. They had become an embarrassment for the bigger Japanese brands – though it didn’t stop some of them churning out some truly outrageous designs – but this was the start of the home and personal entertainment revolutions; audio and video technology was growing-up, becoming respectable and very middle class.
Hitachi was responsible for its fair share of Boomboxes, but to their credit they never produced any of the ridiculously large, loud and shiny models. The TRK-8015, which we’re looking at here, came out in about 1981/82, towards the end of the madness. It’s still a fair sized lump but with toned-down cosmetics, a comparatively weedy 2.5 watts per channel output and a mostly sensible assortment of features; needless to say it would have been decidedly short on street cred. It was probably aimed at young adults (and the youthful middle-aged), looking for something just a little edgy and down with the kids, but not too loud, with half decent sound and without the hernia inducing weight and a wallet-emptying appetite for batteries.
The radio is a 4-band design with FM stereo, Medium and Long Wave coverage, plus Short Wave, which isn’t good for much, but it makes it look a bit more sophisticated. Liberties were also taken with the tuning dial, which looks a great deal wider than it actually is, presumably to fill up the front panel. The tuning indicator only moves around half the width of the scale. The cassette deck is quite basic with clunky mechanical push-button controls. Hitachi must have scraped the barrel to find something interesting to put on the front and top panels. The best they could come up with was ‘Full Auto Stop’ and something called ‘Full Matic Recording & Variable Monitor’, which roughly translates as bog-standard automatic recording level and the facility to listen to a recording in progress through the headphone output…
There are a couple of extra touches, though, in the shape of an LED stereo indicator and a small meter, which shows battery condition and somewhat more pointlessly, audio level. Recording options are confined to whatever is on the radio, or coming through the two built-in electret microphones, or an external stereo mike. The top panel controls cover balance, tone, volume, function (tape, radio), waveband plus switches for stereo/mono and AFC (automatic frequency control), which again is largely pointless. A compartment on the back panel holds six 1.5-volt D cells plus there’s a built-in mains power supply and a socket for an external 9-volt DC supply. The latter may have been a problem for anyone wanting to power the radio from a 12-volt car battery. Hitachi have always had a good reputation for build quality and the 8015 is up to their usual standard, though the internal wiring looks really untidy and as I discovered, not helpful when it comes to tracing faults.
A house clearance stall at a local car boot sale was the source of this 8015. It was one of those pile ‘em high, no-nonsense, no-haggling setups with everything priced at £2.00, so even if didn’t work it would be worth it for parts. It was in a pretty grubby state so I didn’t have any expectations. It was indeed completely dead but the usual suspects – corroded or broken battery contacts and wires – all got a clean bill of health. It was something much more mundane, one of the leads from the battery box had come adrift, a simple press fit that took about 2 seconds to replace. That was where my luck ran out. There was just a loud hiss from one of the speakers and nothing at all coming from the tape deck.
Using a simple signal injector I managed to track down the missing left hand channel to the output of one of a pair of LA4112 audio amplifier chips. Replacements are still available, at a price, soI decided to check if the suspect chip was shot by swapping it with its companion. At the next switch on both channels came alive, suggesting that a dry solder joint was causing the problem. Back to the duff cassette deck and the problem was obvious as soon as I lifted the PCB to fix the amplifier. The main drive belt had liquefied leaving a foul black sticky mess on everything it had come into contact with. Long story short it took a good couple of hours to clean it up and fit a new belt. Following its session on the bench it is almost, but not quite back to its old self. There remain a couple of faults; one is in the FM tuner section, which has intermittency when the board is lightly pressed. It’s probably another dry joint or maybe a cracked copper trace but from past experience I know you can waste hours locating the problem. The other one concerns IF tuning, which is clearly off-bonk with poor station separation and noticeable background whine. Neither is terribly serious or likely to get any worse so they will have to wait their turn on the rainy day list
For it’s age and condition it sounds surprisingly good. What it lacks in volume it makes up for with a healthy bass response, thanks to the large speakers and enclosure. Otherwise, after a good clean up, inside and out, it is in pretty fair shape. The clear plastic panels covering the tape compartment and tuning scale are a bit cloudy. There are a number of commercial unguents that purport to remove the film but it’s another job for another day.
What Happened To It?
The Boombox boom was already on the wane by the time the 8015 appeared, which may be why Hitachi went for such a relatively conservative design. Most of the other top-tier Japanese manufacturers were also moving out of that market, into the much more lucrative home entertainment sector with rapidly expanding ranges of large-screen TVs, separate and component Hi-Fi systems, video recorders and camcorders. Aside from their doubtful image, Boomboxes faced a much more serious challenge from the fast growing personal stereo market. The Sony Walkman set the ball rolling in 1979 and by the early 80s they were coming out of the woodwork. For the first time it was possible to enjoy your choice of music, in public and on the move, in comfort and without annoying anyone else. Of course it hardly compares with listening to very loud, distorted sounds coming from a big plastic box in the street, but it did point to the fact that people were starting to take quality a lot more seriously, and listening to music was rapidly becoming more of an individual experience.
Hitachi, once one of most innovative of the major Japanese companies is still with us. However, in the past ten years the consumer electronic division has shrunk to a shadow of its former self and is now little more than a badge-engineering exercise for Chinese made products. Nowadays most of their efforts are concentrated on big engineering, like building trains, nuclear power stations, earth moving equipment and so on.
The Boombox era has been largely forgotten but there does appear to be a collectors market in the making, especially for the earliest and most garish or monstrous examples. There is a fair selection on ebay at the moment, but the only thing you can say about prices is that they are all over the place, anywhere from £5.00 to £50 for auction lots. Some of the really big ones, especially if they are shiny and have lots of knobs, are mostly listed as Buy It Now items, which suggests that sellers are either highly optimistic about what they are worth, or more likely, concerned that they will perform poorly in auction. Bargains can be found, though, but make sure you have the room, and some familiarity with the workings of these devices. They are generally quite easy to fix but bear in mind that they are an unholy mixture of electronics and mechanics, which means there is a helluva lot to go wrong.
First seen: 1982
Original Price: £50?
Value Today: £20 (0318)
Features: 4-waveband receiver (Stereo FM 87.5 – 108MHz, SW 6.0 – 18MHz, MW 530 – 1605kHz, LW 150 –350kHz), auto stop cassette tape deck, 2 x 2.5 watt stereo amplifier, internal mics, auto record level, battery/level meter, stereo indicator LED, telescopic antenna, folding carry handle. Sockets: headphone (std jack), antenna, ext. microphones, ext. speakers, DC power, AC mains
Power req. 6 x 1.5 volt D cells, 240 volts AC
Dimensions: 410 x 240 x 120mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6‘
Le Parfait’ Picture Frame Radio/Tuner, 1955?
When it comes down to it picture frames are mostly pretty boring, which is as it should be; it’s the picture inside that’s important. Of course, if the frame is made of some rare or exotic material, or involves an unusual level of craftsmanship that’s another matter, in which case it will have an intrinsic value of its own. In most cases, though, they only need to be appropriately decorative, protect the picture and display to its best advantage.
Over the years there have been countless attempts to make picture frames more interesting or useful, from fancy shapes, to more recent frivolities like built-in digital alarm clocks to colour LCD displays and even radios. As it happens, integrating technology into picture frames is not exactly a new idea and this French-made Le Parfait’ (The Perfect) picture frame, dates from around the mid 1950s, probably...
From the front it looks perfectly ordinary; it consists of a well-made glazed wooden frame mounted on a simple wood plinth with a swivelling base. It’s the sort of thing you can find in almost any junk or antique shop selling for upwards of fiver, but turn it around and the there’s a metal box attached to the rear. It looks like it might be some sort of radio but on closer inspection what appears to be a speaker grille turns out to be ventilation holes. In addition the markings on the two knobs are not at all radio-like, unless you happen to be French. The three-position switch on the left is labelled O.C., P.O. and G.O. These turn out to be abbreviations for Onds Corte, Petit Onde and Grande Ondes, or Long Wave, Medium Wave and Short Wave. So it must be a French radio?
