I hadn’t intended to build up a collection of Dansettes and other vintage portable record players (I love that term – from when ‘portable’ meant anything that had a handle fixed to it, no matter how heavy). For years, the perfectly serviceable one I had lived in the attic until it re-emerged to give 78s the sound they should have. I blame Elephant House Auctions in Leamington on Spa, where record players in various states of repair sometimes go for temptingly accessible prices amongst the fairground and antique slot machines that make up their usual sales. And a few trips to the Malvern Flea Fair didn’t help either.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? So I end up with five new record players – three Dansettes of various models and vintages, and a couple of Philips, including a lovely little battery-powered unit, and one early 50s unit whose title alone was irresistible: The Philips Disc Jockey. A good clean confirmed that the cases were in good condition (almost new in one case), and the mechanisms were all as complete as they’d appeared at first sight, but all represented a project of some kind. A couple of them were working OK, though with the crackling usually associated with old volume and tone controls, a couple had cartridges and needles that were clearly long past their best, on most the turntables and autochange mechanism were in need of a good service, and at least one had some kind of electrical fault deep in its innards. Quite apart from a natural disinclination to meddle with anything involving mains electricity, I knew that sourcing replacement parts was going to be a challenge. Vintage cartridges (that’s the bit that turns the infinitesimal movement of the needle into the electrical impulses that make the music) are hard to come by as the plastic and rubber from which they’re made decays with age, and hacking the tone arm head off to fit a modern cartridge would look awful, even if it wasn’t for the fact that modern cartridges don’t produce the level of output that a Dansette amplifier is used to. Clearly, a specialist was needed.
My initial research suggested that a long trip north was going to be needed, or at least an expensive shipment of some quite heavy units to trust my treasures to an unknown repairer. Then Mrs M’s superior search skills turned up Relics, on the edge of Bristol City Centre, just 50 miles away. First impressions were hugely encouraging, as their stock included a range of vintage sound items ranging from the 50s through to the early 70s, all beautifully restored and at prices that accurately reflected their rarity and quality (and we’ve all come across the chancers knocking out fairly ordinary vintage record players in unrestored state at an eye-watering price on the basis that someone will be suckered into buying them). What’s more, there was a good stock of collectable vinyl, again realistically priced, and a couple of friendly and knowledgeable guys perched amongst a tempting stack of vintage machinery either awaiting or undergoing restoration. This, clearly, was a place to do business with.
Taking the plunge, I returned a couple of weeks later with all five patients, tagged with my amateur diagnosis of their ailments. That gave me a chance to meet Tim the Sound Tech Guy, surprisingly young for a specialist in 50s sound equipment, but reassuringly savvy and delightfully enthusiastic. I can’t say I didn’t leave with a little trepidation, not least as they didn’t seem short of work to do, but within a couple of weeks, Tim was on the phone with his initial thoughts on what needed doing, and at pains to explain what that meant for each of them. Again, I wondered how long it would take him simply to get hold of the bits he’d need but, just as I was about to start planning around summer holidays, the message came through that they were all ready for collection, quickly followed by an email with detailed invoices showing just what had been done to each. I’ll confess to be stupidly excited when Mrs M and I drove back down to Bristol to collect the newly-restored players. And there they were, all set up just inside the door, ready to be plugged in and tried. In our rush to get out, I’d forgotten to bring the little pile of singles and 78s I’d planned to christen them with, but fortunately the shop stock provided some suitable discs.
The sound of a properly restored Dansette, with a decent needle and cartridge, is just wonderful. With the lid closed to produce the right resonance, there’s a richness to the sound that’s unbelievable for a suitcase sized wooden box with basic 50s amplification and a simple speaker. Most of them now have modern cartridges, compatible with the original heads, but the couple whose originals were still working have retained their flip over 78 and vinyl needles (and there is a difference, which we’ll not go into here). Resident mechanical guru is Graham, who’d worked wonders in servicing the motors and autochange mechanisms, made more complicated by the availability of records in four different speeds when these were made. To boost the sound output in one of the particularly nice models, Tim had fitted a pre-amplifier, meaning that it’s now capable of filling the room. As we worked our way through them, we had to fend off the odd customer under the misapprehension that they’d just added to their sales stock.
With on-street parking outside, we had time to stop and chat with Tim in his upstairs workshop, surrounded by equipment either under repair or, if beyond hope, acting as donors of the vital bits. We were intrigued how someone born just as CDs started to take over recorded music could be not only as passionate about but as skilled in the technology of two generations earlier. It turns out the drive to learn came from buying old sound equipment for a band in his teens, much of which needed repair almost immediately, and a grandfather in the electronics trade was the inspiration and tutor to master the craft. Hence, Tim’s workshop revealed not only record players, but also an early tape-driven guitar ‘live’ echo unit, as used by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and a number of rather nice vintage stage amplifiers.
After a long chat about all things rockabilly, early garage and surf, time on the parking ticket was running out fast, leaving us just time to take in the 60s room on the first floor, and the display of more technologically advanced stereo components for those who want to pitch their vintage sound system somewhere between the simplicity of a Dansette and modern hi-fi separates. Oh yes, and I needed to pay the bill! Make no mistake, sourcing the parts and taking the time to bring a piece of 60 year-old technology up to top working order safely doesn’t come cheap, and anyone thinking they’ll make a quick profit by rescuing unserviceable equipment shouldn’t expect the Relics boys to be their ticket to riches. But if you want vintage sound equipment restored properly, with a genuine guarantee that it’ll work when you get it home, and without being ripped off, then a trip to Relics will pay dividends – and you’ll enjoy the experience into the bargain.
You can read all about the shop and find contact information on their website. It’s worth phoning in advance before making the trip so you can be sure of catching Tim and Graham if you want to take in a particular item.