From Local Car Audio Dealer to Nationwide Sales: The Evolution of Ray Smith business from 1975 to Present Day

This article covers my Classic Car Stereo journey and the people who influenced me along the way from 1963 to the present day.

Artist Mechanic

I left school at age fifteen, and since the only subject I was any good at was Art, I had ambitions to work in a printer doing lithography. So I took a temporary job as a Mechanics apprentice in 1963 at Gilmore place garage in Edinburgh, and I'm still in the motor trade some sixty years later.

I enjoyed working on old Ford Y-type pop and Morris 100 split screens, which were not that old in the 1960s. Car radios were very thin on the ground; in fact, the first one I saw was in a Ford V8 Pilot which cost £780.3.11.when new in 1949, and it took over half the dash and hummed away for a few minutes before the valves warmed up enough, and the music wafted in slowly. You did not leave this beast turned on without the engine running, or the battery would die quickly.

Robert the son of the owner of this garage is now a customer of mine, and he still has the garage but specializes in Classic cars now. He has some fine E Types and Jensen FFs

Auto Electrician

In 1965 I moved on to Cochrane's Ford Garage - West Mayfield in Edinburgh as an apprentice Auto spark under Bill Falconer. It was good working on new model ford vehicles like the first of the new Transit, and silver fox mk4 Zephyr and Zodiacs with a long bonnet and short boot. You never see these on the road or even at shows anymore (all rusted away).

Radios were smaller and now transistorized, Radiomobile and Motorola. My first car was a 1956 Ford Consul which had a Plessey FoMoCo push-button mono AM radio. There were no Classic car radios; there were just, car radios!

I served my time on Fords and became the top electrician; I knew part numbers off by heart and felt I knew as much as I could about Fords, so in 1970, Bill asked me to go with him to learn about Jaguar, Jensen, Bentley and Rolls Royce at Rossleigh in Edinburgh. 

Big Mistake

Moving from being in control of the sparks department in Ford to finding myself constantly changing lamps in the paint shop of this enormous garage where the Forman did not like me at all was a shock, and a few miserable months ensued. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Radiomobile Green van Service

1971 I got a job at Eastern Car Radio in Roseburn, Edinburgh; the job was to drive a Green Mini Van in Radiomobile livery around Edinburgh garages fitting radios to new cars. You would pick up five or six job cards in the morning, take them to Bobby in the stores and get the stock for your jobs.

Jimmy Hunter, Bob Wark and me would go out and race around all the back street doubles in Edinburgh, competing with each other to see who could complete and be back first; happy days. Warkie usually won.

Ben Buchannan was the boss, Betty Watson and Marjorie Macdonald looked after the office, and Joe Kardo was the Car radio repair engineer with Bobby in stores. It was a great wee team and working environment. 

I used to annoy Joe, looking over his shoulder and asking constant questions about how to repair the radios. One day he burst and told me to get out of his face and go and learn it, so I did. I spent months attending night school and eventually got my Radio & TV servicing certificate and was the first choice when Joe left. 

Radio Repair Man 

I much preferred sitting in a warm repair workshop to racing around town in all weathers fitting RDM HL12 Kits to Hillman Hunters (how do I remember this stuff)?

Ben Buchanan was a good boss, a very fair man, and we all respected him. I didn't know this at the time, but he would later become a massive part of my my business in the future.  

He sent me down to London on a training course to Radiomobile, I was introduced to Mr Roy Harris, the service manager, and he too was destined to give me great help with my business.

Roy was a true gentleman but did love a whiskey or three. It was one evening after the day's training at my Hotel when Roy invited me for a meal and a wee drink. He was easy to talk to, and I opened up to him about my ambitions to one day have my own business and be my own boss.

I was full of alcoholic remorse the next day, worrying that Roy would tell Ben and how much trouble I would be in. 

To my surprise, when Roy was dropping me off at the train station, he told me that if I was serious about starting up on my own, I was to make him the first call but he would not elaborate other than to say it would be worthwhile.

This was the spur that I needed, and soon after I was meeting him at Edinburgh airport and driving up to Dundee to meet John Duncan of Chloride Gaedor group to start my self-employed future.

Many years later, I came across this History article written by Roy Harriss. It makes very interesting reading, and I get this mention...

