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Widget Of The Week

Grundig TK 141 Tape Recorder, 1970

Keeping up with the latest trends in home entertainment can be a tricky business. However, given the current fad for retro technology, and following on from the successful vinyl revival and talk of a comeback for compact cassette, it’s surely only a matter of time before reel-to-reel tape recorders become the next big thing. The smart move now, before it all kicks off, is to get ahead of the game and snap up some original vintage machines. As soon as it takes off the very limited supply will quickly dry up, prices will shoot up and within a few months high-priced repro gear will be coming out of the woodwork, sporting Bluetooth and USB connectivity, of course. This will be followed by shed loads of cheap and nasty tat, and then it will be all over, to make way for the next passing craze.


So, if you want to get foothold in the forthcoming reel-to-reel revolution – pun intended -- and you’re on a tight budget then it’s worth keeping a lookout for one of the many fine machines made by Grundig during the 60s and 70s (earlier, mostly valve-based models can be troublesome). Grundig were prolific; their machines had a reputation for being well made and reliable, and they sold in large numbers, in spite of being slightly dearer than rival brands. This TK 141 is a good example. It’s a compact 4-track design. It sounds good, looks the part and it’s built to last so there’s a better than average chance of finding one that works, or can be easily fixed. Sadly, in spite of the 4-track recording system (2 tracks per side) sound output is monophonic; a conversion is possible though it’s hardly necessary as there are stereo models of similar vintage, appearance and price available (look for TK 147 and above). 


What sets the TK 141 and the others in the range apart from the crowd is robust metal chassis, high performance motor and dependable electronic circuitry. Just about the only things that wear out are the drive belts but modern replacements are readily available, and quite easy to fit, once you know the trick – more on that in a moment.


All transport functions are controlled by the large lever (or knob, on some models) on the right side of top panel, so it is very easy to use and mechanical problems are few. It has a simple capstan drive mechanism, in this case a single speed setup, running at the industry standard mid-fi 9.56 cm/sec (3 ¾ ips). It takes reels up to 15cm (6-inches) in diameter, giving around an hour per side (or 2 hours if you rewind and listen to the other track). There’s a set of sliders for adjusting volume, tone and recording level, shown on an illuminated meter. It also has a tape counter, a solid 4 watts output through a 15 cm elliptical speaker and a smart seventies style ‘executive’ carry case with a compartment for the mains lead. In fact the only operational downside, apart from mono-only operation, is the assortment of input and output sockets. They’re all multi-pin DIN type connectors, and a real pain in the arse when it comes to hooking up to modern audio equipment.   


An otherwise disappointing car boot sale on the South Coast was the where this one was found. It was a last minute purchase. The weather was foul, stallholders were packing up early and I spotted it on the way out, on the last pitch before the car park, just as the stallholder was about to load it into his van. He was clearly happy to see the back of it and keen to get home to his Sunday lunch as he instantly accepted my cheeky opening offer of £2.00. Apart from a layer of mud and general grime on the outside of the case it was in excellent condition, but a few minor faults needed fixing.


The first was the power button, which had become jammed in the on position. A few squirts of switch cleaner got things moving again, and a few more were applied to the almost always-scratchy volume and tone sliders. The machine powered up and there was a promising low-level hum from the speaker and the capstan roller was spinning but there were no Play or Fast Forward functions. Manually turning the take up reel bought forth loud musical type sounds from the speaker, which meant the likely culprit was a broken or lose drive belt, so off came the bottom cover. This was the start of my lesson in how not to replace belts on Grundig tape recorders. I may have been given false hope by an early victory as I spotted the belt for the tape counter has also broken. A new one took about 10 seconds to fit.


The main drive belt turned out to be a real head-scratcher, though. After unscrewing everything in sight I was no closer to getting the new belt in place. In fact in the first hour all I managed to do was extricate the old belt, which at least allowed me to work out the size of the new belt. Luckily I had one to hand that would fit, it came from a Chinese ‘bumper bundle’ pack of 50 miscellaneous drive belts bought on ebay for just £2.99, less than a third the price of a single belt from a spare parts dealer.


Finally I did what I should have done from the outset and googled ‘replace grundig TK 141 belt’. It took just a few seconds to learn that it’s very a common problem, and easily fixed. The previously mentioned trick is whip off the top panel (5 screws and the carry handle) from where you can loop the belt around the flywheel. Flip it over and remove the 2 screws retaining the bearing plate for the capstan drive pulley. Once that’s out of the way snag the belt with an unfurled paperclip and loop it over the pulley, replace the bearing plate and it’s done. From start to finish it only takes around 5 minutes.


Before refitting the top and bottom covers I took the opportunity to apply some light grease to the moving parts, squirted some more switch cleaner where it would do some good, brushed out the dust and debris and cleaned the heads and pinch roller. It’s now back to its old self and whilst performance is some way below today’s mainstream hi-fi, for a piece of equipment that’s rapidly approaching its fiftieth birthday, it doesn’t sound half bad with plenty of depth, and a surprisingly crisp bass. Even the lack of stereo isn’t as much of a problem as you might think, especially when it’s belting out 50s and 60’s rock tracks, many of which would have been recorded in mono.


What Happened To It?

Grundig are still with us but realistically in name only. The once highly respected brand is now a shadow of its former self, owned by a Turkish manufacturer of home appliances. German radio engineer Max Grundig founded it shortly after the end of World War II and by the end of the 1940s the rapidly growing company was building and selling radios. Production of tape recorders began in the early 50s and expansion into other areas was rapid. In the seventies Dutch rival Philips started to take an interest in Grundig and by the mid eighties they were into almost everything electronic, from VCRs and TVs to high-end hi-fi and in-car entertainment. Philips and Grundig parted company in the early nineties and by the early noughties it had drifted into insolvency, resulting in its current change of ownership.  


The build quality of reel-to-reel tape recorders from Grundig’s golden years was so good that many have survived in good condition. I suspect that a lot of them are gathering dust in cupboards, too good to throw away but almost certainly non-functional, in many cases for the want of a replacement drive belt. In most cases it’s a quick, simple and cheap fix. This means prices for non-runners on ebay and at car boot sales can be surprisingly low, and occasionally an absolute bargain, especially for those with a few simple tools and some basic DIY skills.


First seen:          1970

Original Price:   £30

Value Today:     £20 (0517)

Features:           4-track mono recording, capstan drive, single speed (9.53 cms/3 3/4 ips), max reel size 15cm/6-inches, 4 watts audio output, illuminated recording level meter, tape counter

Power req.                    220-Volts AC Mains

Dimensions:                  295 x 162 x 295mm

Weight:                         7.8kg

Made (assembled) in:   United Kingdom

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)  6



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