Collecting vintage transistor radios: History and value

Michael Jack

The most collectible and historic vintage transistor radios were made in America from 1955 to 1960 and Japan from 1956 to 1963. An easy way to date a transistor radio of this period is to look for small triangles or circles between the 6 and 7 and the 12 and 16 on the dial. These are Civil Defense (CD) marks, which appeared on all radios manufactured or sold in the United States from 1953 to 1963.

vintage transistor radio

Arvin 9577, six transistor radio, U.S., 1957, hourglass speaker grille, chrome trim, slide rule dial, retailed for $59.97. $60-$100
Photo courtesy Michael Jack and Steve Locke

At the height of the Russian Red Scare, the United States enacted the CONELRAD program, establishing two civil defense frequencies, 640 and 1240 kilohertz. During times of emergencies, all stations except the CONELRAD stations at 640 and 1240 AM would cease operations (note that some Japanese radios made by Sharp and Hitachi during the late 1950s left out the CD marks).

American companies were the first out of the solid-state-radio gate with the release of the Regency TR-1 in 1954 (it sold well into 1955 and 1956 as the redesigned TR-1G and TR-4). As a transistor radio collector, I think it’s important to have one example of this historic radio in your collection. Depending on color, they run between $300 and $1,000. Basic ivory and gray cabinets bring less money than the “mandarin” red and black models.


This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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vintage transistor radio

Regency TR-1, world’s first commercially released transistor radio, 1954, U.S., “Mandarin red,” used uncommon 22.5-volt battery; Texas Instruments supplied the radio’s four transistors. $200-$600
Photo courtesy Michael Jack and Steve Locke

For a brief period, the TR-1 was released in very attractive pearlescent pink and light blue colors as well as swirled, jade green and mahogany. These later examples command top dollar on the secondary market. Early Zenith radios like the Royal 500 series are also worthy of having in a collection. The first Royal 500 was hand-wired and had a metal chassis. The fifth generation Zenith 500 was the 500H. It has a large oval speaker and is considered to be the best sounding/performing portable transistor radio.

Other collectible American-made radios are from RCA, General Electric, Admiral, Motorola, Magnavox, Philco, Raytheon, Arvin, Sylvania and Emerson. American radios tend to be slightly larger than their Japanese counterparts. Most U.S. radios are considered “coat pocket”-sized – too big for your shirt pocket. Many were also larger, leather-clad portable sets like the Zenith Royal 750 and Raytheon 8TP-1.

The Emerson 888 series is one of the most popular and attractive coat pocket radios. Emerson released several models in this series from 1958 to 1960, such as the Vanguard, Pioneer, Explorer, Satellite and Atlas – all named after various U.S. space programs. These radios can be found in great numbers today and are terrific looking and often reasonably priced (typically from $20 to $100, depending on condition).

The first Japanese transistor released was Sony’s TR-55, an incredibly rare find today. But it was the Sony TR-63 that created the greatest stir. Released in 1957, it was considered the world’s first truly pocket-sized radio and was the first to utilize all miniature components. It was also the first Japanese radio to be imported into the United States (several other early Sony radios were sold in Canada in 1956). Even examples with cracks or chips can fetch $400. Mint condition models are considerably more valuable.


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vintage transistor radio

Toshiba 7TP-303, nicknamed “Cat’s Eye” by collectors, Japan. $80-$100
Photo courtesy Michael Jack and Steve Locke

Toshiba, Hitachi, Sharp, Standard, Sanyo, Matsushita (Panasonic), Mitsubishi, Aiwa, Realtone, Global and Zephyr soon arrived on North American shores. Small, affordable and colorful, these radios were an immediate hit with the youth market. The simultaneous arrival of imported pocket radios and rock ‘n’ roll conspired to change the electronics industry forever.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, many American companies had opted to have their radios made in Japan but retained their American brand names, such as Trancel, Penny’s, Channel Master and Bulova. Even giants like Zenith, RCA, Motorola, Philco and G.E. had their radios made in Japan. They could no longer compete with the lower prices and more attractive designs coming from Asia.

One of the classic features of Japanese radios is reverse-painted plastic. Reverse (back) painting was a popular method of ornamenting transistor radios between 1958 and 1962. By painting all artwork on the inside of the clear plastic dial cover, there would be no wear or damage to the most attractive features of the radio. A smooth protective surface remained on the outer dial.

This process also gave the radio a three-dimensional appearance. The depth and palette of colors was breathtaking. Gold on white, black accents, bright red and powder blue along with geometric shapes like starbursts, chevrons, jet wings, diamonds and parallel lines make reverse-painted radios visually stunning and highly sought after by collectors. Makers like Toshiba and Crown were exceptional with their creative use of reverse painting.

vintage transistor radio

Sony TR-6 green, Japan, 1956, sold mainly in Japan when Sony’s corporate name was still Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (Sony was the brand name for electronic products); rare – only a small number were manufactured and few have survived. $900-$1,300
Photo courtesy Michael Jack and Steve Locke

Even Japanese radios without reverse painting are highly collectible. The Sony
TR-610, with its sleek cabinet and round speaker grill, spawned a host of imitators like the Realtone TR-1088 “Comet.” These radios can be found in abundance today and range in price from $50 to $150, depending on condition and color.

In your travels you may even encounter pocket radios called “Boy’s Radios.” Japanese firms were hit with both a domestic export tax and a North American import tax on any AM radio having three or more transistors. To avoid the expense, Japanese manufacturers in the 1960s developed AM radios that operated on two transistors. They were marketed as “toys” rather than electronic devices, thus sidestepping the taxes.

These radios would either have “Boy’s Radio” or “Two Transistors” prominently and proudly displayed on the cabinet. In many cases, the cabinets were identical to “real” radios with six transistors. Performance was less than stellar, but these radios could still pick up local stations. Teenagers were swayed by price and appearance; performance was low on their list. Today Boy’s Radios often range in value from $25 to $70.

With any transistor radio from the 1950s or early 1960s, it seems the brighter the color the higher the price. Cool 1950s shades like robin’s egg/powder blue, sea foam green and bright red or yellow command higher prices. Black and ivory cabinets are considered less attractive by some and may reduce a radio’s value on the collector market.

Of course condition is key in valuing a radio as well. Finding a radio with its original box, leather case, earphones, owner’s manual and warranty card/sales slip will inflate worth. Be sure to examine the cabinet closely when making a purchase. Small hairline cracks or chips are often found in the corners.

Some collectors refuse to buy damaged radios. Others are not troubled by buying less-than-perfect examples. Restoring and repairing are an option. If you want to keep a radio historically accurate, I recommend not changing its electronic components.

During the 1970s, radio design experienced a renaissance. Bright colors and cool shapes made a comeback (perhaps inspired by disco, mood rings and the excesses of the decade). Panasonic released several radios that are highly collectible today, such as the Panapet and Toot-A-Loop. They can be found at flea markets or online auctions ranging in price from $10 to $50. Be prepared to spend more if you find one in its original box.

About Michael Jack: Inflicted with the collecting disease, Michael Jack has more than 1,100 transistor radios in his collection. He owns everything from the world’s first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1, to the extremely rare Sony TR-5 (a redesign of Sony’s very first radio). Jack also has many classic “Made in the U.S.A.” sets and the best of “Made in Japan” models. 
By day, Michael is a recording engineer and music producer (see www.recordandmix.ca.). To view more of his radios go to: http://www.flickr.com/people/transistor_radios/

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