Essays : A Tape and a Biro – Radio Cassette Years!

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble goes all nostalgic once again and pays tribute to that dying breed of automotive audio – The radio cassette player.

I bet this takes some of you back in time - eh?

They say that as you get older time passes by so quickly, and how true that is. Think back to when you were a nipper, those lazy summer school holidays in the summer lasted all of six weeks, but when you were 13, they seemed to last for six months. Time drags on until you reach the day before your 29th  birthday then WALLOP; everything seems to travel at warp speed. Even though it’s been more than 20 years since passing my driving test, I can remember my instructor’s name – Carol, and the fact that the examiner reeked of cigar smoke as he clambered into the BSM Metro at the DVLA test centre in Wellingborough.

I will confess, I have a superb memory for attention to detail, but that still does not detract from the fact that it only seems like yesterday. During a recent shed / garage clear out, I stumbled upon two or three car wireless sets – one of them being the Philips made radio / cassette with the pop off keyboard fitted to lower spec Rover models of the mid to late 90’s. Once again, I found myself recalling those halcyon days of taking a fretsaw to your car interior in the vain of having what younger readers would call ‘choons’ – whatever they are, in your first clunker of choice. Of course, I am referring to fitting that essential car stereo.

Sadly, no car manufacturer today seems to install a simple audio system into their ranges, our Golf for example has slots and inputs for every conceivable medium and even has blue teeth, DAB facility, is able to arbitrate in Union meetings and even read sand script, but for someone like I who resists modern technology almost to the same degree as the Amish community, I will confess to adoring DAB. Getting back to things, I looked at these newly discovered units and one of them had a blank tape in the deck, exited like a child on Christmas day, I jabbed the eject button, and out popped the tape with a mechanical clunk sound – what an evocative sound!

Looking at the tape which for the record was a bootleg copy of Pink Floyds The Division Bell, I hot footed it to my office room where I have a recently repaired  retro Philips F763CD midi Hi-Fi – it still played, albeit with some horrendous wow and flutter. What is even more staggering, I can remember taping that album, thanks to a pal who worked nights in a 24hr Esso petrol station many years back. After a hard nights drag racing, we would pop by and eat all the crisps and lollies behind the locked door as the Northampton drunkards were served through the stainless steel hatch. With copious free Tiger tokens, I never bought a blank cassette for years, and thanks to this garage also selling tapes & CD’s, via the use of an illicit twin deck under the counter, I had all the latest grooves and tunes.

Lets all be honest now, how many of you out there in their 30 something’s have smelled that acrid stench of a fried circuit board while trying to fit a car radio into the dash of a knackered Cavalier – or similar? I know I have, and it’s a smell you never forget. Part of the teenage automotive learning curve is how to deal with a small electrical fire by result of an incorrectly wired in radio – funny how they never mention this in the Highway Code. I also can remember with crystal clarity, attempting to fit a Motorola stereo into the centre console of my D reg Lada Riva, only for the securing tray to fall straight through thanks to my hapless usage with a rough file which beckoned another jaunt to the breakers yard.

A cold concrete garage floor and some crimped on bullet connectors - Oh the nostalgia!

Some radio cassette players could also have a mind of their own too, my faithful 2.0 Ghia Mark 5 boasted a swanky Sparkomatic stereo with obligatory graphic equaliser nailed under the dash and more speakers than the House of Commons. After parking up in Salcey forest Buckinghamshire with the girlfriend for a spot of late night star gazing (ahem) just as we were making decent progress, the auto reverse function went on the blink and played the side we had just listened to in perfect stereo – but backwards, mood killed & game over. You don’t get that kind of fun with a modern car stereo do you, but strangely enough, it never did that trick again – maybe it was just jealousy?

Another hazard of the old school car radio was chewing tapes, again, this would occur with for no real reason, but at least you would be forewarned by the sound losing its treble giving you just enough time to stab the eject button with lightning speed before the inside of the stereo looks like a plate spagetti, with yards of munched up ferric tape jammed round the internal gubbins. For this reason aone, it was obligatory to carry a Bic biro pen in the door pocket for this event. No other implement was more suited to spooling back the exposed tape while waiting at red traffic lights. What was strange however, was the way it only did this trick with an album you had bought and paid for, not a cheap C90 blank!

