FADA Model 1000 Catalin "Bullet" Radio (1945)

              

     

The FADA model 1000 Catalin radio ranks among the design icons of the 20th Century and is highly desired by collectors.

Why such popularity? You can sum it up in two words: style and Catalin.

Description

The synthetic Catalin cabinet epitomizes 1940s Streamline design. Its sleek, rounded lines suggest speed and practicality, hallmarks of streamlined industrial design from those years.

Gone are the heavy, dark, wooden cabinets of the 1920s and 1930s, along with their old-fashioned ornamentation. Formed of modern material and offered in bright colors, the Catalin cabinet seems to be rushing forward into the future.

Collectors refer to this cabinet style as the Bullet, or occasionally, the Streamliner, although neither name was used by the FADA company.

The Bullet's "airplane" dial is very attractive, with moving lines molded into the gold background and a spare, modern font for the frequency markings.

My FADA 1000 is in excellent original condition. The cabinet has no chips, cracks, or splits—a rarity with Catalin radio cases. The next photo shows the set from the rear.

Mounted inside the radio's backplate is a conventional loop antenna. This set employs a standard six-tube superheterodyne design, with tubes of types 12SK7, 12SA7, 12SK7, 12SQ7, 35L6GT, and 35Z5GT. Here is a view of the chassis from the rear.

Notice how the chassis has beveled lower corners to fit tightly within the curved case. The tight fit made it possible to cram a six-tube radio inside a small, modernistic cabinet, but it also made for poor ventilation, leading to heat buildup and tube burn.

The ragged paper on the upper left is factory-original, not a mistake. It's there to reflect light from the pilot lamp back around the dial.

The next photo shows the unrestored chassis from below. No surprises here, the same handful of standard components that you'll find in any inexpensive radio of the 1940s or 1950s.

After purchasing the radio and cleaning it up, I slowly powered it up using a variac. It worked beautifully. Although I would ordinarily replace the old capacitors for reliability, I have decided to leave the chassis in its original state for the time being. You don't want to play Catalin radios for more than a few minutes anyway, since the heat of normal operation just leads to further deterioration of the cabinet material.

FADA Models and Variations

The letters F-A-D-A are the initials of Frank Angelo D'Andrea, who founded the company in the 1920s. FADA produced many radios and televisions over the years, but its Catalin radios—particularly the Bullet—are the best-known models.

The Bullet cabinet was used for five different FADA models. The first models were introduced in 1940. Model 115 received the standard broadcast band, while model 116 received shortwave, as well. These radios had a five-tube chassis.

With model 200, FADA introduced an updated six-tube chassis. The same chassis was used in the extremely rare "All American" model 189, whose colors were red, white, and blue. It was probably produced to compete with the Emerson Patriot, another Catalin radio issued in red-white-blue colors.

With the outbreak of World War II, all domestic radio production was suspended. FADA's model 1000 was introduced in 1945, immediately after the war ended. This model was very popular, and, hence, it is more common than the prewar models. The postwar Bullet did not offer a shortwave variant.

Some model 1000s were produced with an "inset" grille. In these, the grille louvers are formed from a separate piece of Catalin which was glued into the speaker opening. These sets use one color for the cabinet body and a contrasting color for the grille inset, handle, knobs, and dial bezel.

On a very few 1000s, the speaker opening has a plain piece of grille cloth, with no louvers. These variants might have been produced to use up available parts (i.e., "inset" style cabinets after all the inset pieces had been used up).

My 1000 uses eight-pin tubes. Some later 1000s used glass miniature tubes.

FADA Magazine Ads

The following ads appeared in Radio News magazine during 1946.

     

FADA coined the term "FADA-lucent" to refer to their Catalin cabinets. (Catalin is the trade name used by the company which supplied the plastic to FADA and many other manufacturers.)

Model 652, shown in two of these ads, also came with a Catalin cabinet, in a variety of color combinations like the Bullet. FADA produced several other Catalin radios from 1936 to the late 1940s.

Catalin—What's the Big Deal?

