U. S. and British Pilot Radios: A Comparison

Web Edition


Inspired by an early, signed copy of Jonathan Hill's book "Radio! Radio!," Bill Moore appears to be a convert to British-designed radios. He was particularly interested to learn that the Pilot Radio Company manufactured radios in Britain in 1936. Here he compares the U.S.-made Model G508/509 to the British-made Model U106. (Editor)

I have to admit that for most of my 22-year radio "obsession" (my wife's word), my response to 1930s sets from the British Isles was a mixture of dislike and indifference. (Many American collectors must feel this way today based on the prices these sets fetch in the States.) My response was based on my observations of the cabinet style and the circuit simplicity of the table models.

In 1986, my attitude began to turn around. That year was my last to visit the AWA Annual Convention in New York. It was during my exploration of the flea market that I happened upon Jonathan Hill from Britain. Jonathan's new book Radio! Radio! had just come out, and he was selling signed copies, one of which I acquired. This book opened up a whole new collecting arena for me.

Radio! Radio! (now in a third edition) fascinated me with its broad depiction of British and imported sets. Being an enthusiastic collector of Pilot radios, I was surprised to learn from this book that Pilot built sets in London on Park Royal Road. The London Pilot factory was built in 1936 and produced a good number of models for the next twenty or so years, some very similar to U.S. sets and some very unlike U.S. sets.

The British Pilot Company
In 1936, the British Pilot Company began producing sets with both imported and locally produced parts. For the first three years, British sets closely resembled those produced by the American Company. However, some tube-type changes (metal tubes not then being available for replacement purposes in Britain) and steps to save on cabinet costs had to be implemented.

The American company exported sets all over the world, while the British company, prior to the war, did not export, except on a limited basis to Ireland.

Pilot Radio Company History
1925Original company formed to supply kits and parts.
1927Introduction of the "Wasp" shortwave set.
1928Publication of the magazine Radio Design. Introduction of the "Super Wasp."
1929Introduction of the "AC Super Wasp." Acquisition of Speed Tube Corp.; production of low-noise Type 227 tubes.
1930First factory wired set, the "Midget."
1931First Double Superhet, the "SuperWasp" cathedral.
1933Bankruptcy in the depth of the Depression.
1934Formation of the new company in Long Island City, New York.
1936Formation of a British branch, Park Royal Road, London.
1940Shutdown of all commercial activities for the duration of the war in Britain.
1942Shut down of all commercial activities for the duration of the war in U. S.
1942-1945War production of Lend-Lease sets to USSR and China.
1946Postwar FM tuner, cheap but adequate.
1947Postwar TV, first one under $100.
1948Component hi-fi products on the market.
1949Emerson buys large interest in company.
1950Production of consumer market sets ceases.
1962Founder (Isidor Goldberg) passes away.
1963Emerson buys out company and dissolves it.

The U.S.-designed Pilot Model G508/509
Figure 1. The U.S.-designed Pilot Model G508/509 featuring the large rectangular cabinet and slide-rule dial.

The British-built Pilots are an interesting enigma. They contain all the attractive features of the U.S. sets, but are built in the British "battleship" style. In terms of my collection goals, the British sets add another dimension. Most of them have a heavy construction, as my back can tell you. (Picture trips through London airports with those huge, heavy boxes.) This heavy construction was due in part to the longer time these sets had to last. An article in Radio Retailing from the late 1930s points out that European, including British radios, lasted an average of nine years. The average U.S. set was replaced in two years.

U.S. Pilot Model G508/509
The Pilot G508/509 sets were state-of-the-art when they were designed in the U. S., circa 1937. Both sets utilized the slide-rule dial which was becoming popular in Britain and Europe at this time. Model G508/509 is shown in Figure 1.

Putting a slide-rule dial on a high end set would have been considered a very bold move in the States where round and peephole dials continued to dominate into the late 1930s. However, Pilot competed heavily in Europe so these sets (the 509 had an extra long wave band) with slide-rule dials were needed to meet the demands in Europe at the time.

