The Vodafone VP1 was also known as the Orbitel Citifone
. This extremely rare prototype version of the phone is believed to be one of only five made and is serial number 4. The phone was offered to the museum by the family of David Burchell who was working for Racal at the time developing and testing mobile phones for the launch of Vodafone’s UK network in 1985.
The VP1 development was started in cooperation with a US company, EF Johnson. A Racal design team was put together led by John Easteal and it visited EF Johnson in Minnesota for about four to six weeks as part of the development process and then returned to Racal Research in Reading to continue working on the design. The design was broken into a number of modules: transceiver (TX), receiver (RX), processor, the IF/AF module and more.
The initial production took place at Racal’s manufacturing facility in Seaton, Devon, UK and a team there (including Barry Penaligon) was seconded to the project to work on production test jigs.
Dave Burchell (who owned the phone in the Mobile Phone Museum collection) was a quality manager at Racal Seaton and oversaw the commissioning of the mould tools for the plastic parts among other activities.
While visiting the plastic moulding company in the UK, Dave Burchell persuaded the moulding company’s team to run off a few additional colours beyond the standard grey finish. In addition to the blue unit in our collection, it is believed that there was also a red set of mouldings. The colours were produced on Dave Burchell’s own initiative and were not part of the official development program.
The first VP1 prototypes were made by Racal engineers in Reading and were grey. As part of setting up production, Racal Seaton built a number of prototypes as production references which remained in Seaton. It is believed there could have been up to five production prototypes and the unit in the Mobile Phone Museum collection is labelled as number 4 (see picture below).
A blue VP1 was made into a working VP1 production prototype because Dave Burchell asked for the blue case to be used. It was not part of the planned programme so he acted on his own initiative and because it was to be retained as a production reference, no one in the program management team objected.
The VP1 came in two parts, the battery/mouthpiece was a twist-on/off block at the bottom with nickel-cadmium batteries and an ultrasonically welded voice tube. The upper part of the phone contained the modules in a motherboard with the back opening through the removal of screws.
The first production units of the VP1 could be put into a control mode so that codes could be entered into the keyboard to manually select transmit and receive frequencies as well as other attributes to allow testing and additional functionality checks.
Although this prototype model is labelled as the VP101, the phone is the VP1, a Vodafone-sponsored creation that arrived much later than promised and some months after the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X
, the iconic phone used by Michael Douglas movie Wall Street.
Very few VP1 phones were made and it was very big and terribly unreliable, as well as having very poor battery life. It had a nickel-cadmium battery with an 800mAh capacity and could be charged in just one hour. The battery life was supposed to deliver eight hours of standby time and 20 minutes of talk time but this was seldom achieved. The battery pack on the base of the phone was detachable but designed to look as if it was an integral part of the device.
The phone had a ten-digit display which could be illuminated by pushing a button on the right-hand side of the phone and the backlight stayed on for approximately 30 seconds.
The VP1's party trick was that if the self-diagnostic test failed it would play Chopin’s Funeral March, otherwise known as the death march.
When it was launched in 1985 it retailed at an eyewatering £1795 plus VAT (equivalent to £5,600 / $7700 in 2021), which was much cheaper than the 8000X, but sadly it didn’t do the same job and was a commercial failure.
The Vodafone VT1
was also produced by Racal Seaton, this was a licensed version of a Nokia / Mobira device (for example the Mobira Talkman ME50
). Several Racal Seaton staff spent time at a Nokia factory in Salo, Finland learning how to build and test these units.