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Shopping for a Used Radio

Gary Tayman

             So you've read the Tech Tip for trouble shooting your radio, determined its hopeless junk and now you're ready to give finding a replacement a whirl. Wow, daunting task? Going to just trade out one dead radio for another equally hopeless relic? No way!! Here's Gary Tayman of Tayman Electrical Sound Solutions For Classic Cars with some pointers on what to look for when you are hunting down an old radio. And thanks to Kimberly McDowall, we also have this Tech Tip available in pdf format! ~~ Thanks Kim!

Note: This information has been reprinted in numerous publications -- sometimes with permission and sometimes without.  Anyone is welcome to read / print /save this for personal reference, but if you want to reprint it, PLEASE contact Gary first!

Shopping for a used radio?

Here are a few things to look for

             So you've just found a neat classic for your garage, but you'd really like to replace that Kraco stereo with the radio that belongs in the car. Can you find a good radio in a junkyard? What about radios for sale at swap meets? What questions should you ask when responding to a classified ad?

             When you shop for a car, you understand the fact that these cars come in all ranges, from trailer queen to bondo special. With some cars a tune-up may be all that's needed to put it in perfect condition, while others may be in the shop for months or years and cost $20,000 or more to restore.

             The same goes for radios -- some are perfect, while others are only good for that proverbial boat anchor. Since most of you reading this are not electronics experts, the following tips are guidelines to help you in shopping for the best radio available for your car.


Is it the right radio?

             Don't ask me why, but nearly every make and model out there has its own unique radio. Nor only that, the radios change each year, even if the rest of the car has only minor changes. However the good news is that often radios are interchangeable between certain models and years; for example 47-53 Chevy trucks all use virtually the same radio, as did GMC -- in fact the only difference between Chevy and GMC is the dial glass.

             From 1947 through 1949 a radio was not offered, but the dealer could install a new radio in these models beginning in 1950. Of course, the best place to learn these tidbits is from car/truck owners who are already familiar with your model.

             There are internet websites, parts dealers, and other specialists who can help you find what you need. Ford radios are usually easy to identify. Starting about 1950, a three-digit number designated the model. The first digit was the year, the second was the manufacturer, and the third was the car model.

             Example: a 5BF fits a 55 Ford, and was made by Bendix.

             Starting about 1956, the number went to four digits, and the second digit designated the number of tubes in the set. If fully transistorized, it was a T.


             An F or T at the beginning means it has FM, or a tape player. Actually this convention is not limited to Ford.  Many foreign imports have American radios, and they have similar model numbers.  Even on Mopar and other radios, you may find this type of number in addition to another number. 

             Make note -- if you can't find or reference the radio model number, this stamped number may give you a clue.The vendors are as follows:

             The car models are as follows:

Chris Johnson's 1953 Chevy             Mopar radios use three-digit numbers. Such models include 316, 418, etc. I know of no rhyme or reason to these numbers -- you need a legend to figure out the model and year. Delcos also require a legend, and are even worse for three reasons. First, the model number is printed on a label that is known for falling off. Second, these labels may have up to three numbers -- a model number, series number, and a chassis number. You must have all three handy to reference the radio. Third, Delco frequently made running changes during the year -- the original number might end in 1, the first revision will be a 2, the second a 3, etc.

             In some cases you might find digits that match a legend, where one digit is the model year, another digit determines if it's a Chevy, Buick, or other, and letters such as "PB" or "T" means it has pushbuttons or a tape player.  However, this changed over the years so it may not be easy to even decipher this.  During the 1930's through 1960's, each GM division had its own radios. In the 1970's this changed somewhat, just as they did engines and other components.

             One more thing to consider is the fact that not all radios were factory installed. Beginning in the mid 1950's, car dealers often deleted radios from their car orders, opting to install aftermarket radios for a cheaper price. Radios were made by such companies as Automatic, Tenna, Allcar, Karadio, and Soundex. These are essentially cheap radios designed to look original, generally installed by dealers. I suppose they make good dash fillers, but aside from that they are worthless. There are other brands that are more reputable. Motorola, Penneys, Allstate, Firestone, and Riverside all made radios for aftermarket sale. If your car didn't have a radio, you could have one installed at your friendly neighborhood Monkey Wards department store. These radios were typically not as good as original, but better than the cheap stuff installed by the dealers.

             If your car is prewar, the scenery changes a bit. The luxury cars such as Cadillacs, Buicks, Packards, and Lincolns all had radios -- these cars were purchased by rich people who didn't mind forking over that extra money for a radio. On the other hand, the budget-conscious victim of the Great Depression, who has just scraped up enough money to buy a Plymouth, simply didn't have the extra money needed for a radio -- but often he would buy one later on. So radios such as Transitone (Philco), Motorola, and Silvertone were commonly found in these older cars -- and such radios in good condition can still bring a premium price today. Then again, an original Plymouth radio is worth its weight in gold.


