History of obsolete car audio, part 5: What’s old is new (or, at least, in vogue)

In the century-long history of car audio, there were misses (home-radio conversions and record players), hits (8-Track tapes), and home runs (cassettes). When cassettes arrived—and metal tape and Dolby noise reduction combined with aftermarket decks, amplifiers, and speakers—you not only could hear your pre-selected music in your car, but you could crank it and it would sound great. It was visceral.

It feels like only yesterday (despite it being the early 1980s in Austin, Texas) that I bought my first BMW 2002 and installed a Craig cassette deck, Fosgate power amp, and ADS 200 speakers. I then took my first drive in it with the Psychedelic Furs’ The Ghost in You blasting from a Maxell UDXLII tape. Cool car, cranking tunes… I remember literally thinking, “Can my life get any better than this?” Ah, youth.

The first cut is the deepest

Yet much was sacrificed on the altar of automotive audio. People foolishly threw original radios in the trash, or cut holes in door panels. I cut not one but two sets of speaker holes in my now-precious 1973 BMW 3.0CSi—one set on the back deck for the ADS 300i flush-mounts, the other on the kick panels below the rear seats for the subwoofers.

Well, at least I didn’t cut the door panels. An Alpine 7180 cassette deck on a Benzi Box slide mount (I still have the accompanying shoulder bag) graced the center console. Then, in the mid-2000s, I replaced the Alpine with a Pioneer CD deck that had an aux input jack, enabling me to use that revolutionary new device, the iPod. I carefully selected the Pioneer deck on the basis of it having a simple black face that didn’t scream that it had time-traveled in from another era, but it didn’t matter, because now, of course, I deeply regret the music-centric path I took, and wish I had the original Blaupunkt radio and the uncut sheet metal back.

I am not alone, of course. Many sins were committed in the name of “progress” and being able to crank Dark Side of the Moon and Aja. Now, 40 years since these youthful indiscretions, originality is prized far above audio. You now frequently see vintage cars on Bring A Trailer with the description “Tragic modern stereo in dash.”

In addition to what the market values, there’s the issue of how things appear to your eye. For example, BMW was very slow to adopt in-dash CD players; cassette decks persisted in their cars into the early 2000s. With CDs on the market since late 1982 and widely adopted by 1985, BMW’s cassette decks looked patently ridiculous. I have two 1999 BMWs—a Z3 M Coupe with the original tape deck, and a Z3 roadster with an aftermarket Sony CD player. You’d think that the Sony in the Z3 would look modern and the original tape deck in the M Coupe would be a joke, but in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s astonishing to me, but even in a car this recent, which I hardly consider “vintage,” anything but the original “BMW Business” cassette deck (with its purposeful-looking white-on-black Helvetica font) now looks wrong to me.

The audio Hippocratic Oath

So I’ve swung whole-hog the other way. No more cutting. No more retrofitting. I’ve adopted the vintage audio Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” When I bought my white ’72 2002tii about eight years ago, I was thrilled that it still had the original monophonic Blaupunkt radio in it and that none of the panels had been cut. I replaced the blown single speaker, left everything else alone, and am delighted to fiddle with the scratchy tuner.

Even a beat-up original radio adds to the authentic landscape of a vintage car’s interior.
Even a beat-up original radio adds to the authentic landscape of a vintage car’s interior.

My 25-year-old-self would look at this and think I’ve gone soft, but these days, I’m just not as music-addicted as I used to be. In fact, I like the unaccompanied sounds of my vintage cars. I like giving my mind some aural space when I drive. Plus, from a practical standpoint, even with a great sound system, having to crank the music volume up above the wind and road noise in a vintage car can be fatiguing on a long trip.

Non-invasive solutions

If I want music when I road-trip one of the vintage cars, I have a Cambridge Soundworks Model 12 system I’ll bring with me. It’s a small Pelican-style road case that holds a pair of satellite speakers, a small amplifier, and a subwoofer that’s integrated into the case. It’s powered from the cigarette lighter, and a music source (e.g., phone) plugs into it. Voila—killer sound with zero holes drilled. No vintage cars were harmed in the making of this audio. Of course, the downside is that you have to pack it up and take it into your hotel room at the end of the day, but it’s proven to be a good trade-off, at least for me.

I’ll sometimes take my Cambridge Soundworks Model 12, but I have to unpack and pack it every night.
I’ll sometimes take my Cambridge Soundworks Model 12, but I have to unpack and pack it every night.

For most people, however, there are better options. The first two are, actually, decades old.

If your car has a working FM radio, you can buy an inexpensive transmitter that plugs into the headphone jack of your phone and transmits the music as an FM signal that your radio will pick up on a selected unused channel. Newer versions are now available with Bluetooth capability, including hands-free calling. The fidelity isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing.

