"The good old days" - by Roy Harriss
A wonderfully written Personal History of Car Radio and of a British automotive audio brand that once led the world
After leaving school in 1943 and returning to London from evacuation, it was find a job time, my first being with a small manufacturing company based in Hammersmith. This was a severe shock to the system. Work started at 7.30am and finished at 6.00pm, with 1 hour for lunch, and 7.30am to 1.00pm on Saturdays. After being fitted with Bib & Brace, a size somewhat too large for my rather undernourished frame, I was introduced to Mr George Larr, the works foreman, who showed me to a work bench with a huge drawer underneath for tools, some of which were provided but were expected to be added to at my expense in due course.
Noting the variation of exciting projects under construction, I was highly delighted when Mr Larr showed me a plan of a trolley he would help me build. This was to be constructed of 3/16 x 1½ inch angle steel and comprised 5 shelves with 16 gauge steel inserts standing 5 feet high, 5 feet long and 4 feet wide. I was shown how to measure the correct length of angle steel and mark it off at 45º from the bundle that had been deposited alongside my workbench.
So far so good. Fitting the first length of angle in the vice proved more difficult than anticipated, as trying to hold and balance a 12 feet long heavy piece of steel and screw up the vice at the same time was not an easy task. The cutting of the angled corners, a total of some 80 in all, plus the uprights, by hand, took me over one week as some required filing to fit, by which time I was barely visible under my overall.
By the end of the first week I had lost most of my enthusiasm for the engineering world and felt there must be an easier way to enjoy one's working life. All was not lost, however, as I did pick up some engineering skills which became useful later on. I moved on to another small engineering company assembling electric lamp units on a piecework basis. This unfortunately did not last long as the union found that I was earning twice the normal wage for the job by attaching a box spanner to an electric drill to speed up production. The union downed tools and I upped sticks.
An interest in radio
I always had an interest in radio from school days where fiddling about with crystal sets, earphones and valves was the usual past time. Therefore it seemed natural to look for some form of occupation in the field of radio. After a short spell with a company based in the Earls Court Exhibition building in London, modifying American aircraft equipment to fit British bombers, I moved on to an amplifier manufacturer in nearby Kensington. Here I stayed for 2 years until I found that the Rootes Group car manufacturer was advertising for car radio mechanics.
The company produced the Humber, Sunbeam and Alpine models to which Radiomobile car receivers were fitted when required. This for me was ideal and I stayed with them for 3 years. Periodically, visits were received from Radiomobile personnel ensuring that any problems with the product were noted and dealt with promptly. It was on one of these visits that Mr Wally Crossland, the then Service Manager, asked if I would like to join him at RDM. Radiomobile was a marketing company formed between HMV and S. Smith & Sons to launch the new innovation, Car Radio. This was an offer not to be refused and I duly reported to Mr R P Chilvers, Forman of the Service Department on the Great West Road, Brentford. I was one of 12 mechanics each with his own bench incorporating a signal generator, output meter, volt and ammeter monitoring the 12 volt piped supply, together with an AVO Model 40 multimeter.
The radios currently serviced at that time were mainly the models RM80, RM100, RM4100 and RM4200. These were all produced by EMI under the HMV label based in Hayes, Middlesex. Standard valves with loctal bases were used in the Models 80 & 100 receivers, which were extremely bulky and had a current consumption of around 10 amps. All four models required a high-tension line of 200 volts DC, which was derived from a Mallory vibrator converting 12 volts DC to AC, transforming up to 200 volts AC then rectifying back to DC.
The models RM100 & RM200 were the first radios to employ miniature valves that were therefore able to fit the tuning section into a 7 x 2 dashboard aperture, although room had to be found elsewhere for the power supply and amplifier sections.
The first single piece receiver was the Model 20X, it used miniature valves but still required a 200 volt, high-tension line. All these models were the latest technology at the time and were all produced at Hayes bearing the HMV logo. Each component was soldered individually and packed in position with little room to spare.
In those days these were luxury items and carried a 33% purchase tax, and as car manufacturers had not yet started providing an accommodating slot, sales were moderate. Radiomobile was therefore formed in order to promote the idea of radios in motor vehicles and to boost sales accordingly. One of the major problem areas encountered was the lack of a dedicated fixing position in the car, and most radios were hung from the underside of the dash panel in a central position.
Noise suppression of the engine and car electrics caused great problems, as there was no such thing as resistive high tension leads to the spark plugs. Most vehicles were assembled on a chassis to which the body was bolted; this was also a source of crackles through the receiver due to poor continuity. It was, therefore, most essential that when a radio was fitted to a customer's car, great attention had to be paid to the suppression of interference for customer satisfaction. It was for this reason I transferred to the Radiomobile Service Garage, situated in Temple Road, Cricklewood. It was here that VIPs would bring their cars for the fitting of this, as some would say, "new fangled contraption".
Radiomobile: fitting the early car radios
Mr Ted Sibley, who booked in the work and carefully inspected the finished installation, paying great attention to the level of interference, ran the service garage. Each car was taken on a road test as wheel static was also often encountered, especially in dry weather. To overcome this it was necessary to fit spring loaded carbon brushes to all eight brake shoes and bond them to the chassis. We would place resistors between the distributor lead and the coil and fit capacitors to the coil and alternator. Sometimes bonding the exhaust pipe to chassis and bonnet lid to chassis would also help reduce engine interference, as there was very little in the way of inbuilt interference rejection in the receiver itself.
There were ten mechanics attached to the service garage, all of whom were required to travel to any part of the country in order to rectify a problem should the need arise. Each carried a toolbox containing a complete set of valves and spare parts to cover any radio encountered, along with noise suppression equipment and spare aerials. This caused no great problem for those of us with cars, but those without used public transport and the toolboxes were heavy.
