Classic Radios                  

What makes a radio a "Classic" anyway?


Recently, I have renewed my interest in all things retro with respect to the CB radio hobby. Mainly this resurgence in interest has come about as a consequence of my increased activity on the CB band once again, and being able to relive the experience along with others who were also lucky enough to be around during the "heyday" in the 1970's.  I have also been introduced to some really great people, as a result of doing this website, who have also related their own personal CB radio experiences, which reaffirmed my theory that my own experiences were not all that unique.  Of course there's a big difference between simply getting together and talking about the "good ol' days", and actually collecting, restoring, and operating those memorable vintage rigs.  In years past, finding a specific vintage radio could be an exercise in frustration.  Back then, you were limited to your typical local hamfests and fleamarkets where you would most likely find some oldie but goodie sitting on someone's table.  This was fine if you were looking for just any old radio, and you didn't care if the guy hacked it up trying to put it on 10 meters or something.  But if you had a specific make and model radio in mind, your chances were hit or miss.  Once in a while, you might get lucky and find a real gem, but you had to be persistent.  You might also get lucky at a local garage or estate sale, but your chances are even slimmer.  I suspect that the stories of guys finding near mint Cobra 2000's, or Tram D201's for $25 at a yard sale or flea market are more legend than reality. But I'm sure it does happen once in a blue moon.  But now that we're in the electronic information age, there's a new medium which can make finding that special rig all that much closer to reality.  Of course, I'm talking about E-Bay, Craig's List, and other on-line classifieds here.  It's a bit ironic that it takes something which is made possible by the technology of the high tech computer age, to enable us to return to the nostalgia of reliving our younger days in radio.  E-Bay is probably the biggest marketplace for these old classics, and you can be sure that what you want will eventually find its way on there, if it was somewhat popular.  The downside to E-Bay though, is that since the market reach is worldwide, you will be competing with many other similarly minded people, which will drive the price up (sometimes ridiculously), which might be enough of a turn off to force you back to the hamfest/yard sale route.  Once again, it all depends on the brand of radio and how popular (and desirable) it once was.  Radios like the Browning Golden Eagle and the Tram D201 were expensive when new, and are still commanding top dollar from collectors today.  Some of the other popular makes, such as Lafayette, Stoner, CPI, and others draw the collectors as well.  On the other hand, if you are only looking for a basic 23 channel Midland or Kraco AM mobile, you might find one for a quick $1 (Along with $15 in shipping charges). And this leads us to the real subject of this article, which tries to answer the question: "What makes a particular radio a classic?"

Like the old saying, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what makes a specific radio model a "classic", is typically based on how popular the rig was, how unique it was, and how rare it is now.  Along with those criteria, there is also a liberal amount of personal subjective opinion driving those desires as well.  Special circumstances, like your very first base radio, the first rig you ever talked on, the radio that the local "Big gun" operators swore by etc., can wield some powerful influences.  Like with classic cars, there are some "givens" along with a lot of wiggle room for your own personal opinion to influence. There's probably no dispute that a 1965 Mustang, or a 1967 Camaro are true classic cars.  But you might get a little debate on whether a 1970 Maverick is, but I'm sure there are people out there who desire one for personal reasons (First car they ever owned, got "lucky" in, or whatever).  The same holds true for radios. The aforementioned Tram's and Browning's are the "givens", no one will dispute their claim to fame.  But as for the rest of the bunch, the Royce's, Cobra's, Midland's, SBE's, Realistic's, Lafayettes, etc., it all depends on their personal appeal.  Another influencing factor is the sheer age of the radio.  Almost any semi-popular tube rig from the 1960's can be considered a classic simply due to its age alone, the fact that they use tubes, and many were made in America.  Some of the more popular tube rigs are the many Lafayettes, the Cobra CAM88, Uticas, Johnson Messengers, Polycoms, and several others.  But not only tube rigs are considered "classic".  Many people consider anything with 23 channels to be "classic" to some degree.  Although the 1970's solid state 23 channel rigs included many more "Mavericks" than "Mustangs" in that regard.   There are also those who consider some of the first generation 40 channel radios to be classic (I.E. Cobra 2000).  But I suspect this may have more to do with their modification capabilities, than with the traditional collector's nostalgic value. 

Like most people, I have my personal opinion of which rigs are the most desirable (And you can take my opinion for what it's worth).  I find that base rigs are more desirable than mobile rigs, simply because there were fewer of them and they tended to have more "bells and whistles".  Radios which include SSB are also usually more desirable.  Of course, for me, the radios which mean the most are the ones which bring back specific memories. There are the first radios that I have either personally owned, or are the ones that my friends and mentors owned in the local area.  Finally, there are the "dream rigs", those radios which I stared at in the dog-eared catalogs (Like my 1973 Lafayette, 1974 Radio Shack, and Henshaw's catalogs), and imagined what it would've been like if $500 suddenly appeared in my hand (And it might as well have been a million $ to me back then) and I could afford to buy one.  Back then, the closest I ever came to those "dream rigs" were the pictures in the catalog.  But now (and for a fraction of their original price), I can usually obtain the rig itself, albeit 30+ years later, and relive the dream.   Hopefully though, the reality of actually owning the rig, doesn't destroy the image of the dream......   