Personally, I do not care for the slide-rule dial. It speaks to the 1940s era in the States, and my main interest is the 1930s (the peak in consumer radio design). I was weaned on Zeniths which maintained the round dial well into the 1940s. Across the Atlantic it was different -- slide-rule dials were king from the mid-1930s on.

The Model G508/509 is interesting for several technical and aesthetic reasons. It was one of the first sets that used multifunction tubes. A reduction of tube count allowed the radio owner a cheaper license fee, based in Europe and Britain on the number of tubes, less the rectifier, ballast and tuning eye.

The G508 is a fantastic performer, with 5 controls, 10 tubes, and a 10-inch speaker. The cabinet is very solid with a sturdy Masonite back. The chassis contains a separate fine tuning control, which is more than adequate and very sturdily constructed.

The tube lineup for the G508/509 includes the following Types: 6K7 RF, 6L7 mixer, 6J7 oscillator, 6K7 1st IF, 6B8 2nd IF/Det., 6Q7 AVC/1st audio, 6V6 (2) audio output, 6E5 tuning eye, and 5U4 rectifier. All tube envelopes are metal except for the 5U4 and 6E5.

This set utilizes these tubes in ideal circuitry with no lack of trimming hardware. The shortwave performance, for which Pilot is famous, is very sensitive and selective for a consumer targeted set.

The British-designed Pilot Model U106
Figure 2. The British-designed Pilot Model U106, with a circuit similar to the Model G508/509, but with striking differences in cabinet design.

British Pilot Model U106
The British Pilot equivalent of the G508/509 is the Model U106, shown in Figure 2. Advertisements for this set started showing up in the November 1937 issue of Wireless World. (Advertisements for the U.S. Model G509, the closest to the U106 with its long wave, don't show up until 1939.) However, the set is mentioned in the 1938 specification summary listing published by Radio Today.

The only circuit changes for the Model U106 were in the dial light wiring and the selection of glass tubes. Metal tubes were not readily available in Britain in 1937. However, the physical changes were astonishing. The British had taken an ugly duckling like the G509 and transformed it into one of the most appealing sets ever built.

As shown in Figure 2, the U106 used a round dial and was housed in a tombstone-style cabinet. The G509 had become a set in the best of all worlds -- a great circuit with a minimum number of readily available tubes. Furthermore, it was great to look at.

This design seemed to be a miracle. As collectors know, in the U. S. in the 1930s, there appeared to be a manufacturers' code -- the bigger the table set, the uglier it had to be.

The transformed British Pilot U106 had the following glass tube line up: 6U7 RF, 6L7 mixer, 6J7 oscillator, 6U7 1st IF, 6B8 2nd IF/Det., 6Q7 1st audio/AVC, 6N6 (2) audio output, 6G5 tuning eye, and 5U4 rectifier.

The U106 was a very expensive set. Advertised prices were in the 22-25 guinea range (approximately $275 dollars). The British Pilot Company performed similar transformations on a couple of other lesser sets, and sold only round- or drum-dial sets until they too succumbed to the slide-rule dial mania by 1939. By then it was too late to produce even these sets, since World War II was underway, and consumer radio production in Britain ceased by the beginning of 1940.

The next time you get the idea that British sets are ugly and uninteresting, remember the transformation of the Model G508/509.


Hill, Jonathan. Radio! Radio!. Great Britain: Sunrise Press, 1986.

Radio Design, "Pilot Radio and TV," U.S.S., 1928, 1931.

Radio Retailing, March 1939.

Radio Today, June 13, 1938.

(Bill Moore, 3049 Box Canyon Rd., Huntsville, AL 35803. E-mail: moore@mevatec..com)

A collector since age 15, Bill focuses on cathedrals and tombstones and has made Pilot a specialty. Founder of one of the first clubs in the South (SVWA), he has had to bow out because of job pressures in the defense industry. He invites comments and questions from readers.

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