THE PRODUCTION MANAGER'S STORY - SELMER AMPLIFICATION 1964 TO 1973



John Weir recalls his work with Selmer prior to and during his time as Production Manager.



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John Weir working on the Twin Lead 30 in 1966.


I started work at the Selmer factory in Holborn, London, immediately after Easter 1964, as a Test Technician. John Crocker started the same day, also on Test. The chap in charge of Test was Ron Fowler. Ron was born in Buenos Aires but had been brought up in Jamaica and spoke with a West Indian accent. In looks he always reminded me of a Mexican bandit, as depicted in films.

Amplifiers were coming off the production benches by the dozen so we were kept very busy. Remember this was 1964 and every street in the country could boast of at least one pop-group among its younger residents, and they were all clamouring for amplification equipment. (ED - at this time Selmer were making the hugely popular croc-skin covered amps).

It has been my understanding that when the Davis brothers retired to live in the south of France, they sold Musical & Plastics Industries (MPI) to a Midlands firm which manufactured (among other things) umbrellas! (ED - MPI was the parent company which owned Selmer and also Selcol, a company which made plastic products). Apparently, the umbrella business was on the rocks and they borrowed money from bankers to buy MPI believing that the profits from MPI would pay back the loan and also dig the umbrella business out of the mire. This did not transpire, and the umbrella business dragged MPI down with it. The bankers, fearful of losing their money, ditched the umbrella firm and put a man of their own in to bring MPI back into the black. That man was John Cochrane, an elderly and rather short of stature person, who had worked successfully for them in the past. He came in as Chairman and Managing Director and appointed Dick Twydell as Production Director, in charge of the Theobalds Road, Holborn factory. And so it was when John Crocker and I joined Selmers.

Selmer had been building organs for several years, but they used valve circuitry which made them rather large, and they were mainly only suitable for use in church halls and similar establishments. With the advent of transistor technology organs could be made much smaller such that they became suitable for home entertainment, and this opened up a whole new market. Selmer began importing organs from Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI), a large American company, but because of high import duties they were rather expensive and this limited their sales. In the early 1960's MPI concluded an agreement with CMI which gave Selmer the franchise to build Lowrey organs from kits of parts which were shipped over as 'Traypacks' and assembled into cabinets made by the Selmer subcontract cabinetmaker, Rawson Sparfield. As the kits could not be classified as complete instruments they did not attract a large import duty, and this combined with excellent sales in the home entertainment market, made the arrangement quite lucrative. At the beginning they shipped over a model known as the TLO which was quite basic with no frills, but gradually more sophisticated models were introduced which incorporated Leslie speaker units, reverberation, automatic rhythm etc.

In the autumn of 1964 'OXFAM' organised a Pop Competition whereby amateur groups throughout the country could enter regional heats, to be judged for best performance, these being gradually whittled down and the six best to be finally judged by a panel of celebrities at a gala televised performance in the Prince of Wales theatre in Piccadilly. Selmer were invited to provide the amplification equipment throughout the event to which Twydell agreed, as it gave the Company an excellent advertisement . The South London heats were held in Lewisham Town Hall, and various members of our staff took turns to attend in order to keep an eye on the equipment and to deal with any associated problems which might arise. I was also in attendance at the Prince of Wales theatre, and I recall that Cilla Black was one of the judges and that the Manfred Mann group were engaged to play during a break in the proceedings.

Initially, the test room personnel were also responsible for servicing any returned equipment, but early in 1965 it was decided to separate these functions, and two of the test staff were detached and relocated in another area of the factory to carry out the service operation. This left myself, John Crocker, Ron Fowler and two women inspectors. In addition, it was arranged that the test facility would be carried out in a small 'greenhouse' type structure erected in the production shop rather than in an enclosed room away from the manufacturing area. I had become quite friendly with Ron, and we often went out for a drink together, and I was not surprised when he told me that he had accepted a better job with a large firm nearer to where he lived. However, this turned out to my advantage as shortly after he left, Mr Twydell asked me to take over his job, and I was able to recruit Allan Baldwin to join us.