Is the radio all there?

             When shopping for a radio, remember these are rare and parts are hard to come by. Start with the knobs. If the radio does not have knobs (and you don't have a set of knobs at home) walk away from it. If you have knobs, or a source for knobs, you might use the bare shafts as a bargaining tool. After all, radios with knobs are worth more than those without.

             Also, check for other parts -- do you have the knob-shaft mounting hardware? Is the case all there? On radios of the 1940's and 1950's, vibrators frequently went bad, as did tubes. Car owners often removed the back, top, or bottom of the radio to pull out these items for test or replacement. Once the radio was fixed, at times they decided it was too much work to try and fit the covers back on, so they got thrown away.

             If you see a radio with a missing cover, keep in mind that others are the same way, and finding a replacement cover will be difficult.

             If tubes are missing, they can be replaced -- but keep in mind that a fellow who removes tubes may also have removed other parts. Often a used parts dealer who is good at electronics may use parts from two or three radios to make a good one, then put the others together and sell them as is. The poor sucker who buys one of these may be saddled with bad or missing tubes, bad tuner, bad power transformer, etc. The most common clue is that one or more tubes may be missing, or some of the internal wires may be cut. Resist the temptation to buy this "bargain" -- you'll find you haven't saved a thing.

             Another note: a lot of radios from the mid-1950's come in two pieces. Plymouths, Dodge's, Chevrolets, and Pontiacs all have radios which consist of a tuner unit, and a power supply/audio amp which sits behind the speaker. Certain other cars, such as 1958-1960 Edsels and Thunderbirds have a transistor heat sink mounted separately from the rest of the radio.

             When buying a radio, be absolutely certain that you're getting the whole thing -- you may end up paying through the nose for the rest of it.

             In all of the above cases, if the radio has missing components but is otherwise in good condition, it may be a candidate for stereo conversion -- as the components and power unit are no longer required in this case.


Are the appearance parts in good condition?

             If the chrome bezel is pitted, you'll have to have it rechromed. Pitted, broken, or badly scarred pushbuttons will need to be removed, then fixed or replaced -- neither is easy. In some cases replacement pushbuttons are available. Certain Chevrolets and Packards have new parts available, and I'm sure others are being added to the list all the time. However, I would make sure such parts are indeed out there before deciding on a radio with damaged parts. If a dial glass is broken, determine if it can be replaced. Plain glass dials can be cut at any art framing store. Molded clear plastic parts may be hard to come by -- there is a shortage of clear covers for 1964-66 Thunderbird AM/FM radios, for instance. Faded dial pointers can be easily repainted, and dial markings etched into dial covers can be repainted. Certain radios have replacement dials available. However you can't go wrong to look for a radio whose dial and bezel look great.


Does the radio work physically?

             Without a power supply and speaker handy, you cannot tell if the radio operates. However you can test the physical aspects. Do the volume and tone controls move normally? Can you set each pushbutton for a particular dial setting? With pushbuttons, particularly those on 1970's AM/FM radios, if there is the slightest doubt that the pushbuttons are perfect, set it down and slowly walk away. These mechanisms have plastic pieces which break easily, and cannot be repaired. Indications of broken pieces include pushbuttons that don't line up with the others, pushbuttons that won't set to a station, and an AM/FM switch that sticks. Trust me -- if they can be fixed at all, it won't be cheap.


Last but not least, take a good look at the radio

             Is it clean, or is the case full of rust and corrosion? A rusty exterior generally means the interior components have had some exposure to the elements. Certain "exposed" radios are service nightmares -- the worst are European types such as Blaupunkt, Becker, and Telefunken, and certain stereos of the 1970's. As for those Euro radios, a working radio demands a very high price simply because there are so few of them -- the quality of components is horrible, replacement parts are hard to find, and very few service people are willing to work on them at all.

             The 70's stereos, on the other hand, are plentiful -- set the bad ones aside and find one that works. In all cases, the cleaner the radio, the better.

             Bottom line is this: you don't own the last 1957 Chevy on the face of the earth. If you see a radio that is questionable, don't be afraid to pass it by. There are plenty of others. Pre-war radios are a bit more rare, but you would still be amazed at how many are still out there. Just like the car itself, it's up to you to decide if the radio is a good candidate for restoration.

Gary Tayman
Tayman Electrical Sound Solutions For Classic Cars

Located in sunny Sarasota, Florida

             If these two tips don't cover it all for you ... or you're hopelessly lost, contact Gary. Besides upgrading your brakes, and adding seatbelts, perhaps it's time to upgrade your tunes!

             A big thank to Gary for these Tech Tips and a big thanks to Stovebolter Richard "Richard2005" Rosielle for helping us get it together. ~~ Editor

v. November 05

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