By on June 25, 2013

Sajeev writes:

I wasn’t expecting a “Part II” for this story: converting an analog phone to digital sounds comically nonsensical these days.  But did you know that people once spent big money, back in the day big dawg money, so a (car) phone they’ve trusted for years lived to see another day…in the digital age?

Such a story landed in my Inbox. You know you wanna click ‘dat link to learn more!

Steve writes:


How this article brought back memories. I once worked for a wireless carrier, who shall remain nameless, during the turn of the digital wireless age. I was a “Wireless Device Technician” AKA the guy that fixed crap. As technicians we were responsible for many things, including but not limited to installing hands free kits into patron’s vehicles.

Now at this particular juncture in the wireless world, you had those who refused to convert and so the games begin.

We were first and foremost responsible with attempting to make those individuals change over to a new wireless plan, including a new device such as a Motorola Startac, which had an exceptional hands free kit we could install to your late-model vehicle.


Long story short, it was likely that if a person owned a vehicle that already had a phone in it, they weren’t going to buy another one.

The conversion wars began. Patrons would pay for new digital boxes and conversion kits, plus install labor just to use the old device. Several hundred dollars later, you had a satisfied wireless device user who probably was only on their phone for 20 mins a month. But, nonetheless, they had service.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the one day a guy brought in one of these bad boys, asking if it can be repaired and used still.

BAG Phone: the true wireless device.



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17 Comments on “Super Piston Slap: New Tricks For an Old Car Phone? (Part II)...”

  • avatar

    Thanx ! .

    I still see the original 1970’s & 1980’s Mobile ‘Phones fitted to older Mercedes’ in my favorite junkyards and I always wondered….

    Because it required drilling holes I guess I’ll pass but the simple fact of better sound quality makes this idea sound good to me .


  • avatar

    When I started working on the road I had to change cars more frequently, so I got one of these “bag phones” because of the portability. It worked every bit as well as my built-in phone and I could take it anywhere as long as I had access to a 12 volt power source. I was thrilled not to have to go sit in my car to make a call. A very good “portable” phone

    • 0 avatar

      Those bag phones were second only to satellite phones when it came to pulling in a signal god-knows-where.

      • 0 avatar

        I will have to agree. My dad was a was always on call in the early 90s in rural Pennsylvania. I remember pulling the bag phone out, lifting the antenna, and waiting for it to either power up or find a signal. At any rate it was like 10 lbs and there was always service.

    • 0 avatar

      3 watts of output instead of 0.6 that handhelds tend to have – not to mention, analog signals fade to static instead of dropping packets. Your call might get noisy but you could still communicate in cases where digital phones wouldn’t work reliably.

      I had a bag phone active (on prepaid service) as recently as three years ago – mostly for nostalgic kicks, but it did come in handy once in awhile. There’s a town southeast of where I live that has no mobile phone service, according to the maps, but my bag phone worked just fine there – noisily and scratchily, but my wife and I had a conversation and understood each other.

  • avatar

    What I wouldn’t give for a working digital Startac today. Now that was a *smart* phone!

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Boy, do I remember those days, when only lawyers, physicians or successful realtors could afford one.

    A friend of mine, as a prank to impress passers-by, wired an old ATT home phone to his Toyota. He would pick up the dead receiver, and put up a good show, gesturing, talking and laughing out loud, and saying things like “I’ll see you at the country club after golf, dear”.

    • 0 avatar

      There was a funny moment in some movie (I forgot which one) where the hero talks away with his dummy phone when an emergency occurs right in front of him. Passers-by insist that he calls 911 on his flashy phone and he has to wriggle his way out of it. Hopefully this never happened to your friend.

  • avatar

    I had THAT very Motorola bag phone for a while, it was my second phone. Bought it when I first got my Triumph Spitfire, as it seemed like a good idea to have a phone in that car!

    My first mobile phone though was a used Motorola car phone in my ’84 Jetta GLI, circa 1994. My business partner had upgraded the one in his ’89 Jetta GLI, and gave it to me. We could call mobile-to-mobile for free, but otherwise calls were something stupid like $.49/minute. No free minutes otherwise, and $40/mo for the account. God help you if you roamed off your home system too. Was pretty cool to have back then though!

  • avatar

    Reminds me of a scene from “Doogie Howser, M.D.” walking down a hospital corridor, acting soooo important, yakking on his bag phone, saving the world, one mobile phone call at a time!

    Successful salespeople also used these, and ‘way back in the day, in the 1960’s, those car phones were basically radio phones which connected to a central station which would relay the signal and was limited in scope, but seeing one of these in a car was impressive, indeed!

    How far we have come!

    Me? I make do with my “Alcatraz”(Alcatel)dumb phone, but it gets the job done.

  • avatar

    I wanted the Motorola “snap-up” phone used in the first Matrix movie. I was 11 at the time, but boy did it look cool. I’m guessing that one wasn’t digital though.

  • avatar

    I had a bag phone too. My car at the time was a ’74 BMW Bavaria. When I was not using the bag phone I could stash it in the Bavaria’s glove box, which is mostly a testament to how big a BMW Bavaria glovebox is.

    Bag phones usually came with the basic service plan where any calls made outside of your local service area were “roaming” calls that cost a lot more — it could approach a buck a minute. This worked a bit against the purpose of having a phone in the car, as using the phone became an expensive proposition when you drove out of town. You did learn to have efficient conversations that way.

  • avatar

    Much of the difference was because an outside antenna was hard mounted to the vehicle, giving an almost ideal situation. A handheld device inside the vehicle isn’t going to work as well, but the companies, once they built out the cellular network, could go to a lesser radio for the customer-and no company wants to have to hire folks to cut up customer cars en masse.

    I recall the old analog phones, roaming charges (D0’h !) and the fact any geek with a scanner could hear you…not good.

    Now, if you would mount an antenna for my digital phone…..

  • avatar

    So this is doable. Are there any shops or anyone that does this. My level of geek is moderate but not sure I could do this.

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