What is Catalin, and why do people like it? Catalin is an early type of plastic, a "cast phenolic resin" in technical terms. In contrast to earlier materials, such as Bakelite (see our Bakelite Gallery), Catalin could be produced in many different colors.

Gone were the days of radios all colored in dark brown or black, occasionally painted in ivory. Catalin could be made in red, yellow, blue, green, or alabaster, and radio designers quickly took advantage of that fact, producing radios in a new rainbow of striking colors.

The Model 1000 "Bullet" was offered in a variety of color schemes, with contrasting colors for the cabinet body, knobs, dial bezel, handle, and (in some sets) grille inset.

An unfortunate characteristic of Catalin is that its colors darken with time, so an unrestored Catalin radio will look quite different now than it did when it left the factory. For example, most people would describe this radio's color as amber or butterscotch yellow. When it was new, it was colored alabaster white!

The darkening process was accelerated by heat. Many cabinets, including this one, show what is called "tube burn," a darkened spot in the cabinet in the area where the most heat accumulated during normal operation. You can't see the tube burn in these photos; it is located on the side of the cabinet. In bad cases, the top as well as the side of the cabinet will have a dark, burned spot.

Some Catalin collectors restore these cabinets by carefully sanding away all of the darkened surface material, then buffing the cabinet back to a gloss finish. This is not a procedure to be attempted casually. Catalin is a fragile material and if you roughly press one of these cabinets down onto a belt sander, you may do more harm than good.

Other collectors, including me, would rather enjoy the cabinet in its aged condition, and simply leave it alone. I think this cabinet is more attractive with its aged amber color than it would be if I sanded it down to alabaster white.

Another, more serious, defect of Catalin is that it shrinks. It is rare to find a Catalin radio cabinet that does not have splits or stress fractures, especially around the holes where the chassis screws are attached. In extreme cases, the cabinet shrinks so much that you cannot remove the chassis for restoration without breaking the cabinet.

Due to these factors, Catalin was used for only a few years, quickly being superseded by newer plastics that retained their colors, did not shrink, and were cheaper to manufacture.

Despite these negative factors, Catalin remains popular in the collector community, partly due to its scarcity, but also for its beauty. In contrast to Bakelite, which is opaque, Catalin is somewhat translucent, with an attractive, almost gem-like quality.

Differences Between Catalin and Bakelite

Many people confuse Bakelite and Catalin, in part because the names were used interchangably by some companies. Here's a whirlwind tour of the differences between these plastics, which are chemically identical but different in appearance and durability.

Bakelite was invented in 1907 by the chemist Leo Baekeland. It is a phenolic resin: a combination of phenol and formaldehyde with a catalyst. After the chemicals were mixed, the liquid was allowed to harden, then ground into powder. The powder (often mixed with a filler such as sawdust) was then placed into a mold that applied heat and high pressure to re-melt the powder and make it conform to the mold's shape.

After the application of heat and pressure, Bakelite became what is called a "thermosetting" plastic, meaning that it could not be re-melted. This material was extremely strong, heat-resistant, and an excellent electrical insulator, which made it ideal for a multitude of industrial uses. The pressure-forming process also created a smooth surface, so Bakelite objects required no polishing after being removed from the mold.

Because it contains opaque fillers, Bakelite is opaque. It also comes in a limited range of colors, most often dark brown, occasionally black, and very rarely, a dark brownish red.

Catalin, like Bakelite, is also a phenolic resin. Unlike Bakelite, however, it was manufactured as a chemical syrup that could be poured into a metal mold. After several days of curing in an oven, the hardened syrup could be pushed out of the mold.

Because the surface was rough at that stage, every Catalin object had to be sanded and polished to make it shiny. If you look at the inside of a Catalin radio cabinet, you will see mold marks that were not polished away.

In its uncolored form, Catalin was almost transparent, so with the addition of dyes, it could be made in virtually any color. By stirring in a second color just before pouring, it was possible to create interesting swirl effects, which are seen in many Catalin items. These objects were more colorful than Bakelite objects, but more brittle.

