Finally Fixing an Annoyance

I drive an old vehicle – a 1997 Plymouth Voyager minivan. We bought it used (a lease vehicle trade-in) in 1999 with 70k miles on it. Fourteen years later it’s got 196k+ on the odometer, some body rot along the lower edges of the sliders that I use Bondo and spray-paint to try to mitigate, and an original-equipment AM-FM-Stereo-Cassette-Deck radio that has given up 80% of the ghost.  The FM radio still works (sort-of), the AM band is noisy as hell – though that may just be AM and not radio deterioration, and there’s a cassette-adapter device stuck in its innards that used to let me use an MP3 player on long rides up to Maine instead of hunting for in-range radio stations or popping 30-year-old cassette tapes into it like a toaster.  Now I’m limited to broadcast FM radio only.

This past year, just before Christmas, I mentioned that I was tired of putting up with the minimalist sound system and I was going to shop for an inexpensive replacement car audio system for the minivan.  I was promptly (and somewhat justifiably) chastised for even thinking of buying myself something like that so soon before Christmas and denying a perfect Christmas present opportunity to someone in the family. The phrase “so hard to buy for” got used a few times, and I can’t deny it – I’m not a delayed-gratification type of person; if I need something I buy it, I don’t wait for who-knows-what for who-knows-how-long.  I relented, put “car receiver” on my Christmas wish-list, and put the project on my mental back-burner.

Christmas came and went; no auto receiver was under the tree. There were other things, for sure, but not that wish-list item.  Feeling a slight bit annoyed that I had postponed the upgrade for a month for nothing, I mentioned that I was going to start looking again and I was promptly reminded that my birthday was coming up in January and I was so hard to buy for and…

The birthday came and went, so now there were no more excuses.  I found an awesome sale at BestBuy’s online store; a Pioneer DEH-2400UB 200 Watt (MOSFET 50 W x 4) AM-FM-CD receiver with AUX and USB input. List price was $109, BestBuy had it on sale for $50 (actually $49.88 but…). I bought it.  Then I went to Crutchfield’s (my usual place for car audio stuff) and ordered a mounting plate and wiring harness adapter for a 1997 Plymouth Voyager.  The mounting plate allowed me to mount a single-DIN receiver in the double-DIN dash opening that would be left behind when I removed the factory-installed cassete receiver. The wiring harness gave me snap-in connectors to crimp to the connector that comes with the Pioneer receiver to allow me to attach to the factory-installed wiring harness built-in to the vehicle dash that connects to the factory-installed cassette receiver.  The wiring diagram that came with the wiring harness and the wiring diagram that came with the new receiver were used to identify each and every wire for four speakers (left and right, front and rear), always-on power (for trickle-powering the radio settings and memory), ignition-switched power (for controlling the receiver power), ground wire (it is a direct current system after all) and power antenna control (which I don’t have).  I was meticulous in matching wire to wire, but the wire colors for each harness were exactly matched, so after lots of butt-splicing it worked perfectly the first time!

Installation was far simpler and straight-forward than my “old” days installing replacement radios in my cars (I can still remember the time spent upside-down with my head up under the dash and my feet up over the back of the front bench seat while working on my 1963 Chevy Nova (not unlike this one). Those were the days when you could fit your whole head up under the dash to work on something!

First step was to disconnect the negative terminal clamp from the battery under the hood to anesthetize the car’s electrical system.  There’s nothing worse than getting a mongo high-amperage 12-volt DC zap from a fully-charged car battery while your head’s up under the dash!  A side-benefit of this was the car’s computer got reset and the Service Engine Soon light went out afterwards!  There is an intermittant console problem that crops up on these model cars as they get old; about 3 times a year the console gauges go dead on startup.  If I shut the car off and restart it, the console comes back to life but the Service Engine Soon light stays on, and the car computer reports a nonsense error when checked. I usually have to drag my laptop out to the car, hook up an OBD-to-USB cable and run OBD software to talk to the computer and reset it.  Not this time!