But it was not only the thrill of a decent radio, you also had the task of fitting the aerial and the obligatory box speakers onto the back parcel shelf. A funny tale involved some mush called Vince who destroyed the wing of his car by fitting the mast in the wrong location. Upon completion, he drove off and at the first right turn, the o/s/f wheel snagged the bottom of the aerial making it look like the leaning tower of Pisa. And if that sounds funny, you should have seen the speakers – sourced from his parents redundant Hi-Fi still showing the odd splatter of non drip gloss on the casing, lying on their sides on the rear shelf using doorbell wire to connect to the radio – such happy times indeed.

Then of course there was the RDS era whereby excitement reached new heights as your wireless would tell you the VHF station name on a digital display. It was during this era whereby stolen radios were all the rage, need a dodgy new top of the range Ford RDS head unit? Simply visit your local boozer and hand over £50. Also, you had a new trend of removable car stereo, the whole radio slid in and out of the tray. Go back to the mid 90`s and you would spot the lads stood at the bar with half a lager in one hand holding a car radio in the other. After time, they would get bored of carrying it and resort to hiding the said appliance under the drivers’ seat – the dealer I worked at around that time, made a few bob replacing quarter glass panes.

Some manufacturers like Ford for example, made some first class head units and Vauxhall in the mid 80s fitted the Philips DC range with their cosy amber illumination – need your strongest local stations? Simply hold the AST button and wait for the chirpy two tone bleep. Austin Rover saw fit to offer a decent wireless too around that time, with a fairly good Motorola self seek units being standard on many of the plusher models, a far cry from the push-button LW/MW single speaker jobbies they used to sling into the HL upwards Ital. But now, words like Dolby, Tone or Loud are just plain obsolete from your modern in car receiver – even the aerial is fast disappearing.

Standard fit audio by the 90's were often impressive - Philips worked alongside Rover to produce some high quality audio systems.

But of course, things can go the other way too. Rover in the 1990’s fitted a range of Philips branded head units which not only looked good, but were of superb quality, these gave way in some cases to the excellent BMW Business CD players. Sadly, following the grip of project drive, MG Rover audio started to emulate something from the Halfords wall of sound, with the centre console of the 75 / ZT ruined by the visual horror of an aftermarket radio with more little buttons than a Pearly King outfit. These nasty looking head units were the source of many customer complaints in the showroom long before they had even decided to buy. One potential customer I recall, peered into the cabin of an MG ZR and remarked about a car still featuring a cassette player by scoffing ” My God! Kenwood… do they still do a decent blender? ” – sad but very true.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but at least on a modern radio you don’t have to listen to 40 watts of washer motor interference or your indicators ticking not only from the relay but from your speakers too, all because you forgot to swap over the suppressor when you fitted that re-con alternator. Power is not an issue either; modern radios are loud enough to hear unless your chosen headgear is a baseball cap worn back to front. I just miss those simple 3 band radios with tape or CD facility and not something that requires an hour of swatting over the manual like ‘er indoors Volkswagen Golf system and needing a degree in computer programming – or am I just getting old and intolerant?

Anyway, must dash, I’m taping Pick of the Pops off the radio!

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

94 Comments

  1. Great article! The story about the wing mounted aerial reminds me of a friend who installed some mahoosive speakers in the front doors of his mk4 Cortina. They looked great – and sounded the business too! But the depth of them meant that the window wouldn’t go down more than halfway…

  2. Thanks for yet another great article Mike. You have brought back memories of the early 90’s – I had a green Y plate Cavalier 1.6L fitted with a Ford head unit and some Kenwood speakers on the parcel shelf. My boss had a F plate Sierra Sapphire GLS with the same headunit and the standard Ford speakers and it was much much better sound. Does anyone remember Chrome tapes instead of Ferric – clearer sound but I could rarely afford them

  3. Plenty of memories of the evolution of car radios from my Dad’s various company cars.

    At least one tape ended up being chewed by a tape deck, even though my Dad tried to buy decent brands like TDK.