I had already known that Mr Ray Smith, who at that time was working for a motor company in Edinburgh as a radio service engineer, was wanting to go it alone. We had a meeting in a London Hotel where we discussed the possibilities over several large whiskies, and I then had to face the music from his governor for poaching him. However, after an alcoholic lunch in Edinburgh all was forgiven. Ray subsequently opened a service workshop in the city centre and was my first candidate.

The Gaedor group of companies were the largest single distributors of Radiomobile products, having a number of depots in Scotland, also in England and Northern Ireland. Ray Smith was, therefore, well placed to handle all of the repairs north of the border. After his appointment I took a week and toured all the Gaedor branches with Ray and introduced him to the depot managers. Ray served us well and went from strength to strength and is now the largest car radio distributor in Scotland.

Read the whole article The Good Old days by Roy Harriss here..

Roy and his partner David Longfield became great friends and we had several trips to Vegas in January for the CES conventions. I would get a call about once a year which usually went something like this.

Hello old boy, the CB club (confounded blackhearts) are off to Morocco. Are you in? And so a week of fun and stories that can never be shared began.

Anyway, I'm jumping ahead, back to working for Ben at Eastern Car Radio.

My years there were during the golden age of the Car Stereo industry. Nearly every car came from the factory with no radio or speakers. The fitting kits from Radiomobile came in brown cardboard boxes, some of which were quite sophisticated with molded panels & Meccano strips and threaded nuts & bolts. I remember the impossible twisted positions under the dash we had to assume to make it all work.

So by late 1974 my job was to do repairs, and I was not missing crawling about under cars but I had always had a hankering to own my own business.

The big jump.

At age twenty-seven in 1975 I left Eastern and started my own business in a basement workshop at 11A Union Street, Edinburgh.

My contract with Radiomobile saw me driving around Scotland once a week collecting broken radios, repainting them and refurbishing the finished radios to look like new then rinse & repeat every week.

I think I got £3:50 per radio and sometimes working into the wee small hours was necessary but I was grateful for the work.

I really didn't have a clue about business, I smile now when I think of my nativity. Bob Jaimison who was the Panasonic rep used to visit me regularly and tried his best to get me to sell his products.

I told him I was a repair engineer only.

He finally convinced me and I purchased a small shop on Montrose terrace and created my first showroom & workshop.

I met Joe Plahay who owned the camera repair shop two doors up from me and we became very good friends.

I used to fit radios and speakers on the street in front of the shop, having to turn the car round to work on the other side and prevent being run down by the traffic, happy days.

Ben Buchanan, my old boss came to see me one day and asked if he could either invest as a partner or become an employee.

Ben came on as my manager and taught me a lot about business; he was invaluable and served me well for many years until he retired. 

We moved to the corner shop opposite Elsie Ingles Maternity Hospital and advertised it in the local papers with "Rays Moved in with Elsie" Ben and I had some good times at that shop.

As the business grew, we moved to the bottom of Leith walk to huge premises with a showroom on Leith walk and a workshop around the corner on Manderson Street. By now, I had two repair engineers, five fitters, and a storeman and office staff headed up by Andrew Adamson.

When Sony came to the UK with their Car Audio range, I requested an account because my old pal from London "Mike Wells" had told me they were going to be big and to get onboard. In fact, when Sony got in touch, they asked me to be the sole distributor for Scotland.

This annoyed some of the other big car audio players in Scotland, most of whom have now gone. I had to put a rep on the road and soon found that having my own branches was a more efficient way of moving the numbers Sony was looking for, so Aberdeen, Kirkcaldy and Stirling branches were formed and worked well for a number of years. 

One large Glasgow car audio dealer tried to come to Edinburgh with a small branch and advertised themselves with a T-shirt slogan with "Ray Who" on them. We made our own with "Who Ray"  :-) They did not last long, going bust sometime later.

Our Kirkcaldy branch had some competition from a young lad who set up a business catering for the young team wanting cheap BoomBoom Bass, and he was quite successful for a while. Gordon was a nice lad but our business styles were poles apart.

I had been involved with the Sound Challenge Association and had trained a Sound judge. We had built a few trophy-winning cars and always used the best of high-quality products and materials, meaning our prices were not the cheapest. Sony ES and Alpine's top range were our preferred models.

Gordon used low-end products married to some iffy fabrication methods, but he had a loyal following of youngsters, and the sound-off scene in Scotland was healthy for a while.

Colin Mackenzie Hi Fi Corner invited us to participate in his Scottish Hi-Fi Exhibition at the Royal Scot Hotel in Edinburgh, and that was a hoot. Colin and I have been friends ever since.

