Restoring Drive-In Speakers

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So you've found a couple of nice drive-in speakers at the flea market or swap meet and you want to restore them to use with your stereo or PC sound card?

Here's what I do to return them to "like-new" working condition.

They will probably be full of paint, dirt and crud from being exposed to the weather for thirty or more years. How do we get that off? I've found that the best way is to disassemble them and bead blast them in a glass bead cabinet under air pressure. This removes all dirt and rust and leaves the metal nice and clean.

Don't be surprised when you take the speaker apart to see a mess like the picture below.

As you can see, there's really not much salvageable inside this one. The speaker is completely rotted away and the housing was full of dead bugs. Fortunately the castings were good and it cleaned up nicely in the glass bead cabinet.

If you don't have access to a bead blast cabinet and air compressor, you can also disassemble them and just wash them with common dish detergent and scouring powder. If they were painted, you will also need to use some of that nasty stripper to get the paint off. It's a lot of work but it can leave them looking fairly nice. A Scotch-Brite pad works wonders in polishing up the outer surface to a semi-glossy finish. You can buff the surface to a nice shine using automotive buffing compound. Some folks even have them chromed but that is not an original finish.

Some drive-ins painted their speakers for identification or just to have a different look. If you want to paint your speakers, try some of the "Hammerite" brand hammertone pebbled finishes available in aerosol cans at many large hardware and home centers. I've seen quite a few Pacific Drive-Ins RCA speakers finished in a brownish-copper hammertone finish so I think this was possibly a factory option, just as many drive-ins had their names stamped in the housings.

By the way, drive-in speakers were made of aluminum or a tin-zinc alloy called "pot metal" that was commonly used to make castings like door handles on automobiles. Pot metal was inexpensive, easy to die cast, and resistant to rusting.

Getting the speaker apart may be a challenge. Many speakers were assembled using various styles of "tamper-proof" screws. And even if they used a regular straight slot or phillips head screw, they may be rusted in place.

If I can't get the screws out using one of my specialty tamper-proof screwdrivers, I have to drill the head off. Just center punch the head and use a 3/16ths inch bit to carefully drill through only the head.

If you are really lucky, the speakers will come apart after you drill the heads off and you should be able to remove the remainder of the screws by using a pair of locking pliers.

Soak the screw with some penetrating oil for a day before trying to remove it. If you break it off in the casting, your job just got an hour longer as you will now carefully have to drill down the center of the screw and try to use a tap and die set to rethread the hole so another screw will fit.

You will probably find the speaker in sad shape. The cone may be warped or even rotted completely away. That's what gave many drive-ins that "lo-fi" sound. The speaker is normally a 4-inch square, 8-ohm speaker that was commonly used in many table radios of the era. You probably won't be able to find an exact replacement but most large electronic stores carry something that will work. Also, check out the automotive section of your local department store like Wal-Mart or K-Mart.

Here's the speakers out of the pair you saw above. Any wonder that there was only some rattling noises and very little sound?

Not all speakers will look this bad. I've actually found some that were still usable. Those usually have a little label stuck on them that say "Reed Speaker Company - 1979" or something similar. I believe that this was the last year that the Reed Speaker company of Golden Colorado was in business. They manufactured and rebuilt drive-in speakers for many years.

If you can find a speaker small enough to fit in the case, buy the one with the largest magnet. These generally sound better than the originals anyway.

The speaker may be held in place by pressure, a small spring or short screws. Soak the screws in penetrating oil before trying to unscrew them. Use the largest screwdriver that will tightly fit the slots. Again, you want to avoid breaking a screw off as it only complicates things.

For those that are clamped or held in by a spring, you may have to use a spacer like a small block of wood or metal to space the magnet out on the new speaker so it will clamp snugly. Be careful not to put too much pressure on the back of the speaker or you could warp it.

The volume control is a wirewound potentiometer of 50 ohms resistance rated at 1 or 2 watts. Again, these are available at larger electronic suppliers but tend to cost $10 to $20 nowadays! You might try carefully disassembling the existing potentiometer and cleaning the insides with something like WD-40 before looking for a replacement.

The cord is nothing more than 2 conductor, 18 gauge SJO or SJOW jacketed electrical wire. Again, some electronic stores and most home improvement centers carry this. One variation on the cord had a third wire, which was actually steel aircraft cable. This was a security measure to keep you from cutting the cord and taking the speaker. If you accidentally drove off with one of these speakers, it generally yanked the window glass right out of the car!

Originally there were companies like Eprad or the Reed Speaker company that rebuilt these things for drive-ins in the '50's and '60's for as little as $3 and that included a new speaker, potentiometer and cord.

This is what that original pair of RCA speakers that you saw above looks like after I bead blasted them, and replaced all of the corroded parts with new.

You can wire the speaker directly to the 8-ohm output on your amplifier or sound card. You can also install a plug to plug it directly in the headphone jack. Many stereos limit the volume at the headphone jack so you won't damage your hearing so they may not be very loud. The preferred hookup would be directly to the speaker terminals on the stereo.

Originally, the speakers hung on a junction box that was mounted on a pole. The junction box had a little line-matching transformer in it to match the 8-ohm speakers to the 70-volt field wiring from the projection booth sound system. The junction boxes also sometimes had a little light bulb in them to illuminate the pole. Very early boxes actually used a 7-watt, 110-volt lamp. It is very dangerous to use these as a bare wire or short can make the whole pole and speakers an electrocution hazard.

Later boxes replaced the bulb with a 24 - 30 volt bulb that ran off a low voltage transformer at the projection booth. These were much safer. If your junction box has a socket for a bulb, try to find a suitable 12-volt bulb that will fit. Then use one of the little "wall-wart" plug in 12-volt transformers to light it. These are much safer than trying to use the old 110 volt lamps.

If your junction box does have the line matching transformer and you are hooking the speakers to a stereo, just remove and tape off the wires from the transformer to prevent them from grounding anything out. The transformer is not used in a stereo configuration. This simple wiring diagram shows how to do it.

Enjoy your speakers and keep the drive-in memories alive! If you still have a drive-in in your neighborhood, attend them often and enjoy movies under the stars on that giant screen.


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Revised May 09, 2001 GWC