Well, sort of. The French part is certainly correct but it is only a tuner and somewhere down the line it must have parted company with a companion amplifier and power supply. That is a great shame, but thankfully the frame is almost certainly the most interesting part. The circuit is relatively simple and based around a single EF80 pentode valve, commonly used in the RF and IF stages of valve radios. There are only a handful of ancillary components, a few resistors and capacitors, including one variable type, plus a couple of coils and the antenna, which is embedded into the frame (the red wires at the base -- see photo below). That’s all there is to it, apart from the mystery driver box, which connects to the frame via a five-pin socket on the rear panel, just below the wave-change switch.
The reason I noticed it, at the Surrey Antiques fair where I found it, may have been due to a previous browser. My guess is he or she picked it up, spotted the £28 price tag and put it back down on the table, but at an angle so the tuner box was just visible. I picked it up and although I hadn’t seen one before, I caught a glimpse of a valve through the ventilation holes, which gave me a fair idea of what it might be. The stallholder mentioned that his wife found it in a Belgian antiques shop, which fits in with the name and its French origins, and it appeared to be in really good condition. However, the price was a bit ambitious, even for something this unusual and being a wet and miserable day, my offer of £20 was swiftly accepted. Apart from a quick polish and dust out it needed no additional cleaning or work. I’ve kept the original photograph, which looks like it belongs there and bears a strong resemblance to one of my wife’s relatives.
I have no reason to think that it won’t work. Even if the valve is a dud they are easy enough to get hold of and none of the other components are unusual. There is no reason why it couldn’t be resurrected by reverse-engineering the circuit inside the metal box. It should be an easy task for someone who enjoys messing around with valves, but not me, I hasten to add. Valves are nasty hot, sparky things and I have suffered far too many shocks and burns to want to get involved any time soon.
What Happened To It
In short everything about this device is a mystery. Le Parfait is a well-known brand of French-made glass preserving jars, established in the 1930s. My first thought was that it might be a promotional item made for them, but the logos are quite different so it seems unlikely. The professionally made case and labels indicates that it wasn’t a homemade, one-off, but few of them appear to have been made. There are only a couple of vague references to this frame, and a couple of similar designs, on the web, which shed little or no light on its origins. In fact the only thing that I can say for certain is that it dates from after 1950, when the EF80 valve was first introduced, and it probably went out of production after a short time as by the late 1950s, inexpensive transistors became available. As usual I would be very pleased to hear from anyone who can fill in the gaps (email@example.com).
Picture frame radios are few and far between on ebay and most of them are tacky plastic jobbies from the 1970s and 80s, so the value of this one is anyone’s guess. I consider that the £20 I paid for it was a fair price. Had it included the original driver box I would have expected it to be worth several times as much. If anyone was daft enough to rip out the guts and shoehorn in a modern transistor radio it might fetch a bit more but considering it’s apparent rarity that would be sacrilege. Maybe, one day I’ll grit my teeth and figure out how to make it work but for the moment it’ll have to earn its keep as a mute, but not unpleasant frame with a nice photograph…
First seen: 1955?
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £20.00 (0118)
Features: RF tuner, 1 x EF80 RF/IF Pentode valve), Long, Medium & Short Wave coverage, built in antenna, swivel base, requires external power supply and amplification
Power req. External HT
Dimensions: 292 x 210 x 135mm
Made (assembled) in: France
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Philips 13RF833 Combi Record Player/Radio, 1972
Although record players never really went away, the ongoing vinyl revolution has meant that shops are stuffed with cheap, and often quite nasty products; they’re even selling them next to the potatoes and cabbages in supermarkets for heaven’s sake… It’s hard to say who’s buying them; I would like to think that a new generation is learning to appreciate vinyl, though I suspect a lot of them end up in the hands of Baby Boomers, who, like me, grew up listening to 45s and LPs. If so you may be disappointed by what comes out of the speakers of those fancy digital-ready USB-equipped turntables. Truth be told, most of the cheapie record players we had in our youth were no great shakes either, but time and memory plays tricks. Back then the hiss, pops, and crackles went largely unnoticed; we only started hearing the imperfections decades later, thanks to squeaky-clean but souless digital media.
The bottom line is that not much has changed over the years. From a technical standpoint cheap record players have always sounded piss-poor, whilst expensive high-end gear, from any decade, sounds as good as it can get, which at its best can be fantastic. But it’s not all black and white. There is a middle ground. If you were then, or are now, prepared to pay a little more, vinyl records can sound pretty good. In years gone by one of the most prolific makers of decent mid-range audio equipment was Philips. This 13RF833 combo record player and 3-band radio, dating from the early 1970s, was precisely the sort of modestly priced system that wouldn’t hurt the wallet, or ears, and several decades later it is still capable of showing a lot of modern players a clean pair of heels.
A record player with a built-in amplifier and 3-band radio was all part of the seventies shift away from bulky and ugly timber-clad radiograms – more a piece of furniture than a home entertainment product – towards equally horrible shiny plastic Music Centres. However, the 13RF833’s compact size and understated cosmetics fitted in with the décor of the day and was meant to be heard, rather than seen. It has no ground-breaking features to speak of, just a capable 4-speed turntable, paired with the respected 22GP300 cartridge and stylus, a well-designed 10-transistor amplifier, pushing out around 5 watts per channel, and a 3-band (MW, LW & VHF) receiver. You hardly need to look at the instruction manual to figure out how to set it up and use it, and the only minor grumble is that you can’t play LPs with the clear plastic lid in place.
This one now looks very different to what I found at a boot sale in Kent. You can tell just how bad it was from the price, just £1.00. It was clearly all there, except for the companion speakers, even the Perspex lid was in one piece, with no serious cracks, which is incredibly rare. However, the real selling point -- not that the asking price was any sort of deterrent -- was the cartridge and stylus. It was completely intact and appeared to be in very good condition. It’s a 70’s classic, used on many different turntables and today you can pay between £20.00 and £40.00 for one online and on ebay.
Most of the player’s unkempt appearance was down to the previous owner(s) lack of decorating skills, namely the need to cover up or remove anything of value that you don’t want to get splattered in paint spots. Fortunately it was very old emulsion paint and most of it came off with some gentle fingernail scratching. The rest of the gunk, accumulated over the past 40 plus years, yielded to some household cleaners Finally some vigorous rubbing with Brasso removed a few light scratches on the Perspex cover.
I didn’t expect it to work; it had probably been sitting idle for decades, almost certainly because there was something wrong with it. I was right, but it could have been a lot worse. The panel light came on, there was a bit of a buzz from the speakers, and some mush from the radio when the radio mode was selected. The turntable was in big trouble, though. The motor ran constantly, the platter didn’t spin but parts of the mechanism were in motion, accompanied by a lot of unhealthy sounding clunks.
Turntables can be a nightmare to work on, and this one was no different. It took a good two hours to figure out how to separate the mechanism from the case without destroying it. I would like to say I found the fault using logic and diligent troubleshooting but the truth was, it was pure luck. After a lot of messing around I noticed that a pin, which follows a track on the cam that makes things move was skipping over a large and important-looking indent. Applying light pressure to the lever attached to the pin, it dipped into the indent; the clunking stopped and things started to happen in what seemed to be the right order. At that point I spotted two small holes in the pin holder and an adjacent section of the chassis that might be anchor points for a spring. Luckily I managed to find a pdf copy of the turntable’s maintenance manual on the web. It was in German but there were plenty of good exploded diagrams, which confirmed a spring was missing. After a lot of trial and error I eventually found one of the approximately right size and tension and it worked!