  4. Yes, was surprised to say the least when I discovered that the head unit in my Audi A4 is actually wired into the CANBUS network in the car along with all the rest of the vehicle systems, so the main ECU keeps a logfile whenever the stereo hiccups for any reason, when it fails to read or a CD or jams whilst trying to load. You can’t hide anymore whenever you try to fob the dealer off when trying to make a bogus warranty claim!

    It certainly puts the days of the old pushbutton MW/LW in my first Escort into perspective!

  5. @ Richard

    TDK were by far, the best tapes for your money. Does anyone remember the short lived XDS recording system? Certain pop albums used this system recognised by a jolly little 6 tone rising bleep just after the 5 second tape run up.

    Certain aggro would occur using a D120 blank, especially on a red hot day…. Deffo tweezer job retrieving that from the bowels of the head unit!

  6. Most head unit manufacturers told you not to use C120 tapes because they were so thin and stretched so easily. Even on domestic tape decks you were advised not to use them.

    Remember Vauxhalls used to have Philips as standard in the 1980s and they had something jokingly called “tape salad protection” to identify when a jam was about to happen and shut the capstan down.

  7. My friend’s R3 has a Sony unit and my colleague’s car has the same make and model. However, the Project Drive R3 has steering mounted controls. The Sony thing sounds good, but looks cheap and insists on reminding one to remove the front everytime one switches off the ignition.

  8. My old man still has some blank unopened C90’s at home – don’t know why he still has them as he’s used his mini disc (remember those) since the 90’s! I think the worst stereo was in the original Vectra, with the delightful built in traffic master. Remember having a hire version in the late 90’s and early 00’s adn you could not switch the bugger off – every couple of miles the radio would cut out and you would get the artificial sounding lady saying “Traffic moving Fweeely”.

  9. Bullet connectors Mike? Pah, you were posh! I remember my mate installing a stereo in his Cavalier by twisting together the wires and insulating them with sellotape (yes, sellotape) despite my vocal concerns about fire safety. You never knew quite what would happen when he clunked in a bootleg rave tape. Makes me shudder just thinking about it.

    I’ve loads of old car stereos in my Dad’s garage, I won’t let him chuck them away! I even found a JVC 50 watt amp with graphic equaliser with so many sliders I couldn’t count them all.

  10. Great article Mike – brought back loads of memories. I too miss the old simple to use car stereos. I had an aftermarket Pioneer pull out unit in my 205 GTi (twisted wires, but lots of electrical tape, no doubt melting away behind the unit’s heatsink). It sounded excellent and had easily adjustable bass and treble, by means of two knobs. Nice and simple.

    I recently put a new Pioneer unit in my CR-V . It has loads of features, like an SD memory card slot for MP3s (great idea, but the 32GB card I bought is sitting in a drawer waiting for me to put CDs onto my computer) and an aux input and USB slot. The downside is it takes about a year of fiddling with carious menus and settings for it to sound decent (I have top end hearing loss so I’ve always had to tweak up the treble). Then just as you’ve found the perfect settings (including disabling the sub output, setting the rear speakers to full range and other pointless nonsense), you disconnect the battery for something and you have to start again! At least a rotary tone control as you found on the old stereos stayed where it was and didn’t change unless you changed it!

    Does anyone remember those cheap car stereos that had no rewind facility? You had to rewind the tape by ejecting it, turning it over then pressing fast forward (with a click not dissimilar to a light switch, probably the same mechanism). When it had fast wound its way to the end, you then ejected it, turned it over and stuck it back in!

  11. I remember a mate getting a nearly new MG ZT diesel back in 2002. I was admiring the leather interior when I spotted the stereo and had to stop myself laughing. It was a cheapo Kenwood cassette with manual tape control buttons rather than soft touch electric ones – the very cheapest Kenwood in the range. It had a CD changer too, which made it slightly better. It was obviously a 90s throwback stereo that MGR had bought for pence from somewhere. It didn’t have an MG badge on either – even the standard Philips cassette player in my 2002 CR-V had a Honda transfer. Could MGR not stretch to a little MG badge in place of the Kenwood?!