Car dealerships in those days would hold Service Weeks and would call in their customers for a free check-up on their vehicles. The suppliers, such as Jaguar, Morris Standard, Austin Rootes and Rover, would each send at least one engineer, and Lucas, SU Carburettors, Ferodo, Girling and of course ourselves would do likewise. We normally all stayed at the same hotel for the five days and all got pie-eyed every night. Great times were had.
Not everything always went smoothly, we did have the occasional cock-up. On one Monday morning, Mr Sibley instructed one mechanic, a Mr Paul Chavis, to attend a Service Week in Kings Langley, just outside London. At four in the afternoon the garage telephoned to ask where our man was. At 5.00pm Paul rang the office to say he couldn't find the garage anywhere, what should he do? "Where are you?" enquired Mr Sibley. "I am in Kings Lynn, Norfolk". Mr S was not amused.
In those days none of us had very modern transport. I had probably the most reliable car, a 1937 Flying Standard 12 and, therefore, was required to undertake the more distant journeys. Paul drove a 1932 Austin 7 which overheated regularly. It was minus its radiator cap and in its place was fitted a large cork attached by string to the sidelight. We all knew when Paul arrived in the garage, as he would be accompanied by a loud bang as this blew out.
He drove on his provisional licence, which was permitted at that time, and continued until he applied for his full licence. All went well on his test run until the examiner tried the emergency stop procedure by hitting the dashboard. The speedometer promptly fell out and the brake cable, not used to such pressure, snapped, causing the car to run into another parked nearby. His car never recovered and Paul was grounded.
There was great camaraderie in the service garage, with practical jokes being played continually, and one could quite often find their tool-box soldered up or screwed to the floor. On one occasion I was driving to Manchester with my sunroof open and was stuck behind what I thought to be a fish lorry. The aroma was so strong that, although it was August, I had to close the roof and all the windows, and it was impossible to overtake. There was no M1 in those days and the drive to Manchester was an all day journey. After sitting behind the lorry for some 20 miles I was relieved to see it turn off. Unfortunately, the pong remained, in fact grew stronger. Arriving at the dealership I examined the vehicle, by which time had become barely approachable, and found a beautifully constructed aluminium bracket attached to the manifold containing the remains of a kipper. Nice one boys.
Radiomobile had at that stage produced a receiver suitable for coaches, although the early versions were an adaptation of the Model 100. These were usually fitted in the driver's cab, mounted in a central position above the driver's head and coupled to four loudspeakers, two on either side of the main coach. To obtain sufficient volume the power and output stages of the receiver were doubled up, making this a very heavy unit indeed. None of us enjoyed working on these due to the cramped space in which to work and the weight, which often had to be balanced precariously whilst being serviced.
Due to the construction of this double power unit it was also possible to create a 450 volt potential between the two sections should they become separated. Another hate was to be called out to meet a coach at a pub somewhere in the country, usually at the half way point of a works outing. Not so bad on the way out, but a surfeit of inebriated faces, proffering advice, on the way home.
The later coach radios were designed around the Model 4200 using miniature valves, which made them lighter, less bulky, and easier to install.
Music on the move was beginning to take off and it was at this time Mr Ron Dudeney, The Radiomobile Sales Manager, was demonstrating the benefits of coach equipment around the country. A West Country coach operator had just taken delivery of a new vehicle fitted with a Radiomobile receiver and Ron had invited a number of prospective purchasers down to hear this new concept. That same day Stanley Holloway's son, John, joined RDM and was immediately sent down to Bristol by train to assist Mr Dudeney, who promptly introduced John Holloway as "The Acoustical Expert from Radiomobile, London".
In order to impress the assembled VIPs Ron said "Mr Holloway would you be good enough to cast your critical ear over this radio installation?" John, of course, instantly fell into his new role and moved down the coach pausing at each speaker in turn, nodding approval in a very commanding manner and pronounced, "From my experience this installation is perfect". To which Mr Dudeney reverently thanked Mr Holloway for his expert opinion and said "You may switch if off now". This caused some embarrassment as neither knew how.
A favourite service call was to Odells boat yard, Walton-on-Thames, which was always good for a day out. We had installed four of their river pleasure boats with coach radios, with loudspeakers in the main cabin and four pedestal speakers on deck. After their winter lay-up the equipment needed to be serviced ready for the start of the season at Easter. Mind you, not all were up to this work, as the main amplifiers were mounted in the galley below and the combination of river swell and fried food proved too much for some.
By Royal Appointment
All the royal state limousines were equipped with Radiomobile radios, the early cars employing miniature valves. Each vehicle had two units, one for the passengers and one for the driver. The valves used were Emitron, manufactured by EMI. Specially tested for the royal cars and labelled "Trustworthy". We would visit the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace and Clarence House on a regular basis to ensure everything was satisfactory.
We would often receive panic telephone calls from the chauffeur of a VIP asking for immediate assistance, generally from some remote place or more than likely a racecourse, saying their radio had ceased to function. These jobs were always given priority, although some of their problems were self inflicted, as when an aerial had been demolished by driving under trees. Another problem with some earlier limousines was that they were fitted with under chassis aerials and these suffered from wet grass or packed snow reducing the radio signals to virtually zero.
One car in particular I had to be extra careful with was Sir Bernard and Lady Docker's, who insisted on a gold plated electric aerial to match the gold plated bumpers and trim. At that time we also did our own hole cutting in the walnut fascia in some vehicles to accommodate the radio, although a carpenter was later employed for this task.
Radio, the Monte Carlo Rally and televisions
The Monte Carlo Rallies were very popular from the late forties and Radiomobile provided a backup service for the competitors. Long before the cars reached Dover, the crossing point to the Continent, Radiomobile had service personnel on standby at the Smiths depot in Glasgow for the start of the race. Myself, along with two other service technicians, were placed in an hotel in Folkestone. We then drove to the quayside in the early hours to await the first of the cars.
