The Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio
A Trans-Oceanic model Y600. Shown at left is a modern shortwave radio for comparison. Photo by Ryan A. Jairam, used under a GNU Free Documentation License.
The Zenith Trans-Oceanic was actually a series of portable radios produced between 1942 and 1981, spanning the tube and the transistor eras. Each iteration of the Trans-Oceanic has its ardent fans, but all versions remain popular collectibles. Their outstanding characteristics include high-quality construction and superior performance as shortwave receivers.
Few radio models have an entire book devoted to them, but the Trans-Oceanic does: John Bryant and Harold Cone are the authors of The Zenith Trans-Oceanic, the Royalty of Radios. They write: “Long a companion of kings, presidents, transoceanic yachtsmen and world explorers, the Trans-Oceanic was also carried into battle by American troops in three wars. Its great popularity in spite of a very high price can be laid at the feet of several generations of armchair travelers who used the shortwave capabilities of the Trans-Oceanic as a window on the world.”
The genesis of this legendary radio lay in the 1930s, and in the desire of Zenith founder Eugene F. McDonald (called the "Commander"), for a portable radio that would allow him to keep in touch with the world even when he was sailing his yacht on the Great Lakes or spending time at his remote fishing lodge in Canada. He wanted a radio that not only would tune the standard AM broadcast band, but also marine weather channels and shortwave.
Zenith engineers went to work, and by June of 1941 had a prototype ready for McDonald to try out. He put it through its paces on one of his fishing trips and found it met all of his demanding requirements in a radio.
The first production model Trans-Oceanic, dubbed the 7G605 Clipper, was costly for its day with a $75 list price. But the outbreak of World War II gave an immense impetus to its fortunes. Suddenly, people on the home front wanted to keep up with breaking events in Europe and elsewhere, and departing troops wanted a portable radio they could take to war with them.
The first Clipper went on sale in January, 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor. Capable of operating on either batteries or regular household current, it was an immediate success. Only 35,000 units were produced, though, before Zenith shifted its assembly lines to turning out war-related equipment. Many of those 35,000 Clippers accompanied servicemen overseas, where they gained a deserved reputation for ruggedness and performance.
Following the war, Zenith resumed production of the Trans-Oceanic with a new model, the 8G005. Resembling a piece of stylish luggage, complete with flip-top door and carrying handle, it also sported a completely redesigned dial and updated electronics. One of its most interesting features was a so-called shortwave magnet or “Wavemagnet,” a detachable antenna that could be left on the radio or removed and put on a window using suction cups. (Although Trans-Oceanics will play well, under most conditions, with the regular telescoping antenna, most collectors will want to make sure that any set they are considering buying still has its Wavemagnet with it, if it came with one in the first place.) More than 110,000 8G005s were made between 1946 and 1951, selling at a list price of $125.
The successor to the 8G005 was the G500, produced from 1948 to 1951. Due to the fact that only 88,000 units were produced, this is one of the rarer of the post-war Trans-Oceanic models. A number of changes were made with this model, including yet another new dial design, but its major innovation was the introduction of miniature vacuum tubes, which significantly improved performance.
In 1951 Zenith introduced the H500 Trans-Oceanic, called the “Super.” The H500 had a redesigned front face as well as a number of changes to its frequency coverage. It sold at between $100 and $125. Although every Trans-Oceanic has its fans, a large number of enthusiasts aver that this model achieved the optimal balance of features, performance and looks.
The next Trans-Oceanic to make its appearance was the 600, in 1954. The 600, with its slide-rule type dial, was produced until 1962. It had a long and large production run; as a result, it is one of the easiest of the tube-based Trans-Oceanics to find. There was also a B600 released in 1959 and also produced until 1962. After that year, Zenith would make no further tube-based Trans-Oceanic radios.
A note here about the rarest of all Trans-Oceanics: the R520A/URR. This was a special version of the 600 manufactured for the military. Evidently, only 5,000 of these were ever made, although the exact number is hard to come by.
The first transistorized Trans-Oceanic radio appeared in 1957 as the Royal 1000. It had an all-metal black and chrome cabinet and yet another design change to its dial. It retained some of the famous features of other Trans-Oceanics, though, including the flip-top door and the Wavemagnet detachable antenna. The Royal 1000 listed at $250. For $275, consumers could purchase a Royal 1000-D, which added an aviation/utility band.
In 1962 Zenith released the Royal 3000 Trans-Oceanic. This was only slightly redesigned from the Royal 1000, but it included FM reception as its main new feature. For this model, though, Zenith’s engineers did away with the Wavemagnet antenna.
Next in the long line of Trans-Oceanic radios was the Royal 7000, which appeared on the market in 1969. The cabinet of the Royal 7000 was chrome, brushed steel and black plastic. A large number of changes were introduced with the 7000 to make it easier to tune in distant or weak stations, including a signal meter and switchable bandwidth (wide/narrow) capability.
Many variations of the 7000 were produced during the 1970s, among them the Royal 7000Y, the 7000Y-1 and the D7000Y. The final Royal 7000 version – and the final Trans-Oceanic ever to be produced -- was the R7000, released in 1979 and manufactured until 1981. It incorporated several design changes, but the biggest change was to its frequency coverage: the R7000 provided much broader shortwave coverage than its predecessors.
Unfortunately for Zenith and for Trans-Oceanic lovers generally, intense competition from Sony, Grundig and other manufacturers of shortwave portables led to the demise of this great radio. In 1982 Zenith got out of the radio business entirely.
From a collecting perspective, Trans-Oceanics are at the top of the list of fine vintage portables. They are generally easier to restore than many other radios of their vintage. Often the only thing needed to get them working again is a new set of tubes. They are also fun to listen to, with shortwave reception that frequently outperforms the top-rated receivers of today.
A radio the likes of the Zenith Trans-Oceanic might never bee seen again. Thanks to appreciative devotees of top-of-the-line classic radios, though, we should have a good supply of Trans-Oceanics available in the collectibles market for years to come.
More Trans-Oceanic Information
Trans-Oceanic Resource Library (schematics, operator manuals, more)
Nostalgia Radio: The T/O Royal D7000Y
Phils Old Radios: Trans-Oceanic photo gallery
Trans-Oceanic Radio Museum
Comparison Test: T/O Royal 1000 vs. a modern shortwave receiver
Repairing a Trans-Oceanic H-500
Repairing a Trans-Oceanic 8G005
Restoring a Trans-Oceanic R520