At that time there were two people in R&D. John Hosey and Brian Davis. John Hosey was responsible for the 'upside down' black and blue range of amplification which came after the gold finish (ED : croc-skin) range, also the PA100, which was based on a Mullard circuit, the Twin Lead 30, and the Stereomaster, which the sales people wanted because the were selling stereo guitars. Brian Davis developed the Saturn 60 which was an all transistor amplifier. Unfortunately it did not go well due to the frequent failure of the germanium output transistors. In fairness to Brian it should be stated that our competitors were not faring much better with their transistor efforts, as these devices were quite new to us at that time, and few people had much experience in using them.

Soon after Ron went, John Hosey also left, and then a little later, Brian Davis took a job with Marconi. This left no one in R&D, and the hierarchy took on a man as Technical Director. I cannot recall his name, but he strutted into the laboratory with two assistants and proceeded to do precisely nothing. At this time the Twin Lead 30 was causing problems due to it being a valve amplifier, but with a germanium transistor pre-amp stage. These transistors became hot due to the output valves being in their close proximity, and thus they failed. Dick Twydell was under pressure from Sales to do something about it, and he asked me what I thought could be done. I suggested that the transistor needed to be replaced by a valve but there was very little space to spare in the case. However, I said that I thought I could figure it out and he told me to go ahead, and I believe that is what I am doing in the photo published in 'Beat International'. With some difficult manoeuvring I managed it and I took my prototype to Dick. He told me to give it to the new Technical Director with the message that he should prepare it for production. This I did, but the next day the Technical Director came to me with the request that I make another prototype. When I asked what had happened to the original he told me that they had taken it to pieces and were unable to put it together again! To say that I was livid would be an understatement, and I blankly refused to have anything to do with it. However, Dick asked me to collect the pieces and organise the thing for production, and it was later re-launched as the All-Purpose 30 (AP30).

Because competition in the industry was fierce at that time, new products were always needed, and the hierarchy decided that they wanted an amplifier similar to the PA100 but having six channels with reverberation on two of them, and this to be ready for showing at the 1966 Music Industries Fair which was held every summer in the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury. This assignment was given to the Technical Director and his assistants.

As the 1966 Fair drew near, the Directors wanted to know where the new amplifier was, and when it became obvious that the Technical Director had failed to achieve anything at all, they were not best pleased to state the least. All of the Selmer dealers had been told that the new amplifier would be demonstrated at the Fair, and this was going to leave the hierarchy with egg on their faces. After a great deal of discussion they decided that a dummy would be made. An empty cabinet with a front panel adorned with knobs and switches. This would be shown at the Fair, with the comment that a few final touches were required before it could be released. And so it was, but the hierarchy had had enough. The Technical Director and his assistants were required to resign forthwith. However, this left the company with a further problem in that within a few months the next Music Industries Fair would be upon them and they still did not have the 100 watt amplifier to show.

By this time I had rebuilt the AP30 and it had gone into production, and largely on the strength of this, and also out of desperation, Dick Twydell asked me if I thought I could tackle the design of the large model. I had to weigh up the pro's and con's. To my advantage was the fact that we already had a 100 watt amplifier with fourchannels, so that I would be able to use some of the existing circuitry, but I would have to add reverberation circuitry with two more channels. The disadvantage that I saw was that I would have to use the same external design and layout as the dummy model which had already been seen by the Trade at the previous Fair. This I thought may or may not affect the working of the finished unit, however, I saw this as my big chance and felt confident that I would be able to overcome any problems, so I accepted the challenge, and forthwith moved into the laboratory to begin work.

After many problems, some of my own making, I managed to complete a prototype six channel amplifier, and the Marketing Director came up to the factory to hear and inspect it. Fortunately for me he gave it his approval and it went into production as the PA100R in time for the 1967 Music Industries Fair. After this I continued working on various development projects, including a small 5 watt amplifier (ED - the Mercury) to replace the 'Little Giant' which had been popular as a practice amp, and the Directors showed their gratitude by promoting me to Technical Manager.