The weather conditions were usually atrocious, with heavy snow in January ideal for the rally but not good for us. We took with us a radio transmitter set to the Monte Carlo frequencies. This enabled us to tune a preset button on a competitor's car radio to the Monte Carlo radio station giving race information. A small sticker would then be placed on that dedicated button labelled MC.
Should any radios be found to have any fault it would be repaired on the spot. The Radiomobile distributor in Rotterdam provided an on-route control point in Amsterdam, and our distributor in Belgium also provided a service in Brussels. Similar arrangements were in force in Paris too. All of this was, of course, a very much Wave the Radiomobile Flag exercise, which always went down well with the Ralliers. In 1956 Mr Vernon Cooper, driving a Jaguar MK.VII fitted with Radiomobile equipment, won the cup awarded by Monte Carlo Radio for the best installation.
I was usually called upon to visit difficult customers or VIPs, which were quite often one and the same. On one occasion Radiomobile MD Peter Blair asked me to deliver and install a television set for the mother of Sir Alec Issigonis at her flat in Oxford. When I arrived I was somewhat dismayed to find no lift and she was on the third floor. After struggling up the stairs with this heavy 17 inch TV, balancing it precariously on the hand rail with one hand and ringing the door bell with the other, I was greeted with fierce opposition. Mrs Issigonis informed me in no uncertain terms that she had told her son that no way would she have a TV in the flat.
By this time I had managed to get the set halfway through the front door, with difficulty, as she was pushing one way and I the other. After some ten minutes of discussion, with the set being shoved back and forth, and with aching arms, I eventually convinced her that my job was at risk if I failed to install it. When I reported back to Peter he was highly amused, apparently Sir Alec had already briefed him.
Another visit Peter asked me to make was to the home of Sir William Lyons at Bolt Head in Devon. This again was a Television delivery and installation. What I was not told was that TV reception in that area was poor and an indoor aerial was useless. I purchased an outside aerial locally, complete with chimney lashings, and climbed out through a roof light to get to the only available fixing position directly above the sea some 300 feet below, an exercise I would not like to repeat.
Following that, arrangements had been made for a show to take place at a car dealership in Manchester, the theme being 'In Car Entertainment, Past, Present and Future'. An old battery receiver complete with horn loudspeaker was obtained and put on display. The current range of Radiomobile equipment was fitted to their showroom cars and the future was to be represented by a television installed in their centre piece, a Morris Oxford.
A new car was loaned to us from the manufacturer, along with a 9 inch HMV TV from EMI. My job was to fit it all together in the car so that it would operate in the showroom. Fortunately, the Morris Oxford had a large gap between the fascia and the parcel shelf, underneath which allowed me to make a wooden surround to accommodate the 9 inch tube on the passenger's side. However, in order to put the tube in place, a hole in excess of 9 inches had to be made in the bulkhead to pass the tube through!
The rest of the TV chassis was mounted to the right of the steering column, also between the fascia and the parcel shelf. It was finished on Saturday morning and it looked and worked well. As the weather was bad on the Saturday, I delayed taking it up to Manchester until the following day. Unfortunately, the weather on Sunday was even worse, but as the show was scheduled for a 9.00 am start on Monday, the centre piece had to be there. After travelling about 150 miles in blinding rain, I hit a pothole in the road, whereupon, a loud bang was experienced, which turned out to be the TV tube imploding.
I arrived in Manchester at 5.00pm and immediately drove around looking for a radio shop displaying a HMV sign. As luck would have it I found a store with a window display of HMV televisions and advertising a repair service. Not expecting too much, I rang the bell on the flat above, which was answered by the proprietor, to whom I explained my predicament. He not only supplied me with a new tube, but also loaned me the tools to refit it. I very much doubt that happening today.
The show went on as advertised and was a great success. It lasted for three weeks. I often wondered who took delivery of the car with the extra large grommet hole in the bulkhead.
The love of Car Radio calls Roy back
It was not long after this spell that I left the company to gain some experience in television service, and for a period of four years worked on HMV and Bush receivers, but my first love, car radio, still called. I returned to Radiomobile in January 1959 and was given the task of visiting all the car manufacturers on a regular weekly basis, sorting out any problems they might have with the fitting or service of receivers.
By now things had moved on considerably. Radiomobile replaced the HMV Logo and gone was the need for a high voltage line as the output stage had been replaced with a Transistor that would operate along with the valves on 12 volts. However, the Hybrid did not last long as the valves were then replaced with transistors. This, of course, meant that it was possible to reduce the overall size of the receiver even further. The 7 x 2 aspect remained, as by now the vehicle manufacturers had adopted these dimensions as a standard aperture.
Radiomobile had moved to a new factory, Goodwood Works, on the North Circular Road at Staples Corner, London NW2, and was producing the all transistor 600T and 620T, having a power output of 4 and 8 watts respectively. Bob Chilvers had now been moved from the service department to take charge of production, and Harry Mellor became Service Manager. A solder bath was installed down the centre of the factory floor and the assembly girls sat on either side inserting the components in the panels prior to automatic flow soldering.
In the early days many problems were encountered and line rejects were high, mostly due to dry joints and static electricity. Eventually the dry soldered joints were largely overcome but static charges, mainly from the girls' nylon clothing, remained a problem for sometime. It was jokingly suggested that we should employ a knickers inspector, but there were too many male applicants for the job.
Whilst Radiomobile were having production difficulties, and with dealers crying out for supplies, it had not escaped the notice of the Chief Executive of our Parent Company, Smiths Industries, that World Radio were having no such problems.
