Issue #14: Collecting the Classics
It doesn’t matter whether it’s collecting classic cars or classic radios. As I found out recently, it’s not simply about the “good old days,” but more about style, quality and performance. In this issue, I'll explore the attraction for those oldies-but-goodies and whether or not today's radios will become collector's items as well.
As every ham knows, the amateur radio hobby itself is broken into smaller hobby groups, with niche interests such as digital modes, portable operations, kit building and electronics, antenna design and more. One of the big ones from this list of “sub hobbies” has always been an interest in classic radios, or – as hams refer to them – “boat anchors.” As I’ve never felt this need personally, I had fun recently exploring the world of boat anchors and learning more about the large number of hams who enjoy collecting and restoring old classics.
Thinking about this only from the viewpoint of someone wanting to make QSOs and chase DX, I wondered just why it is that so many will make these investments and just what they are hoping to get out of it. After all, modern radios are generally more powerful, in a smaller package, and they produce less distortion with cleaner sound than the old school products. If that’s the case, what then is the reason for the interest in populating a shack with old classics? Why would I want to have a monster of a radio on the desk in front of me, when I can easily see where the signals are on my waterfall display, in a radio half the size of that ancient, big box.
Well, as it turns out, there really is no comparing the two. Yes, an ICOM IC-7300 might be considered a great rig, but here the competition is not about power and size. Instead, it is about user experience, style, exclusivity, and craftsmanship – all of which are universal and timeless. Classic radios not only appeal to all electronics lovers, but also to lovers of engineering, design, history, and perhaps even art. That’s right . . . these are things of beauty.
What Drives the Collector of Classic Radios
I had a great conversation with a radio friend up in the Chicago area recently, Dave Anderson (W9ZLQ). Dave is one of those hams who enjoys boat anchors a great deal, and his QRZ profile page shows one of the most beautiful displays of these radios that I’ve seen on that website. To say the fellow is an avid collector is a bit of an understatement.
When I first met Dave, we agreed with each other on how cool radios were when we were teens and just getting licensed. We spoke about the competition between brands, and how beautiful these pieces of equipment were in those days. There’s a heavy amount of reminiscing that goes on when hams start talking about these old radios!
“Having radios like these in my shack is something that I couldn’t have earlier afforded,” W9LZQ told me. “I’ve purchased the radios that I could only dream about when I was a kid, reading magazine ads from companies like Drake, Collins, or Heathkit. Of course, I love today’s radios as well, and love my Kenwood transceiver, but there’s a special relationship that a ham can have with radios of the past. I’m sorry, but some of today’s radios just look like plain jane black boxes.” Of course, Dave is right, quite literally . . . some of the most expensive radios available in the hobby, from companies like Flex Radio or Apache Labs, are simply plain flat front panels on a sophisticated package of internal electronics.
I really wanted to discover why this special relationship exists, so as Dave was the first fellow I spoke with about this strong connection between operator and classic radio, I asked him to help me get a handle on the attraction.
“There’s a certain element of the love of electronics that goes into this hobby, for sure. While I am not an electrical engineer, I can solder well enough, and some of the enjoyment I’ve had from boat anchors has been restoring them. While most of my radios have been refurbed by pros, I’ve also done some of my own repairs and upgrades. One of these upgrades was supplied by Kessler Engineering, and in bold red letters the manual said ‘YOU MAY BE KILLED!!’ . . . It was so tight inside, but I got great satisfaction out of that update. It looked like it couldn’t be done, but I succeeded. In fact, I just worked Nepal for the first time a couple of nights ago with it.”
When you look at that photo of Dave’s shack, the first thing you think of (certainly the first thing my XYL would think of if they were mine) is, “How much radio time can you put into each of those?”
“Well, I cycle thru them, and I especially love to do a lot of listening. I really love listening to receivers. These boat anchors can hear just about anything that today’s receivers can hear,” Dave said. I agreed with him, and we swapped stories of our first shortwave listening experiences. I had a Knightkit receiver, and a Hallicrafters later on, and then – of course – I had the Heathkit experience as well. (Check out that photo below of me operating the shack at the East Cleveland Veteran’s Hospital where my Elmers taught me the code.)
“A modern transceiver has everything you need in that one box, and that’s great. But it’s just not the same experience as sitting in front of a seven-foot wide matching “line” of equipment built with the kind of design aesthetic that was so prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. I never built anything that complicated. But that Heathkit stuff was so much fun! In fact, the whole Heathkit era, from 1950 or so until sometime in the 1970s, was interesting because you’d come home from work and have your project on the table to go to after dinner . . .you’d build a radio for a few hours every night and eventually get the enjoyment that Heathkit was known for when you plugged that thing in.” As he described this, I remembered my Dad and I going into his workroom after a meal, and sitting down to do some soldering on a kit that we were both having fun with.
For me, the fun only lasted until I plugged it in, as I almost burned my house down. My Heathkit smoked and I sat there disbelieving and watched it for a few too many minutes. The smell took weeks to come out of our home.