In fact everything turned out to be in fairly good shape, though the volume tone and balance controls will need good clean at some point. Otherwise it produces a warm, clean sound that bought back a lot of memories. Ancient germanium transistors and simple analogue amps have a particular character but it’s not especially loud so I suspect it will need re-capping at some stage, which may also help clear up the low level background mains hum.
What Happened To It?
It is easy to forget just how big Philips used to be in the home entertainment business. The brand, which a lot of people believed to be British (they were based in Eindhoven in Holland), was highly regarded, and for good reason. The stuff they made, from their earliest days -- around the turn of the twentieth century -- to the late 80s was generally fairly priced, of excellent quality, and it lasted. Unfortunately for them the Japanese became even better at making inexpensive electronic widgets and after a succession of sell-offs and consolidations in the late 90s and early noughties the Philips brand became a shadow of its former self,. It is now largely associated with lighting and healthcare products, though a relatively small consumer electronics division continues to badge-engineer products like flat screen TVs and so on.
The history of record players, like this 13RF833, is well known and the rapid demise of vinyl was largely due to the Compact Cassette, developed by Philips in 1963. This particular model probably only lasted for a couple of years, before it was dropped from the range in favour of an all-on-one Music Centre. In turn they were replaced by stacking systems, with a turntable on the top. But by the mid 80s Compact Disc players, another Philips innovation (in partnership with Sony), made turntables virtually redundant. At least that was the situation in budget and mid-market stack systems. For almost three decades vinyl went underground, kept alive by dedicated audiophiles and a handful of high-end equipment manufacturers. Then in around 2010 the well-publicised vinyl revival took off and continues to this day, but home entertainment is a fickle business. The next big thing is always just around the corner; we’re told that physical media that you can hold in your hand is on the way out and will be replaced by streaming, brain implants or some such digital nonsense and we’ll all be moved another step or three away from the simplicity and purity of real, unadulterated music.
There’s no getting away from it. Buying an old record player -- especially from a car boot sale – and expecting it to work, requires a lot of optimism and luck. If you want a useable vintage turntable expect to pay a healthy premium for a good quality tested and guaranteed product from a reputable seller. I’ve only seen a couple of 13RF833s on ebay. Both of them were in poor condition, sold for spares or repair, with starting prices of around £10 and £40. As I recall neither of them had any takers. Nevertheless, if you are up for a challenge, can work a screwdriver and soldering iron and have plenty of time and patience then getting a cheap pre-eighties record player working can be hugely rewarding. Spare parts are not usually too difficult to find, though you may have to resort to some creative solutions or salvaging bits from a scrapped donor product. This isn’t necessarily an expensive business, though, especially on popular products from well-known manufacturers, which are still quite abundant. It’s impossible to pin down prices, but be suspicious, or realistic, about the prospects of anything costing less than £10, and if you are thinking of spending more than £20 or so, make sure you hear it working before parting with your beer vouchers!
First seen: 1972
Original Price: £30.00?
Value Today: £20.00 (0118)
Features: 4-speed direct drive turntable (16/33/45/78 rpm), auto/manual cueing, arm lift, Philips 22GP300 cartridge, stereo amplifier (push-pull output, 5 watts rms), 3-waveband (MS, LW VHF) superhet receiver
Power req. 240vAC
Dimensions: 340 x 320 x 160mm
Made (assembled) in: Great Britain
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 4
Spirit Of St Louis Field Radio, 1990
You might be forgiven for thinking that retro styling is a relatively new fad but when it comes to the design of radios it has been going on for decades. Back in the mid nineteen fifties, when transistor radios first appeared, the more conservative British and European radio manufacturers did their best to hide the fact that there was cutting-edge technology inside their big wooden boxes. They hoped they wouldn't
look too different to their valve-based predecessors, which they feared might frighten their equally conservative and tech-averse customers.
It didn’t last long, or do most of them any good and all but a handful of those long established radio makers went out of business as companies in Hong Kong and Japan embraced and exploited the modernity of semiconductors and plastics. Most recent retro radios hark back to the golden age of rock n roll, the 50s and 60s, but here’s one that supposedly draws its inspiration from the late 1920s. It was meant to celebrate the historic flight of The Spirit Of St Louis, in May 1927. This remarkable aircraft, piloted by Charles Lindbergh, made the first solo, non-stop transatlantic crossing, from New York to Paris. In fact The Spirit Of St Louis Field Radio was one of the first of the breed, which went on to spawn an apparently never-ending series of fake vintage consumer electronics products. Credit where it’s due, though. It’s was a clever idea and the retro look on some of them has been good enough to fool a fair number of people into thinking they’re the real deal, judging by how often they appear on ebay with seemingly straight-faced descriptions claiming they date from the nineteen twenties and thirties.
The styling and build quality of the S.O.S.L Field Radio’s case is actually quite good. By no stretch of the imagination is it authentic and the presence of a VHF/FM waveband and LED indicators should be enough to warn anyone that it cannot possibly be more than 40 or so years old. However, the large illuminated dials, faux Bakelite knobs, chunky metal trim and fittings and the leather-look carry-handle are genuinely evocative of an aircraft instrument panel and – if you screw up your eyes -- the early days of radio.
The tech spec is fairly modest. The tuner is a 3-band design covering the AM Long and Medium and VHF/FM broadcast bands. Tuning and volume are adjusted manually using the two large dials at the top of the case. The two 3-way rotary switches on the right hand side are for power on/off and dial backlight and waveband selection. There’s a 5 section folding telescopic antenna on the top and a standard DC connector on the back panel, just above the cover for the battery compartment, which holds three 1.5-volt C cells. It’s all fairly standard fare, though surprisingly there’s no earphone socket, which is unusual on a radio, of any age or type.
Unfortunately the attention to detail doesn’t extend to the interior. Here we find a cheap n’ cheerful superhet tuner module. It’s based around the venerable TDA 1083 ‘one-chip’ radio, which first saw light of day in the late 1970s. It’s not a pretty sight and what really lets the side down is the wiring, or the rather rats-nest of cables. The manufacturers tried, and failed miserably, to tidy it up with short strips of masking tape. It all looks very amateurish and is in stark contrast to the ultra-neat, hand-tied wiring looms found in genuine items of vintage electronic equipment. Nevertheless, it works well enough. The receiver is quite sensitive, though the direct tuning is quite touchy but the 70mm speaker and large, solid case produces a fairly reasonable sound for a modestly priced 90s 'tranny'.
This was a desperate last minute purchase at horribly cold and wet antiques fair in Sussex; in fact it was so bad that it was the only purchase of the day. The radio looked wet and grubby and the stallholder offered no resistance to my £2.00 counter offer to his £5.00 asking price. I expected it to be in a sorry state, probably only good for parts, at best a fixer-upper, but apart form the coating of grime there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. Even the battery compartment was clean and the entire restoration job took around ten minutes, from start to finish.
What Happened To It?
I haven’t been able to find out much about the company (or companies) behind The Spirit Of St Louis range, though the S.O.S.L brand is frequently associated with Polyconcept. It was formed in the early 1970s and specialised in supplying promotional items and fancy goods. There’s even less information on the Field Radio and the date of manufacture is a bit of a guessimate, mostly based on the components, materials and construction methods so feel free to email in any corrections and clarifications.
Externally at least the Field Radio was a fairly decent stab at recreating the look of an olde-tyme radio but it didn’t last. Most recent S.O.S.L branded products appear to be a sorry pastiche of the originals and it will take a very long time before they gain any sort of credibility as collectibles. Being one of the first of its kind the Field Radio stands a slightly better chance and it may help that it doesn’t seem to have sold very well. Maybe they just didn’t last very long, but the upshot is that they don’t turn up on ebay very often. When they do one like this, in fair to good condition, generally sells for upwards of £20, so my £2.00 investment was a good one. If and when they do come onto the collector’s radar early models may well be worth something and currently under-priced examples could do quite well, but only when they’re old enough for the word retro to be replaced by antique.