The Selmer operation occupied three locations; the factory at Holborn, the warehouse in Clerkenwell, and the showroom and head offices in Charing Cross Road. The wind instrument repair shop was also at Charing Cross Road, under the control of Charlie Wicks. Having assessed his task, the Chairman concluded that the overheads on the three establishments in central London were too great, and decided that it would be financially advantageous if they could be brought together into one unit, and preferably out of London. At that time the Government was eager to encourage firms to move out of the city, and the incentives they offered were very attractive. Cochrane looked at several possibilities; even Dumfries in Scotland. However, our associate company Selcol was situated in Braintree, Essex, where they manufactured plastic mouldings, mainly of garden ornaments and toys. (Ed - See Selcol's Plastic"Junior Beatle" Guitar elsewhere on this website.) They were not doing very well and in late 1967 Cochrane sent Dick Twydell to Braintree to ascertain whether it could be made viable. For various reasons it was not thought possible, and a decision was made to close it down and move the whole Selmer business into the Selcol premises, leaving only the Charing Cross Road showroom and head offices in London.

During 1968 various people were interviewed and asked if they would consider moving to Braintree, including myself. One of the Government perks of moving was an allocation of houses and flats, and I was told that I would get a flat if I accepted. As I seemed to be getting on well I did not relish the thought of leaving Selmer, but on the other hand, I liked living and working in London. I found it a difficult decision to make, but in the end I agreed to go.

Twydell was given the task of arranging the evacuation of the Selcol premises, and the transfer of the manufacturing plant from Holborn. It was hoped that as least some of the employees at Braintree would agree to remain and be trained to undertake the new work, but unfortunately the management of the plastics business were less than pleased with what was happening, and persuaded their staff to refuse the offer.

On Friday 22th of November 1968 I was working at the Holborn factory when I received a phone call from Braintree. It was Twydell. At the last minute he had persuaded six of the female staff to stay, and wanted me to be at the Braintree premises at 7.30am on Monday 25th, to greet them and begin their training. He had taken the liberty of booking me into a small hotel, 'The Old Court', which was fortunately situated only about 100 yards along the road from the factory, and so it was that I drove up and booked in at the hotel on the Sunday afternoon.

Having to be at the factory at 7.30am the next morning, I wanted to be sure of being on the premises early, and left the hotel just after 7am which was too early for breakfast to be served, but luckily I found a drinks machine in the factory and managed to get a cup of coffee. I was soon confronted by six ladies who arrived for training, albeit somewhat anxiously, as they were convinced that they would not be able to do the work. However, my problems were only just beginning. I had been promise that a couple of workbenches would be left in the production bay, with sockets connected to the electricity supply, but because the management were so sour about the transfer, they had made sure that all of the benches were disconnected and moved into awkward positions.

I had brought an amplifier with me, so I placed it on an empty bench and asked the ladies to examine and discuss it while I tried to sort something out. Although the premises had been vacated, the toolroom still existed in a small separate building, and the toolroom manager, Keith Taylor, was going about his business. Unlike the others who had left me in the lurch, Keith was very sympathetic and helped me to drag two heavy benches into a suitable position, and wired a cable into an adjacent fuse box to supply power to the benches. I soon had soldering irons heated up and went to fetch the girls. Having looked closely at the amplifier I had brought with me, they were now even more convinced that they could not do the work, and my main problem was in persuading them that if the London operators could do it, so could they. However, I showed them how to solder some scrap pieces of wire together and left them to practice for a while Then with some suitable compliments from me with regard to their efforts, they settled down in a better frame of mind.

It had been decided that a complete set of parts and equipment to build 25 PA100 amplifiers, would be sent down by lorry, and the consignment duly arrived, and work was commenced. This kept us all busy, and as there were no inspectors or test technicians I had to take on this job myself. I should point out here that once the ladies had overcome their initial doubts, they picked up the wiring and assembly skills remarkably quickly, and I was pleasantly surprised at the of their work. Dick Twydell visited us several times as also did the Chairman.

