Mike Humble goes all nostalgic once again and pays tribute to that dying breed of automotive audio – The radio cassette player.
They say that as you get older time passes by so quickly, and how true that is. Think back to when you were a nipper, those lazy summer school holidays in the summer lasted all of six weeks, but when you were 13, they seemed to last for six months. Time drags on until you reach the day before your 29th birthday then WALLOP; everything seems to travel at warp speed. Even though it’s been more than 20 years since passing my driving test, I can remember my instructor’s name – Carol, and the fact that the examiner reeked of cigar smoke as he clambered into the BSM Metro at the DVLA test centre in Wellingborough.
I will confess, I have a superb memory for attention to detail, but that still does not detract from the fact that it only seems like yesterday. During a recent shed / garage clear out, I stumbled upon two or three car wireless sets – one of them being the Philips made radio / cassette with the pop off keyboard fitted to lower spec Rover models of the mid to late 90’s. Once again, I found myself recalling those halcyon days of taking a fretsaw to your car interior in the vain of having what younger readers would call ‘choons’ – whatever they are, in your first clunker of choice. Of course, I am referring to fitting that essential car stereo.
Sadly, no car manufacturer today seems to install a simple audio system into their ranges, our Golf for example has slots and inputs for every conceivable medium and even has blue teeth, DAB facility, is able to arbitrate in Union meetings and even read sand script, but for someone like I who resists modern technology almost to the same degree as the Amish community, I will confess to adoring DAB. Getting back to things, I looked at these newly discovered units and one of them had a blank tape in the deck, exited like a child on Christmas day, I jabbed the eject button, and out popped the tape with a mechanical clunk sound – what an evocative sound!
Looking at the tape which for the record was a bootleg copy of Pink Floyds The Division Bell, I hot footed it to my office room where I have a recently repaired retro Philips F763CD midi Hi-Fi – it still played, albeit with some horrendous wow and flutter. What is even more staggering, I can remember taping that album, thanks to a pal who worked nights in a 24hr Esso petrol station many years back. After a hard nights drag racing, we would pop by and eat all the crisps and lollies behind the locked door as the Northampton drunkards were served through the stainless steel hatch. With copious free Tiger tokens, I never bought a blank cassette for years, and thanks to this garage also selling tapes & CD’s, via the use of an illicit twin deck under the counter, I had all the latest grooves and tunes.
Lets all be honest now, how many of you out there in their 30 something’s have smelled that acrid stench of a fried circuit board while trying to fit a car radio into the dash of a knackered Cavalier – or similar? I know I have, and it’s a smell you never forget. Part of the teenage automotive learning curve is how to deal with a small electrical fire by result of an incorrectly wired in radio – funny how they never mention this in the Highway Code. I also can remember with crystal clarity, attempting to fit a Motorola stereo into the centre console of my D reg Lada Riva, only for the securing tray to fall straight through thanks to my hapless usage with a rough file which beckoned another jaunt to the breakers yard.
Some radio cassette players could also have a mind of their own too, my faithful 2.0 Ghia Mark 5 boasted a swanky Sparkomatic stereo with obligatory graphic equaliser nailed under the dash and more speakers than the House of Commons. After parking up in Salcey forest Buckinghamshire with the girlfriend for a spot of late night star gazing (ahem) just as we were making decent progress, the auto reverse function went on the blink and played the side we had just listened to in perfect stereo – but backwards, mood killed & game over. You don’t get that kind of fun with a modern car stereo do you, but strangely enough, it never did that trick again – maybe it was just jealousy?
Another hazard of the old school car radio was chewing tapes, again, this would occur with for no real reason, but at least you would be forewarned by the sound losing its treble giving you just enough time to stab the eject button with lightning speed before the inside of the stereo looks like a plate spagetti, with yards of munched up ferric tape jammed round the internal gubbins. For this reason aone, it was obligatory to carry a Bic biro pen in the door pocket for this event. No other implement was more suited to spooling back the exposed tape while waiting at red traffic lights. What was strange however, was the way it only did this trick with an album you had bought and paid for, not a cheap C90 blank!
But it was not only the thrill of a decent radio, you also had the task of fitting the aerial and the obligatory box speakers onto the back parcel shelf. A funny tale involved some mush called Vince who destroyed the wing of his car by fitting the mast in the wrong location. Upon completion, he drove off and at the first right turn, the o/s/f wheel snagged the bottom of the aerial making it look like the leaning tower of Pisa. And if that sounds funny, you should have seen the speakers – sourced from his parents redundant Hi-Fi still showing the odd splatter of non drip gloss on the casing, lying on their sides on the rear shelf using doorbell wire to connect to the radio – such happy times indeed.
Then of course there was the RDS era whereby excitement reached new heights as your wireless would tell you the VHF station name on a digital display. It was during this era whereby stolen radios were all the rage, need a dodgy new top of the range Ford RDS head unit? Simply visit your local boozer and hand over £50. Also, you had a new trend of removable car stereo, the whole radio slid in and out of the tray. Go back to the mid 90`s and you would spot the lads stood at the bar with half a lager in one hand holding a car radio in the other. After time, they would get bored of carrying it and resort to hiding the said appliance under the drivers’ seat – the dealer I worked at around that time, made a few bob replacing quarter glass panes.
Some manufacturers like Ford for example, made some first class head units and Vauxhall in the mid 80s fitted the Philips DC range with their cosy amber illumination – need your strongest local stations? Simply hold the AST button and wait for the chirpy two tone bleep. Austin Rover saw fit to offer a decent wireless too around that time, with a fairly good Motorola self seek units being standard on many of the plusher models, a far cry from the push-button LW/MW single speaker jobbies they used to sling into the HL upwards Ital. But now, words like Dolby, Tone or Loud are just plain obsolete from your modern in car receiver – even the aerial is fast disappearing.
But of course, things can go the other way too. Rover in the 1990’s fitted a range of Philips branded head units which not only looked good, but were of superb quality, these gave way in some cases to the excellent BMW Business CD players. Sadly, following the grip of project drive, MG Rover audio started to emulate something from the Halfords wall of sound, with the centre console of the 75 / ZT ruined by the visual horror of an aftermarket radio with more little buttons than a Pearly King outfit. These nasty looking head units were the source of many customer complaints in the showroom long before they had even decided to buy. One potential customer I recall, peered into the cabin of an MG ZR and remarked about a car still featuring a cassette player by scoffing ” My God! Kenwood… do they still do a decent blender? ” – sad but very true.
Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but at least on a modern radio you don’t have to listen to 40 watts of washer motor interference or your indicators ticking not only from the relay but from your speakers too, all because you forgot to swap over the suppressor when you fitted that re-con alternator. Power is not an issue either; modern radios are loud enough to hear unless your chosen headgear is a baseball cap worn back to front. I just miss those simple 3 band radios with tape or CD facility and not something that requires an hour of swatting over the manual like ‘er indoors Volkswagen Golf system and needing a degree in computer programming – or am I just getting old and intolerant?
Anyway, must dash, I’m taping Pick of the Pops off the radio!
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