First seen: 1990
Original Price: £35.00
Value Today: £20.00 (1217)
Features: 3 band (LW/MW/FM), superhetrodyne tuner, ferrite & telescopic antennas, 70mm speaker, LED indicators, illuminated tuning & volume dials, 3.5mm jack earphone socket, DC power socket, rotary volume & tuning, folding carry handle
Power req. 3 x 1.5 volt C cells
Dimensions: 168 x 142 x 73mm
Made (assembled) in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 4
Benkson 65 LW/MW Radio, 1963
Remember Woolworths? The chain of shops that sold everything from sweets to saucepans was a fixture in British high streets for almost 100 years. In 2008 the company went into administration and a year later all of its UK stores had closed. Usually that’s the end of the story but remarkably, some of the products sold by Woolies have attracted the attention of collectors, with prices to match. At a recording of the Antiques Roadshow in Kent in 2016 I watched in amazement as one of the show’s experts waxed lyrical over what I thought were a pair of tacky hand-painted wine glasses. Apparently they had been made exclusively for Woolworths in the fifties and originally sold for 10 shillings (50 pence); the expert estimated their present value at £75.00! I doubt that this little Benkson 65 two-band radio, sold more or less exclusively by Woolworths in the early 60s, will ever get on the telly, or be worth anything like those glasses, but it’s probably worth a little more than it originally cost. What makes it interesting though is that it beat the odds and survived, and it might even stir a few memories for those of us who grew up in the 1960s, when secretly listening to pirate radio stations under the blankets was considered quite rebellious -- it was a more innocent time….
Benkson was almost a Woolworth’s house brand for radios and small tape recorders, though some of their products also turned up in larger branches of Boots. The Benkson 65 was the step-up model from a cheaper Medium Wave only model. I know that because that was the first proper transistor radio I ever owned when I was a lad. The addition of Long Wave reception added another ten shillings to the price, which put it beyond my meagre pocket money and paper round income. The 65, like its more rudimentary stable mate, is a 6-transistor superhetrodyne receiver, a fairly ordinary design, housed in a purple plastic case and apart from the cosmetics and extra waveband, it was similar to hundreds, if not thousands of pocket transistor radios being made in Hong Kong at the time. The only other significant difference between the two Benkson models was the layout. My MW only tranny was a typical upright shirt-pocket shape; the 65 is a near identical design but in what amounts to ‘landscape’ orientated case. This makes it look a little larger and possibly a bit more grown up. I may be reading more into the shape than it deserves but my guess is the addition of Long Wave – better for receiving the BBC’s Home Service (now Radio 4) in out of the way places -- the shape, and the fact that it came with a sturdy leather carry case, may have been meant to appeal to adults, who could easily afford the extra ten bob.
We needn’t dwell on ease of use and performance. There are just three controls: on/off volume and tuning thumbwheels and a wave change switch, oh yes, and it sounds quite tinny. The fact that it still works says a lot for the build quality, or more likely it has been well looked after and spent most of the past 50 plus years in its case, in the back of a drawer. I found it at a local car boot sale – where else – and the slightly tatty leather case and the stallholder saying that it didn’t work helped me to negotiate the price down from £5.00 to £1.00. He might have even got his fiver if he had bothered to install a fresh battery because that was all that was wrong with it. Normally I am prepared to do a bit of work on old transistor radios but apart from a new battery and a few minutes spent cleaning the case, inside and out, the only small defect is the name badge. This has faded with time but it’s really not a problem. They are really easy to replicate by scanning the original and after restoring the logo with some digital trickery a very passable facsimile can be printed onto spray painted OHP film.
What Happened To It?
The name and fate of the Far Eastern company that made it will probably never be known. In sixties Hong Kong there were countless small factories churning out these things but it seems likely that this radio, and the Benkson badge was commissioned by UK importers, Benkert Ltd, based in Mare Street in Hackney. The name appears on at least a dozen portable radios, various toys, mini TVs and several small rim-drive and cassette tape recorders sold by Woolies from the early 60s and later, by independent retailers, up until the mid 1980s. The tape recorders include the Benkson 79, and one of my all-time favourites, the Benkson 68 ‘Thunderbirds’ machine, also featured in dustygizmos. Tracing the fortunes of Benkert Ltd has proved quite difficult. There is a Benkert UK Ltd in Scotland, part of a German owned multinational, but since they appear to be involved in the manufacture cigarettes it seems unlikely they are connected to the Benkert Ltd responsible for this radio.
To be clear the Benkson 65 is not an unusual design. It has no notable features but there are not many of them around – if any -- and for me at least the brand will always be associated with Woolworths. Unfortunately it’s a somewhat obscure connection and I doubt that it adds anything to its value. It may even be the sold survivor; I have yet to see another one on ebay, but if and when does appear it will probably sell for as much as similar models, typically between £5 and £50, depending on the brand, condition and whether or not it comes with its original box. If it has any added value it is in the memories it conjures. On the other hand its relative obscurity can be a good thing and it means that there is still a fair chance of picking up old radios like this one for a few pounds, but maybe not for much longer. The supply is finite and if they ever appear on the Antiques Roadshow you can kiss those boot sale bargains goodbye.
First seen: 1963?
Original Price: 39/6 - £1.95 (1217)
Value Today: £5.00
Features: MW/LW tuning, 6-transistor superhetrodyne, ferrite antenna, 60mm speaker, 3.5mm jack earphone socket, rotary volume on/off & tuning, leather carry case with strap
Power req. 1 x 9 volt PP3 battery
Dimensions: 116 x 83 x 35mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
Barlow Wadley XCR-30 Mk II Receiver, 1974
The Barlow Wadley XCR-30 may be one of the most famous radios that you have never heard of. One of the reasons for its current obscurity is because in its heyday – the seventies and eighties – it was mostly bought by radio amateurs or ‘Hams’ and listeners to the Short Wave bands (known in the trade as SWLs or DX-ers). It has since become the stuff of myth and legend in amateur radio and vintage gadget collecting circles. It was quite expensive and comparatively few were built in its short production run (1973 to 1976) and this was largely due to it being made in South Africa. At the time SA was isolated and sanctioned by the international community in protest over its institutionally racist Apartheid system, so one way or another they are now quite rare. The XCR-30 was also unknown to me but a few years ago my late brother Pete, who lived in South Africa, asked me if I had ever come across this radio, as he owned one in the seventies. He wasn’t a radio enthusiast but he did a lot of travelling and it proved quite handy for keeping up with the news in remote locations.
One of the many features that made the XCR-30 so special is a clever piece of electronic circuitry called the Wadley Loop. Basically it helps the receiver to tune over an unusually wide range of frequencies covering the Medium and Short Wave bands (from 500kHz to 30MHz, on this model) with extraordinary sensitivity and precision. The why’s and wherefores of how it works need not concern us now (there’s more info here) and it would probably make yours (and my) head explode, but suffice it to say since the concept was developed in the 1950s by British electronics engineer Dr Trevor Wadley, it has gone on to become a key element in the design of specialised scientific instruments, like spectrum analysers.
