Although we like to focus a lot on horsepower, handling, and other high performance facets of the automotive world, plenty of us like to enjoy it all with a nice set of tunes blasting from the dash. And while nowadays modern car stereos are stocked with fancy features, owners of classic cars often aren’t that lucky.
From brittle speakers to fuzzy reception, older car radios can present some vexing problems, so we sat down with our pal Joe Rock from RetroSound to talk all about some basic troubleshooting and install tips for these vintage jamboxes. We also discussed a handful of solutions for folks that want to add modern audio capabilities to their classic car—without chopping up or otherwise upsetting the vintage aesthetic of their dash. (Conversely, we discovered a great way to potentially fix a dash that’s already been hacked-up too.)
You can listen to the whole interview here or at the OnAllCylinders podcast section, and we’ve pulled 10 excerpts from the conversation that you can read below.
1. Can You Simply Install a Modern Radio? Or Should You Swap Speakers Too?
“When you think about car audio, in terms of age, if you’re working on a vehicle from the 1960s or 70s, with factory speakers—after 20 or 30 years, those paper cones will be brittle and won’t sound great anymore.
“We definitely recommend upgrading the speakers and radio together, because you’ll get the best possible sound that way.”
2. What Clues Can You Look (or Listen) For When Inspecting Your Old Speakers?
“Your ears are always the best gauge. If you’re hearing a muffled, wooly sound, then chances are it’s beaten up and those paper materials in that speaker are not good anymore.
“But you can also just take a look at the speaker—or give it a slight poke with your finger. If it’s brittle enough to put your finger right through, obviously you need to replace it.
“Nine times out of ten though, if the speaker is 20 or 30 years old, it’s going to be old, dusty, and brittle—at that point, you’re going to want to put new speakers in.”
3. Should You Re-Use the Old, Stock Speaker Wires?
“Test the wiring with a multimeter first, 100 percent of the time.
“If it checks out, and the wiring seems like it’s in good shape—not beat up or falling apart anywhere—then go ahead and use it.
“With our RetroSound Speakers, we include new, fresh wire. Obviously running new wire is always the best-case scenario—just to do the extra work and get the clean wire in there.”
4. Should a Car Radio Be Wired On Its Own, Dedicated Circuit?
“It’s ALWAYS best to run it on a separate circuit.
“When you’re on a separate circuit, you avoid any interference or inducted noise that you could introduce into the system by trying to piggyback on another circuit.
“And you also run the risk of overloading the circuit—so it’s always best to install a radio on its own circuit.”
5. Do You Need to Upgrade the Alternator When Adding a Modern Car Radio?
“It depends on the scenario. Typically, your standard alternator is going to be fine for a regular car stereo system.
“If you’re adding amplifiers and subwoofers to it, of course you want to address those power demands at that point.
“The most common scenario where power becomes a problem is the older vehicles, from the 1950s, early 60s and back—any vehicles that weren’t originally designed to have a stereo system. When you add one, it causes an additional load in the system and it unbalances things.
“But one thing that’s also overlooked is battery health. It’s very, very important.”
6. Do You Have Any Advice or Tips on Car Radio Antenna Placement?
“You’re always going to get the best AM/FM reception with an external mounted antenna.
“A lot of the cars from the 1960s and 70s have a spot for the antenna already, but many restomodders these days are eliminating that antenna mount, or they want something hidden.
“We do offer some internally mounted antenna options like our Amplified Hide-Away Antenna and our Amplified AM/FM Window Mount Antenna. We find for most people, those will get you what you need for AM/FM reception.
“Our radios also feature Bluetooth. And we find a lot of our customers these days are just streaming music or radio stations from their cellphones—not really using the AM/FM band so much anymore anyway.”
You may enjoy this article too: Fixing FM Radio Reception in a Classic Car or Truck
7. What Does DIN Mean? And How Did It Come About?
“DIN sizing was a standard created in Germany back in the 1980s.
“DIN stands for ‘Deutsches Institut für Normung’ and it kind of standardized the sizing for auto radio manufacturers—and it became very, very popular worldwide.
“A lot of radios came over from Japan in that two by seven inch DIN size standard.”
8. Why Has DIN Sizing Become a Problem for Classic Vehicle Owners?
“What happened was, a lot of kids in the 1990s driving around in their dad’s old 1970s pickup truck wanted to upgrade the truck’s old radio to a tape deck or CD player. And so they cut big holes in the dash to accommodate those DIN-sized radios that were coming over from Japan with these new audio features.
“Nobody batted an eye about it at the time, because it was just an old truck back then—but today we all cringe because of the damage it did to the dash.”
9. Can RetroSound Help Owners with a DIN-Sized Hole In Their Classic Car or Truck?
“Our DIN Repair Kit allows you to put one of our period correct-looking radios in that big, cut opening. It’s a sleeve that fits into that standard sized DIN opening and clips in. And then a couple of brackets get mounted to our radio, which allows you to slide the whole unit and click it into place.
“It gives you a ‘more’ factory-like solution. It’s not going to restore it to 100 percent factory condition, but it does give you a look that fits the bill—it’s not going to stick out like a sore thumb, yet it’ll still give you all those modern radio features that you’re looking for.”
10. What New Vehicle Trends Are You Noticing in the Vintage Car Audio Scene?
“Recently, our Santa Cruz radio has just been on fire. It’s our OBS truck solution for those 1988 to ’94 GM trucks with that really awkward sized radio that nobody makes—we actually make a unit that fits in that weird size and looks pretty much factory.
“We do push close to the 2000s with options (our New York and Newport models) for those vehicles that have that one-and-a-half DIN size. (Laughing) At some point, the industry decided that radios needed to be bigger, not smaller—like, early 2000 Dodge trucks for example, or your early Grand Prixs that had those big openings for those radios.
Hear this interview in its entirety in the OnAllCylinders Podcast series, available wherever you get your favorite podcasts.