Every year we would try to shoehorn a vehicle into the foyer of the Hotel, much to the bemusement of the management and each of our suppliers would take a room and show off their latest products and, of course the big bosses and sales managers would also attend, so with the governors of Clarion, Alpine, Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony all staying at the Hotel, you can imagine the nights we had. There were some sorry-looking sales reps dealing with the hoards of punters the next day, great times

After one of these shows, I closed my Kenwood account, but that's another story ;-)

I joined the Car Radio Industry Specialists trade body (CRISP). I travelled up and down the country, attending meetings with other dealers and suppliers to create a standard for the industry. These meetings made me aware that not all dealers and suppliers were equal, and with differing vested interests at play, we were probably wasting our time.

We disbanded CRISP and formed MESF Mobile Electronics & Security Federation, which was felt to represent what we did more than CRISP

I was chairman for a while, and we wrote a code of conduct that all dealers were to abide by and help each other's customers all over the UK. We discussed buying groups and maintaining a uniform price to combat the discounters etc. 

The VSIB was formed as an independent vehicle security board supported by us and eventually was taken over by Thatcham.  

These were in the days before the internet, if only we had known how the likes of Amazon was to decimate our easy life back then eh?

So, Where do Classic Car Radios come in?

Before I get to this story there were some major changes about to happen to my business which was out with my control.

During my many trips to these industry meetings, I made many acquaintances and some good friends. One of these was a woman from Kent who I thought was a friend but turned out to be the opposite.

She always used to say "you're a Proper Person, Ray" whatever that meant, I don't know but she created a company called PPS (Proper People Society) and wanted to join our companies together. I resisted, and she persisted, and I resisted until one day, my manager Andrew who had been with me for years, announced he was leaving. I never made the connection at the time but after his six-week notice period was over, I took him to the pub and with his golden handshake, I wished him well in his new job in an insurance company.

On Monday morning, three fitters came to my office with their no-notice resignations; they were going off to work in Andrew's new business backed by PPS.

John Price took over the job of managing the business, he did a better job, and we are still friends to this day.

Shortly after this I was made an offer on the Leith Walk premises that I could not refuse, so we moved the business back to the Abbey Hill area of Edinburgh to huge new premises in a small Industrial Estate.

My two repair engineers, Colin and Tommy, had left to start independently and formed Edinburgh Car Audio. They closed sometime later; one is driving a bus, and the other was working at the airport. I don't know what Andrew is doing but all the fitters have left him and moved on.

Around this time a young man called Darren joined us and later became my right hand. He was very clever and also living in Dunbar stayed with me when we eventually opened the branch there. 

Early Adopter me

I was on a trip down south to a trade show when I came across a Bradford company selling these modular Classic car stereos from RetroSound. I set up an account with them and started selling my first Classic Car Stereos, these early models were limited in features but I liked the modular design.

The internet was young, and I had embraced the concept with my first website which did give me an advantage in the early days.

I was largely self-taught; having assistance from a pal was a big help, and we began to sell these things on the world wide web, which was exciting.

Unfortunately, the reliability of the early Retro Radios was not great, and when the supplying company refused to replace or even repair them, I knew I was dealing with a Mikey Mouse outfit, nothing like the backup and service I was used to from Alpine & Sony etc.  

What to do? Call it a day on Classics, or investigate importing my own?

I sent an email to RetroSound explaining the situation and basically asking if they wanted a Scottish distributor. I was sent an export price list and had absolutely no idea how to proceed. I had never imported before.

The rest is history; we now import more RetroSound stock into the UK than anyone else, it is now our main brand and we love dealing with the Classic Car type of customer.

The challenge with some of the elderly customers is explaining the modular way in which the RetroSound range can be assembled. To this end I created an easy point and click "Build your own classic radio" feature on the home page of the website and a very comprehensive help file with a knowledge base system.

I still smile when some customers explain they don't understand this new-fangled internet stuff because they are old, I built it, and I'm now 75 :-)

It's only taken 48 years but I can finally use the artist in me to crate my website presence and I'm loving it.

My business has changed a lot since 1975, and I think my ability to flex and move with the times and roll with the blows keeps me coming in to work every day even though I know I'm past my sell-by date.

Slowly downsizing at the correct times kept me in the right place, and today with the bulk of the business being online, flexible working is the key. 