World Radio was a small company just around the corner from Radiomobile, in Edgware Road, NW2, who were producing a radio under licence to Motorola of America. With a minimal staff they were turning out receivers on a shoestring budget. With no development costs this looked a very attractive company, with the right knowhow and personnel to benefit RDM.
Mr Peter Blair, Managing Director of Radiomobile, and Mr Richard Cave, who later became Sir Richard, Managing Director of Smiths Industries, therefore decided to acquire the business. This turned out to be quite a culture shock for the more reserved Radiomobile, as the new staff in the main were market trader types. Mr Alfred Fearn, who was responsible for the modification of the Motorola radios at World Radio, replaced Mr Blair as MD, and Mr Blair transferred to Smiths Industries head office.
Mr Fearn, who was known for his rather colourful vocabulary, had brought with him his assistant, Norman, who was equally eloquent. Before the departure of Peter Blair, a meeting was held in Peter's office and included among others Peter Blair, Bob Chilvers, Alf Fearn, Ron Dudeney, Norman and myself. At the conclusion, Peter stood up and said "We will meet again on the 20th, would you make a note of that in your diary, Alf?" Alf said "put that in my f ..g diary Norman". Norman replied "You ain't got no f ..g diary Alf". It was jokingly suggested that they might live near Effing Forest.
Radiomobile and Motorola: partners, but not for life
Alf continued as MD for some time, much to the chagrin of Bob Chilvers, and was mainly seen lounging in his office chair with his winkle pickers on the desk. He was eventually replaced by a Mr Dennis Souter, who converted his office to a schoolroom and would hold classes for the sales team. This continued for a short time until the grumbles this produced reached the ears of Richard Cave, causing Dennis's demise. However, he did deserve my thanks as he proved to the main board it would be cost effective to send yours truly to Canada to sort out the problems at the Smiths Depot. I was at that time reporting to Mr Malcolm Stoot, who had taken over as Service Manager from Harry Mellor. This proved a winning combination, as Malcolm handled the internal running of the spares department and distribution of spares, allowing me to make more dealer visits. As Assistant Service Manager my office was next to Malcolm's and was jokingly called the 'Hospitality Unit' as it carried a good supply of alcohol. Malcolm and myself would entertain the visiting dealers and VIPs.
Radiomobile now had a new MD, Mr Jack Crone, who transformed the company completely. New products were introduced and sales boomed. Bill Lawrie came over from Smiths Motor Accessories as Sales Manager Radiomobile, and Jim Tryon, Sales Manager for Motorola. All radios, Radiomobile and Motorola, were now produced on the one production line and the sales force were handling both products.
It came as a shock then when Motorola suddenly announced they were invoking the ninety day clause in their contract, prohibiting the use of the Motorola name and logo. After discussions with all concerned it was agreed to remove all Motorola fascias and replace them with Radiomobile. All Motorola dealers were converted to Radiomobile and sales climbed even higher, claiming 95% of the car radio market.
New products were added, the 104S and 108SR eight track players, followed by a short lived quadraphonic unit. These were followed by cassette players and recorders. Malcolm and I would organize service training weeks for our dealer network. We would book a local hotel to accommodate between eight and ten people and ferry them to the service department on the Monday morning. After a day's tuition on current service techniques, they would be returned to the hotel. This was repeated on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning. On Thursday afternoon they would receive instruction on radio interference problems and the remedies. Thursday evening Malcolm and I would entertain them at a London restaurant and return them to their hotel. On Friday, they would sit an exam, each being provided with a radio which had been doctored all with the same faults. Sometimes the results were quite surprising, depending on the amount consumed the night before.
Motor Show time was always hectic, especially at Earls Court. Most dealers wanted to visit the Radiomobile stand where they were wined, and the more important ones taken for a meal in the evening. I remember one occasion when I had a party of seven and Malcolm asked if he could include his party of six in the same restaurant. Of course I agreed and we had a riotous Friday evening.
I still have vivid memories of this very large bowl of king prawns on ice, on the table as an appetizer, disappearing without trace, at £1 a time and that was 1970. In the cold light of Monday morning I was horrified to see the size of our bill and said to Malcolm "It will be difficult getting this passed" I then had the brilliant idea of the two of us lunching at the same restaurant and asking for our Friday receipt to be rewritten, splitting it in half, one for Malcolm and one for me. We sat down and enjoyed a modest meal. I called for our bill and asked for them to split our Friday receipt into two. To our consternation they informed us that the business had changed hands over the weekend and their bills had not yet been printed and they were unable to give us a bill for what we had just consumed. I think the previous owners had just retired on the Friday night profits! It took ages to eventually recoup our outgoings.
In 1962 an Indian gentleman, named Salil Mozumder, had visited Radiomobile asking if there were any vacancies for radio mechanics. I told him we were fully staffed at the time but we might be able to fit him in later on. I was very impressed with his smart appearance and cultured voice, and as the majority of the radio mechanics were of similar persuasion I felt he would fit in quite well. Attached to the service department we had a metal workshop and paint spraying facility where we would manufacture the fixing brackets required for the various radio fitting kits and where there was one position available. I suggested to Mr Mozumder that we could employ him in that area until a service vacancy arose. He thanked me and said that would be fine.
Because of his sunny nature, I introduced him to the staff as 'Sunny Jim' and he has remained Jim to all to this day. On Monday morning he arrived in a suit with white shirt and the charge hand gave him the job of spraying brackets with black paint. Each morning he would arrive with a new white shirt and leave in the evening looking distinctly speckled. However, this did not deter him; he didn't like an overall and continued spraying and metal working for some time. Eventually we transferred him to the service department where he showed his ability to repair radios and of course to communicate with the others in their own language. It was not long, therefore, before we put him in charge of the repair section as Service Foreman. Jim came from a wealthy Indian family and, therefore, commanded great respect from the other service mechanics and he would usually back me on union problems. This of course helped immensely and contributed to the smooth running of the department.