FM transmitter adapters have been around for a while, but now are available with Bluetooth.
https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/61YUvCYzRFL._SL1394_.jpg
FM transmitter adapters have been around for a while, but now are available with Bluetooth.

Similarly, if your vintage car has an in-dash cassette player, the much-maligned cassette adapter that interfaces through the tape head, originally designed to connect a portable Discman CD player, has had something of a resurgence. Like the transmitter solution, fidelity still isn’t great, but it does provide a completely non-invasive method of phone connection through the aux jack or, these days, Bluetooth.

The much-maligned cassette adapter, now also with Bluetooth.
https://www.ionaudio.com/products/details/cassette-adapter-bluetooth
The much-maligned cassette adapter, now also with Bluetooth.

Minimally invasive solutions

If all that you want is the ability to connect your phone via the headphone jack (no Bluetooth), and you’re willing to pull the radio out of the dash, plug something in the back, and re-install it, there are two very good options.

If you have an old German radio such as a Blaupunkt or Becker, it may have a lipstick-sized round multi-pin socket on the back often referred to as a “DIN connector.” Some of these were often originally intended for an external cassette deck, and as such, provide a path for music input. Since the DIN connectors and the required wiring differ from radio to radio, it’s best to consult a company such as Becker Auto Sound, or to read up on an enthusiast web forum, to be certain you’re buying something that will work with your unit. I find the idea of leveraging something designed for an external cassette deck and using it, 50 years later, for a device that could never have been imagined, intoxicating.

DIN to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter for an old Blaupunkt.
http://www.youngtimerradio-shop.de/epages/61037185.sf/de_DE/?ObjectPath=/Shops/61037185/Products/1052_02_04
DIN to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter for an old Blaupunkt.

If you don’t have a DIN connector on the back, you can use an antenna bypass box. These plug between the antenna and the radio and allow a hard-wired connection of a phone (the antenna stays connected), providing much better fidelity than the FM transmitter or the cassette adapter. iSimple makes one. They’re less than $25 on Amazon.

A direct-wired antenna adapter.
https://isimple.com/catalog/professional-installed-kits/IS31
A direct-wired antenna adapter.

If your car is equipped, or was available, with a CD changer, there may be another way of getting connected while keeping the original in-dash unit. There may be an interface box that plugs into the connector for the CD changer and adapts it to a phone or headphone plug. This is what I have in my M Coupe. It is, however, a make- and model-specific solution.

Faux vintage radios

With the increasing demand for radios in vintage cars to look period-correct but have the modern conveniences of auxiliary input, Bluetooth, hands-free calling, USB, and satellite radio, an entire product segment of faux vintage radios has sprung up. These range from inexpensive generic units with big knobs and push buttons that are designed to look retro, to others that look retro until you turn them on and the LCD display gives them away, to near-letter-perfect knock-offs of the year, make, and model-specific original units but with only a fraction of the in-dash depth. Consult a site such as classiccarstereos.com, vintagecarradio.com, or radiosforoldcars.com for quite a range of options.

One of the many choices of faux vintage radios from Retrosound.
https://www.retromanufacturing.com/pages/retrosound-long-beach-radio
One of the many choices of faux vintage radios from Retrosound.

Your actual radio, modernized and converted

Lastly, for the ultimate combination of originality and functionality, you can take the actual original radio out of your car, send it to someone like Rick Seaman at Rick’s Radio Conversions or Gary Tayman at Tayman Electrical, and have it modernized. A solid-state tuner board, coupled with the choice of aux input, Bluetooth, and / or USB, are typically employed. The buttons on the front of the unit can still be functional. On conversions of tube radios, the warm-up period for the tubes can even be simulated.

Solid-state tuner and Bluetooth conversion from a Buick Wildcat radio. before the conversion.
Solid-state tuner and Bluetooth conversion from a Buick Wildcat radio. After the conversion.

If you like, line-level outputs can be run to an external power amp, but these days, a compact 180-watt power amp can be directly built into the unit. And excellent-sounding dual voice-coil speakers can be used that fit the original 4x10, 6x9, and 5x7 speaker openings. Together, this all provides an appealing and non-destructive path to a good-sounding system that is as original as the car itself while offering the modern features many folks desire.

It’s your car. If you want to install a music server and satellite navigation system with a touchscreen bigger than that on a Tesla, go to town. But the above options provide a pretty good set of choices. And if you do it right, when you sell the car, Bring A Trailer won’t say “tragic modern stereo in dash.”

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Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. His new book, Ran When Parked: How I Road-Tripped a Decade-Dead BMW 2002tii a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is available here on Amazon. In addition, he is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack MechanicGuide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.