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A new dashboard stereo

I hate installing car stereos. I've probably done half a dozen over the years, and it's never been fun. I knew in advance that the latest one was going to be especially hard, because the radio I ordered was bigger than the opening in the dashboard, so major surgery was going to be required.

Why would I deliberately buy the wrong size radio? Well, it's like this. My old radio, a Pioneer DEH-P4800MP, worked fine, although I hated its tiny buttons and even tinier, impossible-to-read labels. But it was the best I could find four years ago, when I installed it in place of a Sony that was OK, but lacked an auxiliary input for my iPod.

Pioneer radio

But then last August my rig was struck by lightning. The CB and FM antennas took the force of the bolt, and the whiff of smoke in the cab afterward told me one or both radios was probably toast. As it turned out, the CB was OK, but the Pioneer dashboard radio was dead as a doornail.

So I started shopping for a replacement radio. I spent a month looking at car stereos online, and hated everything I saw. Either they were monstrosities like this "deluxe" model...

Worst car radio

...or they were stylized to the point of unintelligibility, like this low-end Sony.

Sony radio

Look at those controls on the left. I mean, just LOOK at them! Can you imagine driving down the road and making a quick adjustment to... anything? Well, every radio I found that would fit in my dash looked like that, or worse.

I didn't want fancy features—just a basic radio with simple, easy-to-use controls. And finally I came across this JVC KW-XR610...

JVC KW-XR610

As soon as saw I it, I knew it was what I wanted. At $200, it was in my price range. The only problem was that it was a "double DIN" model—about four inches high—while my motorhome's 2003-vintage Ford E450 chassis had a nonstandard dashboard opening only about 3.5" high, thanks to some idiot engineer at Ford. But after thinking about it, I decided that if I bought anything else I'd hate myself for years to come, so I went ahead and ordered.

So this is the story of how I installed my oversized radio. If you have a Ford E450-based motorhome, van or truck, this will either scare you off—it's definitely not a beginner project!—or fortify you with the knowledge of what you're up against.

NOTE: In recent years, Ford switched to a full 4"-high double-DIN dashboard cutout. I don't know exactly which year the change took place, but if your chassis is 2008 or later, there's a good chance you have a cutout that will accommodate a 2-DIN stereo without alterations... in which case you won't have to do what I did.

My old Pioneer radio was a single-DIN unit, about 2" high. It was nestled in an adapter to fit the nonstandard Ford dashboard cutout: radio above, small storage bin beneath.

Old radio mount

After removing the old radio, I was faced with an opening that was wide enough for the new JVC radio (thank goodness!) but about half an inch too short. What's more, it had welded-in metal brackets below it, so I couldn't gain very much by shaving the bottom. Most of the trimming would have to be done at the top.

Metal brackets

Complicating matters, the whole radio opening was recessed in the dashboard, as shown below. And to top it off, the climate controls were just above the opening.

Recessed opening

Just to give you an idea of what I was up against, here's the new radio's mounting sleeve compared to Ford's nonstandard opening:

No fit!

Cutting was going to be required, and I had a choice of power tools. I started with a RotoZip (actually, a Ryobi copy)... similar to a small router, able to cut sideways with its high-speed bit.

RotoZip

It didn't work out too well. This tool is very hard to control on straight cuts unless you have a guide to run it along, and that wasn't practical on a vehicle dashboard with its curves and protruding knobs. It tended to melt the plastic and then dig in. I ended up with a couple of ugly gouges along the lower edge of the recess as a result.

Next I tried a saber saw, but that wasn't much of a success either; the blade cut so deeply that it kept hitting things I didn't want it to it. Finally I fell back on my all-purpose tool: a Dremel with a small abrasive disk.

Dremel

As you can see from the photo, it was more a case of melting my way through the plastic than cutting it, but the Dremel did the job. In retrospect, I'd have been much better off using the Dremel for the whole job, rather than trying to RotoZip and saber saw.

