The period-correct stereo in my ’91 Firebird is music to my ears—and eyes

OK, I’ll admit it. I have a pet peeve when it comes to cars, and it’s seeing an out-of-place CD player sticking out of an otherwise stock dash. Some of those things look like a Vegas slot machine, and all those blue lights and dancing numerals make me crazy.

Deep breath. Sorry.

1991 Pontiac Firebird
Brad Phillips

Anyway, I recently bought a 1991 Pontiac Firebird for about $3000. Around Hagerty, we talk a lot about the fact that there are still inexpensive and interesting cars out there, and I wanted to put my money where my mouth is. The car is very nice, stock and original, except for one thing. That dreaded CD player.

CD Player
Brad Phillips

The CD player is the same type I had in an old Integra back in college. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure half the people reading this owned one exactly like it, whether it was made by Pioneer, Sony, or some other company—they were pretty much the same. It needs to be said that I am not an electronics guru, but I wanted to tackle this job. I’ve had stereos replaced in other cars, and I think I paid about $160 for the swap the last time. I’m trying to keep this car on a strict budget, and I was spending money on other things at the same time (we’ll get into that at some point).

The first step was to find out what kind of radio the Firebird should have. Thanks to the internet, eBay, and other sources, this wasn’t a problem. I also had an ace up my sleeve: a factory dealer brochure for the car that had interior photos galore.

1991 Firebird Factory Brochure
Brad Phillips

I ended up finding a place called M&R Auto Electronics, which specializes in AC Delco radios. I called and told M&R about the car I owned and what I was looking for, and these guys really knew their stuff. Turns out I had options—did I want a base AM/FM, a slightly cooler AM/FM/Tape, or was I going all out for the high-end model with all that plus a built-in factory equalizer? As cool as adjusting those little sliders would be (you know you always made the ends high and a swoop in the middle), I was happy with the mid-range option. Price was $150, but it was factory refurbished, and I was promised it would look and operate like it was brand new, right down to the correct light bulbs. Plus, it looked just like the brochure said it should. Done. I was super excited to get the process underway. I also ordered a $9 kit from Amazon that promised to include every radio removal tool on the planet. Well, we’ll see.

OK, let’s remove the CD player from the dash without buggering everything up. The trim piece around the radio and climate controls was easy; it pulled off with a little light pressure. I went to YouTube to make sure I was still on the right path, and in about two minutes I had the CD player out and dangling from its wiring. For this model, you basically put a slim metal tool into a slot on either side of the CD player, and then it just goes “snick” and you pull it right out. Super easy. Other radios may have different locking mechanisms, but the general idea is the same.

Firebird Radio Wiring
Brad Phillips

Seeing that wiring bundle snaking from the CD player back into the dash gave me a moment of pause. I’m pretty color blind, so this is generally not an area where I’m very comfortable. But every dog has his day and someone had actually used a proper installation kit on this job, and it appeared that none of the factory harness had been modified. What an incredible, lucky relief. I had a quick FaceTime session with our resident social media expert Matt Lewis, and he confirmed that if I just disconnected things carefully at the obvious junction, I may get really lucky here. One snap of plastic connectors, and then a disconnect of the antenna from a separate connector, and the whole thing was out.

Firebird Radio Out of Car
Brad Phillips

Not being completely out of the woods, there was still a “fit kit” in the dash that incorporated a plastic surround and a metal cage the CD player had previously resided in. Four bolts later, it was out of the dash completely. This is too easy! Where are the skinned knuckles? Hair and eyes covered in grease and rust flakes? I think I could get used to this. The metal ears would need to be taken off the plastic surround and put back on the factory radio, which was no problem since it was all part of the OE radio setup to begin with.

Firebird Connector
Brad Phillips

The freshly exposed factory harness could only connect to the OE stereo one way, so a click later it was done. I also connected the antenna wire and then carefully eased it all into the cavity in the dash. I didn’t want to scratch anything that had somehow escaped being scratched already in the last 28 years. Then I just sort of stared at it—I’m not kidding you, it felt good to see everything in its proper place, just like I would have if I had bought the car new.

Firebird Radio In Car
Brad Phillips

I jiggled it all around a little, put the four screws in, and snapped the bezel back in place around the edges. I like a little ceremony in situations like this, a little reverence. I was about to turn the key to energize an electronic component that had not resided in this car since 1997, according to the sticker on the now removed CD player. I cleaned the tools out of the interior of the car and sat in a normal driving position. Key in, and voilà!

Lit-up Firebird Radio
Brad Phillips

I had been careful to make sure the radio had been turned off, and sure enough, only the clock came to life—pretty typical at 12:00. This radio predated the now-common VIN-specific code to keep track of, so I turned on the radio and fished around a couple of stations and everything worked just as advertised. My favorite test was yet to come, however. I hit the lights, and it looked fantastic with the rest of the proper red illumination of the other gauges.

Firebird Dashboard
Brad Phillips

I’m taking a great road trip in the car soon, a 13-hour drive to our employee family picnic—the Hagerty CARnival—in Traverse City, Michigan. I’ll be rocking my playlist on the iPod through my faithful tape deck adapter and smiling the whole way. Fingers crossed!