Bezel Removed

Bezel Removed

Once the power was off, I popped out one small plastic panel at the bottom of the bezel around the radio and environmental controls which exposes the bottom two of  four phillips-head screws that hold the bezel in place, then took out those four screws and pried the bezel away from the dash (cables for the environmental controls had enough leeway to do this – there was no need to pry off heat and vent knobs).

Two good-sized hex-head sheet-metal screws held the original 2-DIN radio chassis in place; one to the upper right of the radio, the other to the under the lower left corner of the radio.  I removed those and put them aside to be used to mount the mounting plate with the new radio in it. You can see the hex-head screws in the full-size version of the image above.

I slid the old radio out as far as I could without straining the wires behind it.  There are four connectors attached to the back of the radio; two press-fit multi-wire plastic connectors (these will connect to the wiring harness adapter purchased previously), a long metal ribbon grounding connector, and the antenna cable.  I pulled the plastic connectors out from the back of the radio and let them hang in the now-empty radio opening.  Then I pulled the (press-fit) antenna cable from the back of the radio. The antenna cable has the least play and was a bit difficult to re-insert into the new radio later.  Then I unbolted the grounding ribbon from the back of the old radio.  The old radio was now loose so I put it aside for later disposal.

At about this time I spent an hour or so carefully cross-referencing wires from the wiring harness adapter to the multi-wire connector that came with the new radio.  Each wire had to be stripped and spliced together using butt connectors and a crimper.  I wanted to make sure I did it correctly because a crimped butt connector cannot be UNcrimped.  You have to cut off your mistakes, which makes the remaining wire shorter. The butt connectors are barely visible at the top of the full-size image, below.

The grounding cable on the new radio was a typical insulated wire coming out of the multi-wire connector that snapped into the connector on the back of the radio.  I couldn’t attach a butt connector to the bare metal grounding ribbon in the dashboard which had an eye connector on the end where it bolted to the old radio’s chassis, so I soldered an eye connector to the cable coming off the radio, and bolted the two eye connectors together.

Mounting Plate and Sleeve

Mounting Plate and Sleeve

At this point in the process the instruction guide said to install the mounting sleeve that came with the new radio into the mounting bracket and attach the mounting bracket to the dashboard where the old radio was installed, which I did (see image), but because of the shortness of the antenna cable I was later not able to attach the antenna cable connector to the back of the new radio in that configuration.  I tried to buy a short (3-4 inch) antenna cable extender (like the ones I used to use in the old days) at a local Radio Shack, but they’re pretty much out of the car audio business now so they no longer carry them.  Plan B worked, though, which was to take the mounting bracket off the dashboard and insert the radio into the mounting sleeve in the mounting bracket first, then I was able to hold the entire assembly up to but not quite in the dashboard opening and reach behind and connect the antenna to the new radio.

Once the new radio was mounted into the dashboard, it was a simple matter to re-attach the bezel and snap the little plastic piece back in place to cover up the lower two bezel screws!

New Radio Installed

New Radio Installed

Voila! It took about 3 hours total (including taking a break to borrow Lynn’s car for the failed trip to Radio Shack).  The new receiver works great, has lots of OOMPH (that’s a highly technical term from the acoustics and audio field), and gives me back some diversity in my music selection in the van!  The DEH-2400UB handles traditional audio CDs (as expected) and also can play MP3s or WMAs or WAVs on CDs or USB thumbdrives (there’s a USB port on the front).  That means I can stuff about 13 full albums of MP3 files on a data CD, or a couple of hundred albums on a thumb drive!!  The thumb-drive reader in the receiver requires FAT16- or FAT32-formatted thumb drives, so I’m “limited” to 32GB thumb drives.  Big Deal!  I just built a 16GB thumb drive with 224 full albums worth of music on it in a hierarchical tree structure (and used the old DOS TREE command – still accessible even in Windows 8 – to print the tree structure out, adding folder numbers on the print-out so I can zip to any particular album/folder I want).  That should last a while!  Woo hoo!

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