The really surprising thing, though, is that such a sophisticated radio looks rather ordinary and not that different from the countless other portable radios doing the rounds in the 70s and 80s. The only slightly unusual feature, visible on the outside at least, is a hinged panel on the top with a slot for a printed card showing frequency coverage and blank cards for logging stations. Another oddity is the two large tuning knobs on either side of the case, and the two rotating frequency dials they are connected to. These are a clue to the XCR-30’s extra wide tuning range. The ‘MHz Set’ scale on the left extends from 0.5MHz to 30MHz, whilst the ‘kHz Set’ scale/knob on the right is for fine-tuning over the range 0 to 1000kHz. To the right of the scales there’s a small signal strength meter and below that a tiny knob for zeroing the kHz scale. This may need the occasional tweak due to changes in temperature and humidity. It is significant, and a clear indication of this radio’s remarkable prowess that the instruction manual (and others who know this receiver) say with great conviction, that once a station has been tuned ‘the stability is such that it will remain in tune indefinitely’…
The two knobs on the left side of the front pant panel are responsible for on/off volume, and Antenna Trim – we’ll come back to that in a moment – and on the right side there’s two more for Clarify SSB and Mode Selection (USB, AM and LSB). Those last two knobs definitely need some explanation, so starting with the acronyms, SSB stands for Single Sideband, USB is Upper Sideband (not to be confused with Universal Serial Bus, that came much later…), and LSB is Lower Sideband.
Single Sideband is an offshoot of AM (Amplitude Modulation) transmission, which is the system mostly used by radio stations broadcasting on the Long and Medium wavebands. Essentially it’s a very efficient way to transmit simple and relatively low quality sounds, like speech and Morse code, over long distances. SSB takes up around one third of the bandwidth and needs significantly less power than a conventional AM signal. This makes SSB popular with radio amateurs (and Citizen Band users), who enjoy chatting with fellow enthusiasts, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, using low power transmitting equipment. The downsides of SSB operation are that it is no use whatsoever for more complex sounds, like music; receivers tend to be complicated, expensive, and very fiddly to tune, hence the need for that manual SSB ‘Clarify’ control. Without it SSB transmissions would sound a lot like Donald Duck on speed… Back to that Antenna Trim control mentioned earlier and that is for fine-tuning the aerial. This is another handy feature on a receiver designed to pick up extremely weak signals on the short wave bands. One other thing worth a quick mention is the radio’s battery operation. One very welcome spin-off from the Bradley Loop Tuning system is really low standby or 'quiescent' current consumption, typically 20 to 40mA, which translated into English means that a set of batteries will last many times longer than most modern radio receivers of similar capabilities.
And so to this XCR-30’s back story. I have been on the lookout for one ever since my brother drew my attention to it. Only a small handful turn up on ebay each year and almost without exception they change hands for three-figure sums; US buyers appear to be especially keen to get their hands on them. Barlow Wadley is saved as a Search term on my ebay but for some reason this one wasn’t flagged up and I only spotted it by accident, as a ‘you might be interested’ suggestion on some other unrelated auction page. It only had a day to go, with a starting price of £80, and no bids as yet. It was listed as working, in good condition and it came complete with the original instructions and service manual, which are both very rare and desirable to collectors. I was convinced it had been spotted and would sell in the last minute for somewhere north of £200. I put it on my Watch List anyway, more out of curiosity than in any hope of buying it. The auction was due to end early on a Thursday morning, and with an hour to go I checked to see how high the price had risen, but there were still no bids. Forty minutes later I decided to put in a mischief bid of £85 and annoy the hoards of last-second bidders I imagined were waiting to jump in. Fully expecting it to be instantly trounced I forgot about it so I was quite surprised, to say the least, to find the ‘You’ve Won, Pay Now’ email in my inbox later that day, and I was the only bidder.
It was as advertised and in spite of being more than 40 years old it is in remarkably good condition. The case is clean, there are no serious marks or scratches anywhere and it cleaned up well using nothing stronger a soft cloth and some household cleaner. The case was treated to a wipe-over with car dashboard polish, which buffed up to as-new shine. Inside it was just a bit dusty and the only very minor problem was the battery holder, which had a crack at one end, Fortunately these are still available and a new one cost just a couple of pounds. At some point there had been a minor battery leak on the the bottom of the case, which is all metal. The few small spots of ancient brown residue cleaned up easily.
The ebay description was also right about it being in good working order and even the on-board telescopic aerial managed to pull in scores of transmissions on both the MW broadcast and SW amateur radio bands. Articles on the XCR-30 suggested that well-used examples could have mechanical troubles but everything checked out, including a pair of fragile micro switches on the Antenna Trim adjustment. Performance is still excellent and whilst things have moved on, with the introduction of digitally controlled phase locked loop (PLL) tuning systems, not to mention digital displays and all manner of other enhancements in filtration and frequency control, the XCR-30 is remains a damn fine SW receiver and I suspect a good number of amateur radio enthusiasts and DX-ers would enjoy using it.
What Happened To It?
As far as I can make out Trevor Wadley retired to South Africa in the late 60s. He clearly wanted to keep his hand in and teamed up with a local manufacturer, called Barlow’s Television Co, to build his design for the XCR-30. At the time Barlow’s Television was mostly involved in assembling consumer electronics products under licence for Matsushita and Sony. It was a division of the Barlow’s Group, a large and long established conglomerate involved in steel manufacturing and building materials, motor retail and handling equipment. The Barlow’s Group continues to expand and is now a thriving multinational concern.
Although the XCR-30 was in production for only three years it underwent a number of modifications. This example apparently dates to post June 1974, and I know that because one of the few websites with any information about this radio reckons that after that date the all-transistor audio amplifier circuit was replaced with a TAA 611B amplifier chip. Later, even rarer models also sported an FM tuner. This should have made it more consumer friendly and improved sales. However, the home market was limited; sanctions made it difficult for South African companies to sell overseas and this probably bought about the radio’s eventual demise.
I am under no illusions that this was a very lucky find and if you can find an XCR-30 you can expect to pay anywhere between £150 and £500 for one, possibly more if it is boxed and in mint condition. Nevertheless as this one proves they occasionally slip through the net and I have no doubt that over the years a few of them have turned up at a car boot sale or antique fair, selling for a few pounds. So you know what to do if you ever see one for a silly price, and this time, don’t pass it by, even if it is in poor condition. These days even spare parts can fetch a tidy sum.
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First seen: 1973
Original Price: £80?
Value Today: £200 (0917)
Features: Triple-conversion drift cancellation, crystal-controlled ‘Wadley Loop’ tuner, Continuous frequency range 500kHz – 30MHz (Medium to Short Wave), reception modes AM, SSB & CW (continuous wave), dual range analogue tuning, SSB clarifier, antenna trimmer signal level meter, telescopic antenna, external open wire antenna and earth connections, 0.5 watt audio output.
Power req. 56 x 1.5volt D cells & external 6 - 12 volt DC supply
Dimensions: 290 x 237 x 100mm
Made (assembled) in: South Africa
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9
Binatone Worldstar Multi Band Radio, 1976
Some sections of the consumer electronics market have often shown a fairly relaxed attitude towards technical specifications and feature descriptions. It started in earnest in the early sixties and lasted until the late eighties, when legislation was introduced. Throughout that period some pretty big whoppers appeared in promotional and advertising material. The claims made for this late 70s vintage Binatone Worldstar multi-band radio are quite ambitious and must have suckered a good few punters -- including me -- into thinking that it was a lot more sophisticated than it actually was. This model, also sold under a number of other names, was widely touted as a sophisticated 9-band ‘World Radio’, capable of pulling in transmissions from around the globe. At first glance it does have the air of an advanced communications receiver, more so when shown with the flip-up cover for the tuner scale in the open position, displaying a fancy looking time zone calculator and a world map.
Unfortunately, like so much about the Worldstar, this was cosmetic fluff, like those alleged 9 wave bands. On the tuning scale they are listed as AM Broadcast, Sport, B1 Marine, B2 Marine, LW Long wave, FM Music, VHF Aircraft, VHF High and VHF Weather. It all sounds rather exotic but in reality it has only 5 switchable wavebands, namely: Long Wave, Medium Wave, VHF FM and High Band VHF. At least four of the nine purported wavebands were unused in Europe but in any case, even in the US, the market it was originally designed for, it would still have been next to useless for the applications suggested by the waveband names. Incidentally the two so-called Marine bands, covering 200 to 300kHz, were almost exclusively used by the Loran directional beacons. It is highly unlikely that American mariners trust a basic radio like this for navigational purposes, except in the direst emergency.
