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From wartime secrets to sounds of the sixties
publication date: Nov 21, 2016
author/source: Dave Moss
Britain’s success in WW2 is partly down to a little known role undertaken with the strictest secrecy in thewesterngroup area, writes Dave Moss.
What is more, it is probably strange to realise that today’s global in-car entertainment and information industry has its roots much closer to home, and with the same company which brought Britain victory in the armed conflict.
In 1922, Eric Kirkham Cole set up business on his own account making radio sets, for which demand was booming following the opening of the BBC.
In a small room in Westcliff on Sea, helped by future wife Muriel Bradshaw, production reached five or six units a week. Powered by heavy, expensive and inconvenient rechargeable batteries, Eric Cole was soon inspired to design a so-called battery eliminator, allowing their radios to work from the mains supply.
This proved highly successful, and in 1926 the business was reorganised as E.K.Cole Ltd, from which sprang the brand name "Ekco." Continuing success saw the company quoted on the Stock Exchange, and new factories built to allow rapid expansion in what was to prove the golden age of radio.
With demand for radio receivers booming, in the 1930's Ekco dared to be different from its competitors, abandoning then-typical all-wood radio cabinets. Instead they used Bakelite, an early type of plastic, which could be moulded into shapes not easily achievable in wood.
It was a gamble requiring heavy investment and high production volumes for viability, but it worked: demand for Ekco radios in attractive art-deco period Bakelite cabinets rapidly rose.
In 1935 the company began researching what we now know as radar technology - with the government becoming closely involved as war clouds gathered. Radar development was based at Ekco's Southend headquarters, hardly ideal for radio and radar research or production when war with Germany was declared, being well within bombing range.
Ekco's sensitive facilities were thus dispersed to less prominent and more distant areas, ranging from Aylesbury to Rutherglen, east of Glasgow.
With war drawing closer, Malmesbury in Wiltshire also joined Ekco's empire when £6500 was expended at auction to purchase Cowbridge House and most of its estate, including an electricity-generating Mill.
The property, just outside the town on the main Swindon road - nowadays the B4042 - was chosen as the top-secret design and production centre for airborne intercept (AI) and anti-surface vessel (ASV) radar systems.
Major alterations to the house itself and much external building work to provide factory space rapidly followed. Further premises - informally known as the "Western Development Unit" - were rented in the town itself, where more top-secret design work resulted in the VHF fighter control system successfully deployed in the Battle of Britain. At its height, over 1000 people were employed on Ekco's wartime work in Malmesbury.
After the war, design and manufacture of military radar and radio equipment was gradually moved elsewhere, with Cowbridge House turned over to domestic equipment manufacture.
Following Ekco's 1950's takeover of the Ferranti and upmarket Dynatron consumer brands, this first centred on radio and TV sets, tubular heaters and now forgotten "radiograms."
Ekco had produced its first car radio as far back as 1934, a heavy, three-section unit, with vibrator-driven power pack to operate the valves it contained.
No time was then lost putting a new "transistorised" car radio range into production, initially with separate identities, and sales through separate marketing channels.
However by 1962 it was hard to ignore a certain visual similarity between basic and push-button de-luxe car radios from Ekco and Pye - even if their prices were slightly different. Clearly 1960's badge engineering was not entirely confined to British car manufacture.
In 1959 Pye estimated there were about 4m cars on British roads - but only around 400,000 had a radio. In the early 1960's, this provided an opportunity fully exploited by the newly merged companies - and Cowbridge House became Ekco's car radio manufacturing centre. Chances are if your family had a car built between 1960 and 1968 with an aftermarket radio, that unit was probably built - and could have been designed - at Malmesbury.
Unfortunately the merger was unsuccessful for reasons unconnected with car radio, marking the beginning of the end for Ekco. Eric Cole resigned in 1961 following a boardroom disagreement, and died in 1965. By 1966 the troubled combine was desperately seeking a buyer, just as car audio profitability collapsed under intensifying international competition.
In 1967 the vast Philips Group took over, expanding its already major Europe-wide interests in consumer and industrial electronics. It already had a vast car audio division.
The last radio and TV equipment left Cowbridge House in 1968, and inside two years the Ekco name had moved into history. Yet the car radio demand Ekco and Pye jointly developed, exploited and abandoned in a few short years was huge - witness the fact that of the many high profile electronics avenues pursued in its 40 year existence, it was the closure of the car radio repair workshop in 1977 which marked the final disappearance of the Ekco brand from public view and history tuned off this piece of automotive development.
© Image Terry Thomas
You can read more of lost heritage by Bob Browning.
Wiltshire Council has a reference as well.