So based on this personal (and admittedly highly subjective) criteria, here's a list of the vintage radios I'd be interested in owning, and some of which I already have:

Tram D201. (Top of the line radio in the mid 70's) Update! I managed to pick up 2 of them, and restored them both.

Tram Titan series (Predecessor to the D201. Sharp looking and great performing) Update! I now have a Titan IIa and an original Titan.

Browning Golden Eagle MK III (If for no other reason than to have that authentic "ping"). Update! I have restored one of these as well.

Hy-Gain 623 (A uniquely designed hybrid rig which was popular in my area. Thankfully, I have one already).

Palomar Skipper 73. One of the few tube-type true SSB rigs.

Demco Super Satellite. Fantastic sounding audio and very well made.

Cobra 135 (Top of the Cobra product line in 1974. I also have one of these).

Cobra 139/139XLR (I have one of each).

SBE Console II (Not a particularly good performing receiver, but a  great talker and a popular radio in my area). Update! Someone actually GAVE me one of these. And in very clean condition too.

Royce 640 (More knobs, switches, and meters than most other rigs. Also a sharp looking case.  I picked one of these up from E-Bay).

Midland 13-885 (My very first SSB base radio. And I still have it).

Lafayette Telsat SSB 25. (My very first "dream rig". When I was still running a walkie-talkie in 1973, I would stare at the Lafayette catalog and imagine what it would be like to have a rig like this).

Lafayette Comstat 25 (My first base station, and truly 25 channels. I still have it. I also have a 25A that needs restoring).

SBE Trinidad (A popular radio which had great receive audio fidelity and powerful transmit modulation. I currently have one in fair shape)

Realistic TRC-47 (A bare bones, but affordable, SSB rig. It was my first taste of SSB, even if it was short-lived).

Pace 223 (A real bare bones, no frills radio. The only thing that makes it desirable is that this was my very first 23 channel rig).

Heathkit CB-1 "Lunchbox" (First radio over 100 mW that I ever played with way back in 1973).

Sears 100 mW Base Station. (My very first CB radio, which I got in 1969).

Pearce-Simpson Simba (Another deluxe base rig, with all the bells and whistles). Update! I now have one of these, in very clean condition. 

Courier Centurion (Courier's top of the line base). Update! I picked one up and then traded it away again. Functionally the same as the P.S. Simba.

Realistic "Navaho Pro" TRC-40.  One of the first base radios I ever talked on. 

So now that you've found your classic rig, now what? Well, if you are REALLY lucky, you can plug it in and it will fire up and work ok, and you can jump right in and enjoy running it (Or you can remind yourself why you now have a newer, modern rig), on classic radio night. Typically though, the radio will need some degree of attention to bring it back to its former glory, depending on how old it is, where it's been stored, and how well it's been treated.  Remember, these radios, for the most part, are at least 30 years old, so some things are going to age and deteriorate.  Newer, solid state radios will likely fair better, since they are newer, but there are a few things to look for in any case:

Electrolytic Capacitors: Usually used for power supply filters, bypassing, or audio coupling. These caps dry out as they age and will change value.  More dramatic are those which short out and decide to go POW! when you apply power for the first time.  If your audio is low, missing, or there is an A.C. hum, suspect that there are bad caps. And if one or two are bad, the rest can't be far behind.  You may want to consider replacing all of them (which can be a bear on solid state rigs which might have 60 or more of various sizes and voltage ratings).  Be careful that you replace them with parts of similar voltage (it ok to go higher, but NEVER lower) and capacity values, and make sure you observe the correct polarity. In many cases a physically identical replacement can not be obtained. In that case, you will have to get creative in mounting schemes. However, unless you are fanatically concerned with keeping a strictly original appearance, a solution will not be too hard to find.

Paper Capacitors: These are common in older tube rigs. They are used for coupling and bypassing. They are also prone to changing value over time. These should be replaced with newer mylar or ceramic style caps.

Resistors: Usually, small signal resistors used in solid state radios do not change value much from aging. However, higher power resistors used in tube, and some solid state, rigs can and do change value over time due to the consequences of dropping a fair amount of current and running hot year after year. When this happens, it can reduce the gain of the affected circuits resulting in weaker receive sensitivity, audio, or RF output power. If swapping tubes does not cure a weak stage, start looking at voltages and replace any resistor that is out of tolerance.

