How To Convert Your Classic Car Radio To A Modern Stereo

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You own a classic car, but you wish it had an upgraded sound system. Let’s explore how to convert your classic car radio to a modern stereo.

Depending on the classic car, replacing the OEM radio with a modern sound system can be done, but often there are challenges. Owners can mount a system under the dash but may have to cut the dash to install a DIN head unit. Remember that any modification can affect the value of a classic car.

Any classic car or truck lover knows that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the pleasure of owning an antique. Whether it is a lack of power steering, anti-lock brakes, or just a simple AM radio, owners have struggled with not having specific amenities. While automotive technology has developed over the years, sometimes classic cars just don’t have what modern cars have, and while it isn’t the car’s fault, owners often wish they had more. One of the primary modifications that classic car owners want to make is to upgrade the sound system. While replacing a head unit is relatively straightforward, most manufacturers installed their entertainment units into the heart of the dashboard. The locations can pose challenges to the installation, and if an owner isn’t careful, they can adversely affect the value of their classic forever. This article will explore how to convert your classic car radio to a modern stereo, hopefully without ruining your classic vehicle.

Table of Contents


What Kinds Of Antique Sound System Are There?

Chevrolet developed the first car radios in the late twenties, but most cars weren’t made with them. They were bulky, expensive, and used up a great deal of the battery’s energy (that was better left for running the car). During the thirties, Motorola refined the size and ability of the radio, adding dials to make them more accessible to car owners. It wasn’t until the mid-fifties and the invention of the transistor radio that automakers began using that technology in their vehicles.

Over the years, car radios have morphed from strictly AM frequencies to AM/FM to eight-track, cassette, CD players, and currently, Bluetooth. The AM/FM craze took hold in the late 50s and early 60s, which morphed into left and right-channel stereo systems. Many eight-track players that appeared during the time were expensive added options for luxury models during the later part of the sixties. (Ford was the first automaker to install an eight-track player in 1965). Cassettes were popular during the 70s and 80s until they were pushed to the side by CD players, which quickly became units with six-CD players so you could load a bunch of music. (Once again, Lincoln was the first automobile to offer a CD player in its 1987 Lincoln Towncar).

Today, there are so many advanced features with systems that respond to voice commands, have Bluetooth, USB connections, and can even connect to the internet.

What Should I Consider Before Replacing The Radio?

There are a couple of things to consider if you plan on replacing your current unit.

  • Is the original radio functioning or worth replacing?
  • Will the replacement cause me to have to modify the dash?
  • Will the replacement devalue the classic car or truck by devaluing it?
  • Can I find an aftermarket replacement unit that will fit?
  • What applications do I need? (USB charging, voice command, and Bluetooth audio).
  • Would a different option be a better solution? (FM tuner, a smartphone with Bluetooth capability, satellite radio, or a hands-free phone).

How to Convert Your Classic Radio To A Modern Stereo

The first object is to remove the stock radio before getting around to wiring in a new stereo system. Follow the steps below to get the old classic radio out of the dash.

Disconnect The Negative Terminal

Any time you are working with an electrical component, it is always best to disconnect the negative terminal from the battery. The disconnection will prevent a shock when working with wiring that might have current running to it.

Remove the Trim Panel

Almost all manually tuned radios are held in place on the dash by a trim piece (either chrome or plastic) surrounding the radio's edges. The trim piece usually pops off with some pressure, but you should use care when removing it. (Chrome bends easily, and plastic can crack quickly). Gently insert a flathead screwdriver around the edges of the trim and pull to dislodge it, carefully working your way around the trim piece (you should hear a click as it dislodges from the face of the unit).

Examine How The Main Radio Unit Connects to the Dash

Examine the radio unit to determine if slots are on either side of the face. Many radios are held in place by clips in a sliding bracket. The clips are located about 2 ½ - 3 inches back on the radio’s side and must be unlocked to allow the car radio to come free. Some require a key to be inserted on both sides simultaneously to unlock the bracket. If you do not have the original radio key, the clips can be accessed with a small piece of metal, a knife, or flat-edge screwdrivers. (You should hear a click as the clips disengage).

Pull the Radio Unit Out And Disconnect The Wiring.

Grab the radio unit and pull the assembly out of the dashboard. You need to pull it straight out to keep it from getting lodged in the bracket. Use care when pulling out the unit, as it is still plugged in.

On classic radios, one wire connects to the antenna (usually the wire on the right). Pull it free from the unit. The other wiring connects speakers, battery, and ignition. This wire is likely held by a bracket that needs to be squeezed to be released. Once the wiring is disconnected, the radio unit can be removed.

Check The Wiring

Now that the old unit is out, you must match the wiring from the car’s harness to the new stereo’s wiring. (It is always a good idea to check the wiring diagrams that come with the new stereo). Should your classic car not have a wiring harness, you must match each wire. Decide whether you want to crimp or solder the wired connections together. Crimping is easier to use, but will not last as long as soldering connections.

Put the Mounting Kit on the New Stereo Unit

If your new stereo comes with a mounting bracket, it must be fastened to the metal housing that holds the radio unit. Follow the instructions included with the stereo to ensure that the bracket is installed correctly. Many metal sliding brackets have tabs that can be bent to help hold the metal sleeve to the mounting bracket.

Connect the Wiring Harness/Wires Together

If your car has a wiring harness, you can sometimes connect the two harnesses. If not, then you need to connect all the wires individually. Start with the power wire (usually a red or yellow wire - depending on the type of power source).

Then move to the ground (black wire) and connect it to the bolt or screw that hooks the car’s chassis. Unscrew the bolt, wrap an exposed portion of the black wire around the screw, and tighten. The ground wire is necessary for the stereo to work correctly.

Connect the Rest of the Wiring

Connect the antenna wire from the car to the back of the new stereo unit. Use a wiring adapter to connect the rest of the wiring from the car to the stereo wires. If the adapters do not work, you will need to crimp or solder each wire together individually. No wires should be left unattended.

Test The Radio

Reconnect the negative battery terminal and test the radio to see if it works. Be careful as you put the negative cable wire onto the terminal, as it can and often does spark. Once the connection is tightened, return to your car to see if the radio has power. Turn the new stereo system on, check volume levels, and assess signal strength. It is always a good idea to experiment with the balance and fade controls to ensure everything is working correctly.

Push the Radio Into Place - Refasten Any Screws

The radio is already slightly on the opening (to connect the wiring). Push the unit into place (you should hear it click). Refasten any mounting screws needed and reinstall the trim piece, snapping it into place.

Turn On The Radio

Once installation is complete, you should play the stereo to ensure everything is fastened correctly. (Sometimes connections can work loose when sliding the unit into place).

If everything is functioning correctly, enjoy your new stereo.