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I have been collecting mini reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 1960s on and off for at least the past twenty years and now have quite a sizeable collection, I stopped counting when the tally passed 100 machines... More recently I have started selling doubles and ones I don’t want any more on ebay but the piles of boxes never seem to get any smaller.
When I first started it was possible to pick them up for a pound or two at car boot sales and flea markets and of course ebay. Prices started to climb a year or so ago and there are fewer bargains to be had but I still pounce on cheap fixer-uppers as I have a good selection of spares and have become quite adept at repairing and restoring basket cases.
It all began when I saw one of the machines that I owned as a kid at an antiques fair. It still had the original crystal tie-clip mike, magnetic earphone, polystyrene packing and box and I snapped it up for a fiver.
My first machine was a ‘Royal Call’ -- featured in Part 1. The one I had back in the early sixties came from a truly bizarre shop in London’s Edgware Road, called Headquarters and General. It was a real Aladdin's Cave, full of surplus electrical equipment,
interesting gadgets, bits and pieces left over from World War and numerous other treasures, and most of it at pocket money prices.
That little Royal Call recorder bought back many memories and it started a craving. I just can’t bear the thought of these wonderful little machines passing unnoticed into history so I made it my mission to rescue as many of them as possible from oblivion. But seriously, if you have one, please don’t throw it away, I’ll always give it a good home.
Now excuse me while I briefly don my anorak and confess to a life-long affection of sixties TV programmes, in particular cheesy spy and secret agent stuff like Danger Man, Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Get Smart and so on. I’m also a big fan of the late, great Gerry Anderson’s classic puppet shows. I go way back with Anderson’s productions to Twizzle, Torchy The Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls but it was the futuristic Supercar, Fireball XL5 and ultimately Thunderbirds that fired my youthful imagination. After Thunderbirds I have to say I rather lost interest. Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and the rest just didn’t have the same impact, though I suppose by then as a teenager I was finding other things to occupy myself. By the way, there's everything you ever wanted to know about Gerry Anderson's shows at: www.fanderson.org.uk/fanderson.htm
When Thunderbirds was first broadcast in 1964 I was instantly hooked and amazed to see my second mini tape recorder -- the one I bought to replace the Royal Call when it popped its clogs -- featured in almost every episode. Mine was a Honeytone, though I have since found identical models with ‘Acme’, ‘Benkson’ 'Homey', ‘Noam’ and ‘International’ badges. It was superbly well made -- probably why it was chosen as a prop for the show -- and in perfect scale for the puppet actors and sets. The one pictured is an International model and you can see it again in the screen grab from one of the episodes, in its usual location, on board the Thunderbird 5 space station, next to John Tracy.
I have dozens of 3-inch rim-drive machines but the focus of my collection is now miniature -- and the smaller the better -- reel-to-reel tape recorders, preferably ones that appeared in TV programmes, and for the want of a better word I’ll call them Spycorders. Most of them use 1/4-inch tape wound on 2.25-inch and 1.5-inch reels. Almost all of them have rim-drive mechanisms (see part 3) so they are not really serious recording instruments, but that doesn’t matter, they look fantastic and are superb pieces of engineering, so let’s look at a few classics.
One of the first in my collection, and still one of my all-time favourites is the Concord F20 Sound Camera. It’s quite bulky by Spycorder standards, even though it uses 2.25-inch reels but its appeal lies in the fact that it made frequent appearances in the opening sequences of the Mission Impossible TV series. ‘Mr Phelps, this tape will self-destruct in five seconds…’, and I have a screen grab to prove it.
Mission Impossible got through a lot a mini tape recorders and there’s even a web site devoted to this very topic at: http://www.mjq.net/mitapes.htm; this has been invaluable in helping me to identify many MI machines.
The next MI tape recorder is another favourite of mine. It’s the Craig 404 (above), made by Sanyo (also sold under their own name) and another 2.25-inch reel machine. It’s a lot smaller than the Concord F20, and better built too, with all metal construction. The case and mechanics is a notch up on the Concord and it looks much more like a serious tape recorder. They are swines to work on as the innards are really cramped. The 4-transistor amplifier circuit is a pig too, and in common with many mini tape recorders all of the electrolytic capacitors have either deformed or become leaky and need to be replaced before it will work. Good examples of the 404 and the later 406, can still be found; I have several of them, most with their original leather cases and remote control microphone.
I feel sure my next machine; the Aiwa TP60 (above) must have featured in several shows though I have never actually seen it on screen. It’s another all metal design, similar to the Craig 404 in that it uses 2.25 inch reels but a little more sophisticated with tighter mechanics, push button controls and variable speed on some examples. It looks more up-market too with its brushed aluminium finish and stylish leather carry case. (Manual)
All-metal construction is a feature of the Juliette LT-44 (right), which has the look of an industrial instrument about it. This particular chassis uses 3-inch reels and there were several variations, under a variety of names, with hinged and removable tops, brushed and chrome finishes and variety of control knob configurations.
I am particularly proud of the Bell Wood Memo Corder (below); it’s the only one I’ve ever seen, apart from a fleeting appearance in the James Bond movie Thunderball. It was in an early scene, hidden inside a book, used to record an intruder in Bond’s hotel room. You would need to be a collector (and a real geek) to have spotted it but the distinctive chrome fittings and the position of the push-button controls are unmistakable.
The rim-drive mechanism is slightly more complex than usual, with an idler wheel providing a faster rewind function. It also has a variable speed control and a small fold-out stand on the underside, which improves the volume from the speaker mounted in the base.
This next one is one of the strangest machines in my collection. It’s called the Parrot and as you can see from the photograph it is disguised as a book. The 3-inch reel rim-drive mechanism is completely unremarkable. The one unusual feature is the microphone, which is fitted inside the case. It’s virtually useless for covert recording -- even if you ignore the fact that the tape only lasts for 10 minutes -- but it is a real novelty and I still see them from time to time on ebay, sometimes selling well below their true worth simply because they’ve been imnapropriately listed under Toys or Books.
I’ll round off this section with the star of my collection, the Swiss-made Nagra SN. Strictly speaking it doesn’t belong here since it is an ultra high-performance machine with a capstan drive mechanism. It has appeared in countless spy and thriller movies, I recently saw one set into the dashboard of a car in the film ‘A series of unfortunate events’. However, it is a serious machine and until recently widely used by film and TV companies for location sound recording but its origins are in espionage. The story goes that the FBI commissioned it in the 1960s.
It is a thing of great beauty, justly compared with a fine Swiss watch in the precision of its engineering. They are still being made, though recent models are a lot more advanced than this one but they all use the same basic layout, with 2.5-inch reels, though unlike the other machines featured here it uses 1/8-inch wide tape -- the same as that in Compact Cassettes. One other unusual feature is the lack of a motorised rewind function -- presumably to save space -- instead there’s a little fold-out crank handle set between the reels and you have to wind the tape back by hand. Suffice it to say they cost an absolute fortune and you will occasionally find mono SNs on ebay selling for well over £1000 (though I paid considerably less for mine, before they became so collectable). Recent stereo SNST models in pristine condition can fetch well over £2500.
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