The great thing about Radiomobile was that we all got on well together and would often meet up for a drink after office hours. Malcolm and I continued our entertaining and were always on the lookout for new venues. One day Malcolm said to me "I've found a nice little restaurant just out of town that we can take our next visitors to". The following week we learned that the MD of one of our largest radio dealers was arriving with his mechanic to talk about service problems. They arrived on the Monday morning and we had ironed out most of their difficulties to their satisfaction by lunchtime. Unfortunately, as it was Monday, our usual eating establishment was closed, but wishing to impress our guests we decided to take them to the new find.
From the outside the restaurant looked fine, but inside the décor was not quite up to our usual standard. However, having arrived with our guests, we were committed. The choice on the menu was very limited, but providing the wine was good, we were sure we would be forgiven. The menu was passed to us by an elderly lady and I asked her for the wine list. This seemed to perplex her somewhat and she said "Just a moment, I'll go and see". Some minutes later she reappeared and said "We don't have a wine list sir, but we have red wine and white wine and they are both nice".
We often laugh at the lasting impression this must have given. All business was conducted over the dining table or in a local hostelry and that's where any shortcomings the company may have were ironed out. From time to time the area managers would call in and would also join us for drinks at lunchtime or in the evening, and of course there were the sales conferences and dealer incentives arranged abroad all good fun.
I had now taken over from Malcolm as Service Manager reporting directly to the MD, Mr Jack Crone, and would visit dealers around the country on service problems. I made regular visits to Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Kensington Palace, to deal with the state limousines and personal cars of the Royal family. In the years following I was pleased to receive three invitations commanded by the Queen for my wife and I to attend garden parties at Buckingham Palace, and two invitations to the Queen Mother's Christmas parties at Clarence House, which we enjoyed immensely.
At that time, of course, we lived in West London and Sir Richard Cave, the Chairman of Smiths, knew this. I would often receive a call from his secretary, usually asking if I would call at his house on my way home. He lived in a tall town house on the Thames Embankment, where the road outside was prone to flooding at high tide. This meant he had some sort of problem with either his TV, radiogram, telephone, washing machine, or even the depth finder from his boat. Now this was a request one could not refuse and it was always a difficult visit. Sir Richard would say, "Come in Harriss it's Whisky isn't it?" He would pour me a large one and show me the problem, usually it was the TV, which was a fairly ancient HMV 17 inch monochrome, the same model as my own. After rectifying the fault he would then pour me another and question me about Radiomobile products. "What is the quality like now Harriss?" If I said "It's very good sir" he would say "That's not what I've heard". If I said, "It could be better" he would say "Why what's wrong with it?" If I said, "I haven't seen the current figures yet" he would say "Why not you are the Service Manager". If my bad luck held out, by that time the tide had come in and my car would be stuck for another two or more hours.
After receiving a further three calls in as many months to the same offending piece, I decided to tell Sir Richard that his TV really was past repairing and that I had disposed of mine. He said "I've got news for you Harriss I'm keeping mine" and he did so for some years.
Sir Richard had a young family who would use the pickup on his expensive radiogram as a door-knocker and I was called on several occasions to repair the damage. After a while I managed to locate an old electric turntable to which we connected an amplifier and speaker. Our carpenter made a box to house it all in and I presented this to Sir Richard for his children to use. This stopped any further visits on that score. However, he was pleased and said "When I've finished with the radiogram you can have it". Some 25 years later I still have it and it still works.
We received a visit one day from a West Country dealer who informed us that repairs being returned from Radiomobile were going astray, so I introduced him to our chief of security, Mr Jack Smith. After discussions in my office I invited both to lunch. Jack said "I will take my car as I must be back early for a meeting" and I took our visitor to the restaurant. The three of us wined and dined well, after which I took our visitor to the station and returned to my office. I was just dictating a memo to my secretary to be sent to all departments on the subject, when the fire alarm bells sounded. Now this meant instant evacuation of all the buildings to designated assembly points outside and this was a cold day in November. As nothing happened after 15 minutes and having counted the staff, I assumed it was a fire drill. I telephoned the Personnel Manager and told her that it was ridiculous to hold fire drill on such a cold day. She assured me, however, that the alarm was not triggered from her office.
A little later one of Jack's staff phoned me and explained. He said he was looking out of his gatehouse window when he saw Jack Smith's car rolling backwards into the North Circular Road. The factory was situated at the top of a slope and the car had come to rest across all three traffic lanes. He called Jack over the tannoy, who in his rush to get to his car, hit the fire button in passing. I said "where is Jack now?" "He cleared off home quick" was the reply.
By May 1978, the range of products had become formidable, as apart from the five basic two waveband receivers, three radio cassette players were added. In addition to these the 109QS quadraphonic player was still in existence along with the models 102S and 106S, eight track players. There were also the models 321CS, 306CSD, 310CSR and the 1190FM models.
Because tape players in vehicles were still a relatively new concept, returns to the service department reached an extremely high level, mainly due to the mishandling of cassettes and cartridges by the general public, causing damage to the mechanisms. After repair the item had to be shipped back to the dealer or to the customer direct, an expensive operation, and it was therefore important that these costs were reduced. This was being discussed one day in Jack Crone's office when he said "We overcame this problem at my last company by using independent agents to handle faulty goods". Now that to me sounded an ideal solution to our problem. I placed advertisements in a number of local papers around the country asking for freelance engineers to write in to my office with their CV and outlining what facilities they had available. I received around ninety replies, some of which I was able to dismiss immediately, and others that would necessitate a visit. I eventually settled for eight agents strategically positioned to give maximum coverage to the most important dealers.
