If I wrote that I’d first lost my heart to a Dansette in my early teens, you might well imagine some schoolboy crush on some baton-twirling cutie. If I added that she was a present from my great-aunt, and was covered in slightly scuffed red and grey leatherette, you’d start to wonder if you’d stumbled on the wrong kind of website, but of course this is the MidCentury Chap page, and you’d all know instinctively that I was talking about a very special brand of portable record-player.
Portable, that is, in as much as it’s got a handle on it and, unlike most record-players of the immediate post-war era, doesn’t come embedded in a piece of furniture, and it’s that sense of personal freedom in music listening that links the Dansette and its contemporaries so closely to popular music of the 1950s and early 1960s. For the first time, teenagers could listen to their kind of music in the privacy of their bedroom, or at least away from the family front room and a running critique from the dance band generation. Given that image, it’s surprising to work out how pricey they were; the first model in 1950 retailed at a hefty 33 guineas – some £800 in today’s values. As mass production kicked in, prices dropped; by 1962, a four-speed autochanger model could be yours for a mere 13 guineas, but that still points to a luxury item for most – either a ‘big present’ or, for the youngster starting work, a hire purchase on the ‘never never’.
Like so many defining MidCentury products, we have a Jewish immigrant to thank for the Dansette. Morris Margolin arrived from Russia early in the 20th Century as a cabinet maker in London’s Old Street. Spotting the potential for a combination of furniture making skills and a growing market in home entertainment, the company started producing a ‘Plus-a-Gram’ electric turntable to plug into a domestic wireless set. As the first such machine on the market, it remained the Margolins’ principal product until the early 1950s and the arrival of an autochanger mechanism at an affordable price from the Birmingham Sound Reproducer (BSR) company. Margolin brought the BSR mechanism, his cabinet and turntable and an integral amplifier and speaker together under a new product name, the Dansette, in 1952 and an icon was born.
That first model, the Senior, was just the first of bewildering succession of names, some of which are now rarely seen, even to Dansette aficionados. Some, like the Automix, hinted at the ability of the Dansette to play a succession of records without intervention by the owner (although the sound of 78s clattering down on each other must surely have raised at least a hair even in those days of plenty). Others spoke of the Margolins’ dominance in the market, such as Conquest, Challenge, Imperial, Monarch, Princess and Supreme, whilst some attempted to create an atmosphere of listening to music in locations far more exotic than a 1950s suburban bedroom, like Bermuda and Capri. There was even an industrial river theme running with models dubbed Severn, Trent and Thames – I can’t help feeling the marketing department were having a bad day with those.
The 1950s saw the name Dansette become as synonymous with the portable record player as Hoover was to the domestic vacuum cleaner. Unlike more upmarket radiograms, usually marketed as items of furniture by high-class retailers, the Dansette fitted nicely into a wide range of shops, from high street stores to specialist music shops. Similarly, Margolin saw the opportunity to break with the strict classification of electrical goods as white for the kitchen and brown for the parlour, using the simplicity of a leatherette covering over a plywood case to produce models in a wide range of lively and coordinated colours. A move from the original premises to a new factory in Stanmore allowed production to increase significantly. The transition from 78 rpm records to the new 45 rpm single format played to the company’s strengths, although it meant that for much of the Dansette’s heyday, turntables needed to provide not only 45 and 78 rpm speeds, but also 33⅓ for the increasingly popular LP album and the now long-forgotten 16⅔ rpm – designed to allow long pieces like talking books to be enjoyed at home, albeit in low-fi, or for background music in restaurants. More challenging was the need for different needles for 78s and the newer formats (it’s all about the shape of the groove), solved by a neat little flip-over cartridge which I suspect was used far less often than it should have been, hastening the deterioration of records played with the wrong shaped stylus.
After their heyday in the late 50s and early 60s, Dansettes became increasingly left behind by the increasing sophistication in both the recording and playing of vinyl. True stereo reproduction demanded separate speakers, incompatible with the Dansette’s integral system, and although some models incorporated a radio, they could not compete the demand for Hi-Fi separate systems, many imported from the far east. By the end of the decade, the company had gone in liquidation, but not before over a million Dansettes had left the factory.
