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Vintage Automobile Radios & Wireless.

Choosing a suitable type of radio for your classic.

Many people go to extraordinary lengths to restore their chosen classic, making sure it has all the correct factory parts and finishes, then let the side down (IMO) with a non-period radio sat slap bang in the middle of the dash, which can often look very out of place. Why not hunt down a proper old radio and fit that instead, perhaps an older unit but updated with modern internals??
Radios have been popular with motorists since the 1930s, the earliest valve-powered examples costing a princely sum back then and were mostly the preserve of well-healed automobilists whose chauffeur-driven chariots deserved such a modern accoutriment.
After the war, as technology and transistors became more commonplace, the physical size (and cost) of a wireless set gradually fell to more reasonable levels, enabling most motorists to buy a radio so that they could whistle along to the latest tunes while they drove. Perhaps the coolest accessory of the 1950s was the in-car record player, a hefty device that mounted beneath the dashboard and meant that any self-respecting Brylcreem'd rocker could tap their finger to the latest vinyl disc from Buddy Holly or Bill Haley. The only slight problem with record playing on the move was that to stop the needle jumping off the record's surface while on the move, the stylus had to be very heavy, which resulted in vinyl records being scraped away by the downward pressure on the needle. Such impressive audio gadgets were a pricey luxury over a standard radio set, and became a passing fad after a short time only, for obvious reasons.
The dawn of the 1960s brought a new type of transistorised radio into play, the removeable set, as seen in the image below which features a red pull-out Philips model. Aimed at picnic-ing families, this little groover could be withdrawn from its holder in the dash and listened to while outside, then popped back into place, returning it to its in-car status once more. I used the one shown here in my A40 for many years.
vintage car radios
In the early 1970s 8-track was the new kid on the block, giving the driver a choice of what tunes he/she wanted to listen to, although compact cassettes were beginning to have an impact and would eventually take over. The novel feature with the 8-track was that you could jump directly between tracks at the press of a button, the downside being that the cartridges were large hulking affairs and soon filled up even the most generous of gloveboxes.
As the 1980s rolled in, 8-tracks were becoming a distant fad and the compact cassette was all the rage. They took up far less square footage in the glovebox and could contain far more songs, plus - unlike 8-track - they were double sided. The downside was that you had to fast forward/rewind to find your favourite tunes, not always the easiest of procedures when threading your Marina or Victor through the usual roadside obstacles, one eye on the road, the other on the radio cassette player buried away in the dashboard (or beneath it). A leaflet from 1973, describing the radios and cassette players available to buyers of new Vauxhalls, can be seen on this page, within the Collectables section.
If you want a classic radio for your ancient motor-car, there are a number of places to start your hunt. Simplest, and by far the cheapest place to look, is the good old car-boot sale. Older radios can still be found amidst the rucks of teenage clothing and faded pop star memorabilia, although perseverance may be required as the supply of surviving sets starts to dry up. A little research will dig up specialists that not only supply vintage wirelesses and in-car record players, but also can restore your own example, at a cost. Many can upgrade period sets with modern innards, allowing you to still listen to DAB radio, but with the modern wizardry buried within a period casing, perhaps the best option but not necessarily the cheapest.
When looking for radios in junk shops, car-boots, and at the local tip, it's worth spending a few moments checking that they have all their original fittings. Electrical components tucked away inside can be replaced or restored by a competent radio buff (I'm not one alas), but things get tricky when original fascias, buttons, or knobs have disappeared. Tracking down replacement knobs can be a real trial, even specialist radio restorers only have spares for certain models, so bear this in mind if you're offered something that is incomplete. If you're looking for a 60s or 70s radio to compliment your motor, it is probably wise to hang on until you find something that has a full complement of knobs and push-buttons. Radios from the 1950s and earlier are much harder to find outside of specialist suppliers, so it will probably be worth buying whatever you can find, and hope to find replacement fittings later on (or fittings that will do the job, if not exactly as per original).
Makes to look out for include:
  • Blaupunkt
  • Philips
  • Ecko
  • HMV (His Masters Voice)
  • Motorola
  • Pioneer
  • Sony
  • Grundig
radio selection
Radios were available to suit both 6 and 12 volt vehicles, and it's obvious to state that you'll need the right one for your particular car. Also pay attention to earthing, given that some cars are positive earth and others negative. Most 50s and 60s radios need connecting to suitably period speakers, and finding these can be very difficult. Often the only viable option is to fit modern speakers hidden in a concealed corner of the car so that they don't stand out too badly. Fortunately, the supply situation for period radio aerials is a lot better, and there are several around to choose from with suppliers of repro vintage parts and accessories. Motor-cars from the 1930s sometime had lengthy aerials that actually ran along underneath the cars chassis, although they were soon replaced with more practical pillar- or roof-mounted types.
As you've made it to this corner of the web, there's a reasonable chance that you've come across online auctions of some shape or form in the past. Old radios and cassette players often turn up for auction, although you take your chances with the actual condition of the set you aim to bid for. If you just need a set which will then be restored or refurbished, buying based on just a photo or two is less of a risk, as you should be able to assess that the important twiddly bits (knobs, buttons etc) are still in place. As already stated, the internals can usually be replaced by someone who knows what they are doing, it's the trim and fascia that must be complete and undamaged.
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