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Widget Of The Week

Barlow Wadley XCR-30 Mk II Receiver, 1974

The Barlow Wadley XCR-30 may be one of the most famous radios that you have never heard of. One of the reasons for its current obscurity is because in its heyday – the seventies and eighties – it was mostly bought by radio amateurs or ‘Hams’ and listeners to the Short Wave bands (known in the trade as SWLs or DX-ers). It has since become the stuff of myth and legend in amateur radio and vintage gadget collecting circles. It was quite expensive and comparatively few were built in its short production run (1973 to 1976) and this was largely due to it being made in South Africa. At the time SA was isolated and sanctioned by the international community in protest over its institutionally racist Apartheid system, so one way or another they are now quite rare. The XCR-30 was also unknown to me but a few years ago my brother Pete, who lives in South Africa, asked me if I had ever come across this radio, as he owned one in the seventies. He wasn’t a radio enthusiast but he did a lot of travelling and it proved quite handy for keeping up with the news in remote locations.  

 

One of the many features that made the XCR-30 so special is a clever piece of electronic circuitry called the Wadley Loop. Basically it helps the receiver to tune over an unusually wide range of frequencies covering the Medium and Short Wave bands (from 500kHz to 30MHz, on this model) with extraordinary sensitivity and precision. The why’s and wherefores of how it works need not concern us now (there’s more info here) and it would probably make yours (and my) head explode, but suffice it to say since the concept was developed in the 1950s by British electronics engineer Dr Trevor Wadley, it has gone on to become a key element in the design of specialised scientific instruments, like spectrum analysers.

 

The really surprising thing, though, is that such a sophisticated radio looks rather ordinary and not that different from the countless other portable radios doing the rounds in the 70s and 80s. The only slightly unusual feature, visible on the outside at least, is a hinged panel on the top with a slot for a printed card showing frequency coverage and blank cards for logging stations. Another oddity is the two large tuning knobs on either side of the case, and the two rotating frequency dials they are connected to. These are a clue to the XCR-30’s extra wide tuning range. The ‘MHz Set’ scale on the left extends from 0.5MHz to 30MHz, whilst the ‘kHz Set’ scale/knob on the right is for fine-tuning over the range 0 to 1000kHz. To the right of the scales there’s a small signal strength meter and below that a tiny knob for zeroing the kHz scale. This may need the occasional tweak due to changes in temperature and humidity. It is significant, and a clear indication of this radio’s remarkable prowess that the instruction manual (and others who know this receiver) say with great conviction, that once a station has been tuned ‘the stability is such that it will remain in tune indefinitely’…

 

The two knobs on the left side of the front pant panel are responsible for on/off volume, and Antenna Trim – we’ll come back to that in a moment – and on the right side there’s two more for Clarify SSB and Mode Selection (USB, AM and LSB). Those last two knobs definitely need some explanation, so starting with the acronyms, SSB stands for Single Sideband, USB is Upper Sideband (not to be confused with Universal Serial Bus, that came much later…), and LSB is Lower Sideband.

 

Single Sideband is an offshoot of AM (Amplitude Modulation) transmission, which is the system mostly used by radio stations broadcasting on the Long and Medium wavebands. Essentially it’s a very efficient way to transmit simple and relatively low quality sounds, like speech and Morse code, over long distances. SSB takes up around one third of the bandwidth and needs significantly less power than a conventional AM signal. This makes SSB popular with radio amateurs (and Citizen Band users), who enjoy chatting with fellow enthusiasts, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, using low power transmitting equipment. The downsides of SSB operation are that it is no use whatsoever for more complex sounds, like music; receivers tend to be complicated, expensive, and very fiddly to tune, hence the need for that manual SSB ‘Clarify’ control. Without it SSB transmissions would sound a lot like Donald Duck on speed… Back to that Antenna Trim control mentioned earlier and that is for fine-tuning the aerial. This is another handy feature on a receiver designed to pick up extremely weak signals on the short wave bands. One other thing worth a quick mention is the radio’s battery operation. One very welcome spin-off from the Bradley Loop Tuning system is really low standby or 'quiescent'  current consumption, typically 20 to 40mA, which translated into English means that a set of batteries will last many times longer than most modern radio receivers of similar capabilities.