And many of them are still around, and after years languishing in attics, or changing hands for bargain prices in junk and charity shops, the market is picking up as a new generation of enthusiasts eschew their iThingy for the pleasure of playing real vinyl on a real turntable that doesn’t need a whole Hi-Fi system attached to it to bring their music to life. The novice buyer needs to apply a bit of caution, though. Even the newer models are getting on for 50 years old and annoying faults like sticky moving parts and blown valves can be accompanied by the far more immediate hazards of corroded unearthed mains wiring. Needles and cartridges can be a problem, too; whilst the needles themselves will usually have survived unless knocked about, the interior of the cartridge (the bit the needle wobbles about in to produce an electrical impulse) will often have degraded into a sticky mess. Fortunately, the renewed popularity of Dansettes and other portable record players has sparked a growth in repair specialists. Be aware, though – the cost of replacement parts and a strip down, clean and repair by a decent specialist can put the cost of your flea market find up considerably. Basically, if you think you’re paying the premium for a fully working model, make sure it genuinely is properly serviced and not just nice and clean, and if you’re buying one for restoration, try to establish just what’s not working before you lay out your dosh. Needless to say, it’s also worth checking reviews of the work done by any restorer before you commit your prized find to their care; a look at some of their previous work and firm quote will let you know what to expect.
There are also some great suppliers out there for some of the more cosmetic items to bring your Dansette back to showroom condition. A good hunt around on-line and EBay will throw up all kinds of nice bits and pieces, from knobs, to reproduction stickers, new brassware (the catches, hinges and feet on old finds are often badly corroded) and, to literally lift your model above the rest, newly-manufactured ‘atomic’ tapered legs and brackets suitable for varnishing or painting to your taste – so much more satisfying than paying over the odds for a battered set rescued from some old table. I’ve included a few links at the foot of this article, but can only vouch for Relics of Bristol for mechanical and electrical work, and Mike Higgins for parts – only because they’re the only ones I’ve used.
So what’s adding to the load on the rafters in my little attic record room? Well, that first gift from a great aunt is still going strong – a late 50s Dansette Major in red and grey that’s never given me any trouble and still has its original flip-over needle, making it the default device for any new 78 rpm acquisitions.
Also still good for 78s is another red and grey model, this time an Automix picked up at a flea market that, from the curvy cream plastic mechanism, I reckon dates from the early 50s. That took a bit of work by the Relics team to get it going but is now in sound condition.
Reflecting the 60s models are a couple acquired at auction, the first a slightly discoloured red and cream Challenge, made much more attractive with some new brightwork and a set of painted legs, and the other a lovely green and cream Bermuda, oddly not working when we got it despite still having its paper turntable cover and instruction leaflet, implying it had been little used. That, too, has been treated to a set of legs, finished in Danish Oil this time, and both have been brought back to life with new cartridges installed in the original heads.
And just to prove that other portable record players are available, I’ve just added a new one to make a trio of Philips models. The first, another flea market find from a house clearance van, is another early 50s model, much less of a design classic than the Dansette, but with a name like the Autosonic Disc Jockey, how could I resist it? It also has the feature of a detachable speaker so, with the mechanism given the Relics treatment and a new cartridge, it should be all ready for some summer table-top garden spin-ups. More firmly in the 50s groove, though, are a nice blue mains portable – now awaiting its trip to the Bristol turntable doctor’s surgery – and, a rather cool mustard yellow battery-powered unit. It’s been restored to working order with a period cartridge (fortunately interchangeable with the new unit), but such is its appetite for the old ‘C’ sized batteries, my plan is to install a discreet DC power socket so it can be run from an adaptor or car battery.
Do they get used? You bet! What better way to try out a batch of new 45 or 78 rpm acquisitions than giving them a spin on the kind of machine that would have been waiting for them when they came home from the shop the first time. Mind you, I’m not trusting my precious vinyl to the autochanger!
And a few links to get you started:
Relics of Bristol – my local restorer
Mike Higgins’ Ebay page for spares
Dansette Products Ltd – now using the Dansette name for restoration parts and services.
Dansette Revolver – doing much the same thing.
Dansette.co.uk – a very information fan site.