Coffee-Break Memories : Were you a fan of CB Radio?

Dodgy wiring and a language that bordered on gibberish once took the UK by storm. Mike Humble recalls the time when your handle and 10-20 made all the difference in social circles.

We are, of course, talking about CB radio…

bandit CB
Films like Smokey and the Bandit captured the hearts of the British public and CB radio
popularity hit fever pitch

There I was hammering along the endless black ribbon that is the A1 south last night when I spotted something even rarer these days than rocking horse muck – a car with a CB aerial. This got me thinking about lost times in the post-driving test phase of my late teens, when only three items of equipment were compulsory in a Ford Cortina: a working cigar lighter, a pair of Ring-branded driving lamps, and – of course – a fully-operational CB radio. These days, CB radio is virtually extinct – though a handful of lorry drivers continue to use them, you have your mobile ‘phone to thank for its demise in the UK.

Words and terminology like: ‘scarlet warrior’, ‘base-loaded super-modulator’ or ‘whip’ may have sounded like the contents of your other half’s secret box in the back of the wardrobe, but they were actually the names given to the plethora of differing aerials you could bedeck your car with.

Epic US films such as Convoy or the Bank Holiday favourite Smokey and the Bandit quite possibly shared the blame for the CB fever that took over the UK. If you weren’t around in the late 1970s, trust me when I say that CB fever was at its highest. This was especially so in the more densely populated towns and cities of the Midlands and the North.

buford‘Where are you, you son of a bitch?’ yells Sheriff Bulford T Justice into his CB mic as Bandit and Frog look on…

Every terraced street in every town would sport one or two Homebase radio sets, with an aerial which emulated a shrunken telescopic washing line, fixed to some redundant scaffold tubing by a few car exhaust clamps. It seemed that everyone (including myself) was gripped by this weird method of talking to people without running the risk of your parents getting a nasty bill from the GPO. However, with CB radio, came a unique form of language – should you omit to learn and use this rather strange mixture of numbers and slang then you were socially outcast to a land even more lonely and desolate than Humberside.

Getting your Ford Granada wired for CB sound was simple. All you needed to do was amble along to your nearest Charlie Browns, Halfords or that long gone emporium of poorly-soldered electrical goods, Tandy. But in larger towns and cities the trend was so popular, independent shops would open up to cater for the masses.

One such place I remember with fondness was Vanners, nestling in a small shopping precinct in the Far Cotton area of Northampton. If I close my eyes I can still smell the aroma of back room soldering and hot plastic. If you’ve had CB exposure you’ll know exactly what I’m on about and you’ll no doubt slowly be nodding your head.

I had a CB radio in my Ital, three Ford Cortinas and a Lada Riva. Never so much fun was to be had taking part in mobile treasure hunts or hide-and-seek. One time, we fitted a huge horn speaker under the bonnet (some CB sets had a PA setting) and took great delight wolf-whistling at the girls coming out of the night clubs. Random abuse hurling while driving through a busy town centre at night also couldn’t be missed.

Unfortunately, the fun came to a quick end when a traffic unit pulled us over and quoted the public broadcasting laws… chapter and verse – point taken officer, I won’t do it again. They were truly great days, for which I thank Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristopherson and Sheriff Bulford T Justice.

My own weapon of choice - the York JCB 863 JCB. Other popular brands included Midland.My own weapon of choice – the York JCB 863 JCB. Other popular brands
included Midland.

Mobile ‘phones killed it all off and, despite CB radio becoming unlicensed in its dying days, it all just faded away as your satnav or RDS radio told you about the jam up ahead. Car ‘phone kits meant you could chat to someone without the worry of losing the signal, legal CB sets only broadcast at four watts which was just enough for a few miles.

As mentioned before, truck drivers still use them although nowhere near as much as in the past. I still smile when I see a tractor unit fitted with a CB twig with a 90-degree kink at the very top – the result of hitting a bridge or other low structure at speed.

Anyway, that’s me done; a 10-100 beckons and no doubt see you on the flip side.

It’s 10-10 ’til we do it again good buddy. I’m down and gone.

Mike Humble


  1. Fond memories of the Commtron CXX ‘Nato’ in my 1977 Cortina 2.0 Ghia fitted below the ashtray with a K40 aerial on a magmount on the boot – happy days!

