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Car radiophone paved way for mobiles

Carphone driver

The car radiophone made a quiet debut in the UK 50 years ago today

It turned out to be the forerunner of the device few people now can live without - the mobile phone. But the car radiophone made a quiet and modest debut into the UK telecoms market 50 years ago today.  

The technology meant that, for the first time, people could contact each other by phone while away from home or the office without having to search for a telephone box.

It was launched on an experimental basis in the north-west of England as the Post Office South Lancashire Radiophone Service.

It was expensive to buy and run and, in the early days, was relatively slow to catch on. It was used mostly by top business people and their chauffeurs, and only a relative few were able to afford it.

Time is money

But the technology proved successful so it was later extended into London and then the rest of the UK.

Chauffeur on car radiophone
The service was mostly used by top business people and their chauffeurs

David Hay, BT head of heritage and corporate memory, said: “There was no national blaze of publicity for the introduction of the car radiophone, and few people appreciated at the time that its arrival was pioneering the way for the mobile phone.”

Advertising for the car radiophone stated: “For the busy man time is money. A telephone in your car, or those of your key executives, could save you both time and money. Radiotelephone systems of various types are becoming part of the pattern of modern living.”

Due to the limited bandwidth made available, only six channels were allocated - hence only six customers could make a call at any one time. The system was far from the automatic network we have today, with customers having to announce their individual call sign to the operator, who would set up their call.

Operator
An operator connects a call to a radiotelephone on the South Lancashire service

Post Office radio stations maintained a 24-hour watch in the service area covering the southern half of Lancashire, the Wirral and parts of north Cheshire. Customers anywhere in this area could make phone calls to or receive calls from any telephone subscriber in Britain.

Affluent

The system was controlled from the Peterloo exchange in Manchester, and operated through two base stations - at Winter Hill, near Horwich, and Lancaster House, Liverpool.

For the first time, people could call each other from vehicle to vehicle, or between a vehicle and a landline. But as soon as a motorist ventured outside the region the signal was lost.

From a car in Lymm, Cheshire, the inaugural call was made by the postmaster general Reginald Bevins to Lord Rootes, chairman of the Rootes Group and Dollar Exports Council, in his London office.

The in-car installation had to be purchased from one of three approved manufacturers for £195 (around £3,000 at today's prices), or hired for 30s (£1.50) a week (£22.95 at today's prices).

Radiophone in car boot
A typical tranceiver set normally housed in the boot of a car

With calls costing 2s 6d (12.5p - or £1.91 at today's prices) - reduced to 1s 3d (6.25p - or 96p) in 1960 - for up to three minutes, and a £7 10s (£7.50 - or £115) quarterly licence fee to pay, it was only the relatively affluent who could afford to sign up. In comparison a domestic landline call cost 3d (0.25p - or 19p) in the local exchange area or 1s (5p - or 77p) for a trunk call up to 35 miles.

Reliable

It was far from an instant revenue earner for the Post Office. Previously confidential company documents stored by BT Archives - part of BT Heritage - show that, in February 1963, only 86 cars were connected to the service - producing revenue of £4,000 (£61,000) a year but resulting in an annual loss of £3,000 (£46,000).

The service was eventually introduced in London in 1965, catering for up to 350 subscribers. At its press launch the postmaster general made the first telephone call to TV presenter Richard Dimbleby, who was in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce as it travelled along The Embankment.

“The new radiophone service will prove to be a very useful and reliable new form of communication," said the postmaster general as he inaugurated the service.

The London service was promoted with the message: “With the growing problem of traffic congestion, direct telephone communication within cars is one of the positive ways in which wasted mileages can be eliminated, and hours spent in cars can become productive.”

By the summer of 1972, it was announced that it was being extended to another five major centres - Birmingham, Coventry, South Yorkshire, the Glasgow and Edinburgh area, the Cardiff and Bristol area and the Newcastle and Middlesbrough areas.

Postmaster general and David Dimbleby
The postmaster general, left, and Richard Dimbleby made the inaugural London call in 1965

Information provider: Group Communications

Review date: 28/10/10