The history of the car phone in the UK and beyond

BT introduced the carphone to London in July 1965 and introduced operator-less calling 16 years later.

The first mobile phones were true to the name. After the Second World War radio phones, effectively two-way radios began appearing in automobiles and were available in the UK by the end of the 1950s.

This month marks the anniversaries of both the arrival of BT’s carphone service in London in 1965 and the launch of the first automatic service on July 14, 1981. Both were huge steps in the development of the smartphones we use today. Here are some more mobile landmarks...

[Read more: The history of the videophone]

1920: The first portable wireless transmitter

Using a large handmade aerial made from stovepipe and board, radio enthusiast W.W. Macfarlane of Philadelphia was able to talk with his wife from a moving car 500 feet away. His 'mystery' transceiver enabled speech to be transmitted and received.

When asked about his invention by The Experimental Engineer (via the Smithsonian), Macfarlane reflected on the effect the tech might have had on World War I.

“If this could have been ready for us in the war, think of the value it would have had," he said.

"A whole regiment equipped with the telephone receivers, with only their rifles as aerials, could advance a mile and each would be instantly in touch with the commanding officer. No runners would be needed. There could be no such thing as a ‘lost battalion’.”

1909 and 1956: Ericsson, a cane and an urban legend

Legend had it that following industry pioneer Lars Magnus Ericsson’s retirement he would carry a phone in his car. He and his wife would manually hook up to roadside telephone lines and connect to an operator. Sadly, the company that bears Ericsson’s name denies the account, claiming the couple “never owned a car”.

However Axel Boström, Ericsson’s successor as CEO, did partake in the practice before his death in 1909. As the the firm’s director of external communications Jimmy Duvall told Wired: "Axel B was a car lover of great proportions.

"Since cars in the early 1900s were not as reliable, he always had with him a phone and a cane that he could use to connect to the line, which always lay beside the rode at the time, if or when, the car began to strike."

"The stick is preserved at the Technical Museum in Stockholm."

Ericsson would not build its first mobile phone until 1956. “When mounted in a car, it cost almost as much as the car,” the company says on its website.

1946: First commercial car phone service

Motorola hardware used the Bell System (the modern day AT&T). Phones weighed 80lb and had to be installed by a professional. On its website, Motorola writes: “On October 2, 1946, Motorola communications equipment carried the first calls on Illinois Bell Telephone Company's new car radiotelephone service in Chicago.”

They were called radiophones because they were effectively two-way radios that could be connected to landlines. Capacity was quickly filled: the earliest systems could only handle three calls at a time and callers in the US experienced long-waits.

1959: The UK’s first radio carphone service

In October 1959, BT forebear the General Post Office introduced the service as a trial in the north of England.

The first ever UK call was made by Reginald Bevin MP, then the Postmaster General, between his car in south Lancashire and automobile mogul Lord Rootes in London. The first carphone service, known as System 1, could handle 320 customers upon launch.

This 1959 video from British Pathé explains how drivers within range of two VHF (very high frequencies) radio stations could make a call to the exchange, which could connect the call with a landline. Landline users could call the exchange and ask to be connected to a car registered with the service. 

The technology wouldn’t make it to the capital until 1965 with the first call being made by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. This coincided with the installation of transmitters atop the brand new Post Office Tower.

[Read more: What does the BT Tower do? Go behind the scenes]

In April 1966 John Lennon wrote the lyrics to I’m Only Sleeping on the back of a radiophone bill from the General Post Office. Actually, it was more of a demand letter for an outstanding 12 pounds and three shillings (around £214 today). “Will you please pay it in the next seven days,” the letter read. "Unless it is paid by then we shall have no alternative but to revoke your licence and to institute legal proceedings to recover the debt."

1970s: The tech develops with System 2 and System 3

System 2, the second version of the technology enabled nine-channel (plus one for incoming calls) radiophones from manufacturers like Storno, Pye and Marconi. The phones were comprised of a handset and loudspeaker, control head and a transceiver in the boot. This was connected to a whip aerial.

1974 Radiophone advert - BT Archives

In order to make a call, drivers or passengers lifted the handset and selected a free channel. This would put them through to an operator who’d connect the call. Alternately landline owners could call the operator and give the five-digit number of the radiophone subscriber. At this time it was still necessary to press the transmitter button in order to speak and release in order to listen.

System 3 arrived in the mid-70s, offering 55 channels and automatic channel scanning. This ensured it was much easier for radiophone users to find a free channel for their outgoing calls.

[Read more: How well do you know your Nokia phones?]

1981: Britain gets its first automatic radio car radiophone service

On July 14, 1981, BT’s System 4 was first available in London. This enabled full numbers to be dialled and calls to be made without the need to connect via an operator.

System 4 technology wasn’t cheap. In 1981 access to the technology cost £100 a quarter plus calls. It did offer more channels, on- or off-hook dialling, memory storage and security locking. It also stretched into more rural areas of the country. It also enabled subscribers to save money by paying just for coverage in the regions they wanted to call.

Despite the automation of the service, Service 3 remained available in the UK until 1986, partially because it was much cheaper (costing £40 a quarter) and users liked talking to the operators. It still had 3,000 users when the service was switched off for good. System 4 would remain in use until 1988 when cellular networks gained national coverage and replaced the need for radio service.

1988: The carphone comes of age

One of the coolest implementations of a carphone came in the 1988 Nissan Cedric, Gloria or Cima models. They had an NEC handset in the centre console and a dialpad built into the steering wheel. By this time the first truly mobile phones based on cellular technology, like the Motorola DynaTAC, were also being installed in cars.

The notion of a having a phone in a car became so commonplace that in 1989 high street chain Carphone Warehouse opened its doors. Of course the brand still exists today, but you won’t find its stores or websites selling dedicated carphones.

1980s NEC car phone

In the late 80s and early 90s carphones were often pre-installed in the centre console of luxury vehicles, but they would become less common towards the end of the century once the personal mobile phone boom took off.

Today, of course, the notion of the carphone has been replaced by that of the fully-featured smartphone. But being able to make a phone call from your car - legal requirements permitting - is still a selling point. Systems like Android Auto and Bluetooth connectivity enable users to make calls and read messages safely, while phones are equipped with music libraries and navigation apps as standard. 

[Read more: Do you remember the Trimphone? How the home phone has evolved]

Visit BT Archives to find out about BT’s role in the UK’s telecommunications history

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