Philco - People power!

Author: Steve Harris

Philco radio By the mid 30s, wireless was no longer a luxury for the middle classes, but a part of everyday life for many families. Manufacturers realised that there was a mass market just waiting for a cheap, reliable and efficient radio, which could be marketed as such.

The concept of mass produced goods for all had originated in America, at first in the clockmaking trade, and later with Henry Ford and his Model T. In Europe, especially in Germany, the concept of a People's Radio, the Volksempfanger, and ideas for a People's Car, the Volkswagen were already in place.

Philco were essentially an American company, although this is disguised in all the publicity material of the time, as imported sets were frowned upon by the Radio Manufacturers Association. They were obviously American chassis, and were only assembled at the Perivale factory, so they could say 'Made in Britain'. (Sounds familiar?)

Service engineers were under no illusions, as Philco used American UX based valves, which must have been available from the dealers, but not so easy to find elsewhere.

You pays your money..
Philco 'People's Set' Model 444 broadcast receiver, c 1936When Philco designed their People's Set for the British market, they had to cut costs by reducing the number of valves. In the US, sets sold better the more 'tubes' they had, 8 or 9 being quite common. The skinflint British buyer, who had to pay more heavily for valves anyway, baulked at more than 5, and preferred sets with less. The cheapest sets available tended to be TRFs, with their poor selectivity and instability, but in the US the superhet reigned supreme due to the crowded airwaves. So the basic mains set, the 444, was a 'short' superhet, using a new type of combined high-slope pentode output with a double diode. This was not a type favoured in the US, so a British Mazda valve was specially commissioned and rebadged Philco, the PenDD61. This is now very hard to find, although a PenDD4020 can be fitted with a resistor in the heater curcuit.

Philco seemed to have a very haphazard approach to circuit design, making dozens of similar but- not- quite designs. Even these were fiddled with, making variations called "Run 2" etc. to add to the confusion. Some of these circuits used odd biasing arrangements, with tapped resistors giving various negative rails, while others used straightforward arrangements. As they nearly all used the same valves, it is hard to see why they did not just make two or three standard chassis for all the variations, but there we are.

The Peoples' Set was no exception. No sooner was it in production, than they brought out a succession of slightly different models, all using unique parts. Even the back covers are different.

And you takes your choice
The 444 was in a black bakelite cabinet (It is quite possible that the cabinets were moulded by Ekco), and was a 2 band 4 valve (inc. rectifier)chassis. In 1937, a "De Luxe" model, the A527 with a 5 valve chassis almost the same as the Empire Automatic D521 was introduced, with a brown bakelite case. There was also a B537 3 band model, then a U527 AC/DC set, 5 valve with a barretter, and a U537 AC/DC 3 band, then a V537 that is almost the same, and a U427 AC/DC in the larger case used for the TRF battery set the 333, and the wooden cased models with the same or similar chassis... see what I mean? Even Philco must have been confused, because there are some sets with a blanking plug in the extra hole in the cabinet for a different model chassis!

Some models do have three controls under the dial, wheras others have two. You would think that this would be a tone control for the de-luxe version, but no. The extra hole, extra control and knob is only for a separate on-off switch, where the other model uses a combined on-off and volume pot. Why? Who knows.

What to look for The chassis were only flash-plated with zinc, a process called passivating, and most of them are more or less rusty. If the set has been left for years in a shed, the chassis will be in a bad state, but the speaker will be useless. The speakers were not brilliant anyway, but if the cone is OK and the gap is not full of rust the sound should be acceptable. You can strip the speaker down and reassemble it, but it is fiddly.

Most of the UX valves are not that hard to find, except the PenDD61. Another point to watch out for is the dial, where the bulb often burns a hole in the celluloid. This is made worse if the wrong bulb has been fitted, which often happens as it is a US bayonet type. (As it happens, I have a large stock of these, useful for many American sets. Brand new (in 1943) only £5 for 10!)

When restoring any 1930s Philco, watch out for the bakelite tag blocks which contain one or more condensers. They will be leaky, so either remove completely and replace the innards with new ones, or replace them externally. If you do this, a fine drill through the eyelet holes will get rid of the connecting wire, as there is no point in parallelling a new condenser with a leaky one.

The fixings for the back cover are so insecure that the back is more often missing than on any other set, so an original back is a plus point. The speaker fabric is seldom good either, the 444 having a very light almost cream silk, and the brown models a variety of cloths, including Tygon woven fabric.

They are such a unique shape, so reminiscent of the 30s that they will always be one of the desirable classics. Whoever designed it would no doubt be amazed at the number of them that survive in working order after 60 years.
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