I had already known that Mr Ray Smith, who at that time was working for a motor company in Edinburgh as a radio service engineer, was wanting to go it alone. We had a meeting in a London Hotel where we discussed the possibilities over several large whiskies, and I then had to face the music from his governor for poaching him. However, after an alcoholic lunch in Edinburgh all was forgiven. Ray subsequently opened a service workshop in the city centre and was my first candidate.
The Gaedor group of companies were the largest single distributors of Radiomobile products, having a number of depots in Scotland, also in England and Northern Ireland. Ray Smith was, therefore, well placed to handle all of the repairs north of the border. After his appointment I took a week and toured all the Gaedor branches with Ray and introduced him to the depot managers. Ray served us well and went from strength to strength and is now the largest car radio distributor in Scotland.
The Gaedor group had six depots throughout Northern Ireland, which along with other Radiomobile outlets, accounted for a considerable quantity of units that may need repair either in or out of warranty. I had received a letter from a Mr Ronnie Patterson who had a television repair business in Craigavon and was, therefore, a likely candidate as another independent agent. I arranged to visit his workshop on the Monday morning and caught the first flight out of Heathrow.
Ronnie met me at Belfast Airport and we drove to Craigavon. En route I outlined our requirements, then inspected his workshop, which was entirely satisfactory. Having signed him up, Ronnie said "I've booked lunch at the Country Club and have arranged dinner for 8.00pm at the Europa Hotel". We had an excellent lunch with a couple of bottles of good claret and finished with large brandies. I retired to my hotel room to write up my report, and at the appointed time went to the bar to await Ronnie. An hour went by with no sign of my host and I was beginning to wonder if Ronnie had meant the Europa Hotel. However, my attention was then drawn to the reception desk where an elderly gentleman was enquiring for a Mr Harriss. I owned up to that fact and was surprised to find I was talking to a Mr Patterson, Ronnie's father. He offered his profound apologies for being late and said Ronnie was indisposed but would I have dinner with him instead. Of course I agreed and had a most enjoyable evening. He laughed and said, "These youngsters can't stand the pace you know". Apparently Ronnie had taken to his bed. I often reminded him of that occasion when he sent in a substitute at half time.
In 1964 my wife and I had purchased a two up and two down cottage sixteen miles north of Oxford to use as a weekend retreat, and after extensive renovations used it regularly. We got to know David Longfield, a young man living opposite. I had erected a Banbury building in our rear garden which I used as a workshop, and David would come across showing interest in radio. After leaving school he gained a place in the London University and took a degree in electronics. This worked well as we could, when required, ferry him back and forth from the village and London. He finished university having gained a BSC and joined the Plessy group of companies where he remained for some time. He still remained in contact and I told him about the independent agents I was setting up across the country, to which he expressed some interest.
At that stage I had not appointed anyone to cover the Midlands. Knowing his background and ability I had no hesitation in asking him to consider setting up business as a repair agent for Radiomobile. This proved very successful. We named the business Midland Trade Services, which operated out of a small workshop in Bicester and provided a van collection and delivery service on a weekly basis. Although the need for a collection and delivery service is no longer required, David and myself now deal direct with the public under the name Bicester Car Radio.
Jack Crone had decided in his new products range to include an electronic garage door opener named Portomatic. This proved a little difficult to shift, possibly because it required a certain amount of fitting and not every door would accommodate it. However, Mr Ron Dudeney, who had now retired, said he would like to have a go at selling the equipment as he knew most of the dealers. I was also interested in the device and built a portable demonstration unit to take around the country.
One morning Ron came to see me and said he had arranged for an old friend of his with a dealership in Scotland to show the Portomatic system. A suitable hotel was booked and could I get my demonstration unit up to Motherwell? Of course, I agreed, but as the demonstrator was too large for my car I decided to use a company van. Knowing that neither Ron or myself would fancy a journey to Scotland by van I asked my secretary to organise overnight rail transport for the van and us.
The train was due to depart at 11.00pm from Kings Cross station, and as Ron and I had met up at 8.00pm we felt we had sufficient time for a visit to the bar. We loaded the van onto the train and adjourned. At around 10.00pm Ron said, "we can probably eat on the train, we had better see where our accommodation is". Having scanned the manifest and finding no trace of our reservations I contacted a guard who told us the train we had loaded our van on to was going to Stirling, our train was leaving from St. Pancras. Now, this posed some problem, as by now four more vehicles had been loaded behind ours.
Time was now getting short and nobody was too interested in our predicament. Eventually, however, I managed to attract the attention of two likely looking porters by waving two £10 notes, which did the trick. The race was now on to St. Pancras, which we made with minutes to spare. We settled into our adjoining apartments and the train pulled away on time. I met Ron in the corridor and we enquired from the guard where the dining car might be. "There isn't one on this train" he said "but I do have some miniature whiskies", which we both declined. We held the show that evening which proved quite successful.
Of course, most of Smiths directors had installed Portomatic to their garages. One day I received a call from Mr Ray Davidson, MD of the Motor Accessories division, to say could I have a look at his installation as it was not closing correctly. I took Jim Mozumder with me and arrived at his house just before Ray at 6.00pm. Ray's wife invited us in and offered us a drink while we were waiting for Ray to appear. Large whiskies were consumed, followed by two more, as we chatted to Mrs Davidson. When Ray arrived we had more whisky and then took a look at his garage door. It was quite obvious that the doorframe was not completely vertical and, therefore, was not allowing complete closure. I asked Ray if he had a heavy hammer, to which he said yes, and produced a club hammer. I gave the upright a mighty blow at the bottom and everything then fitted perfectly. Ray thanked us and after another drink we left. Now, some 25 year's later, the door still perfect, he only reminds us of the day when we completely emptied his best bottle.