At the end of January 1969 the London operation closed down, except for the Charing Cross Road showroom, and lorries began bringing all of the stores and equipment to Braintree. I had started recruiting some staff to augment the six girls, and things went fairly well at first, but the lorry loads of materials were arriving so fast that it became impossible to cope. I remember complaining to Twydell, but he had promised the Chairman that the move would be completed by a certain date and there was nothing to be done about it. I felt rather despondent, especially when I viewed the huge mountains of materials piled up over every inch of the floor area, but eventually staff were sent up from London temporarily to assist in getting everything straight, and so the problem gradually subsided.

Because most of the staff were new, it was necessary for me to spend the majority of my time on the shop floor dealing with various production problems, as well as keeping an eye on product development, but I had engaged a reasonably good engineer, John Lawrence, and so for the most part I left him to work on a new transistor amplifier, which was to become the Taurus. Nevertheless, due to the upheaval, we were unable to produce anything new for the 1969 Music Industries Fair, much to the chagrin of the sales department. However, I had been working on a 'Fuzz-Wah' foot pedal before leaving Holborn, so this was completed and put into production.

A major change took place during that first year. I had been aware even during the years in London, that Dick Twydell consistently made promises to the sales department with regard to the availability of goods being produced, which were not possible to be met by the actual production facility. Needless to state, this situation was causing considerable upset, and the Sales Manager kept complaining bitterly to the Chairman,who in his wisdom, decided that Dick had to go. Although Dick and I had crossed swords on numerous occasions, we had always understood each other and in fact it was largely due to him that I had achieved my position as Technical Manager, so I was rather sad that it had turned out this way.

They engaged another Production Director before Twydell left. This guy knew all the right things to say in order to impress the hierarchy, but I soon realised that he was hardly suitable for our operation. He had previously worked for a large television and radio company, and so thought in terms of large scale production flow lines. This was entirely unsuitable for our business where we needed flexibility to produce a number of different types of amplifier and speaker in batches of 25 or 50. He succeeded in alienating most of the production staff and their output suffered. During this time the Chairman engaged a manager to oversee the Service Department. He was also given the task of devising a complete new look for our products. For this he hired a Designer on a subcontract basis, who had no technical knowledge but was in fact an artistic designer. After some study, the man put forward a report complete with coloured drawings of what he felt was required. His ideas would have probably been suitable for domestic Hi-Fi equipment, but were totally unsuitable for our type of products which had to stand up to the rough usage of people performing in pubs and clubs, as well as looking attractive.

At the end of this first year I was told that a new range of amplification equipment would be required for showing at the 1970 Trade Fair. I had already anticipated this and had been giving the matter some thought. Our dealers, having become disillusioned with transistor amplifiers, had made it clear to our sales people that they were only interested in purchasing valve equipment. I knew our existing range well, and I had been made aware of what was currently in vogue, and on the basis of 'If it ain't broke don't fix it', I decided that our current products were quite good, bthat by eliminating the weaknesses and incorporating some new ideas put to me by young guitar players, I should then have a suitable range, particularly if I gave it all a new look, with thick, chunky cabinets which were then the fashion. Although the Artistic Designer had not achieved what had been hoped for, I noted that he had put forward an idea for the front panels which intrigued me. This was that the panels of all similar models should be of the same size, and all hole punchings should be made on the same matrix, so that even those which only needed a few holes could be placed over any of the others and the holes would line up. This would also make production cheaper and easier. I incorporated this as far as possible into the new range, and together with the other changes, produced a set of prototypes for the approval of the management and sales staff. They were well received, and launched as the SV range at the 1970 Fair. (ED - these are the brushed aluminium fronted models).

At about this time there were rumblings of discontent among the organ sales staff. It appeared that the American public preferred different models to the British public. CMI refused to accept this and started to discontinue those organs which did not sell well in the States. This included the GAK which sold very well here. They began sending new models over which failed to gain popularity in this country, and sales were falling as a result.

