They're silent now, these garish totems of youth. But one man plans to make them rock again. By John Windsor. Photographs by Paddy Considine
Four years ago, Mike Wright, a 58-year-old former British Aerospace project engineer, was called in to service 130 historic jukeboxes. Since that day, he has been seeking a home for a unique combination of two private collections dating from the Twenties to the Seventies, which, he says, could form the world's biggest and most comprehensive exhibition of working models. But now his savings have run out, storage costs are mounting, and the two owners of the Wurlitzers, Rock-Olas, Amis and Seeburgs are getting twitchy. "I'm a bit desperate," he admits.

Like garish totems, the hefty, coin-operated record players once stood and shook up generations of youngsters in coffee bars, cafes and pubs. Now the 60 machines in one collection are huddled together, mute, dusty and unwanted, in a lock-up in Sussex. Their owner, Andy Newall, a former BBC engineer who now writes software for the television film production industry, spent 20 years collecting these technological milestones. The other collector, Rod Woolley, a prosperous Maidstone sports trophy manufacturer who died two years ago, specialised in classic machines which he imported from America.

For Mike Wright, the machines are not only cultural history; they provide first examples of the commercial use of stereo sound, transistor technology, microprocessors, fibre-optics and robotics. Privately owned collections in the United States might rival them, but the public has never been offered a lit-up, all-singing-and-dancing array of jukeboxes of such size and diversity. The Woolley collection alone - 55 jukeboxes stored at the family home in Maidstone - is worth around pounds 250,000.

Remember the Wurlitzer 1015? Of course you do (pronounce it "ten-fifteen"). It's the most classic design of all - rounded top, baroque nickel-plated trim, and eight bubble tubes containing a liquid that boils at low temperature. It was the peak achievement of the company's chief designer, Paul Fuller, and sold a record number - 60,000. Modern replicas, called "One More Time", with a CD mechanism, sell for pounds 10,000 or so.

The birthdate of the 1015 may come as a surprise - 1946. The Golden Age of the jukebox was from 1938 (the date of Wurlitzer's first light-up model) to 1948 - nearly a decade before rock 'n' roll. The 1015 played 78rpm ballroom waltzes, jazz and jitterbug - Glen Miller, Duke Ellington, even Bing Crosby - on a visible turntable framed in old-fashioned drapes and swags like a miniature stage.

The year 1948, at the end of the Golden Age, was when the flashy Seeburg M100A took the market by storm. Out went the baroque look. The Seeburgs were the Cadillacs of the jukebox, with sexy chrome bumpers, fins, tail- lights and wrap-around front windows like automobile windscreens. And they could play 100 different tunes compared with the usual 24.

Since the recession, it has not been the Golden Age models that have risen in value, but their flashy automobile-like successors of the years 1949-62, designated the Silver Age by collectors. The reason is simple - collectors want jukeboxes that play 45rpm records, not just 78s. The Seeburg M100A of 1948 played both 78s and 45s. The first 45rpm-only jukebox, the Seeburg M100B, did not appear until 1950.

Before the recession, the rare Golden Age Wurlitzer 950 Gazelle of 1942 - with bubble tubes, Fuller's precursor of the 1015 - was being sold by dealers at up to pounds 25,000, and the classic but common Wurlitzer 1015 fetched up to pounds 12,000. Such Golden Age models have dropped in value by about 20 per cent. Collectors advise that now is the time to buy. On the other hand, a Silver Age 1956 Wurlitzer 2000 Centennial, with wrap-around glass and turning pages of selections, now sells for pounds 7,000-pounds 7,500, compared with only pounds 5,000 before the recession. As for jukeboxes made after 1962 - plain things with clean, angular lines - they sometimes fetch as little as a tenth of the value of the flamboyant Fifties models. About pounds 1,000 might buy one.

The Brighton home of a third jukebox collector, Ian Brown, a 50-year- old print maker, artist and author of The Ultimate Jukebox Guide (1994), which he is currently revising and expanding for publication at the end of 1998, is resplendent with unusual designs. There is his monumental Rock- Ola Commando of 1942-45 (one of only four in this country), the skyscraper- like Ami Singing Towers of 1939-42 and the American Filben Maestro of 1947- 8, one of only 1,100 produced, which melds cobra-like silvery scales with Thirties locomotive streamlining to produce an aggressive-looking machine that presaged Fifties automobile eroticism.

The Filben company crashed in 1949 after expensive patent battles with Rock-Ola, whose machines sported a grille with a pseudo-Cadillac "V". No, nothing to do with rock 'n' roll. David C Rockola's company produced its first jukebox in 1935.

"I've gone for the funny ones, machines with real presence," says Ian Brown. "I look upon them as sculpture. The fact that they play records is a bonus.

"Everybody recognises my Wurlitzer 1015. But when they see the Rock-Ola Commando, they say 'What the hell is that?'. What can you make of a colossal pillar of glass over 7ft high with a flying-saucer shaped bowl on the top that blazes with light every time a record is played? And the Filben is a baffling-looking thing. It looks like a collision between a fish and chip fryer and a Thirties streamlined locomotive. Such mixes of design references fascinate me. Even Raymond Loewy, the master of streamlining, could not get a grip on it. The jukebox he designed was a terrific flop."

Why are jukeboxes still not respectable? "Perhaps it's because they are seen as part of American cultural imperialism," Mr Brown suggests.

The last collectable jukebox was the Wurlitzer 1050 of 1974 - the last the company made. They called it the Nostalgia and it failed to sell. Teenagers had long been affluent enough to buy their own records and were watching television instead of visiting coffee bars with jukeboxes. Today's jukeboxes are discreet wall-mounted pub furniture, not the centre of attention.

Nostalgia is running out for the 130 jukeboxes stored in Maidstone and Sussex. Rod Woolley's widow, Del, vows never to sell her late husband's best models, but Bonhams, the London auctioneers, has been to view the 17 she is willing to part with. Mike Wright reports that Andy Newall, facing the need to move his collection in Sussex to another store costing pounds 2,800 year, has told him he will sell the lot if a permanent home is not found soon.

Mike Wright: 01273 414071. Ian Brown: fax 01273 677922