The M31 gallery of... American Classics !

Zenith Royal 500, Royal 500D, Royal 500H:

5 3/4"H x 3 1/2"W x 1 1/2"D

The Zenith "Royal 500" group of radios made up what must have been the longest running production of any one series of transistor sets. Beginning with the first 500 (7XT40 chassis) in 1955, and ending ten years later with the 555N in 1965, the 500 evolved and transformed through many versions of cabinet and chassis, until the final few models had become utterly unrecognizable from the earliest ones.

The first Zenith 500 (top left) sold for $75, a huge sum of money in 1955 for a radio. I like to put this figure in perspective by pointing out that the monthly mortgage my parents paid on their "starter home" that same year was... $75. When you adjust for inflation over the years, it would be like paying over $450 today for that radio. The early 500s truly were luxury items.

The second series of Royal 500s (7ZT40 chassis -- top right in photo above) differed from the first only slightly in chassis and cabinet design. And whereas the first Royal 500 was offered in cabinet colors of either black or burgundy, the second series was also available in ivory, tan and "pink" (coral).

The first true overhaul of the Royal 500 came in 1958 and '59 with the introduction of the 500D. An extra transistor was added to improve reception, and the 1959 version (bottom left in photo) modified the speaker grill to give the radio a much more appealing face. As with the previous versions, the 500D's cabinet was made of nylon -- or, as stamped into the back face of each cabinet, "unbreakable nylon." As any collector can testify, nylon cabinets have not proven the test of time to be unbreakable, but they were certainly a huge step up from the standard. Probably 98 or 99% of all transistor radio cabinets were made of ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene), a form of polystyrene which was much more pliant than straight polystyrene but still cracked and chipped far more easily than did nylon.

The -- uh -- "zenith" of the Royal 500 series was reached in 1962, with the arrival of the 500H (bottom right in photo). It was, essentially, an entirely new radio inside and out. Its improved audio and radio characteristics made it the best performing transistor set available. Collector Norm Smith, who is unquestionably the best informed historian of Zenith transistors, considers the 500H to be the finest "pocket" transistor radio ever made. (As with all the 500s, we're talkin'
coatpocket here...) The 500H was available in three cabinet colors: white, black, and "two-tone gray," which really is better described as "blue and gray," and it's the one to have if you're going to own only one 500H.


(From The Transistor Network, July, 1998 -- my own answer to the question TN had posed: "When Did the Bug Bite?") --

"The one that got me came ten years ago this month, in June, 1988. On a table at a yard sale less than two miles from my home lay an ivory Zenith Royal 500D-- the second series of the 500D, the one with the nicer grill. It had a wonderful gray flannel carrying pouch, inside which was the owner's booklet. For a radio that didn't have tubes it sure looked cool! But the price put me off-- $3.50. It was, after all, a "transistor radio," something about as collectible in 1988 as a transistor TV -- in other words, worthless... So I left.

The Zenith was still there at 5 pm when I came back and bought it... A month or so later I bought another transistor radio, then another, and another... but this 500D has remained my own radio, not really part of my collection but the one I actually turn on and listen to from time to time-- it still works great!"

(For those not familiar with current prices, Zenith 500s of all stripes & colors routinely sell for $75 to $150 these days -- But there are much more egregious examples of first-purchase windfalls, such as a Regency TR-1 hesitantly bought for 50 cents in the late 1980s and now worth $300, or a Sony TR-63 bought for $5 and resold for $600...)


click for Zenith Royal 500 and Regency TR-1 illustrations & descriptions from the 1956 Continental mail-order catalog...

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2007 by Robert Davidson,

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Bulova watch


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