This is the first in a series of posts looking at the whole process I go through when fixing up a vintage phone. I got into phones a couple of years ago, and there have been a number of really useful sites over the web helping me learn – but nowhere have I found a general overview of the whole process of renovating a phone inside and out. So in this series, I will talk through the steps I go through, with tips from my own experience and links to the websites I’ve found invaluable.
Also, I confess, I want to make it clear what a total pain in the arse these phones can be, especially if you buy one on Ebay without seeing it – so hopefully you’ll let me go through the pain, and buy one from my shop instead…!
So first of all: what have we got?
Ah, the joy of a big, heavy box. It’s always a voyage of discovery, sticking a scissor blade in the tape to find out what state the phone inside is in, and whether it smells of a) an old loft, b) a damp garage, or c) let’s not even go there. I keep antibacterial hand gel on my office desk mainly for when one of these babies turns up.
Opening this one, I find a lot of packing peanuts, and a black GPO 706 telephone. It’s label says it came from Seven Kings exchange area which, according to Google Maps, is in East London (not far from where I grew up, as the crow flies – although on the wrong side of the river).
The first job is to find out what state the phone is in. If you’re buying on Ebay there are two key questions you want answering before making a bid:
1) Are there any cracks in the plastic?
Scratches are ok (although the deeper they are, the harder they are to remove) – I’ll deal with removing scratches in a later post. But cracks, or anywhere where the actual case plastic is broken is a different thing. While you can replace the smaller plastic parts relatively cheaply, the main case may end up costing as much as the original phone.
2) Does the dial turn freely?
ie when you dial a number, does it return to the starting position without sticking? If not, you’re probably going to need to find, buy and fit a replacement dial, as they’re very difficult to fix. You *might* get lucky and be able to clean some of the moving parts – but if it’s the coiled spring that’s broken or seized up, it needs a strip-down – which is a step past most of us mere mortals.
(Also, while I’m talking Ebay this is important: don’t be fooled by photos making the phone look shiny and polished. Bright lighting in a photo can hide the scratches, the faded colour and the knocks. Buying a phone from Ebay requires a leap of faith – as long as you accept that, and are happy to polish and deal with scratches and fading, you’ll be fine)
Anyway, this phone is fine on all counts: the dial moves well (there’s nothing I like more with these phones than the sound of the dial turning), and there’s no cracks in the plastic. In fact, on a first look the plastic is in very good condition (although problems will sometimes be surfaced when you clean it). It’s dirty, but there’s no major scratches, and no major fading or discolouration (happily, it’s not spent it’s life bathed in tobacco smoke or, worse, with just one side pointing at a bright, sunny window)
The base looks ok, too – not rusty, which (hopefully) tends to be an indication that the insides aren’t rusty, either.
So far, so good. But what’s wrong with it?
1) First of all, the curly cord that should connect the handset to the body of the phone has been cut right through – not ideal! There’s no way to fix this, so a replacement curly cord will need to be fitted.
2) The alpha-numeric dial surround does have a small defect, but I suspect this was there when new, and so won’t worry too much about it.
Also, as with almost all the phones I buy, this one is ‘unconverted’ – that is, never made to work on the post-1979 BT plug-and-socket system. You can tell this because the line cord (the other, straight, cord coming out the back of the phone) has four coloured wires at the end, instead of a standard BT phone plug – before 1979 your phone used to be hard wired into your wall. I’ll be talking about the conversion in a later post.
And finally: a small point but, for me, an important one – there is a stamp on the base of all vintage GPO phones, but on this one it is rubbed away and unreadable. This means I can’t tell what year it was made in. The solid black finger dial and alpha-numeric surround suggest it was a reasonably early 706, but the style of the base suggests it isn’t one of the very earliest – so it’s probably early 1960s.
But, overall, I’m really pleased with a first look at this phone. Of course, I’ve not opened it up yet – in my next post in this series, I’ll take a peek inside, and also look at all the individual parts of the plastic case.
A couple of the best web resources for learning about the models of GPO phones, and what to look out for in them, have been:
- Sam’s Telephone Pictures Collection – The Plastic Era
- Buying GPO retro vintage old and rare telephones
- How to identify telephones
- And the best site overall that I’ve found is the vast British Telephones by Bob Freshwater.