“Building a Heathkit was such a huge part of people’s experiences. I feel a bit sad that I can’t get more of my radio buddies interested in boat anchors, although a couple of them are now learning code to their credit. Too many newbies are stuck on FT8, whereas personally I find FT8 to be much like watching paint dry. If you are only operating FT8, and that’s all you’ve done, you’ve never really listened seriously to the radio . . . you may have missed something very valuable to your experience as a ham radio operator.”
Dave’s biggest concern at this point is that the hobby of collecting boat anchors has a finite timeline built in. That’s because there’s only so many old-timers left who know anything about the repair and refurbishment of these old radios.
“The thing that freaks me out a bit is that all the major repair guys who work on this stuff are dying off. The ham who refurbed all my Collins radios is now a silent key, and my Kenwood guy has retired. I just don’t know where I will go in five years when I need help. To a certain extent, that’s why I want to learn the process as much as I can,” Dave told me. Of course, working on boat anchors requires a great deal of specialized equipment, like vacuum tube voltmeters, tube testers and so on, so it’s not for everyone.
“I’m doing OK, but I don’t want to overstate my knowledge. I’m no engineer, just an enthusiast, and I sure hope that this part of the hobby is able to generate young people who care about old classics, because they’re worth saving,” W9ZLQ concluded.
John Stanford - A House Full of Old Radios
I also reached out to John Stanford (KF6I), of Island Amplifiers. While John’s business revolves around distribution and repair of linear amplifiers such as Beko and RF-Kit, he’s a frequent advertiser in Electric Radio, and is an old hand at working on classic radios. In fact, he’s got them scattered all over his house. He’s even restored some of those classic floor-standing Henry amplifiers! I asked John, an Electrical Engineer with a Masters from the University of Illinois, what he thinks of the build quality and appeal of these older radios. Like Dave Anderson and I, he used to salivate over this stuff as a kid growing up in the Midwest.
“The engineers back in the day took the time to build something that would last, as these were the days of American quality – that was number one. Art Collins was an engineer first and a businessman second. Bean-counters weren’t designing this gear. Art set the tone for his business and made sure that good products were going out the door,” John told me. And he described why much of the appeal to hams has to do with the technology “building blocks” used in these radios.
“Classic radio collectors are in love with the technology building blocks used in these radios, very sound technologies designed by people like Howard Armstrong, the inventor of FM. The people at RCA, as well, those who came up with building blocks like Mixers, IF and so on that went into these radios . . . the older equipment has those modules. Older receivers have some strong attributes, such as the filters in the front end. SDR’s are like listening from DC to daylight. It makes them less enjoyable to listen to,” John stated. “And many to this day argue that tube equipment just works and sounds better, with less inclination to overload and a beautiful, warm sound. Certainly there’s also something about that peculiar electronic hot smell associated with tube equipment that attracts the senses as well.”
It's John’s belief, and I agree, that the quality of radios will likely never be the same, as manufacturers have lost control over the total build because so many components come from China. It’s this global supply chain that has impacted so much of today’s technology in the ham radio world.
“The newest technology does have issues. We’ve nearly lost all ability to make these radios here. Even Japan buys most of their components from China,” he advised. Of course, the big question is whether today’s radios will be the classics of the future. John doesn’t think so.
“They’re much more likely to end up in a trash can, which is a real shame. Personally, I’d have less hesitation dropping any of today’s SDRs into a garbage can than I would a 50-year-old Collins. There’s nothing all that special about the former, and the Collins will always represent those times when companies were able to put together something unique, something truly built to last.”
Like a 1957 Chevy, right?
73 for now, Dave
Have a comment? See what others are saying now in our Forum discussion!
CLICK HERE and JUMP INTO THE CONVERSATION
Dave Jensen, W7DGJ
Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica. He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.
Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ
- Issue #14: Collecting the Classics - March 13, 2023
- Short Takes #6: More CW and Dayton Hamvention - March 8, 2023
- Issue #13: Behind the Curtain of a Secret Language - February 27, 2023
- Short Takes #5: New "Dummies" Book and 3 New Paddles! - February 22, 2023
- Issue #12: From Startup to Market Leader - Martin Jue on Innovation - February 14, 2023
- Issue #11 - Field Day 2023 with the Mountain Topper and Sotabeams Bandhopper - February 1, 2023
- Issue #10 - Logging the Future! Net Control in Interactive Nets - January 25, 2023
- Issue #9- QRO with the Mercury LUX Legal Limit Amplifier - January 18, 2023
- Short Takes #4: Antenna Accessory and Cup Style Mobile Mount - January 18, 2023
- Issue #8 - Kick that Radio Club into Gear! - January 10, 2023
- Issue #7 - For the Love of QRP - January 2, 2023
- Issue #6- Four Things Your Elmer Never Told You About Ham Radio - December 26, 2022
- Short Takes #3: First Look at LUX Amp and New Software for SDR Control - December 25, 2022
- Issue #5- An Expensive 7 Band Dipole - December 19, 2022
- Issue #4 - Tuning Up a Kilowatt - November 30, 2022
- More articles by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ...