Widget Of The Week
Radio Rentals Novelty AM Radio, 1979?
You really are showing your age if the words Radio Rentals
means anything to you. For the benefit those under fifty, it was once a well
respected household name and for more than 60 years the company played a
leading role in supplying the British public with affordable home entertainment
products. More about the glory days shortly.
This striking Medium Wave radio actually dates from the late
seventies or early eighties; it was probably a promotional item, and for a
novelty radio, quite well made. It resembles the classic ‘cathedral’ style
valve wirelesses, popular between the 1930s and 50s. The originals were
typically housed in wooden or Bakelite cases and stood 50cm or more high. This
one is a little smaller, roughly one-third scale at 16cm tall but it’s quite
convincing and probably fooled a fair few people into thinking it was proper
old-tyme vintage radio. Ironically, even for the seventies or eighties it is
quite old fashioned. Inside the plastic case there’s a basic Hong Kong made
6-transistor superhet receiver. The only things setting it apart from the
multitude of cheap ‘trannies’ of that period is a large 90mm speaker and faux
rotary tuner display on the front. Thanks to that larger than average speaker
it doesn’t sound half bad, compared with the usually tinny noises coming out of
most other small radios. Normally that might even make it useable as a tabletop
radio. Unfortunately there are only few stations left on the medium wave band
and the tuner has serious sensitivity issues. Unless you can actually see your
local AM transmitter mast it is unlikely you’ll ever hear anything worth
Vintage transistor radios from the late 50s to the early 80s, with
a decent chance of working, have become a rare sight at the car boot sales and
antique fairs I frequent, which is why this one caught my eye. After a brief
haggle the stallholder agreed to part with it for £4.00, a sum I was happy to
pay as for once it came with a battery and was demonstrably in good working
order, very tidy on the outside and no corrosion in the battery compartment.
Several decades of dust were easily removed with a light brushing inside the
case and a wipe over with Mr Sheen was all that was needed to have it looking
almost like new. It had obviously been well cared for and probably spent most
of the last 40 or so years in the back of a drawer, in its original plain
What Happened To It?
Radio Rentals was established in the 1930s, as the name suggests,
renting out new fangled radios to a tech wary public, but the company really
took off in the post war years. Eventually they became a familiar sight in
almost every high street, playing a significant role in the successful UK launches
of colour televisions in the late 60s and a decade later, leading the way with
home video recorders. The premise was simple; new TVs and VCRs cost the thick
end of £1000.00 when they first appeared. Early colour TVs were notoriously
unreliable and costly to maintain. In today’s money a colour telly would have
set you back the equivalent of £12,000 and £3,000 for a VHS video recorder.
That was simply too much for the mass market to bear, so rather than buying
them outright you rented them for a modest weekly or monthly payment. If your
TV or VCR packed up, (which it definitely would…), you wouldn’t get stung for
repairs and if you kept up the payments, you would be rewarded with a new model
every few years. Sound familiar? That’s not unlike the way a lot of people can
now afford to drive expensive new cars.
The timing suggests that this little Radio Rental radio may have
been part of a campaign to revive the company’s flagging fortunes. By the late
seventies the cost of colour TVs and VCR was on a steep downward spiral.
Electronic gadgets were also becoming more reliable and once the Japanese
started making TVs, much less of a gamble when it came to reliability. All this
made the rental model look increasingly unattractive, compared with an outright
purchase or buying on HP and credit cards. In fact the writing was on the wall
a decade or so earlier as the company was shuffled around the various divisions
of the Thorn EMI empire, who took control of the company in 1968. Radio
Rentals, as a brand had all but disappeared by 2000, though apparently the name
still lives on in Australia.
Novelty radios and especially the earliest transistor models
remain popular with collectors, and prices can and often do reach three figures
for the rarest and most sought after examples. This one is not in that league
and when one occasionally appears on ebay it typically sells for between £20
and £30, depending on condition. It is not known how many were made, though if indeed
it was a promo or give-away, it could even be borderline rare, but don’t get
your hopes up just yet, prices are unlikely to change very much over the next
few years, but your grandchildren might thank you if you can snag a good one for
a decent enough price.
First Seen: 1979?
Original Price: £ possibly free?
Value Today: £20.00 (0922)
Features: Single band (AM) 6-transistor
superhet receiver, 90mm speaker, pulley driven rotary tuning dial, volume on/off & tuning rotary controls,
internal ferrite antenna
Power req. 1 x 9-volt PP3 type battery
Dimensions: 160 x 120 x 60mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8