Sometimes the third time is the charm.
In October 2018, I found a 1965 UK Continental for sale near me. It had some significant flaws: A host of small electronic issues. The drawbars didn’t work properly and the markings were well-worn. The lid was a bit stained and beaten up. The original Mains and Vibrato switches and the original power connector had been replaced. The keyboard had a mushy feel to it. But it had what a real estate agent would call “good bones.” Most of the organ was in great – and original – condition. By swapping the best parts I had gathered from two other ’65 UK Continentals I had owned, this one had the potential to be an amazingly original and good-looking Continental.
(Just for the record, I’ve not been tempting bad vintage keys karma by parting-out Vox organs. In moving parts between organs, I’ve still left all of them fully functional. And all three organs were ’65 models, made in the same plant in Dartford, Kent, so all the parts are the proper, original ones for each of the organs.)
There was only one problem: The owner was asking nearly $4,000 for it. But being an optimist, I contacted him, and patiently explained that his price was far beyond the organ’s value. (Especially since he needed to sell it quickly before moving across the country.) In the end, he sold it to me for a very fair price.
First the good stuff: It came with a shiny, original UK stand and an original UK stand case that was in pretty good shape. You don’t see either of these very often.
The gray cabinet had only minor bumps and bruises, rather than the usual large areas of ripped vinyl and bare wood. The original audience-side Vox Continental badge looked almost like new. This is very unusual. On the early UK models, the paint scratched off very easily from the plastic plates, so most of the surviving ones are missing most – and sometimes all – of the paint. And in fact, many are completely gone: Vox glued them to the Rexine vinyl, which resulted in many of them falling off over the years. (On the US-built version of the Continental, the badge was secured with screws along its perimeter. On many Italian models, the vinyl was typically cut away behind the badge so the plate could be more securely glued to the bare wood.)
The keys were in great shape. There were no broken key contacts. The power supply and the pre-amp had been re-built with new capacitors. And, for the compulsive collectors among us, it appeared that virtually all the screws were original, inside and out. It even had the rarely seen black clips on the back of the orange lid to hold the screws that keep the lid on.
So, I got to work with the goal of making this organ as perfect as I could by substituting parts. I installed a drawbar assembly to have one in better cosmetic shape. I installed original Mains and Vibrato switches. I removed the modern IEC power receptacle and replaced it with an original round Bulgin power connector and power cord. I swapped pilot lamps to replace one that flickered with one that glowed steadily. I swapped orange lids to use the better of the two. I swapped all 12 of the tone generator boards, because I knew my “old” boards were stable and tuned well. I fixed a ground issue that was causing a hum with every note played.
One of the problems with these UK Continentals is that the keys often feel mushy, and can bounce after you play them. It feels like you can make them sound by barely touching them, which is annoying. Here are a few tips to overcome this:
I swapped a few of the coil key springs at the end of the key sticks that looked a bit stretched out. And then I removed the spring steel key return springs under the key contact assembly and bent them carefully (and slightly) to provide more tension. This made a major improvement in the keyboard feel, giving the keys slightly more resistance to being pushed down and made them spring back to the rest position with more speed and force. This helps quite a bit, but you do risk breaking the “fingers” if you’re not gentle.
A couple of years later, my friend Nathan taught me an even better trick to allow you to regulate the feel of the keys. The top of each of the coil key springs attaches to a little hole at the end of the key stick, and the bottom of the spring is hooked to a metal channel on a bracket. The bracket is held in place by about five screws. The bracket has elliptical-shaped screw holes, so you have a bit of upward or downward adjustment you can make to the bracket. You can add tension by re-positioning the bracket downward, or reduce tension by moving it up. You may want to unhook all the springs from the channel before you re-position the bracket. This will make a significant difference in the feel of the keys. My keyboard now feels great!
The organ came with an original UK-style volume pedal, but I preferred the one I had with the other organ, so I swapped them, too.
