Car radio doc sets up shop in Grants Pass

GRANTS PASS — Vintage car owners take note: Barry Dalton is among a dying breed of people who repair original radios for cars built before the 1970s.

Look in Hemmings Motor News, and you'll find close to 50 businesses nationwide advertising they restore or repair old car radios. Most just do conversions, replacing old innards with modern stereo FM components, Dalton says.

While many old-car owners prefer listening to favorite stations on high-tech equipment as they tool around town, "If it's a real valuable car, I advise against it," Dalton says, noting that anything not original on a collectible car devalues it.

Barry Dalton is the Antique Radio Doctor. Fourteen months ago he moved his one-man operation from his home to a nondescript building on the Rogue River Highway in Grants Pass.

Don't look for a sign out front.

"I've always been real low profile," admits Dalton, who moved from Los Angeles in the late 1980s, then began specializing in car radios about 18 years ago.

Repairing old car radios wasn't among Dalton's original career choices. He sort of fell into it when he realized he couldn't make a living at his first love: collecting and repairing antique radios and vintage TVs.

In his lobby, on display for customers to enjoy, are the gems of Dalton's collection of early radios in large wooden cabinets and TVs with tiny screens produced in the late 1940s. In all, he probably has close to 50 in his collection, though most are in storage.

But Dalton found few folks were willing to pay shipping fees to send him heavy wooden furniture. Also, few customers are savvy enough to remove the innards, including big glass tubes, ship them to Dalton, then reinstall repaired parts.

It wasn't until a friend invited him to a large car parts show in Portland that the light bulb went on.

"It dawned on me that I could repair car radios," Dalton says. "Most are small, you can put them in a 14-inch box and carry them to the post office." Car radio customers, it seems, are happy to pay shipping and repair costs.

Dalton usually charges anywhere from around $200 to $500 to repair and restore vintage car radios to their former glory. Among his most expensive and time-consuming jobs was repairing a three-piece radio for a 1934 Packard.

These days, most of his work comes from people restoring cars from the 1950s through the '70s. Dalton rarely gets to work on car radios from the early 1930s anymore. He figures those collectors are dying out.

Dalton's workroom is lined with boxes of parts, including more than 10,000 tubes. Dozens of old radios fill metal shelving. Some he'll cannibalize for parts; others he'll repair and try to sell on eBay. Some could bring in around $2,000 each.

Dalton advertises in several vintage car club magazines, although he doesn't have a Web site. Over the years, his reputation has spread, bringing in enough business to pay the bills.

Once in a while, Dalton gets a local customer with an old radio or TV needing repair. That gives him a chance to show off his collection.

His eyes light up as he talks about his father, Bill Dalton, who worked for RCA from 1948 to 1959 first in Detroit then in Portland, where Barry Dalton was born. Later the family moved to Southern California.

"He was a sales manager, but in the early days, it was his job to fix (TVs)," Dalton explains. "The company made more profit selling service contracts than TVs. I bugged him to death asking questions."

As a youngster, Dalton repaired electronic equipment as a hobby. He also collected old TV sets and radios, riding around his neighborhood on a bike. He'd pick up old sets from trash bins, then balance them on his handlebars as he rode home.

Among his collection is the first TV sold for less than $100 a 1947 Pilot with a 3-inch tube that cost $99.95. The first TVs sold commercially by RCA in 1946 went for about $500. Dalton figures they would cost close to $5,000 in today's inflated dollars.

Displayed among a number of his RCAs is a 1947 Montgomery Ward Airline TV, a portable model that resembles a suitcase with a 7-inch screen.

Dalton's early radios include a Zenith and a Philco floor models made in 1939 when radios were furniture. Some have short-wave bands. They're fun to look at, and they all work, Dalton maintains, though most aren't plugged in.

When he gets time, Dalton promises to put up a sign out front.

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