I spent a fat chunk of cash refurbishing my Grand Wagoneer’s tape deck—and I couldn’t be happier

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Benjamin Hunting

To those on the outside looking in at a project vehicle, the entire enterprise can seem like an elaborate form of financial self-flagellation. The costs associated with major automotive surgeries like engine swaps or suspension replacements often defy logic, and for people whose hearts beat to a different firing order it can be impossible to explain decision making in the pursuit of a particular vision.

As someone who’s spent a huge chunk of time (and an absurd pile of cash) thoroughly modernizing a 34-year-old Jeep Grand Wagoneer, I’ve recently discovered that I myself have some pretty unusual boundaries. While I had no qualms about ripping out a perfectly-running AMC 360 V-8 with its associated transmission and transfer case, and then stuffing a built 5.3-liter LS pulled from a late-model Chevrolet Tahoe under the hood (and adding in all the requisite braking and gearing upgrades to go with it), I’ve apparently drawn a hard line at … replacing the tape deck?

That’s right: Although tripling my Jeep’s horsepower and fuel mileage by way of extreme mechanical surgery was completely kosher, the idea of swapping in a modern stereo, or heaven forbid, a touchscreen infotainment system, was a complete non-starter.

Instead, I took roughly the same amount of money it would have cost to install a sleek LCD pop-up system complete with Bluetooth, navigation, and Wi-Fi (ballpark $700, depending on your circumstances) and instead spent it on a complete refurbishment of my Jeep’s Mitsubishi-sourced, two-channel cassette player. And unlike some other aspects of this particular build (which have occasionally bordered on hellish), I have absolutely zero regrets about this decision.

Benjamin Hunting

Car audio agnostic

Music has always been a central part of my life. From classical piano training as a child to promoting raves, running a small record label, and touring as a guitarist in a hard techno group in my early 20s, it has been a continual thread that has guided and enriched my existence.

Surprisingly, this passion has only occasionally bled over into my automotive pursuits. Despite having a mini-studio in my home that features hand-built monitors (and of course the vintage Marantz hardware that facilitates my troubling vinyl fixation), I’ve never been a stickler for car audio. Outside of a burst of interest at the end of the 90s, when I finally had a little cash to throw at my daily driver’s speaker setup, I’ve rarely been interested in the finer details of building a rolling sound stage.

I’ve also discovered that the older I get, the more I’ve become enamored with how music is specifically experienced, rather than the fidelity with which it is reproduced. I’m no Luddite—I record digitally, and I stream music on a near-constant basis—but I’ll pass on the algorithms that EQ two-channel stereo mixes into 37-speaker surround sound simulations in most modern vehicles, thanks.

I’d much rather hear a track as it was originally intended by the artist, which is to say, aimed directly at a pair of human ears rather than robotically transformed into a sonic flash-bang grenade. Apparently, in my Jeep this experiential attitude extends to the tactile pleasures of popping a hunk of plastic into my dash and praying that the thin, decades-old magnetic membrane spinning inside it for the millionth time doesn’t snap.

1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer LS swap
Benjamin Hunting

 Tapes are the worst

Let’s be honest: tapes suck. Having grown up in the era of the audio cassette, I have no romanticized notions about how “good” the decades-old, dirtied-up tapes I find at flea markets and estate sales actually sound, nor do I harbor any illusions about the longevity of these time capsules. They were crappy even when new, but they were all I had. Now, faced with a veritable pantheon of music delivery mechanisms, they rank right at the bottom of the audiophile pyramid, hovering somewhere above 8-tracks and Edison wax cylinders.

And yet I can’t stop hunting down and harvesting this obsolete format for which I have zero nostalgia. When I first picked up the Jeep, a year or so before it went under the knife, I had a handful of tapes still kicking around from my late teens that I popped in to enjoy during the relaxed, lethargic cruising that befitted its original power plant. There was something about the hiss through the speakers (of which two-and-a-half of the original four still functioned) and the off-camber warble of the occasional distorted lyric that seemed to perfectly suit the truck’s character. Like recognizes like. Imperfect, anachronistic, throwback; these words describe both of these refugees from a more rudimentary era that was less concerned with things like precision playback or steering feel.