Three of the five actual bands (AM, LW and FM) work well enough for receiving regular broadcast radio stations, and the VHF Aircraft can sometimes pick up brief snatches of Air Traffic Control and Pilot exchanges, though you would need to be fairly close to an airport or flight path. However, if you were a UK buyer expecting it to pick up anything to do with sport, maritime matters or the weather you would have been sadly disappointed. Other questionable features include the twin telescopic antennas; only one of them really does anything, the other is largely for show, as is the red LED attached to the tuning needle. This glows whenever a station is received, which is most of the time on a busy broadcast band. The sliding Squelch control – a useful feature on communications receivers for eliminating background hiss – is also a bit superfluous on this radio since the opportunities for it to pick up the sort of intermittent transmissions it is meant for would have been few and far between.
But let’s not get too carried away with the imaginative feature list and pretensions. As a largish mains portable radio it stacks up quite well. Don’t be fooled by the faux stitched leather case covering though, it’s all plastic. It is quite sturdily built, though, and there’s even room inside the battery compartment for the mains lead and a US or continental 2-pin plug (but not a bulky UK 3-pin plug). FM reception isn’t too bad either, and you can take it as read that this one works, though it wasn’t always so.
My first encounter with the Worldstar was probably soon after it went on sale, in the mid 1970s. I recall that at the time it was widely advertised in the national press, weekly publications like Exchange and Mart and specialist magazines. It definitely caught my eye but after reading the small print I must have figured out that it was all a bit of a sham. We met again some 40 years later when I spotted this one lurking in a box of junk under a wallpaper-pasting table at a local car boot sale. It appeared to be in reasonably good physical shape, though the top flap with the map was missing (see Update below) but I didn’t have the heart to haggle over the £1.00 asking price. Even if it were a complete write-off it would have been worth it for the mains plug and any salvageable parts.
It cleaned up well but as expected it was a non-runner. Luckily it was the simplest of all faults, a mucky power switch. A few squirts of contact cleaner bought it back to life, and while I was at it, a few more squirts fixed the scratchy slider controls. Inside, the circuit board is typical of Hong Kong made radios of the time. It’s not a pretty sight with a rat’s nest of wires and loads of wax all over the place, meant to stop sensitive components, like coils and capacitors moving around and upsetting the tuning. Everything is quite well spaced, though and it looks like it should be relatively easy to fix should anything go wrong. I would quite like to find a new flip cover for this one but unfortunately it’s going to have to come from another Worldstar. For that to make economic sense it would need to be the only useful part on a complete basket case costing no more than 50 pence, so that’s not going to happen any time soon... (Update, it has happened, see below)
What Happened To It?
It feels like the Binatone brand has been around forever but the company, founded by the Lalvani brothers actually started trading in 1958. Initially Binatone was mostly involved with importing and distributing badged-up electronic products made in the Far East. From the 80s onwards they took a more hands-on approach to design and manufacture and nowadays they are focused on home entertainment and telecomms products and small electrical appliances. Binatone’s success was largely due to its ability to spot trends and react quickly by bringing affordably priced products to the market. These included first generation home video games, audio and video gadgets galore and the Worldstar, which was one of several similarly specified radios around at the time. It appears to have sold quite well, there’s usually a few on ebay, with prices ranging from £15 to £40, and the fact that most of them are still going strong confirms that they were solidly built. This one I’m valuing at only £15 because of the missing flap, and whilst it doesn’t actually do much except let you work out the time in other parts of the world, useless, it is one of the radio’s most visible features and it looks a bit lost without it.
My sincere thanks to Chris Guile for helping me to restore this Binatone Worldstar to its former glory. Chris very kindly sent me a replacement for the missing flip cover, on the top of the case. This was left over from a restoration project of his own. The new cover is shown in the first and fourth photos.
First seen: 1976
Original Price: £25.00
Value Today: £15.00 (0817)
Features: 5-Band (listed as 9): ‘. Frequency coverage: 150 – 300kHz, 540 – 1600kHz, 1.6 – 4.4MHz, 88-108MHz, 108 – 175MHz, 18 transistor superhet, rotary tuning, LED tuning indicator, 10cm speaker, twin telescope & single internal ferrite antennas, volume, tone & squelch sliders, earphone socket (3.5mm jack), hinged world time zone map and calculator
Power req. 4 x 1.5 volt D cells and 240-volt AC mains
Dimensions: 320 x 260 x 104mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
ITT KB Junior Super AM/FM Radio, 1971
This pocketsize transistor radio represents another one of the 'lost' gadgets from my early teenage years, though to be accurate, it is a slightly later version of the one that I actually owned. This Hong Kong made ITT KB Junior Super, dates from around 1972; my original one was the less well-specified Junior ML2 model that first appeared in 1969. For some reason it has become somewhat collectible, with eye-watering prices to match. They are not especially rare but until I find one at a sensible price (£5 tops...) this one will have to do.
To be fair the basic ML2 was the first of the line to sport the Junior badge, which may account for its elevated status, and being a late 1960s design it had only Medium and Long wave coverage. The Junior Super is a more advanced AM/FM receiver, which was actually quite an innovation on small and relatively cheap 'trannies', and somewhat unusual in that the ITT brand was actually quite famous. The vast majority of inexpensive portable radios from that era were made by small far eastern companies that almost no one had heard of, and in most cases disappeared without trace after a few years.
Whilst the Junior Super doesn't have any particularly flashy or groundbreaking features the size and styling deserve a mention. It is small, only slightly larger than the ubiquitous shirt-pocket radios that just about every teenager had back then. The housing is another very obvious sign of the times. The peculiar American fad for encasing almost everything electronic in phoney wood-grained plastic continued until the mid-eighties at which point the Japanese trend for shiny chrome and satin aluminium finishes took over. Inside the box there's a competent AM/FM receiver. It uses 10 transistors, most of which were, at the time, state of the art silicon types. There's a sliding pointer tuner scale on the front panel, which was a bit of a rarity on radios this small. It also has a telescopic aerial with a swivel base and again that was quite unusual on a compact portable. There's only three controls, a pair of thumbwheels on the side for on/off volume and tuning and a slide switch on the back for selecting AM Medium Wave or VHF FM. The only other noteworthy items are a 3.5mm mono jack socket for an earphone and a carry handle.
The date of manufacture is fairly easy to establish, thanks to several radio collector's websites and even one devoted specifically to KB (Kolster Brandes) and ITT-KB models. Oddly this otherwise comprehensive online archive doesn't feature the Junior Super but it does help confirm that it was almost certainly made between 1970 and 1972. This covers the period during which many ITT radios had horizontal wood-effect slatted grills (later ones had holes instead of slats) to when KB was dropped from the logo. This is getting dangerously nerdy, so time to round off the tour with the battery compartment on the underside, which houses four 1.5 volt AA type cells.
As part of my quest to replace the long lost tech of my youth I have been on the lookout for a 69 vintage ITT-KB Junior ML2 for some time but prices have been frankly ridiculous. One recent ebay auction topped £100, though that was for one in mint condition, and complete with its original box. The Junior Super you see here also appeared on ebay, with a starting price of £5.00, and there it stayed until my half-hearted bid of £5.25 went unchallenged. It was as described, in good clean, working condition. In fact the only slight defect was an easily fixed kink in the top section of the telescopic aerial. I don't remember much about the performance of my original ML2 but I can say this one works really well and FM sounds as good, if not better than most cheapo modern receivers.
What Happened To It?