One day I had a call from Jack Crone to say that a Non Executive Director had been appointed to Smiths main board and he would like to visit Radiomobile. It was suggested that I introduced him to the heads of sections under my control and let them explain to him their operation. One of the staff I had inherited from the takeover of World Radio was a Mr Joe Simmonds, a cockney gentleman with the same vigorous command of the English language as his compatriots.
I had given him the task of looking after the trade counter and the booking of cars in and out of the service garage. I called him into my office and explained that I would like him to show our visitor his area and said, "for Pete's sake watch your language". We had a long driveway down one side of the building upon which all the office windows opened, that we had to pass to reach the garage section. As I walked down with our visitor and Joe I was aware that Joe had adopted a rather polished accent, although somewhat exaggerated, as he chatted with our guest. All went well until we reached the last office window, which was a little more prominent than the others. Our visitor, who was talking at the time, gave this a mighty blow with his head and as he reeled, holding a handkerchief to his forehead, Joe looked him straight in the face and said, "mind your f ..g barnet", which only goes to show one should never interfere with culture. Needless to say out visitor never appeared at Radiomobile again.
Where the Cap fits...
Throughout the late sixties and early seventies, the service department had an on-going battle with the development department, based at Hemel Hempstead. Our records showed a particular re-occurring fault with the in-house produced radio units. We also discovered that after repair some receivers were being returned for the second and even third time. We had pinpointed the problem to the oscillator capacitors C10, C11 and C14 and I instructed the service mechanics to change these as standard procedure in addition to whatever other fault they found. As far as we were concerned these three components, that were made from polystyrene, were a great source of aggravation.
I sent repeated memos to Hemel Hempstead and had numerous meetings with the heads of department to try to get an alternative capacitor, but to no avail. Their argument being that the radio would suffer from frequency shift if they departed from that design. I maintained that most customers would not notice a minute shift in frequency but they do notice when the radio fails to work. Still this was not acted upon and the situation was getting desperate, more repairs were bouncing back. I knew that there was a shop in the Edgware Road that sold government surplus components and decided to substitute the polystyrene capacitors for silver mica in radios that had been returned for the second time with the same fault. We monitored the results for a period of six months in which time none of the repaired radios reappeared. It, therefore, become a regular clandestine trip to Edgware Road to obtain stocks, which were extremely cheap, and nobody was the wiser.
For some years the Radiomobile radio cassette models were being produced in Perth, Scotland, by G.R. International Electronics, a company employing around 400 staff. We were at that time experiencing problems with the tape deck mechanism which was supplied to G.R.I. direct from the manufacturer, Gerrard Ltd, also based in Scotland. G.R.I. was owned and run by Mr Tony Twine who, knowing the trouble we were having with the decks, teed up a meeting for John Roberts, our quality control manager, and myself to visit the company with him on a Monday morning.
Tony telephoned me to say why not come up on the Friday afternoon, then we can make a sporting weekend of it. John and I agreed and flew to Edinburgh, where a member of Tony's staff picked us up and drove us to Perth. After checking into the guesthouse that Tony had organized, he arrived and said he had arranged for darts, snooker, golf and curling over the next two days. After a snack in a local restaurant, Tony took us on a conducted tour of his factory where we had large whiskies in the boardroom. His office was impeccably furnished but with the unusual feature of a rubber mat on the floor and a dartboard on the wall. He said "Come and meet some of the boys" and took us to the staff club room.
This was an eye opener indeed. There were eight dartboards lined up along the end wall, some being used at the time. Now John and I at that time were no mean dart players ourselves and when invited to play for £1 per game felt it would be churlish to refuse. Thinking we might make a little extra pocket money we were rather disillusioned when we lost six games in quick succession. That was our first mistake.
Fortunately Tony came to the rescue by inviting us out to dinner. By now, and several large whiskies later, it was near midnight. The only eating establishment open at this time was the local Chinese restaurant named the Ping Yong. It was while we were dining that Tony confided that our opponents were county players. Tony then drove us back to our hotel and waited for us to go in. This was our second mistake, for although we had a front door key, someone had applied the internal safety chain and the door would only open some 3 inches. After ringing and knocking for 15 minutes to no avail, we spent the next 15 minutes with our sleeves rolled up and hands through the letterbox trying to unhook it, unfortunately without success.
The rest of that night we spent on the floor in Tony's lounge and we then went back to the hotel for breakfast. Saturday was a slow day indeed until lunch, when the hair of the dog proved good therapy, and we were then given a tour of Perth and then more darts in his boardroom, followed by snooker at a local club. After a wash and change of clothes, Tony picked us up from the hotel and took us to dinner, this was followed by a quiet night.
At 10.00am on Sunday Tony appeared. "We are due to tee off at the Gleneagles Kings course at noon". When we arrived we were met by Tony's golfing partner who said "The clubs and trollies are here as arranged, have you explained our local rules?" Tony then said to us "If you look in the pockets on the golf bags you will find cans of beer and some miniature whiskies, whenever a hole is won the winners must drink one beer and one whisky". This proved to be a great equaliser, we all failed to complete the course and the curling was cancelled. The meeting on Monday went well, however, and the problems were resolved.
On the flight back our plane hit an air pocket and the air hostess, who was pouring coffee, let go the pot, hitting me on the head and spilling its contents over John's leg. He was most annoyed when I was given a brandy and he wasn't.
Humorous letters and VIPs
All complaints would be received in my office, either by phone, letter or a caller in person; some were abusive and some quite humorous. One letter in particular caused great merriment. Apparently the customer was driving up the M1 and was annoyed by the incessant chatter from his wife. He said in desperation he switched on the radio, whereupon a huge cloud of smoke billowed out from under the dash panel completely enveloping his wife. As he said in his letter "It fair frit the life out of the wife, best laugh I've had for years".
