McMichael 'Gadabout' M104BT radio, 1961
Didn't we just love Americana in the 1950s? British cars sported American-style tail fins. We couldn't get enough of American design. This radio brought a classic US design to the UK.
The radio is a McMichael 'Gadabout' M104BT from 1961. If you are wondering, a 'Gadabout' is a habitual pleasure-seeker.
McMichael was one of the oldest names in the British Radio industry. The company was founded before the BBC transmitted their first radio programme in 1922.
It was McMichael's second transistor radio. Their first was a compact portable introduced in 1960. This radio was larger and boasted a good quality speaker and sound.
Why was an old British company making knock-off American-style radios?
In 1960, McMichael was a subsidiary of Radio & Allied Industries Ltd, which was formed by a merger with the Sobell Group in 1956. McMichael made both domestic radio sets and electronics for the UK military. In 1961 Radio & Allied Industries Ltd was swallowed up by the giant General Electric Company GEC. Initially the GEC, McMichael and Sobell brands continued.
Both Sobell and McMichael sold radios and television sets. McMichael's radio production moved from its factory in Slough to Sobell's factory near Hirwaun, Aberdare, South Wales.
The Sobell factory turned out electronically identical, but cosmetically different, radios under the Sobell and McMichael names. Badge engineering was common in Britain's electronics industry of the 1960s and 1960s. Most likely companies did it to satisfy separate networks of dealers.
McMichael's literature claimed that the company catered for people with a liking for good design and quality, but nevertheless wanted value. Their television cabinets were slim and well-designed for the era.
McMichael advertised three radio sets in the national press in 1961, the McMichael 'Luxury Consort', the McMichael 'Gadabout' and the McMichael 'Personal'. All three had silver-plated circuits for improved reliability. They cost from 12½ guineas to 17 guineas. They were expensive, but no more than similar radio sets. Which? reviewed the mid-range 'Gadabout' in 1962 and found its performance no better than average. Although the one I bought for this article performs pretty well given it's now over fifty years old!
Their adverts show a trendy youngish couple. The man had an open-neck shirt and cravat, the woman a polka dot dress. They were having a picnic by a river. In the background is a Nash Metropolitan car. Like the McMichael radios, the Metropolitan was designed in America, but made in the UK.
The two larger sets were based on American GE portable radios. There was no formal link between the American GE and the British GEC, but it looks like there was some exchange of ideas.
Despite the advertising, McMichael was already behind the curve with radio design. By 1961 other manufacturers were bringing out FM transistor receivers.
This radio does look simple and understated compared with some British designs from 1961. The advert claimed a pure white grill and gilt fittings. The knobs for tuning and volume were on the side of the cabinet. It was covered with 'horizon blue' leatherette. Real leather was rare, even on the most expensive sets. It was priced at 15½ guineas, or £16 5s 6d. That would have been two weeks wages for people in manual jobs. In today's money, it would be about £300.
The design was based on the General Electric (GE) 750 from 1958. The 750 was near the top of GE's range. It had a 4-inch speaker and real leather case, but only picked up the medium wave AM band.
The McMichael, more suited to the British market, could receive both long wave and medium wave. Electronically it was different from its American cousin and it used British components instead of American ones.
McMichael's transistor radios weren't a great success. These sets are quite rare today. McMichael left the domestic radio trade in 1963 and Sobell the following year. GEC continued to make radios at Sobell's plant in Wales.
By Steven Braggs, August 2023