In 1980, CB radio, invented by American Al Gross in the 1940s and in use in the USA since the 1950s, was illegal in England. Illegal CB usage had been known in a very small way here since the mid-1960s according to information in one of my early 1980s CB magazines, but 1980 saw the number of breakers swell enormously.
The Daily Mirror article brought hopeful news:
Good news for Rubber Duck and his two-way chats
HELLO TO ROAD RADIO
Britain's outlawed Citizens' Band radio fans got a welcome message last night.
Home Secretary William Whitelaw announced that the Government is in favour of introducing a legal two-way radio system.
If plans go ahead, motorists and lorry drivers using call signs like Rubber Duck could be chatting on an approved system called Open Channel some time next year.
Mr Whitelaw made it plain to MPs that although the Government backs CB radio in principle, technical problems will have to be overcome.
He also wants to sound out public opinion before taking a final decision.
CB radio is already widely used in the United States and on the Continent.
Lorries and many private cars are fitted with special transceivers so that their drivers can chat over the air.
Using their own slang, drivers can warn that Smokey Bear (the police) has got black ice (a radar trap) ahead.
They have peculiar call signs like Snowman, woodpecker - and Rubber Duck, made famous by the hit record and film "Convoy".
CB radio fans who have been campaigning in Britain for five years claim that between 30,000 and 70,000 sets are already on the air here.
Their operators risk a £400 fine or six months in jail.
Critics object to CB because it operates on a frequency which could lead to interference with emergency services and aircraft.
Food for thought for William Whitelaw from MP Clement Freud in July 1980.
Remember good old Sheila Tracy on BBC Radio Two's You and The Night and The Music? Sheila provided music and chat for "all you night owls out there", and was a lovely presence on night time radio.
In 1980, she began a slot for truckers' messages and requests and was soon riding the crest of the early '80s CB radio wave.
As mentioned elsewhere in this post, CB was up-and-running in the USA in the 1950s, but in England it was illegal.
Nevethertheless, small numbers of people had been flirting with it here since the 1960s, and a couple of films (remember Convoy?!) and hit records (remember Convoy the song?!) created a more general interest in CB jargon (and truckers!) in the late 1970s.
Around 1979 a very small number of people were using illegally imported CB radios in this country. In 1980 the number of breakers rose sharply. Legalisation was now in the air, although this did not actually happen until 2 November 1981.
In March 1981, CB jargon (and illegal CB!) was going great guns with enthusiasts in this country, not least truckers, and Sheila Tracy was their heroine...
From the Sun, March 17, 1981:
The voice has those soothing "Family Favourite" tones that you expect to hear asking Bill Crozier what the weather is like in Cologne.
It brings to mind twin-sets, pearls and sensible shoes.
But the vocabulary comes straight from the American freeways.
"This is Tiger Tim, how am I hittin' you good buddies - wall-to-wall and tree-top-tall I hope."
Sheila Tracy, Britain's first and least likely truckers' deejay is on the air again. And all over the country night-drivers tune in to the ten-four and smokey-bear jargon that is sweeping Britain.
Once there was wireless and long-distance lorry drivers. Now, following American fashion of course, we have Citizens' Band radio and truckers. And Sheila. Just over a year ago, she started including a truckers' hour in her once-a-week, all-night record programme on Radio Two.
It has become such a runaway success that the BBC are now going to put it out five nights a week. And Sheila is frantically studying her CB dictionary.
As Tiger Tim - her handle as they call nicknames in the CB world - she plays truckin' songs, Country and western music and relays messages to the night traffic.
A driver who thumbed a lift and left his atlas behind. Wives sending love to their travelling husbands.
Drivers with names like Clog Dancer and Little Fat Man send cheerful and occasionally cheeky messages via Sheila.
"Tell Short Arms to get his hand in his pocket and buy the teas," she repeats faithfully.
And in transport cafes all over the country the drivers whoop with laughter.
It is not just lorry drivers either. Groups of schoolboys take it in turns to sit up and tape her show...