Dealer incentive trips

In 1983 Blaupunkt invited me to a factory visit in Berlin. We stayed at the InterContinental Hotel, the poshest place I had ever been.

Jimmy Murry from Motorsound Glasgow and I visited a local pub and asked for two beers in our best German, but the locals gave us a cold reception. Observing the chest freezer, we asked to sample a couple of the schnaps that were being served out of it, and when the owner, who had been watching us, popped down off his stool to present us with his best bottle, I remarked, "I hope it goes down better than the original"  It was labelled Bismark! The boss spoke perfect English; we didn't stay long.

Visiting East Berlin through the wall at Checkpoint Charlie was a highlight; It reminded me of old Edinburgh with the cobbled streets and high-tenement buildings. The search of the bus on the way back was intense.

In 1985 Panasonic asked me to join them on a factory visit to Japan, which was very exciting. Bill Fletcher was the UK boss and looked after us well on this memorable trip.

I remember standing in front of a three-hundred-ton press in the Matsushita plant, mesmerised by it stamping out tape decks at fantastic speed.

They were so far ahead of us at the time but had some strange taste in colours, with a bright pink Cassete played on offer.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to have travelled the world with these dealer trips, Monte Carlo and the jungles of Borneo with Sony, and Prague a few times with JVC, but Clarion were the king of the dealer incentive trip.

Our Clarion rep Tom Ingram would tease us with the details of the luxury trip to exotic places and then hit me with the target. Guess what brand every potential customer purchased for the next few months?

On a trip to Jamaica, I was walking back to the Hotel this night and a Rasta man sitting under a tree that I had not noticed said Ira man to me. IRA is a greeting that means “respect”, but what I heard was Hi, Rayman, I thought, how does he know my name?

The best and last Clarion trip was to South Africa. It was the most memorable and enjoyable experience. Clarion are no longer in the car audio business, which is a pity because out of all the brands I have dealt with, they were genuinely lovely people. The boss Graham & Carol Case are still in touch. 

Cars & Radios 

My first car was a 56 Ford Consul MK2, followed by a 105E Anglia, which was heavily modified, it had a Philips record player fitted, I thought I was the bee's knees with my collection of scratched singles flying around the car.

When working for Eastern my pal Mike who was a mechanic, built me a couple of cars from write-offs.

A banana-yellow Ford Capri Mk1 with double headlights like the 300E was cool but the boot wasn't big enough for my diving gear.

It had a Radiomobile 108SR eight-track player, which I had modified to be the only one in the world with a fast-forward button. 

I had joined the BSAC British Sub Aqua Club & I used to scuba dive off Dunbar harbour, I needed a bigger boot, so Mike built me a V6 Ford Corsair. This one had a Javelin quadrophonic cartridge player. Awesome sound, but I soon got sick of my two cartridges.

Once I started in business, I needed something practical for lugging loads of boxes around, so I got a Morris Ital. estate car. There goes my street cred.

During my Sound Challenge years, I had a few oddball cars which were made into competition cars and sound-off winners, one being a plastic Renault Espace with a Sony ES system and lots of fibreglass fabrication work; weird car, though.

Chatham, the Honda dealer, used to send me tons of work fitting reversing sensors & heated seats to brand-new Honda cars so I had a range of Honda vehicles over the next few years; however, my faith in dealer loyalty was dented when Andrew left and poached the Chatham's business. No More Hondas

Next, I got a nearly new Audi A4 Avanti 3litre diesel; what a car, I loved it, and it became my best audio demonstrator, packed with Audison and Hertz with Alpine Double DIN head unit.

I had a couple of new Mercedes, which I liked, but I found reliability problems because modern cars have too many electronics and sensors everywhere that go duff just to keep the main dealers busy ripping you off.

In the height of the Classic Car show season, we decided to buy a classic to demo the radios. Darren and I looked around and settled on a 1983 Jaguar XJ6.

Prior to this, I had been enjoying the luxury of my Merc and wanted to make the Jag have similar toys. The whole story of what we did with pictures is in this blog post

The old Jag was taken off the road and garaged when the COVID-19 shutdown happened and it has not turned a wheel in over two years (open to offers).

I currently have another Jag XJ8 gutsy big bugger who would make a good wedding car if anyone is interested, lol

Our main car is a Ford Kuga Vignale, and I am so glad I am no longer dependent on production cars needing audio upgrades because this thing has everything you could need. Thank Goodness for Classic Cars & Stereos.