Many will remember the British Leyland Motor Corporation, the nineteen seventies state owned purveyor of such automotive design masterpieces as the Morris Marina and Austin Allegro. A decade of industrial strife and dreadful quality ensured that BLMC’s dalliance with disaster was well publicised, but what many don’t know is that hi-fi had its very own equivalent, Strathearn Audio Limited…
Cast your mind back to 1973, a time of great growth for hi-fi manufacturing. Hoping to cash in on this, a government quango set up to stimulate Northern Ireland’s flagging economy decided that what Belfast needed was a hi-fi industry. Top civil service mandarins in Whitehall agreed, and faster than you could say ‘Yes, Minister’, the government earmarked £3 million from the public coffers to the infant company. With the help of the Northern Ireland Finance Committee, Strathearn commissioned Cambridge-based design centre, PA Technology and Science, to design a number of new hi-fi products. For their £350,000 fee PATS came up with all sorts of futuristic ideas, from a new type of parallel tracking tonearm and an electronic tracking force adjustment system to touch-sensitive switches and flat diaphragm loudspeaker transducers.
The most interesting thing to emerge was a new type of direct-drive motor which was particularly cheap to produce. This being 1973, the year that Technics’ swish direct-drives swept through Britain’s High Streets striking fear into every belt-propelled turntable on the market, Strathearn correctly identified that they were on to a winner. Gone would be the days of noisy Garrards and obsolete Thorens, for this was the brave new era of direct-drive and Strathearn had got themselves a licence to print money – or so the theory went. But as with every bright idea there was a problem. The direct drive system had actually been developed by PATS in conjunction with toy manufacturer Mettoy as a cheap, low powered device for use in childrens’ toys, and couldn’t quite stand the rigours of high torque use in turntables. When asked to provide enough grunt to keep records spinning at an accurate speed, the motor started to rumble.
Unfortunately, in a textbook example of nineteen seventies management incompetence, Strathearn didn’t realise this until it was too late. They’d sensibly decided that producing some of PATS’ other designs just wasn’t on – they were either too difficult to production engineer or the local, relatively unskilled Belfast work force weren’t able to make them. Instead, they’d opted to do simple direct-drive turntables and speakers. However, these ‘simple’ designs suddenly became very difficult to get right for mass production, because the government quango involved had only asked the PATS centre for design prototypes rather than complete finished products. As Strathearn soon discovered, getting a direct-drive turntable out of the laboratory into the shops was easier said than done.
Two turntables, the STM4 and SMA2, were launched. To look at they were very impressive, with clean, modern lines and, from a distance at least, a nice finish. The £80 STM4 was a budget direct-drive, designed to strike at Garrard’s more expensive mass-market designs, and certainly looked quite capable of relieving Plessey of a few customers. The £120 SMA2 was positively dashing, very futuristic with its touch controls, sleek low mass tonearm and ultra slim design.
Unfortunately though, they were about as well screwed together as an Austin Allegro on a rainy Friday afternoon. Both Strathearn turntables used a particularly weak motor originally designed for toys. Over stressed, they were unusually noisy, measuring far worse than Pioneer’s cheaper belt-drive rival, the PL112D. Both had no suspension, poor platter damping thanks to a ludicrously styled turntable mat, and were flimsily built, making them appallingly sensitive to vibration. Both used unusually small main bearings which further compromised their longevity, and both arms had poorly adjusted, high friction bearings, flimsy plastic headshells and inaccurate bias controls. All things considered, it was remarkable they worked at all.
Tales of Strathearn’s 1975 press launch are legendary. The turntables were said to be appallingly designed, so susceptible to acoustic feedback that if the amp was turned up past one on the dial an ear-piercing howl from the speakers would ensue. The tonearm’s automation was absurdly slow, only fast when dropping – sorry, cueing – the stylus. The planar speakers were reported to be so dreadful that the company engineers who set them up hadn’t even noticed they’d wired them out of phase. It was a good old fashioned boardroom farce, which would have been hilarious were it not for the fact that it was taxpayers’ money being squandered.
Naturally then, instead of doing anything about their sad excuses for hi-fi separates, the hapless company set about a PR charm offensive. Strathearn showed an arrogance born out of a complete misunderstanding of the problem in hand. To wit, various journalists who had been particularly hostile (i.e. objective) were approached to work on a ‘consultancy basis’. Asked to report on their findings, they gave the company a damning indictment of their lemon-like creations. On subsequently receiving review samples they found their suggestions had been ignored. Unhappily for the company, the journos duly reported the decks’ failings, giving them a serious drubbing in print.
Graham Bish was brought in from ITT as Strathearn’s supremo in February 1977. Unlike those before him, he was refreshingly candid with the members of the press, and when asked what he thought of the situation was reported to have said, “You can’t make it any worse”. Unfortunately, he was wrong. Like rats leaving a sinking ship the company’s top brass resigned, and Strathearn had to go begging to the government to have losses of £14 million written off.
By November Bish had also gone, and the new chief sensibly went incommunicado – journalists were asked to direct their questions to the Department of Commerce! Momentarily the company concentrated on export markets and considered a change of name, but it was not to be. By 1978 Strathearn STM4 turntables were falling off backs of lorries for less than fifty pounds, while the Comet warehouse chain bought a large consignment and struggled to shift them for £39.95. With poor press write-ups and streams of embittered letters to magazines from the unfortunates who bought the decks, Strathearn had become a national joke. Stories even appeared about the motors going backwards – they were Irish after all, observed one wag…
By 1979 Britain’s one and only ‘nationalised’ hi-fi manufacturer was dead. It wasn’t the workers’ fault, it was simply because people who didn’t know anything about hi-fi were running a hi-fi company, stupidly believing they could just buy engineering know-how in ‘off the shelf’. It is reckoned that they spent over £20 million pounds by the end, and that the initial laudable aim of creating 1,500 jobs for Ulster people had been pie-in-the-sky – the best they ever achieved was closer to 300. Strathearn Audio Ltd – may they rest in peace, never to rumble again. And if on reading this obituary, they do turn in their corporate grave, may it not be backwards!