It has all left Sheila rather breathless. She is 46 and has been a BBC personality for years.
She was a television announcer for some time then moved to radio and was the first woman to read the radio news.
Before that she was a trombonist with the Ivy Benson All Girls' Band and worked as a variety artist in an act called the Tracy Sisters.
But none of this showbusiness pedigree prepared her for the impenetrable language of the truckers.
She first heard a truckers' programme in America, run by Big John Trimble, the truckers' deejay. And she decided to try a slot in her programme, "You, The Night And The Music".
A lorry driver sent her a copy of an American dictionary of CB truckers' language and now she speaks it like a native, even if she is not always sure what she is saying.
"Seventy-three and eighty-eight," she says, "and ten-ten till we do it again."
Whatever does it mean?
"I think it means love and kisses," she says, uncertainly, and has to check her dictionary to make sure.
Some of her fans have made her up an American-style number plate with the title "Tiger Tim - The Truckers' Friend," emblazoned on it. And she proudly displays it in the rear window of her car.
"But I haven't had a flash yet," she says.
Good heavens, I should think NOT.
No, Sheila explains patiently, a flash means a headlamp signal.
She has been caught out once or twice herself, though.
"Some of the blighters send me rude messages and I've read them out without realising," she says.
Several drivers sent messages to friends they described as bar-stewards. And it was only when she tried saying it quickly that she realised what they meant...
One of the fears about widespread use of CB, which had deterred previous attempts to legalise it, was the notion that it might interfere with other communications systems or electronic equipment. And not just remote controlled model aircraft. There certainly were times, as illegal CB usage rocketed in 1981, when those concerns appeared to be justified...
HOSPITAL HEART MACHINES HIT BY CB CALLS
Citizen band radio users were warned last night that their broadcasts can interfere with heart monitoring machines in hospitals.
The disturbing discovery was made by Torbay Hospital in South Devon, who said that electrocardiograph machines cut out when CBs are used nearby.
Hospital administrator Ken Dainton said: "We are particularly prone to it here because enthusiasts use their sets to warn others about holiday traffic jams on the Torquay road.
"So far only monitoring machines are affected. But it could be devastating if these broadcasts affect other electronic machinery."
Mr Dainton said local CB clubs had observed a radio silence within a mile of the hospital.
Another CB danger was revealed yesterday by fire chiefs in Greater Manchester.
They are trying to track down a chatterbox housewife whose broadcasts are blocking the wavebands of emergency services.
The woman's equipment is faulty and her chats about dogs, cats and birds "fan" out into the frequency used if there was a major train or air disaster.
Other reports of CB complications had a delicious touch of comedy as the illegal CB craze went into overdrive in the run-up to legalisation...
CB FROM ON HIGH
Daily Mirror, 5/10/1981
Citizens Band fans are being received loud and clear on the Rev. Roger Hall's church microphone. One voice even broke in while Mr Hall was conducting his daughter Beverley's wedding.
As the couple took their solemn vows, it said: "OK - time for a tea break." Mr Hall, of Coventry, said: "It was just like the voice of the Almighty."
From the Sun, October 23, 1981:
Citizens' Band radio fans who break the new laws on their two-way sets could rapidly find Smokey Bear on their trail, they were warned yesterday.
Smokey - CB slang for the police - will crack down on people using unauthorised wavelengths when the craze becomes legal on November 2. Licenses will cost £10.
Home Office Minister Timothy Raison said there will be heavy fines for illegal operators.
Newspaper article from November 2, 1981.
2 November 1981 duly arrived and shops immediately sold out of the first British models as the public went CB crazy. As seen in the newspaper article reproduced above, CB's inventor, American Al Gross, made the first legal CB call in England from a Rolls Royce parked in Trafalgar Square - his "handle" was "CB'er No 1".
Do you remember these CB slang phrases?