I polished the stand, all the little hardware pieces (latches, hinges and glides) and the control panel. Cleaned the Rexine. Used grease pencils to restore the original look to the stamped Mains and Vibrato labels on the control panel and the numbers and symbols on the drawbar pulls. Vacuumed the inside of the organ. Scrubbed the leg case. Cleaned the keys. Shined up all the vinyl with some 303 Marine Aerospace Protectant. (I use this on all my amps and vinyl-covered keyboards. It leaves a very slight shine and a UV-protective film – and isn’t greasy like ArmorAll.) And I carefully transplanted two souvenirs from the other UK organs: Paper tags on the wiring loom with the first names of some of the women who painstakingly pieced together Vox looms, Rene and Carol. These women were all patients in Stone House, formerly known as the City Of London Lunatic Asylum, in Dartford, Kent. The facility had a contract for patients to assemble these for Vox. But then I dug deeper into my “new” organ and found another loom assembler’s name, Merilyn.
My organ was missing some of its original wingbolts, but my friend and Classic Keys co-author David Robertson created a set of chromed, replica wingbolts that are so beautifully crafted that they look like fine jewelry. Thanks David!)
After owning the organ for nearly two years, I discovered a quirk I had not noticed before: All of the footage drawbars played the same volume on the 5 setting as they did on 4, and the same volume on 8 as on 7. (I guess I never noticed this, since the drawbars generally got louder as I pulled them out.) Here was the trouble spot: The circuit boards and resistor ladder (which provides progressively less resistance to the signal as the drawbars are pulled out).
This is the view you get under the drawbars by lifting the keybed. The problem was that some of the number levels of the drawbars were shorted to each other. This can occur if a stray piece of solder bridges the levels. But in my case, apparently little bits of copper dust that wore from the traces on the boards caused a short between levels. Cleaning each of the boards carefully and thoroughly with a pipe cleaner soaked in a little 99% isopropyl alcohol solved the issue, and the drawbars now work properly.
Of course, a proper Vox Continental needs a Fender Rhodes Piano Bass. In this case, it’s my near-mint 1972 sparkle top. Light My Fire!
Here’s an oddity about a ’65 UK Continental: The top bars of the stand are too long to enable the transport lid to be used when the organ is on the stand. The latches don’t have enough clearance from the stand to be secured. So the lid can’t be used during assembly or dis-assembly of the stand. Vox solved this on later Continental models by shortening that top bar (and by cutting the bar ends at an angle slanting away from the latch on the Italian models).
If you’re taking a Continental on the road, you surely need a vinyl cover to protect it from bumps and bruises. Mine is in great shape:
The original UK slipcovers came in a wide variety of colors: Black, red, gray, and beige. A friend — and fellow Vox Continental-aholic –had this handsome replica of an uncommon beige one made up for me:
And here’s the “case candy:”
The warranty envelope.
The Thomas Vox-style warranty card. Since Thomas was the US licensee and distributor of Vox products, it handled US warranty claims and repairs of these UK-made organs. The warranty covered “defects in workmanship and material arising from normal usage for a period of one year.” Unfortunately, the warranty only obligated them to provide replacement parts. They didn’t have to cover labor for installation of the defective parts, and the owner even had to pay for shipping. So, they could have met the terms of the warranty by sending you, say, a bag full of transistors. (But most likely, they would have sent you a whole new board if you had a troublesome tone generator card or preamp board.)
The four-page owner’s manual. It was dated February, 1963, even though it was provided with 1965 organs. The photo on the front shows a “square top” model that Vox no longer made, with a Perspex music stand. Inside, there were a couple of references to that obsolete model. Rather than updating and reprinting the manual, Vox or Thomas assigned an employee to make corrections with a pen. (I’ve seen three of these, and they all have pen corrections in the same spot, done in the distinctive handwriting of that employee.)
This little vinyl bag held the seven wing bolts used to assembly the chrome z-stand.
Now, everything works like new! It sounds great and plays wonderfully. It is virtually all original. Cosmetically, it’s like most of the instruments in my collection: At first glance, it looks like new, but there are a few minor blemishes that make it look like it was used lightly for a short period of time, and give it a little vintage authenticity. And it’s got that special vibe from being an original British model.
All in all, it’s about as nice, original and complete a UK Continental as you’re likely to see these days. (And, no! It’s not for sale!)
And, in case anyone is wondering, these are the three UK Continentals that donated parts to my “keeper Continental” That’s the one on the right!