I met many personalities over the years, some I shall never forget. Arthur Askey, Sid James, Eric Morecombe, the singer Frankie Vaughn was another. He telephoned my office to say that the Radiomobile tape recorder in his Rolls was not functioning correctly. I arrived at his house in Totteridge, North London, where his car was on the driveway, at around 10.00am, and after rectifying the fault he invited me in. We sat on the edge of his swimming pool drinking gin and tonics for the rest of the day, a most charming and interesting man to talk to. As I left he presented me with a copy of his latest recording, which he signed for my wife.
Back in the 50's I was introduced to a Mr Norman Richardson, who had been sent to RDM from a car dealership in Guildford for training on radio repairs. Norman sat alongside me at my service bench for two weeks and we became firm friends. After some years Norman decided to open his own car radio business in Guildford and eventually become a Radiomobile authorized dealer. I, therefore, met up with him in latter years on a regular basis. Norman gave a lot of his free time to the Variety Club Sunshine Coaches Charity as an organiser of various events and would always send me two free tickets for the annual lunches in London. I would take with me different heads of department and it was much appreciated by all.
In 1975 we were receiving reports from our dealers that a number of vehicles had experienced burnt out wiring looms, which they were sure had been caused by the radio fitting. After investigation, it was discovered that the supplier of the plastic fuse holders attached to the radio had changed the material to a softer compound, the lugs of which could break allowing the live end to drop on to any earthed point. Unfortunately, Radiomobile had no idea of the serial numbers of the units affected and this created a huge dilemma for us.
The batch of faulty fuse holders totalled 10,000, most of which had been fitted to radios in stock, but many had already been distributed to the dealerships around the country. Jack Crone held a panic meeting in his office with all departments concerned in order to decide on what course of action to take. It was suggested that we alert dealers to the problem then recall their stocks for modification. However, as I pointed out, the dealers would have a field day. Not that any of our agents would be dishonest you understand, but they could return faulty receivers that were out of warranty and charge us for removal and refitting. It would also be possible to return radios from their stocks together with a charge for removal and refitting without us being able to check the validity of such claims. And, what about sets sold to car distributors? They could recall thousands of customers for a replacement radio as a precaution and charge RDM removal and refitting costs, and possibly their customers' out of pocket expenses as well.
Everyone agreed that the potential cost of a total recall would be crippling. I then suggested that it might be better to play down the problem and deal with each complaint individually by visiting each customer personally. I made a total of forty visits to various parts of the country and authorized the replacement of only twelve wiring looms and minor repairs to the remainder of the cars. However, most of the complainants did join me for lunch, but in spite of that, we did get off lightly. I still hear from some of those customers even now, twenty-five years on.
At the end of 1978 Jack Crone transferred to Smiths Industries as Director of the overseas companies and spent some time in South Africa. Radiomobile were now beginning to loose market share as the Japanese, with their technical resources and vast budgets, had realised that cars were a real captive market. New more sophisticated models were being manufactured with higher output levels, and our own UK built FM unit was not a success. A new MD took over and transferred the service department to Moulton Park, Northampton, a move which myself and my staff found unacceptable. We closed the service operation down at Goodwood works and I left the company in August 1981. The production unit closed down and the company disbanded in 1982.
The Closure & post-Lucas Industries Era
From here Richard Pearce kindly provided us with an update to Roy's account. Richard joined the service division on its move to Northampton in 1982, where the company continued to run for some eighteen months, servicing dealer repairs and large quantities of the 1521/22 models for British Leyland, before Moulton Park finally closed. The remaining Radiomobile assets were then sold to Lucas Industries and a few of the remaining staff worked for Lucas briefly at Fradley Aerodrome near Lichfield, where they built a service department for Radiomobile and Lucas branded car radio products.
Prior to this, Richard had been working with Les French (also ex-Radiomobile) and they had explored the idea of developing a new coach amplifier to replace the 1545X. When both were made redundant, they decided to start their own company, Audio Visual Systems (Northampton) Ltd., and asked Lucas if they were interested in a new coach amplifier. They secured a contract for two years and the result was a fresh Radiomobile-branded product - the ADB520 - made by ex-Smiths Industries staff that was produced for various owners of the Radiomobile brand name.
Les retired in 1986 and the company moved into larger premises in Northampton, with Norman Arnold joining Richard. The company continued to grow and in 1990 was sold to the Sonicare Group, with further growth anticipated. Alas Sonicare went bust in 1992, by which time Norman had also retired, and so Richard formed 'Aftermarket Coach Supplies UK Ltd' (A.C.S) in Kettering in August 1992. In early 1993 a completely new amplifier was designed, the forerunner of the ACS450. This proved to be even more successful than the original ADB520, and when Lucas later sold the Radiomobile brand to Armour Automotive, A.C.S continued to supply them with a version of the ACS450: the RMT620.
The 2008 financial crash and economic downturn led to the closure of A.C.S and a new and much 'lighter' company was formed, Repco Electronics Ltd. The product line-up remained similar and the ACS450 continued to evolve. It was still very much a British manufacturer, trading with most of the same suppliers and vendors as before. Most of the components were still being sourced from within the UK: metal work from Daventry and Kettering, volume controls from East Grinstead, the bare circuit boards from Norwich, and so on. The products continued to be hand made and assembled in Northamptonshire, and the ACS450 is still to be found in many parts of the world.
Richard Pearce retired in June 2017 and sold A.C.S to Coachtek in Bristol. By then the Radiomobile ADB520 and ACS450 had amassed total sales of well over 30,000 units.
Roy continues his story: Jim Mozumder started his own car radio business. I carried on with the business I had already started with David Longfield. Sadly some of our old colleagues are no longer with us, however, those of us that are still around meet up regularly and reminisce on the great days of Radiomobile when work was fun.