Brown bottles = beer
Reading the mail = listening
Home 20 = CB'er's home town
Negatory = no
Handle = CB'er's slang name
In a short = soon
Wrapper = colour of car
Wall to wall = strong signal
Smokey = the police
Flip-flop = return trip
Eyeball = meet face to face
Remember the Rumbelows - "We save you money and serve you right"? The advertisement above is from the Daily Mirror, 16/12/1981. With CB radio now legal, many people could look forward to a very CB Christmas.
There had been some moans and organised protests about the allotted frequencies for legal Citizens Band radio and one or two other quibbles, but on the whole CB fans were pleased by legalisation...
The editor of What CB wrote:
There's little in the Home Office Legal CB announcement to give existing users much cause for celebration. Unless they convert their rigs to FM - or, of course, buy a new legal specification set - they stay outside the law. There will be no amnesty, nor a period of grace, which was probably only to be expected. But no one should forget that without the widespread use of illegal AM equipment, it is highly unlikely that a legal CB system would have been introduced.
Apart from this, however, it's tremendously exciting that CB can now be used without the fear of the knock on the door or the flashing blue light in the rear view mirror. As well as the vast number of breakers using the illegal frequencies (probably one-and-a-half million), there are just as many who have been waiting for a legal system to arrive. From November 2nd, a legal rig, a legal aerial and, of course, that £10 licence means you can natter away to your heart's content.
One of the first British CB rigs, the 1981 Amstrad 901. All together now: "Breaker, break!" "Fancy an eyeball?" etc, etc...
Two more 1981 magazines for CB fans - "CB Radio" ("The first, the original, the most informative and the most copied") and "Breaker".
The CB craze peaked in 1982 and 1983 - even becoming the subject of story-lines in popular telly shows Terry and June and Coronation Street in '82. In the former, Terry joined the craze and ended up stuck in his car in the back of a lorry; in the latter, Eddie Yeats (handle: "Slim Jim") met the love of his life, Marion Willis (handle: "Stardust Lil"), over the airwaves. Even Eddie's landlady, Hilda Ogden, was doing the "breaker, break" (well, briefly!) as "Shady Lady"!
The craze also influenced children's television with the introduction of a new magazine show on ITV called CB-TV. The idea behind this was that the presenters had commandeered the airwaves and the show was citizens band TV. Nonsense, of course, but a fun scenario.
The highest number of CB radio UK licence holders was recorded in 1983 - 300,000.
By 1984, enthusiasm for CB radio had waned a little, but it was still hugely popular. My mate Pete had a rig in his car and a speaker under the bonnet. "Kill that cat. Would you please kill that cat?" we requested over this brilliant PA system, and nearly wet ourselves laughing as puzzled pedestrians tried to locate the source of the message.
CB was fun, could be used for making pals and even meeting prospective partners, but there could be aggro. One evening, Pete was chatting to a breaker who became increasingly hostile.
Not known for backing down from confrontations (despite the white legwarmers he often wore), Pete got pretty steamed up, too. "Yeah? Well come on, I'm in the car park opposite St George's Church. Get down 'ere - I'll take you on!"
Mr Not-So-Good-Buddy assured us, in no uncertain terms, that he was on his way. By the sound of him, he wouldn't stop at an eyeball - he'd tear us limb from limb.
Pete sat silently behind the steering wheel, face grim and set, staring at the entrance to the car park.
"See you, Pete!" I firmly believed (and still do) that discretion is the better part of valour, and prepared to get out of the car.
Pete grinned at me, delighted that he'd made me sweat: "Where'd ya think you're goin'? You didn't think I was serious, did you?" and he started the car and away we went. Phew! Curious though I was to see if the breaker was as fierce as his voice, I could live with it!
Despite this (and knuckle-dragging CB idiots were few and far between in my experience), I remember CB radio very fondly. With all the changes since - the World Wide Web and so on - it seems like a lifetime ago... good times...
Listen to Sheila Tracy and the first instalment of her five-nights-a-week BBC Radio 2 Truckers' Hour from May 1981 here.