Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Variants of the RCA Personal Portable Radio (BP-10)

     The 1940 RCA BP-10 Personal Portable radio is well known to most radio collectors.  When introduced in June of that year, there was nothing like it on the market.  As the first truly personal radio, it set the standard for all small portable radios that followed.  Several hundred thousand were sold.  As a consequence, many BP-10 radios are available (eBay) and at low prices.  The radio represents an historic first in the history of personal electronics.  Sadly, historic value doesn’t seem to mean much to most collectors. 

This is a late version of the PB-10.  Production ran through 1941 and probably into 1942.  After WWII an almost identical radio (BP-10A) was available in Canada, but not in the U.S.  By that time RCA was on to newer designs.

     The 1954 Regency TR-1 transistor radio is also well known to radio collectors.  It is considered extremely collectable with good examples bringing very high prices.  What is the main difference between the Regency TR-1 and the RCA BP-10 that explains the discrepancy in pricing?  A lot of seems to be due to modern esthetics and the number of known variants.

The Regency TR-1 was introduced in time for the Christmas buying season of 1954.  It was an instant hit.

     For starters, the Regency TR-1 came in many colors.  Thanks to the magic of plastic, Regency could offer the TR-1 in colors to suit the taste of the public and then some.  So, some of the colors are very rare, possibly due to misjudgment on the part of Regency as to what colors the public really wanted.  Today, the rare colored TR-1s are much more expensive to the collector than the rather common red and white.   The very rare marbled TR-1s seem to raise the most interest. 

Five Regency TR-1 colors are shown here.  But, many more colors were available during the production run of the TR-1 through 1955.

     Although the BP-10 had a high “wow” factor in 1940, its style was unchanged during its two year production run.  The BP-10 does have some subtle variants, but they don’t do much for the appearance of the radio.  The esthetics of the radio enclosure beat history every time.  When you combine history with color you get a very desirable radio.  The Regency TR-1 has both. 

     Now, the BP-10 radio was and is a handsome example of art deco styling.  The black and chrome motif are very striking and quite leading edge for 1940.   But, the variants are very subtle and for the most part, not obvious to the casual collector.  For starters, there were three manufacturers of the basic RCA BP-10 radio.  Westinghouse and General Electric of Canada produced identical radios with the only differences between them and the RCA BP-10 was the logo on the face of the radio and the style of the grill cloth.  It’s probable that RCA licensed the Westinghouse and General Electric production to keep up with the demand for the radio. 

The Westinghouse and RCA versions of the BP-10 are shown side by side.  To the casual radio collector these two radios would seem to be identical.

The Canadian General Electric version shown here looks no different than the RCA or Westinghouse versions.

     Other BP-10 differences are very minor.  During the BP-10’s RCA production (1940-1942) there were six known variants.  About the only way to identify them is to look at the main label.  Printed in the lower right hand corner of the label is the number 27987 followed by a dash and a number ranging from 1 to 6.  Radios with the label number 27987-1 were the earliest production BP-10s.  They were made in Camden, NJ starting in the summer of 1940.  A typical label is shown below.  Note that the serial number does not have a prefix.  Many, but not all, were stamped with a date.

 This is a typical main label from a BP-10.  Note the September 6, 1940 date.  Many early sets were stamped with dates that are probably the date of assembly.

     The radios with the label numbers 27987-2 and 27987-3 are very rare.   They probably represent minor variations in the mechanical layout of the radio, such as an oval rather than round speaker (not detectable from the exterior), additional patents, or a cover stop (keeps cover vertically open).  Some were assembled in Camden, New Jersey others were assembled in Bloomington, Indiana.  A letter “B” was often stamped on the Bloomington radios.  Serial number prefixes on these radios range are unknown. 

     What’s really distressing to the collector is that many BP-10 main labels are damaged to the point where the numbers aren’t legible.  The lower right corner of the label is often missing.   Without the label data it’s hard to verify what variant of the BP-10 is actually a “rare” variant.  Externally they all look the same! 

These are typical of the other three common BP-10 labels.  As mentioned, the -2 and -3 labels seem to be extremely rare.



     Things might have been different for the BP-10 as a collectable if a key recommendation of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency had been followed.  Lord & Thomas was a prestigious advertising agency used by RCA and many others during the 1940s.  In March of 1940 they delivered a Merchandising and Advertising Plan for the RCA Personal Radio.  At the time the radio had not been released, but most likely RCA had completed the design.  Apparently Lord & Thomas was not aware that design changes would not be welcome at that point.  Nevertheless, they suggested that RCA produce a version of the BP-10, “…that is covered with processed canvas instead of the leather, and bearing a picture of Nipper (RCA mascot) as its pattern.”  Needless to say, that version or some like it would have made the BP-10 much more collectable, especially if the versions were produced in a limited number.  Sadly, it was not to be.  RCA released the BP-10 in June of 1940 with almost none of the changes suggested by Lord & Thomas.    

     The marketing ideas were good, but a little late for the BP-10.  By April 1942 all civilian radio production ceased for the duration of WWII.  When production resumed in 1946 colorful plastics were beginning to appear in radio design.  Within a few years portable radios as well as most small radios were made in a variety of shapes, colors, and features not possible before the war.

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