  2. It was massive in my early teens, but when CB radio was legalised, most of the interest went out of it. I do recall a Coronation St story, when the soap was good, from about 1981 when Eddie Yeats met his partner through CB radio and at the same time, a legalise CB radio candidate getting thousands of votes in a by election in Warrington.
    Happy days and probably a precursor of internet chat rooms and social media that we have these days.

  3. Seems to be making a comeback, at least in rural Northern Ireland. The local boy racers weapon of choice alternates between a Honda Civic, Peugeot 306 diesel and VW Jetta. Each can be spotted with a huge magnetically mounted aerial on the roof, makes them look like little remote controlled cars.

  4. I have heard of people using still using CB on old car convoy runs so the sweeper at the back can let the lead car know if someone has had to stop. It over comes the patchy mobile signal in rural areas.

  5. Good article, anyone know what ‘squelch’ means?

    There was also that phenomenon whereby during rare freak atmospheric conditions a CB radio could transmit & receive from hundreds or even thousands of miles away..

    • The Squelch knob would knock out the white noise when no-one was speaking on that channel. But if you were talking to someone far away you would turn it off to receive their distant mutterings.

      That atmospheric trick you mention where the signal bounces off clouds is called “skip”

  6. David is right, we still use CB for classic car convoys.
    Everybody can here what’s going on and the lead car can warn of traffic on narrow country roads.

  7. IIRC CBs became popular in the USA when the 55mph speed limit came into use.

    Truckers would warn each other when police were around & speed up when the road was clear.

    Quite a bit of CB slang used terms already used by truck drivers.

    I never knew anyone with a CB, but it was common to see cars up to the late 1980s with the ariels fitted.

    By then car phones had become affordable & the gadget minded switched to them.

    Stockport had a shop selling CB gear until about 10 years ago.

  8. It’s also still popular in the off road 4×4 world on ‘green laning’ days, you’ll often see a muddy land rover with a sprung antenna fitted to it. You’ll also see quite a few farm vehicles fitted with it to keep in touch with the ‘office’.

  9. In 1982 I got a lift home from college from another student that had a mini, with a CB in it. He managed to steer, change gear and operate the little handset while he tried to get his friends to ‘come back’

  10. There again there is that mental image of Dave Lee Travis in a weird disguise doing his awful “Convoy” spoof on Top of the Pops that still haunts me.

    Still got my Midland hand held CB radio on the basis it might come in useful one day, like most things…

  11. K40 mag-mount? I was more of a Moonraker or Firestick man starting out with the iconic ‘GE with fairylights’ and moving into SSB multi-channel set-ups. Fantastic times and part of my youth I would never change.

    10-10 till I catch you again, from Screaming-Demon in Eastbourne!

  12. I doubt it. Although I have a ‘legal’ FM rig in the loft and I think there’s an old AM unit and a power-pack up there too. All I’m lacking is a biscuit tin to put the mag-mount on….

    I still see some old faces around the town from those days and I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a reunion of the old Eastbourne Breakers Club, where I was Entertainments Officer back when we used to hold meetings in Kings Country Club on a Sunday night. We used to get up to 2000 people turn up for those events – wonderful!

  13. My brother had a CB in his company Cavalier back in ’81. That was a severe winter, we used the CB to get weather reports for up to 50 miles ahead, which was very comforting on a trip from Aberdeen to Derby. Sadly, the sub-zero temperatures near Aberdeen killed the electronics before we had a chance to use it again.

  14. Great article. I brought back an 18 channel Australian CB (branded Bristol)in 1977 and was surprised to hear a few people calling on channel 16 in the Northampton area. I soon ran out of channels and bought a General Electric 40 channel from Motorsound in Kettering Road (all under the counter stuff then). Still remember Vanners and CB Services. By 1980 you couldn’t find a spare slot on the FCC 40 channel allocation in Northampton. There were some really great people on the AM system then. The 27/81 UK 40 arrived a year later and the kids all got one for Christmas, – great memories and it pushed me into an RF design career. Funny that it has turned full circle with the CEPT (FCC) 40 channel allocation. Live near Oxford now and there are still a few people using CB on 11m particularly on the new SSB mode.

    ’10-10 till we do it again’ from the Red Leopard

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