I had to make a number of passes, because the deep recess meant I needed to cut more than just the front surface of the dashboard. It was smelly, smoky, messy work, but eventually I got the opening enlarged... the outer opening, that is. I still had to deal with an internal strut (plastic, not metal, thank goodness)... and the lower ends of the climate control mounts:

Climate control mounts

The mounts were plastic, but the 7mm hex-head screws holding them in place were metal. Removing the screws was a pain, because there's only about half an inch of clearance between their heads and the outer fascia of the instrument panel—not enough to get a socket wrench in there, and I didn't have a 7mm box wrench.Tinnerman nut The photo above, taken from a low angle, makes it look as if I had a clear shot at them, but I didn't. I loosened them with a pliers initially, then backed them out with a nut driver in one hand while bending the panel above them out of the way with the other. These screws went into metal fittings—basically fancy Tinnerman nuts—and I removed those as well.

Having removed the screws and nuts, I completely cut away the lower ends of the white plastic mounting brackets, along with the strut to which they had been fastened. Fortunately, the climate control knobs are apparently anchored at the tops... at any rate, they seem as sturdy as before.

Finally I had cleared enough space to fit the new JVC radio's mounting shell in the hole:

JVC mounting shell

As you can see, the top and bottom edges were still somewhat ugly at this point, and because the radio is so deeply recessed in the dashboard, its bezel didn't cover these scars on the outer part of the dash. So I put a sanding drum in the Dremel and smoothed the edges as best I could. I'll probably go back and lay a sheet of thin black plastic over that lower area, though.

The physical mounting was the hard part; it took me about three hours to do. After that, it was a cinch to make the electrical connections—just match up the colors when splicing the wires. Another half hour or so, and I was done. And here's the finished job!

New radio

(You might want to scroll back up to the top of the page to compare this with the old radio.)

Well, almost finished. I still need to clean up the edges of that opening a bit. I found a cheap, easy fix for the bottom area of the recess, where the RotoZip tool had gotten away from me and dug a couple of ugly gouges: for 99¢ I picked up a plastic report cover with a black spine. By cutting it right along the crease, I made a strip that was just wide enough to cover the scarred area, and had a slight lip that wrapped around onto the front of the dash, covering the edge as well. You can see the result in these before and after photos. I still need to smooth the upper edge a bit more. A sanding block and some elbow grease should take care of that rough edge.

Knob

I did make a couple of minor changes. The shiny volume control knob felt slippery to me, so I wrapped a 1/4" strip of egrips material around it. The combination of high-grip plastic and slightly pebbled texture give the knob a secure-feeling grip. Also, I added a transparent "bump dot" to the on/off button to make it easy to find by touch.

So how well does the new radio work? Oh, just fine. It plays audio CDs and CD-ROMs with MP3 music files, and you don't have to flip down the faceplate to insert a disc, the way you do with most smaller radios. It can even play MP3s from any "thumb drive" memory stick inserted into its USB port at lower right.

And I can plug my iPod into the same port with a standard USB cable. The JVC radio recognizes it and starts playing from it immediately. I can either control the iPod from the radio (if I want to just stash the iPod in the glovebox, for example), or control the music from the iPod. Of course it charges the iPod as it plays, so I no longer need a separate charging cable.

Of course there's a wireless (IR) remote. And there are AM and FM tuners (as well as the ability to add extra-cost expansion modules for satellite and/or HD radio)... but since I haven't yet replaced my lightning-blasted antennas, I haven't done anything with the radio features.

But really, this is an unexceptional radio by today's standards. All but the cheapest car stereos have most of the features I've mentioned. But what makes this one special is its big, bright, easy-to-use controls that won't cause me to have an accident if I want to change tracks or change stations while driving down the road. I love those big controls! (Also, being able to choose the display colors is kinda nice, I have to admit. I was able to switch from trendy electric blue to warm, soothing neon orange.)

As you've gathered by now, this was not an easy installation. In fact, the only one I can remember that was worse was when I put a new radio in Gertie eight years ago, and had to cut away part of a metal dashboard to make it fit. That was painful! But as they say about childbirth, the memory of the pain fades, while the pride of accomplishment remains.

P.S.—In case you were wondering, this 50W-rated radio draws about 0.8–1.2 amps at 12V when playing at what I consider normal listening levels. (Of course, I'm not listening to death metal or hip-hop.)

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