So, how did those differences play out over time?

Bakelite is inherently stronger and more durable than Catalin. The filler material adds strength. Because a Bakelite object has already been subjected to heat and pressure, it does not change color or shape with aging. Bakelite is also highly resistant to chemicals. I have bought a few Bakelite radios that had been painted by a previous owner. That's no problem with Bakelite—you can use even the harshest paint stripper to remove the paint, something I would never risk with a Catalin cabinet.

Catalin is weaker than Bakelite because it lacks filler. Because of this, Catalin cabinets were usually made thicker than Bakelites.

Catalin is also unstable. Its colors become dark, especially when exposed to heat from radio tubes. Worse, it shrinks, causing a distressing "self destruct" in the case of some radio cabinets.

Catalin can be re-polished more successfully than Bakelite, however. Many Bakelite cabinets have a fairly thin shiny surface layer. If the surface becomes dulled through everyday wear, you may be tempted to polish it, but that procedure doesn't always succeed. You might polish all the way through the surface layer, exposing the more pulpy inner layers, which cannot be polished no matter how hard you try. Catalin is internally consistent. If you sand or polish off the discolored surface, you will reveal less discolored inner layers, restoring the original color.

The Catalin production process was more expensive and time-consuming than the Bakelite process. A Bakelite object was formed within seconds and was basically ready for use the moment it popped out of the mold. Catalin, however, required several days of curing in an oven, followed by hand finishing. Each new Catalin item also required a new lead mold, which would be melted down and re-cast for the next production cycle.

Due to these factors, Catalin was used for only about a dozen years, roughly from 1935-1947. By the late 1940s, newer colored plastics became available which were cheaper to make and more durable in use.

Final Thoughts

After pooh-poohing the "Catalin craze" for years, I finally broke down and bought this radio, when I found one in excellent condition at a good price.

Was it worth it? Well, now I can say that I own one Catalin radio. And looking at it closely confirms what I had always believed: that Catalins are simply cheap radios in pretty cabinets.

Whether you want to pay a premium for this type of radio is your choice.

There are hundreds of interesting radios from the same era with cabinets made of Bakelite or other plastics. Many of them can be purchased for $50 or less, while you can expect to pay $500 and up for a typical FADA Bullet.

Some collectors pay thousands of dollars for a Bullet in a rare color combination or for scarce Catalin sets by other manufacturers.

Again, it's your money, so spend it as you choose. Personally, now that I own one, it may be a long time—possibly forever— before I buy another. For the amount of money spent on this set, I could buy a whole trunkload of other radios, some with much better performance and equally interesting cabinets.

If you are shopping for a Catalin radio, beware of imitations. Reproduction knobs, handles, and other cabinet parts have been available for a long time. If you are paying for a radio that is "all original," make sure that is true. An unscrupulous seller might substitute different knobs, handle, and dial bezel to make a single-color radio into one with two or even three colors.

The best (and only) reference to Catalin radios is Classic Plastic Radios of the 1930s and 1940s by John Sidelli. Even if you don't intend to collect them, it's a great picture book, with detailed information about all of the Catalin radios produced in America.

Personal Footnote

Several years after I first published this article, I received the following email from a woman who was actually named after the radio! Her words speak for themselves.

It was so interesting to read your article about the catalin radio. I have one exactly like the one pictured. I was born in 1927 and my aunt had a Fada radio and she told my Mother that she thought she should name me Fada Jean. Being born in a state where you are always called by both names, I could hardly wait to move somewhere where I could only be referred to by Jean. People laugh when I tell them I was named after a radio, so to prove it to them I decided I had to find a Fada radio, which I was given one by a customer of mine, not realizing they were a valuable object. My daughter-in-law gave me a burgundy one that had belonged to her grandmother, but I since have given that one to her daughter, which would be my granddaughter. Both radios were in perfect condition, no cracks and the catalin is almost golden. I keep that one as my namesake. Thanks for enlighting me to its value.

Jean

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