Benjamin Hunting

As I began to expand my roster of tapes (and turned to local online classifieds for help), I learned how to differentiate between people cleaning out their basements and hipster profiteers looking to amplify whatever small cadre of pop culture relevance cassettes had into a vinyl-like collector’s following. The pile in the backseat of the Jeep grew, and with it came old-school leather-lined briefcases filled with 24 to 36 rectangular slots to organize it all into some kind of order. Along the way I discovered that the cassettes I was most drawn to split along two distinct lines, the older rock and country that hailed from the same timestream as the Grand Wagoneer’s origin story, and the later ’90s hip hop and ‘alternative’ music that formed so much of my own early musical education.

Then, one day, it all came screeching to halt—onomatopoeia intended. As I pulled over to the side of the road and frantically tugged at the stringy remains of Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs” I realized that the Jeep’s original deck had transitioned from entertainer to destroyer, and if I wanted to keep living in my time capsule I’d have to call in the pros.

Benjamin Hunting

Antique expertise

More specifically, the one single pro left out there who still caters specifically to Jeep stereo systems of nearly any vintage. Jeremy, of Jeremy’s Radio Emporium, was heartily recommended to me by a half-dozen members of my regular Facebook Grand Wagoneer group, and he proved to be an incredible resource. Not only did he possess a mastery of the almost-forgotten technologies used to construct my vehicle’s RX-161 tape player, but he offered a comprehensive set of upgrades alongside the option to sacrifice the AM radio band for an auxiliary plug-in.

Despite Jeremy offering to walk me through the parts I needed and procedures required to take care of my radio’s refurb myself, I happily packaged up the unit at the end of the fall driving season and sent it down across the border. There it sat, a victim of the Emporium’s own success, as it slowly worked its way towards the front of a six-month waiting list. At each step of the diagnostic process, and throughout the repairs, Jeremy kept in touch and made sure he wasn’t over-stepping with the improvements he planned to make to the unit. His warmth and genuine passion for these radios is yet another example of the incredible people one so often meets in the car community.

Re-installing the nearly-new stereo was incredibly simple—it’s honestly a pair of screws and two brackets hidden behind a single, dash-spanning trim piece—and once it was back in action, I was happy to discover that my tapes sounded exactly like … tapes. Which is to say, perfect for my purposes.

Preserving the experience

I happily admit that my decision to embrace cassettes as the sole form of entertainment in my Grand Wagoneer has turned me into something of a steam punk parody of myself. Even with my the AUX port, my Jeep listening parties have remained determinedly analog, as I’ve yet to line-in my phone or stream anything consisting of ones and zeros through the systen’s simple 13-watt RMS amplifier.

There’s something more than affectation driving my desire to stay with tape technology. Aesthetically, it’s important to me that the interior of my truck retains its stock look (much as its exterior façade completely conceals its fuel-injected guts), and there’s nothing I find more jarring than a period dashboard marred by a modern head unit. Over and above those considerations, however, is the way that my Grand Wagoneer’s tape deck changes my listening habits.

Benjamin Hunting

I mentioned earlier that how I interact with music is at often more important than the quality with which it is reproduced, and in a world where nearly every song ever recorded can be accessed instantly, and on-demand, being forced to hit the rewind button if I wanted a repeat performance fundamentally alters the listening process. I find myself rising and falling with the energy of a specific track sequence on an album I’m tasked to listen to sequentially, and planning out a road trip now means stacking a series of tapes on the dash and plugging them in with the knowledge that I’m in that musical headspace for the long haul.

The more time I spend in my Grand Wagoneer, the more I realize how out of step the experience of driving it is compared with the world around it. Slipping behind the wheel of this rolling billboard of anti-modernity allows me to time-warp. I’ve improved the essential reliability and drivability, but my Jeep has retained the fundamentals of its leaf-sprung, wood-paneled, cassette-munching platform. Yes, a computer-controlled brain might now keep the truck driving the road, but it’s the analog shell wrapped around that has my heart.

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