ITT or International Telephone and Telegraph had a rather colourful history. It was founded in the 1920s in the US by two brothers, Herman and Sosthenes Behn. In the early years they concentrated on manufacturing telephones and buying up telecomms companies in South America and Europe. It had a busy and some would say a controversial Second World War, especially where its German subsidiaries were concerned. Questionable connections and involvement with prominent leaders and political figures continued throughout the post war years and it was never far from the headlines, and the American courts. In 1995 ITT was split into three divisions and finally broken up into newly formed publicly traded independent companies in 2011.
Consumer electronics and radios were only ever a tiny part of ITT's vast operation and mostly a badge-engineering exercise, outsourced to far-eastern manufacturers. My Junior ML2 probably only survived for a couple of years before it suffered a fatal drop onto a hard surface, or was killed my constant tinkering. I became adept at taking things apart; putting them back together was another matter but the parts would have been put to good use. According to the KB Museum website the Junior name continued until around 1974 after which the smallest models in the range became Tiny and Pinto, though the Junior was briefly revived for a couple of seasons between 1983 and 1985.
I am clearly not alone in seeking a Junior ML2 and even fairly ropey examples can fetch unrealistic prices. I have no doubt the occasional bargain slips though, but I have yet to see it. As for later models, like the Junior Super, Junior 2 and Junior 21, they tend not to attract much attention, or suffer from optimistic pricing and if you are patient you will almost certainly manage to find a decent one for less than £20, possibly even less if you keep your eyes peeled at car boot sales and antiques markets, but whilst they all look a lot like the ML2 they're just not the same...
First seen: 1969
Original Price: £10.50
Value Today: £15.00 (0717)
Features: AM/FM superhetrodyne, 10 transistors, 9-section telescopic aerial, ferrite antenna, moving tuning scale, rotary volume & tuning, 90mm elliptical speaker, AM/FM slide switch, 3.5mm mono earphone socket, carry handle
Power req. 4 x 1.5 volt AA cells
Dimensions: 152 x 46 x 95mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Koss ESP-6 Electrostatic Headphones, 1968
There’s always room in dustygizmos for technological ‘World’s Firsts’, and what made the Koss ESP-6 headphones briefly famous in audio circles in the late sixties was its fully self-contained, self-energising electrostatic transducers. Okay, so it doesn’t exactly trip off he tongue and it may not have made much of an impact outside the Hi-Fi biz, but this was actually quite a big deal back then and to understand why it is worth a quick trot through the principles of electrostatic speakers and headphones.
As you know the vast majority of speakers and headphones use electromagnetic drivers. Basically the output from an amplifier is applied to a coil of wire; inside the coil there’s a permanent magnet, attached to a conical diaphragm and this moves rapidly back and forth in response to the changes in the signal from the amplifier. It can also be the other way around, with the coil attached to the moving diaphragm and the magnet mounted on the speaker or headphone frame, but the principle is the same. In general it works quite well but a single speaker or transducer, has difficulty covering the whole of our hearing range and distortion can be a problem, so compromises have to be made. These mean putting up with a limited or uneven frequency response, or added complications and expense by using multiple transducers.
One alternative is electrostatic speakers and headphones, developed in the 1950s. These can have a broader and flatter frequency response, with much lower distortion. They work by having a flat, thin and very light diaphragm, stretched and mounted on a frame sandwiched between electrically charged grids. The diaphragm has a conductive coating and by using the amplifier’s output to vary the charge voltage, the diaphragm moves between the grids, creating sounds. As the charge is applied evenly over the surface of the diaphragm and because it is so thin and light, it can reproduce a wider range of frequencies, with much less distortion, compared with a normal loudspeaker. In principle it’s a simple idea but the downsides are that additional circuitry is needed to convert the output from a normal amplifier to drive electrostatic transducers. A few high-end amps have this facility built-in but in most cases electrostatic speakers and headphones have to be used with purpose-designed power supplies and adaptor boxes.
Koss re-wrote the rules with the ESP-6 by fitting all the extra gubbins inside the earphones, with the power needed to generate the electrostatic voltages being derived from the audio output from a normal amplifier. It sounds like an elegant solution but there had to be drawbacks. And there are; the most obvious ones are the size and weight of the headphones and at little under 1kg, you definitely know you are wearing them! That’s not to say they are catastrophically uncomfortable, at least not for short periods. Soft cushioning on the headband and the liquid-filled ear pads help, though in retrospect the latter probably wasn’t such a good idea, as we’ll see in a moment.
They were expensive, even by current standards (equivalent to more than £500 at today’s prices), and most annoyingly, they came with a T3 adaptor module. To be fair you didn’t have to use it. They can be plugged straight into the headphone jack of a ordinary audio amp, and you might even get a half decent sound from them, but it runs the risk of damaging the amplifier as the effect of the ESP-6’s internal circuitry was to vary and raise the impedance of the headphones. Distortion and clipping is another a problem with this arrangement and to help the user avoid it happening each earphone is fitted with a red warning light. They are supposed to be within the wearer’s peripheral vision, though your eyes would need to be on the side of your head to be able to see them.
This pair was found at a Midlands antiques fair, in a rather sorry state, in a large box of junk. I could have had the whole lot for a fiver, but opted instead for the headphones on their own for a non-negotiable price of 50 pence… They were encrusted in layers of mud and the coiled lead had turned into a knotted ball that took half an hour to untangle, but that wasn’t the worst of it. They had fallen prey to two common problems with this design. The liquid filled ear pads had leaked into the earphones, and the foam padding inside had rotted into a gooey mush. Long story short; although the insides were a horrible mess, luckily the goop wasn’t corrosive and after disassembly most of it came away without too much trouble. The foam was easily replaced and some modern ear pads were found.
Unfortunately it didn’t come with the T3 adaptor box but I managed to find a simple adaptor circuit on the web so at least they could be tested using a regular amplifier and the results were quite surprising. The electrostatic elements survived the unpleasantness of the leaky ear pads and compared reasonably well with modern cans. I suspect that with a lot more TLC, the purpose-made adaptor and some fiddling around they could sound even better but you would need to be fairly determined to want to use them on a regular basis due to the weight and discomfort factor.
What Happened To It?
John C. Koss set up set up the company, in partnership with engineer Martin Lange, in Wisconsin 1958 and immediately set about stirring up the then rather conservative audio industry. One of their first products was a stereo record player with built-in speakers and it was one of the first to have a headphone socket. This was quite handy because at the same time they also launched the world’s first stereo headphones, the legendary SP/3s. These immediately propelled Koss into the first division of audio manufacturers and with some clever promotion their headphones were regularly seen adorning the heads of the famous performers and personalities of the day. They’re still going strong with Koss continuing to be a leading light in high-end hi-fi, studio and specialist headphones.
Over the years the popularity of electrostatic speakers and headphones has waxed and waned but they’ve never had much of an impact on mainstream and home hi-fi due to the added complexity and expense. They also have a number of acoustic foibles that experts and purists endlessly debate. On a more down to earth level, the static charges they generate work like a magnet for dust and small insects so they need regular cleaning and in some cases, periodic checking and even replacement. In short they are high maintenance and the improvements in sound quality they may or may not have provided in the past can be hard to hear, let alone justify these days.
Nevertheless there are still plenty of enthusiasts who swear by them and vintage equipment, like these ESP-6’s are of interest to collectors. Vintage headphones tend to be at the lower end of the desirability spectrum but ESP-6s in tip-top condition, with a T3 adaptor and the original carry case can be found on ebay selling for between £80 and £120. Lesser examples, non-runners and fixer-uppers, like this one, are probably only worth £20 to £30 but they’re the sort of thing that will probably attract higher prices as time goes by, if only as sources of spare parts.