Crystals: Like capacitors, crystals will change value with age. This will result in one or more channels/modes being off frequency.  On some rigs (Mostly SSB), there are trimmer caps which can be adjusted to bring the frequency back in line.  In many cases though, the crystal will be too far off to correct by alignment alone, and should be replaced.  Unfortunately, crystals can be expensive these days, so it pays to have a few junk radios on hand to pilfer parts from. In extreme cases it may be possible to pull the crystal's frequency in by putting additional (or less) capacitance in series (or parallel) with it, and adjusting from there.

Powering up: Many old rigs have been sitting in storage for a long time. In some cases, the shock of the initial inrush of power which occurs when the rig is first powered up, can cause some parts (namely electrolytic caps) to fail.  It is recommended that you use a VARIAC (A variable A.C. voltage control) to gradually bring the radio up to full line voltage the first time you power it up.

Smoking: Not to disparage those who feel the need to smoke, but smoking not only kills people, it wrecks electronics as well. Radios exposed to smoke over time, will develop a film of tar on the circuit boards which can become conductive, and can play havoc with oscillator and other circuits, not to mention that it dulls and stains the exterior finish (and it smells bad). If you have a radio that's been exposed to long term smoke, you may want to give it a thorough cleaning, both inside and out, to remove all traces of contamination.  For the inside circuit boards, you can use either isopropyl alcohol, a flux cleaner, or a product called "Krudkutter".  Just make sure it's the type that evaporates completely, leaves no residue behind, and doesn't mar or dissolve plastics..

Switches and Controls: Exposure to humidity, smoke, and other contamination can corrode, tarnish, or otherwise render radio switches and controls intermittent or completely non-functional.  Many times you can simply move them back and forth a few times, and restore operation.  Other times it will take some more forceful deliberate cleaning with some type of tuner cleaner to remove built-up tarnish.  Some open rotary switches (Like the channel selector) may be able to be cleaned with a small abrasive tip (like a pencil eraser or Dremel polish tool) to remove tarnish.

Tubes: Unlike semiconductors, tubes weaken with use and age, and any 40 year old radio with original tubes will likely need a few replacements.  Unfortunately, American-made tubes are a thing of the past, have become harder to find, and much more expensive as a result. There is a ton of information on the web dealing with this subject, including this tube substitution site that may help you find a suitable replacement. There are also those guys who always seem to be peddling tubes at hamfests.  Look for new old stock (NOS) if possible, as a used tube may be weak as well. There are also Russian and Chinese-made substitutes which may or may not be an exact replacement. Use with caution, as you may suffer a performance penalty with foreign tubes.

Germanium Transistors: Many older solid state radios use germanium transistors in the receiver and audio stages. These transistors are known to become noisy with age, which can rob your receiver's performance.  Consider replacing them with newer silicon types.  Since germanium transistors are biased differently (.3V vs. .6V) than silicon, you may have to change some bias resistor values as well.

Obsolete Semiconductors: Some of the newer, but still classic, old radios utilized specialized custom integrated circuits, or transistors which have been discontinued by their manufacturer.  Some places may still have NOS (New Old Stock) parts, but they will likely be hard to find and expensive.  One solution is to find another identical, but cosmetically poor, radio to rob parts from (and hope that the part you need isn't bad in that radio too). An alternative would be to try to adapt a more modern part to the application. This may require a bit of creative engineering, so you might not want a radio that has too many "special" parts, if you are not too technically inclined.

Meters: The "S/RF" and/or other meters on the rig may have become sticky or non-functional with age. In some cases, you may be able to find a replacement. But in a great many cases, your only choices will be "parts" radios, or trying to perform micro-surgery on the meter movement.  I've done it before, and it requires a steady hand, but if you are careful, you may be able to restore functionality to the meter (temporarily at least).  Sometimes all it takes is a slight adjustment of the needle bearing seat to free a stuck movement.  Other times you can transplant the movement from a working (but not cosmetically compatible) meter into your defective one.

Alignment: As I mentioned before, part values shift with age so many of the tuned RF circuits may no longer be working at optimal efficiency. The whole radio should be given a complete tune up, so that the receiver, transmitter, and channel frequencies are put back into spec.  It is also important to ensure that the transmitter is not outputting any spurious emissions which may cause RFI to your neighbors.  You want to enjoy your classic,  you don't want it to become a source of anguish.  Of course, to do a proper alignment requires quality test equipment, a good set of alignment tools and, preferably, the factory alignment procedure.  If you don't have all these, you might want to enlist the help of a good radio shop to do it for you.  Try to find a shop which specializes or at least understands the in's and out's of the care and feeding of vintage radios.


So hopefully you're now ready.  So get out there, find a classic rig, and relive a memory! And drop me a note to let me know about your progress.