The Fi-cord 1A Miniature Audio Tape Recorder
The Ficord 1A of 1958 was actually a Stellavox SM4a recorder built under licence by Erskine
Laboratories in Scarborough for Ficord Ltd. Georges Quellet's delightful and very successful
little recorder became known to a Mr Kenneth Gough, who was a businessman and amateur film
maker living in Switzerland.
Ken's business was in the export of dental equipment from the UK and one's first thought was to
make the assumption that a dental / medical equipment manufacturer might well have the
'transferable skills' to start producing a small tape recorder such as this, especially if the design
and development work had already been completed. However I have recently formed the
suspicion that Erskine Laboratories was in fact a small subcontracting company that
manufactured military components for the government. So perhaps that's why they might have
been a good candidate to make the 'Stellavox' in England. Actually there are a few differences
between the Ficord and the Stellavox machines. The Ficord has a simple speed change
mechanism and its battery packs are differently arranged.
As a recording device there was at the time nothing much like it, of course Stephan Kudelski
was working on his larger Nagra recorders and would soon introduce the famous series III, but
this little Stellavox/Ficord was uniquely small and uniquely good. It had all the recording
ability of a Ferrograph in a little wooden box in perhaps a twentieth of the volume and weight.
Of course there were apparitional disadvantages of such a small thing such as tiny 3-Inch reels
giving just a few minutes recording time and no fast wind. But there again it worked at 7.5
inches-per-second (and 1 7/8ths by turning a knob) and could produce near broadcast quality
recordings. This was just the job for the active out-and-about radio interviewer, or the semi-
professional film maker on a budget. Well, it was cheaper and smaller than the much larger
competition, but it still cost a fairly serious 59 Gunieas (about £62 or say £650 in modern cash).
Well, it's about as basic as a tape recorder can be, but it does have proper capstan tape drive
and proper high frequency bias and erase. The tape travels from the Right reel to the Left reel
(opposite to convention) and the pinch roller is manually placed into contact with the capstan
by thumbing an eccentric chrome-plated disc that pulls a spring... Release the pinch roller with
the machine turned on and the tape will wind forward (I think). Un-thread the tape to bypass the
heads and you have fast forward, turn the tape over and you have rewind; very 'hands on' with
no wimpy push-button logic control here! Changing tape speed is a little more advanced, as one
simply rotates the small black knob on the left edge of the deck plate while the motor is
The 'extensive' control panel has just enough on it to get the job done.
The knob on the Left is a 3 position rotary switch: playback, off and record. Next to this is a
rather clever 'magick eye' (useing a minature vacuum tube) record level indicator and the
microphone input socket. I am not sure what the lamp does or what the screw threaded hole
beneath it is, but the lever above them operates a switch that shuts of the internal loudspeaker
when the lid is closed. The Right knob is the record gain control and the window above has a
pointer that shows the amout of tape remaining on the feed spool. There is a chrome-plated
tension arm connected to this, which lightly bears on the tape and also seves to provide back
The long slot with chrome spring fingers in the deck plate holds 4 special lead-acid
acumulators (rechargeable batteries) which I have not got...
My particular example, for which I am very greatful to the generosity of Mr John Ruddling of
Nagra UK, seems to have a special modification made to the case (see below). It's very
nicely done with various bits of machined alloy, but I have no idea what it was for. It looks
as though the recorder was made to be fairly quickly be bolted onto something (or something
bolted to it), and that the tape was looped out side of the case. Perhaps an extra playback
head could be attached for sync, or instant playback or confidence replay as it is called. But
we will probably never know...
(Click on any of the images above for further information and images.)