First seen: 1968
Original Price: $95.00 (£40)
Value Today: £25 (0517)
Features: Self-energising electrostatic transducers, response 30 – 19kHz (+/- 5dB), internal driver transformers & circuitry, gel-filled ear pads
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 115 x 85 x 63mm (each eph)
Made (assembled) in: USA
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Heathkit GR-78 General Coverage Receiver, 1972
It’s not a name you hear very often these days but up until the late eighties Heathkit was a byword for high performance electronic products. To be honest the company was better known in its US homeland, but such was the quality and reliability of its wares that it enjoyed international renown amongst those interested in such things. However, their unique selling point, and one of the reasons it didn’t have much of a profile in the general electronics market was that most of their products were sold in kit form, as well as ready-made. For a company you may not have heard of they developed a surprisingly wide range of consumer and specialist devices, from Hi-Fi systems and colour TVs to amateur radio equipment and test instruments and along the way became quite a big name in robots and early home computers.
The Heathkit GR-78 General Coverage Receiver featured here was aimed squarely at amateur radio enthusiasts or ‘Hams’ and although its 6-band coverage includes portions of the Long and Medium Wave bands, most of its considerable facilities are concentrated on Short Wave reception. Although outwardly it looks like the sort of thing that belongs on a table or desk it’s actually a portable design. Power comes from an internal rechargeable NiCad battery pack; the external 110/220-volt AC mains and 12-volt DC connections on the back are only there to charge the battery. It even has a carry handle, though it’s a bit of a lump and weighing in at 4.5kg, not the sort of thing you would want to lug around for fun. Portability, such as it is, is mainly for the benefit of radio amateurs, many of whom enjoy nothing more than indulging in a spot of long-distance chatting and wave hopping in the great outdoors.
It sounds a bit odd now, in an age of instant global communications, but amateur radio used to be (and still is, to some extent), a popular hobby. There is undoubtedly a sense of achievement, excitement even, making contact with fellow enthusiasts, hundreds, if not thousands of miles away using relatively low power radio transmitting equipment; better yet if that equipment was built or assembled by you.
To those accustomed to domestic radios with just a handful of controls or buttons and a simple display, the GR-78 looks a bit daunting but in this case more is definitely better. They help the user to pick out incredibly weak signals in amongst the mush of powerful broadcast transmissions, local communications systems, interference, background noise and who knows, maybe even the odd little green (grey) man trying to phone home…
The two most important controls are the rotary band selector and large tuning knob, both on the far right. The bands, assigned letters A to F relate to the scales on the tuning scale. A to C cover parts of the long and medium wave bands whilst D to F are for the key sections of the Short Wave, from 3 to 30MHz. If you are wondering why there’s no VHF/FM coverage that’s just an age thing. Back in the late 1960s, when the GR-78 was designed frequencies above 50MHz was largely the province of broadcast radio and TV stations. VHF signals also only travel relatively short distances – basically line of sight – and the band had yet to be fully opened up for amateur radio applications. The tuning dial is designed for making very precise adjustments. It’s coupled, by a cable and pulley sysytem to the moving pointer on the scale and a small flywheel that helps to smooth the motion.
In the centre of the panel there’s a bank of switches for secondary functions. These include automatic volume control (AVC), automatic noise limiter (ANL), calibration mode (used during initial setup and alignment), AM-CW/SSB selection (reception mode: Amplitude Modulation, Continuous Wave/Single Sideband), Receive/Standby and panel light switch. On the right side the two knobs are for on/off AF and RF Gain (volume and tuner sensitivity) and Bandspread (fine tuning, for separating stations that are close together), which moves the scale in the window above the knob. There’s also a signal strength meter to the right of the tuning scale, and it has a built-in telescopic aerial sticking out of the top of the case, and that’s all there is to it…
In practice getting the most out of this old beast is a bit of a palaver. The built in antenna, doesn’t do a lot and only picks up relatively strong signals a short distance away. Hooking it up to a long outside aerial is what it’s all about. After dark it should come alive when atmospheric conditions allow short wave signals to bounce around the earth reflected from the upper layers in the atmosphere. These days picking out an intelligible signal requires luck and patience though. The drop-off in Ham activity and fewer broadcast stations on the Short Wave bands, plus a proliferation of data traffic and so on means that SWL (Short Wave Listening) is no longer the absorbing hobby it used to be. That’s definitely not a fault of the GR-70, though, which is a superbly well made piece of equipment, so much so that it’s almost impossible to tell if this one is a home-build or ready made version. Construction is largely modular and critical components, like the main tuning block, are factory made and aligned, leaving less scope for cack-handed DIYers to get it wrong. Heathkit’s instruction manuals are also legendary for detail and accuracy and easy to follow, so a good percentage of kit built receivers would have worked, and worked well.
There’s no way of knowing how or why this one ended up in a muddy field, at a car boot sale one wet and windy April morning. The stallholder, obviously in the house clearance business, had no idea if it worked or not, or its value and was happy to accept my offer of £2.00. It could have turned out to been over generous if the innards had been fried but there were no obvious signs of corrosion or decay on the outside, the knobs twiddled, the tuning needle moved smoothly and it didn’t rattle when shook, so it was worth a punt. The date of manufacture or assembly is a bit of a guess, but probably not too far off as this particular model was on sale for just a few years, between 1969 and 1976.
Following a relatively straightforward case clean, internal muck and dust out plus a few squirts of switch cleaner and oil on the moving parts there was complete silence from the speaker when connected up to a 12-volt supply. In fact it was dead as a doornail, not even a panel light, which I checked was working (it was). After reading the manual I eventually managed to work out that external power was only for charging the internal NiCad battery pack. This had long since expired so I bypassed the charging circuit, fed it directly from the power supply and was rewarded with loud hiss from the speaker. More guidance from the manual helped me to navigate the controls and within a couple of minutes Radio 2 Long Wave was coming through loud and clear. All three Short Wave bands made a loud and promising hiss but apart from a few bleeps and squeaks there was nothing of note to listen to. It clearly depends on a proper external aerial. It will have to wait it turn until I get around to stringing up a long wire antenna in the back garden before resuming the road test, but on the evidence so far, it seems like it’s going to be a runner.
What Happened To It?
The Heath Company dates back to 1912, founded by Edward Bayard Heath, who bought up the Bates Aeroplane Company, and proceeded to build light aircraft. Heath came a cropper in 1931 in a fatal test flight crash. The company folded and was bought up, and continued trading as Heath, making and selling aircraft parts. After the Second World War the company moved into electronics manufacturing, making good use of a cheap and ready supply of high quality military surplus parts. One of its first products, launched in 1947, was an oscilloscope kit, with a bargain basement price of just $50.00. It was a huge success and over the next five decades Heathkit went on to produce hundreds of self build kits, and finished products that compared very favourably with anything available at the time. However, by the mid 1980s the kit side of the business was in steep decline. Heathkit pulled out of the market in 1992, hit by overwhelming competition from the far east, the change to digital technology, microchips and tiny components, which made DIY assembly difficult and the consequent downturn in the hobbyist and enthusiast markets.
The Heathkit brand limped on through a succession of buyouts and in 2008 its then owner DESA, went bankrupt. What was left of the Heathkit Company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. In 2015 there were signs of a rescue attempt with a new group acquiring the rights to designs and trademarks, so the story may not be over.
Heathkit products from the 60s to the 80s are still very highly regarded, especially if they still work. Some designs have achieved classic status; test instruments and amateur radio equipment can fetch very respectable prices on ebay. Working GR-78s are not that common and when they turn up in online auctions they typically sell for between £20 and £40, so my two quid gamble could turn out to be a good investment. However, luck was definitely on my side and non-working products can be a gamble. If they were put together by an inexperienced kit builder troubleshooting could prove difficult. Fortunately there’s an excellent archive of manuals and instructions on the Vintage Radio website, for those who enjoy tinkering with old-school electronics.
First seen: 1969 (Manual)
Original Price: $130 (approx £55 in 1969)
Value Today: £30 (0317)