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Harold MacQueen’s 1959 Triumph TR3 is surrounded by racks that contain his collection of 4,000-plus auto radios. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
Harold MacQueen’s 1959 Triumph TR3 is surrounded by racks that contain his collection of 4,000-plus auto radios. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Classic cars: Auto radios

Tuned in, turned on to classic radios Add to ...

Harold MacQueen’s 1959 Triumph TR3 isn’t fitted with a radio, which isn’t unusual for its vintage, but seems a little odd given that stacked on racks around it are his collection of 4,000-plus automotive receivers dating back to the dawn of in-car entertainment.

MacQueen, 77, bought the red sports car in 1961, which led to his involvement with the Toronto Triumph Club, and the creation in 1984 of its annual British Car Day.

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The first few humble gatherings were held on his Orono-area property, but it’s since grown into the largest single-day show of its kind in North America, and is held in Bronte, 20 kilometres east of Toronto, on the third Sunday of September (this year, it’s on Sept. 15).

MacQueen’s voluminous collection of vacuum tube and transistor car radios also grew from small beginnings, turning into a not-unlikely retirement hobby/business for this car enthusiast, who spent more than three decades working for the Collins Radio Company of Canada in Toronto, building and testing military grade communications equipment.

“I just haven’t gotten around to it,” he says in explanation of why the TR3 remains radio-less. He’s been busy for the past couple of decades fixing and updating the ancient radios of countless cars under the banner of The Automobile Radio Emporium. “Give me another 50 years.”

The TR3 doesn’t need audio enhancement of its driving entertainment value anyway, but for many modern motorists the electronic systems that keep them amused, informed, in touch and on track to their destinations, are becoming more important than the virtues of the vehicle itself.

The development of electronic and automotive technology has been roughly parallel, both born in the late 19th century, coming of age early in the 20th, and profoundly changing the world since.

The first reference I found linking the automobile and the radio is to a wireless communication demonstration at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, conducted by American electronics pioneer Lee de Forest.

But it wasn’t until commercial AM radio broadcasting began to proliferate in the early 1920s – a Montreal station was among the first – that tinkerers began to think it might be “the bee’s knees” to have this new form of entertainment available while travelling in automobiles.

Among the first was 18-year-old radio bug George Frost, president of the Lane High School radio club in Chicago, who installed one in his Model T Ford in 1922. He was followed by other amateurs, and home radio manufacturers, but the history of just who was first to do what appears muddled. The Radio Collectors Guide, however, indicates the Airtone 3D of 1925, sold by Radio Auto Distributors, was one of the first receivers actually sold for automotive use, followed by the Philco Transitone of 1927.

These early sets were adaptations of home radios, battery-powered, bulky, heavy, with short reception range, and poor reliability due to the state of the technology available and the environment they operated in.

They were also pricey; the Transitone going for $150, when you could buy a Model T for $650. And they weren’t plug-and-play, requiring custom installation, with components placed anywhere they’d fit, and aerials strung in running boards.

The breakthrough came in 1930 when William R. Lear (later of aviation fame, and inventor of the eight-track tape player), who ran a do-it-yourself radio supply business, and a brilliant young employee, Elmer Wavering (who later invented the alternator and developed transistor radios), came to the attention of electronics manufacturer Paul V. Galvin.

The story has it Lear and Wavering put in a last-minute effort worthy of a modern reality show, to solve interference issues in their latest radio, and installed it in Galvin’s Studebaker in time for him to drive from Chicago to Atlantic City for a radio manufacturers’ convention. He couldn’t afford a show stand, so parked outside, dialled up the volume, and went home with a full order book.

Galvin produced his new radio, with steering-column-mounted controls, and still pricey at $110, under the name Motorola.

Seen as the first commercially successful car radio, it was joined by others, in riding a wave of popularity that would swell through the 1930s, as advances allowed radios to become smaller, more reliable and less expensive, and car companies began offering them as options.

Postwar advancements saw the arrival of FM radio in the early 1950s, Chrysler’s Highway Hi-Fi, 45-rpm record player in mid-decade, transistors (Oldsmobile’s Transportable could be popped out of the dash and taken to the beach), eight-track tape players in the 1960s, cassettes in the 1970s, compact discs in the 1980s, and DVDs in the 1990s. The new century brought with it the digital devices and satellite radio we enjoy today.

MacQueen, however, remains mainly an analog kind of guy.

His interest in car radios developed following retirement, moving to Brighton, Ont., in 1990, and attendance at auto flea markets. Intrigued by the various types of radios on offer, he acquired a few, but was soon bringing back car-loads from big events, such as the legendary swap meet in Hershey, Penn.

He has paid anything from “a couple of bucks for a bunch of them” up to the $300 laid out for a mid-1950s Chevrolet Wonder Bar radio, the first to offer automatic “station-seeking” at the push of a finger. His oldest is from a 1933 Chevrolet, a year in which one source claims there were 100,000 car radios in North America.

MacQueen can fix just about anything found in the dash of any car made, but says the main call on the skills he began to acquire while attending Central Tech in Toronto in the early 1950s, is converting 1960s-era AM radios in Camaros, Mustangs and their like, to receive FM broadcasts, while leaving their period-look intact.

And if his arm is twisted, he might even install a jack in the back that will allow use of an MP3 player.

Back in 1930

The first British Empire (later Commonwealth) Games are held in Hamilton, Ont., with England winning 60 medals. Canada finishes second with 54.

The first FIFA World Cup is held in Uruguay, with the host country’s team topping 13 others to take the championship.

American radio fans could tune in, some of them in their automobiles, to the first episodes of The Shadow, The Lutheran Hour and New York Times gossip columnist Walter Winchell’s new program on CBS.


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