CB radio: Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside No. 26/2021

Mar 12, 2021
  • Keeping in contact in a simple way with the “citizens’ band”
  • A precursor of social media for exchanges with like-minded people
  • Popular to this day amongst truck drivers
  • “33 Extras”: Exhibits of motoring culture at the Mercedes-Benz Museum

Stuttgart. 160 vehicles and a total of 1,500 exhibits are presented in the varied permanent exhibition of the Mercedes-Benz Museum. The “33 Extras” are a particular highlight: they can bring the history of personal mobility and motoring culture to life using details that are often surprising. The Mercedes-Benz Museum Inside newsletter series draws attention to the “33 Extras” and focuses on their background stories. Today’s edition is all about CB radio.

26/33: CB radio

Cutting a long journey short with some excitement: This can be tricky when there are only limited options for entertainment available. Flashback – right into the 1980s most cars only had a radio – the media-equivalent of a one-way street. Information and music only came into the vehicle. But what if you wanted to speak yourself? Car phones did exist back then, but they cost almost as much as a small car.

Radio for all: CB radio fit perfectly into this requirements gap. The abbreviation stands for “citizens’ band”. It has existed in the USA since the 1940s; and in Germany since 1 July 1975, when the “provisions for the use of low-power radiotelephone installations in the frequency range of 26.960 to 27.280 MHz” went into effect.

Freedom to speak: Finally many people were able to grab the device and start talking without needing a lot of radio training. Up until the date above, only licensed radio amateurs and users with special permits could use the radio waves. Or occupational groups that needed them – such as security and emergency services or taxi drivers. They each had their own frequencies.

Underlying data: But there were limits to CB radio. The transmission power was very low and therefore so was the range. Given good conditions and an aerial, this was a few kilometres. Furthermore, fixed radio systems required permits, transmissions between two fixed stations was prohibited and it was also illegal to transmit to a foreign country. But that did nothing to dampen the success. CB radio boomed. And no wonder – it was free. The only cost was procuring the equipment.

A feeling of freedom: A fixed location was the key word – or rather its inversion. For it was in mobile uses in particular that the new communication medium spread. There were two-way radios for vehicle installation, mostly with a microphone on a coiled cable. The “33 Extras” exhibition is one such version. For even more mobile operation, there were hand-held devices with a telescopic aerial. In Germany they were nicknamed “Handgurke” or “hand cucumber”. Everything was done with one button. If you pressed it, what you spoke went into the ether. Everyone who was within range on the same frequency could hear it.

Widespread: CB radio became a hobby. And it found many professional users who appreciated its advantages. It was ideal for long-distance truckers, for example. After all, they could now easily keep in touch with one another. A lot of trucks had “skips” or handles written on them with their individual nicknames. The trucker would grab their microphone and, as they drove past, out of the speaker would come: “Desert Mouse to Black Jack, how’s it going?” – “Hey, Desert Mouse, back on the road?”

Community: The properties of CB radio make it a precursor to today’s social media. It allowed for exchanges with other, like-minded people in just the same way.

CB radio today: The mobile phone has long since replaced CB radio in many areas. But it remains a staple amongst long-distance truckers. Just like in the olden days, they inform one another of the route, possible police checks, free parking spaces, places to sleep and restaurants. And they can even communicate with many people at once. The only thing that is no longer permitted after being banned last year: holding the microphone in your hand. But here, too, there are hands-free options.