 

And so to this XCR-30’s back story. I have been on the lookout for one ever since my brother drew my attention to it. Only a small handful turn up on ebay each year and almost without exception they change hands for three-figure sums; US buyers appear to be especially keen to get their hands on them. Barlow Wadley is saved as a Search term on my ebay but for some reason this one wasn’t flagged up and I only spotted it by accident, as a ‘you might be interested’ suggestion on some other unrelated auction page. It only had a day to go, with a starting price of £80, and no bids as yet. It was listed as working, in good condition and it came complete with the original instructions and service manual, which are both very rare and desirable to collectors. I was convinced it had been spotted and would sell in the last minute for somewhere north of £200. I put it on my Watch List anyway, more out of curiosity than in any hope of buying it. The auction was due to end early on a Thursday morning, and with an hour to go I checked to see how high the price had risen, but there were still no bids. Forty minutes later I decided to put in a mischief bid of £85 and annoy the hoards of last-second bidders I imagined were waiting to jump in. Fully expecting it to be instantly trounced I forgot about it so I was quite surprised, to say the least, to find the ‘You’ve Won, Pay Now’ email in my inbox later that day, and I was the only bidder.

 

It was as advertised and in spite of being more than 40 years old it is in remarkably good condition. The case is clean, there are no serious marks or scratches anywhere and it cleaned up well using nothing stronger a soft cloth and some household cleaner. The case was treated to a wipe-over with car dashboard polish, which buffed up to as-new shine. Inside it was just a bit dusty and the only very minor problem was the battery holder, which had a crack at one end, Fortunately these are still available and a new one cost just a couple of pounds. At some point there had been a minor battery leak on the the bottom of the case, which is all metal. The few small spots of ancient brown residue cleaned up easily.

 

The ebay description was also right about it being in good working order and even the on-board telescopic aerial managed to pull in scores of transmissions on both the MW broadcast and SW amateur radio bands. Articles on the XCR-30 suggested that well-used examples could have mechanical troubles but everything checked out, including a pair of fragile micro switches on the Antenna Trim adjustment. Performance is still excellent and whilst things have moved on, with the introduction of digitally controlled phase locked loop (PLL) tuning systems, not to mention digital displays and all manner of other enhancements in filtration and frequency control, the XCR-30 is remains a damn fine SW receiver and I suspect a good number of amateur radio enthusiasts and DX-ers would enjoy using it.

 

What Happened To It?

As far as I can make out Trevor Wadley retired to South Africa in the late 60s. He clearly wanted to keep his hand in and teamed up with a local manufacturer, called Barlow’s Television Co, to build his design for the XCR-30. At the time Barlow’s Television was mostly involved in assembling consumer electronics products under licence for Matsushita and Sony. It was a division of the Barlow’s Group, a large and long established conglomerate involved in steel manufacturing and building materials, motor retail and handling equipment. The Barlow’s Group continues to expand and is now a thriving multinational concern.

 

Although the XCR-30 was in production for only three years it underwent a number of modifications. This example apparently dates to post June 1974, and I know that because one of the few websites with any information about this radio reckons that after that date the all-transistor audio amplifier circuit was replaced with a TAA 611B amplifier chip. Later, even rarer models also sported an FM tuner. This should have made it more consumer friendly and improved sales. However, the home market was limited; sanctions made it difficult for South African companies to sell overseas and this probably bought about the radio’s eventual demise.  

 

I am under no illusions that this was a very lucky find and if you can find an XCR-30 you can expect to pay anywhere between £150 and £500 for one, possibly more if it is boxed and in mint condition. Nevertheless as this one proves they occasionally slip through the net and I have no doubt that over the years a few of them have turned up at a car boot sale or antique fair, selling for a few pounds. So you know what to do if you ever see one for a silly price, and this time, don’t pass it by, even if it is in poor condition. These days even spare parts can fetch a tidy sum.


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:                         1973

Original Price:                   £80?

Value Today:                     £200 (0917)

Features:                                     Triple-conversion drift cancellation, crystal-controlled ‘Wadley Loop’ tuner, Continuous frequency range 500kHz – 30MHz (Medium to Short Wave), reception modes AM, SSB & CW (continuous wave), dual range analogue tuning, SSB clarifier, antenna trimmer signal level meter, telescopic antenna, external open wire antenna and earth connections, 0.5 watt audio output.

Power req.                        56 x 1.5volt D cells & external 6 - 12 volt DC supply

Dimensions:                      290 x 237 x 100mm

Weight:                              3.6kg

Made (assembled) in:        South Africa     

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):      9



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