Unfortunately, Selmer were never able to sell their amplification equipment in the USA. I cannot be certain why this was, but I believe it was due to an American company with the same name, objecting to the import of goods with their logo. Obviously it would have made quite a difference to the sales figures if this had not been the case. (ED - this could have been due to rivalry between Henri Selmer's US company and Selmer UK).

By 1971 the Sales team had realised that the trend was for more powerful amplifiers, and I was asked to develop a 200 watt outfit complete with suitable speakers. A competition had been set up within the company to find a name for it, and the winner put forward the name 'CHIEFTAIN', which was met with general approval.

I was requested to incorporate some features which had proved popular in past models, such as push button tone changing, and this I did. In order to take full advantage of the power, I had words with the guys at Celestion and they came up with a 30 watt horn speaker. I incorporated this into a cabinet with two 12 inch dual cone units for the high frequencies, and also had a vented cabinet with four 12 inch units for bass. Two of these set-ups were given to 'McGuiness Flint' who were a popular group at that time, and they told me that they had to use them with the horn units on the floor, as if they had them up higher they blew their heads off!

About the summer of 1971, Dick Twydell's successor, after a succession of disagreements with the Chairman, resigned and left the company. Cochrane then called me to his office and told me that I was to take over as Production Manager. I felt obliged to do so, but was not at all happy about it, as I much preferred the technical development work which I had been doing. However, the production figures had not been good, due to the flow-line mentality instigated by the previous Production Manager, which had upset the operators. My first move was to revert to the batch production technique we had used previously, and I put the operators on a bonus scheme so that they were able to earn more for increased quantity and quality.

In early 1972 John Cochrane retired. His replacement was Michael Nugent, a much younger man with a reputation as a Wizz-Kid. He certainly proved to be a much better boss than his predecessor and things improved quickly. However, his reputation spread to CMI and he was soon invited to join their business in Chicago, so in barely a year he left us for America, but the Board of our Holding Company refused to release him from his contract until he had found a suitable person to succeed him. He quickly found Malcolm Parkin, a man of similar age to himself, but whether due to his haste to get to Chicago or not, his choice soon proved to be a disaster.

Parkin and I did not get on too well, and the situation between us quickly deteriorated as far as I was concerned. There were also strong rumours that CMI had made an offer to buy Selmer in order to establish a UK base. I therefore began thinking seriously about leaving, and started investigating possible positions with other companies.

In September 1973 I left Selmer. Not long after, Chicago Musical Instruments bought it, and it started to go downhill fast. Parkin resigned and his place was taken by Dean Kerr who had been Marketing Director. Dean was a fine trumpet player and had previously played with the 'Clyde Valley Stompers' in his home town of Glasgow. I always got along OK with Dean but he was not cut out to be Chairman. After a while it became too much for him and he asked to step down. He was made Managing Director and another Chairman was brought in. Due to the attitude of the Americans regarding which model organs should sell well in the UK, and the fact that they failed to develop any further amplification products to meet the approval of the market, the business gradually dwindled down. They eventually had to move out of the Woolpack Lane premises, and into a much smaller unit on a factory estate. I am not certain when they finally closed, but I believe it was during the very early 80's. (ED - the last Selmer advert we have found so far is in an August 1979 Beat Instrumental magazine). The Woolpack Lane factory was used by another firm for a while, then stood empty (and vandalised) for years. It was eventually bulldozed down in the mid 1990's and the site is now a private housing development.

So died a Company that had everything going for it during the 60's, but it all went wrong in the end. It's very sad.

JOHN WEIR



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John Weir, photographed in 2002.





Click HERE to view a layout plan of the SELMER BRAINTREE OPERATION that John Weir has drawn for us.


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JOHN WEIR

John Weir, Production Manager for Selmer Electronics back in the 1970's, passed away on  22nd November 2008.

John worked for the Selmer London company in various capacities from 1964 through to 1973. His assistance in providing information about what actually did take place at Selmers during that period was invaluable in the setting up of this website.







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