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Widget Of The Week

Penncrest Tape Recorder, 1964

They’re known as Private Labels in the trade but we generally refer to them as Own Brands. It’s been common practice for years and concerns large companies flogging anything from baked beans to cars, bearing their name and logo, trading on their own reputation for quality and value. Own brand items are usually competitively priced and sometimes they’re every bit as good as rival branded products; in some cases they’re identical and may even come from the same factory. Occasionally they’re actually superior and that seems to be the case with this Penncrest miniature portable reel-to-reel tape recorder.

 

Penncrest was one of the house brands of J C Penny, the major US department chain store with outlets in almost every large shopping mall. This little machine dates from the early 1960s and at the time was one of thousands of Japanese made portable reel-to-reel tape recorder flooding the market. When tape recorders first appeared in the mid fifties they were an expensive novelty and comparatively rare, in the home at least, but the arrival of the transistor and Japanese manufacturing skills changed all that. However, models like the Penncrest were at the lower end of the domestic tape recorder performance scale. In fact most small machines were little more than toys, due to their poor sound quality and short running times of 10 to 15 minutes, but in general they worked well enough for recording speech. Many of them were used in quite grown up applications, such as inexpensive dictating machines or for making ‘audio letters’, to send to friends and relatives abroad. In the US they were especially popular with families with members in the armed forces serving overseas.

 

This model is fairly typical of the breed with a simple rim-drive deck mechanism. To re-cap, this is where the reels are driven directly by the motor spindle, acting on the rim, or via an idler wheel. It’s a cheap and reliable method of spinning reels of magnetic tape reels but the speed at which it passes the head changes as one reels empties and the other fills up. It’s hardly noticeable when the tape is replayed on the machine it was made on but it can sound a bit odd on other rim-drive machines, or an upmarket model with a constant-speed capstan drive mechanism.

 

The design is a little unusual, though. It looks like a quality product with stylish, black mirror-finish case panels, heavily chrome-plated reel platters and neat little touches, like a custom case for the microphone, held in place by clips inside the detachable lid. The transport mode and volume controls are neatly laid out on the front panel, along with mini jack sockets for the supplied microphone and earpiece. Otherwise the spec follows a familiar pattern with two-track mono recording and a 4-transistor amplifier handing recording and playback signals. There’s a small built-in speaker close to the left hand supply reel, and like almost all modestly priced rim-drive machines, it has a permanent magnet erase and just four basic transport modes. They are Stop, Play, Record and a quick-ish Rewind. Fast Forward is very rare on machines of this type due to the added complexity, and cost. Even so it is surprisingly well made with an all-metal chassis, one of the better designs of Japanese motors and smooth moving parts. It uses two 1.5-volt ‘C’ cells for the motor and a single 9-volt PP3 type battery for the amplifier. These all live in a compartment on the underside of the case. It also has a detachable carry handle, a removable and it would have come with a full tape and empty take-up reel.

 

I’ve had this machine in my collection for more than 20 years and its origins are long forgotten. However, the lack of case marks and any signs of internal tinkering indicated that it has had little use in its long life and is still in near mint condition. I wouldn’t have paid more than £5 – 10 for it that being the going rate and my upper limit for small tape recorders bought in the late nineties. Back then they were still abundant on early on-line auction sites, car boot sales and antique fairs. It still works as well as it ever did, though the supply reel platter was a bit stiff but it freed up easily with a squirt of spray grease. Sound quality is fine for speech and there’s plenty of volume.

 

What Happened To it  

This Penncrest model would have suffered the same fate as almost every other reel-to-reel tape recorder in the 1960s. It was probably on sale for only 2 or 3 years as after its launch in 1963 the Compact Cassette format took off and quickly dominated the home recording market. Basic machines like this one were mostly unceremoniously dumped or stored away in cupboards, lofts and garages until the next big clear out. Overall millions of mini tape recorders were made and a fair few have survived, but rarely in such good condition, which is why my estimate of £50 for this one is at least plausible, though the lack of instructions and original box might limit its appeal to serious collectors.

 

Collecting mini reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 1960s has become a bit of a minefield. Reliable investments include any from well-known makers, especially if they are still in business, and machines that has a strong association with popular TV or the movies. The really tiny ones often appeared in spy and secret agent films and shows of the day and that can command a premium on ebay. However, condition is everything and whilst original packing and instructions can add to the price, any case damage or internal faults destroys their value making them only useful for parts. If it’s an area you are interested in choose wisely and unless you know what you are doing and are handy with a screwdriver and soldering iron stay clear of cheap ‘fixer-uppers’ as spare parts can be expensive, or unobtainable. 


DUSTY DATA

First Seen:          1963

Original Price:    £10.00

Value Today:      £50.00 (0719)

Features:            Single-speed (4.76 cm/sec, 1 7/8 ips) two-rack rim-drive recording mechanism, 4-transistor amplifier, 75mm (3-in) reels, Play, Record, Rewind functions, permanent magnet erase, built-in speaker, detachable flexible carry handle, 3.5mm jacks for crystal microphone and earphone   

Power req.                     2 x 1.5volt C cells & 1 x 9 volt PP3

Dimensions:                    235 x 140 x 75mm

Weight:                           1.25kg

Made (assembled) in:     Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):   7



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