Replacing a Classic Car Radio

Update your AM-only radio with a modern unit

Classic cars will never be as safe or as efficient as their modern counterparts. There are certain safety features, like seat belts, that you can install yourself without too much trouble, but for the most part, driving a classic means fewer of the conveniences and innovations we take for granted.

You're probably never going to graft anti-lock brakes onto your Chevy Bel Air, and retrofitting air conditioning or power steering can be a bear. Still, the biggest sticking point for many people is the difficulty in replacing a classic car radio.

Classic car dash showing radio

Car Culture Collection / Getty Images

Why Replacement Is Challenging

Even if you have a classic car radio that still works the same as it did the day it rolled off the factory line, your entertainment options are limited. The first AM/FM car radio didn't show up until the 1950s, and cars and trucks with AM-only radios were available into the 1980s. Car stereos weren't a thing until the 1960s when the first car audio systems with separate left and right channels started showing up.

Modern aftermarket car radios largely conform to the DIN standard, but cars built before the 1980s used radios that were a mixed bag in terms of size and shape. So, while upgrading the head unit in a car built in the last 20 or 30 years is usually a simple affair, a classic car radio replacement can be a stickier issue.

The Trouble With Classic Car Radios

When you're stuck with an eight-track player, cassette deck, or a classic car radio that is just a car radio, modern portable media formats can look attractive, even if you're adamant about hanging on to your classic.

Whether you want to listen to CDs, MP3s, or internet radio in your classic car or widen your horizons just enough to make the jump from AM-only to an AM/FM radio, there are a few ways to go about it. Most of them don't require you to ditch the OEM look of your classic dash.

The main problem that you'll run into is that most classic car radios and the dashes they were designed to work with don't play nice with the modern DIN standard. Many classic car radios are integrated into the dash, and even the modular models typically used a shaft-style radio that you don't see much today.

Designed for a shaft-style radio, the dash typically has two holes for the shafts and a small rectangular hole in the middle. Good luck fitting in a DIN head unit without cutting into the dash.

Replacing a Classic Car Radio With a Standard DIN Unit 

In some cases, it is possible to replace a classic car radio with a standard DIN aftermarket head unit by mounting the new stereo under the dash, which has advantages and disadvantages. The main reason to mount a modern DIN head unit under the dash of a classic car is that it allows you to take advantage of all the options available from new car radios today without cutting into the dash.

The trade-off is that mounting a head unit under the dash of a classic car usually isn't going to look that great, and it may get in the way. If you mount it far enough under the dash that it isn't an eyesore and your passengers won't bang their knees on it, then operating it while you're driving can be problematic.

In terms of wiring a modern DIN head unit into a classic car, your experience will depend largely on the vehicle you're dealing with. You should be able to use the same power, ground, and antenna connections, and you may also be able to use the same speaker wiring.

The main issue is that you'll have to run new speaker wires if your car shipped from the factory with a mono car radio. If it shipped with fewer than four speakers, you could have trouble figuring out where to put your new speakers.

Direct Classic Car Radio Replacements

If you aren't excited about grafting a modern DIN head unit under the dash or cutting into the dash to make room, there are two options you can explore. The first option, which works with any make, model, and year combination, is to go with a hideaway car stereo.

There are no compatibility issues to worry about since hideaway car stereos are designed to be "hidden away" in a glove compartment, under the dash, or under a seat. In a typical scenario, you leave the old car radio in place for aesthetic purposes, but the hidden unit is hooked up to the power, antenna, and speakers.

Hideaway car stereos are often controlled by a portable remote control unit, which is less convenient than twirling the knobs on the dash like you're used to. A smartphone or tablet can also control some. In either case, for the sake of convenience, a dash mount can provide easy access to your control method of choice.

Another option is to use a semi-universal classic car radio replacement and a faceplate kit appropriate for your vehicle. These units typically follow the shaft-style design aesthetic, and the shafts are usually adjustable on a horizontal axis to fit a variety of classic cars.

Due to the size limitations involved with a direct classic car radio replacement, the features of these units are typically limited. You won't usually find a direct replacement for your classic car radio capable of playing CDs out of the box. However, they often include features like RCA or 3.5 mm audio inputs, USB ports, and SD card slots, which open up different options for listening to music and other audio content in your classic car.

Maintaining a Factory Look With a Classic Car Radio Replacement

If your classic car came with a shaft-style radio with two holes for the shafts and a rectangular hole in the middle, you might be able to find a modern replacement. If you're looking for a catch, you'll likely find the price tag less appealing than that of a bargain bin single DIN head unit. The trade-off is that you can achieve a close-to-OEM look through the use of knob and faceplate kits that are available in a variety of designs.

You identify a set of knobs and a faceplate that closely matches the rest of your dash and pair them with a head unit that has a lot more going for it than staticky AM radio.

The other option is to find a replacement radio designed for the make, model, and year of the vehicle. For popular models, this is a viable option. For less common classics, you'll be better off going with a unit that accepts customizable faceplates and knobs.

Other Benefits of a Direct Classic Car Radio Replacement

The primary motivation behind replacing a classic car radio may be to move beyond AM radio, but modern replacements can offer more. In addition to multiple audio sources, such as listening to music from a USB stick or plugging in an MP3 player via an aux input, you may also be able to take advantage of features like Bluetooth hands-free calling, wirelessly stream audio files or internet radio, or Direct iPod control.

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