  12. Another potential danger with tapes was the labels coming unstuck while playing, at least once this happened to my Dad & needed fishing out with my Mum’s make-up tweezers.

    My Dad’s last company car had Traffic Master, which wasn’t much use, at least my Dad found a way to turn it off.

    Once I played a tape of Synth Pop in a friend’s car & he was worried that one of Gary Numan’s songs was actually sound of the tape being chewed up!

    Recently I had a standard sized Sony unit installed in my Yaris (thanks to the DIN slot in the dash) because the CD & RDS on the built-in radio stopped working.

    It also has a beep to remind me to remove the front after turning of the engine.

    I can also play my Ipod without one of those low range transmitters that have a habit of being fuzzed out by a distant station.

    With a satnav connected up as well my car was beginnning to resemble a branch of Maplins.

  13. OMG! That Sparkomatic is identical to the one I had in my Maestro! It wasn’t a bad unit to be honest, but the cheapo in dash BL fit speakers were pants!

  14. @ Mr Carling

    A Cortina of mine made do with a mig welding rod. So good it was that I could pick up GWR FM in Swindon while parked on Kingsthorpe Hill in Northampton some almost 70 miles away!

  15. Oh happy, happy days! My 1st car had a Blaukpunkt radio/cassette – one of those jobbies you could remove completely at the end of each drive. I forgot to do this one night, and woke up to no radio, and a knackered driver’s door lock. My 2nd car had a Philips jobbie with a removable keyboard and VOLUME CONTROLS ON THE STEERING WHEEL!!!!!! WOOOO HOOOOO! I loved it – made me feel all fossificated. My 3rd car had similar, but then I hit upon the added benefit of the CD walkman. Which was great! – at the start of every journey (I had 10 mins to spare in those days) I’d put the cassette adapter in the tape slot, fix the CD player to the top of dashboard (I used velcro for a positive fix), insert the mains adaptor, and waheyy – digital sounds! Even better, my CD player display LIT UP IN THE DARK!!! WHOOP WHOOP!!! I later bought a CD multi-changer, and recorded 6 CDs of CAR MUSIC!! KABOOOM!! Since CD players and even worse MP3 sockets have become the norm, all the fun’s gone out of ICE….:-(

  16. @daveh – I still have my Sony Mini-disk machine in my living room. I also scrapped a Volvo 440 earlier this year with a Kenwood Mini-disk/radio in the dashboard.

  17. I’ve still got a Minidisc player & many MD’s of music, the later ones could fit 4 CD’s worth of music on, enough for listening to on long trips.

    I’ve not seen a coathanger used as an aerial for many years. About 30 years ago every other Cortina seemed to have one.

    At one time I had one of those tape deck adaptors for connecting my Minidisc & CD players, it might be around but I think I might have leant it to my brother & never got it back.

    For years my Uncle had a very old LW/MW push button radio on a shelf in his garage. My cousin might still have it.

  18. I had one of those tape adapators for my Sony Discman – prob was that there was not anywhere to put the discman in my fiesta and it use to slide of the dashboard on a regular basis.

  19. Oh yes. The cassette where half the tape had been wound back in with a Bic pen. It was like the barrel was shaped purposefully for the job!! I can still remember those tracks with the ‘muffled’ line(s) corresponding to that section of twisted, damaged tape!

  20. My mate had a Rover SD1 that he bought from his work (a garage) with a knackered engine which he rebuilt and got it running perfectly.

    He then treated himself (from his sister’s catalogue) to what was then a very expensive radio casette player (not sure if it was Sanyo, Sony or Panasonic) which had a revolutionary accessory – a remote control! Surely one of the most pointless pieces equipment for in-car sound systems….

    Sound was crap and it packed in within about 6 months too.

  21. Oh those were the day’s, my first car after passing my test in 1986 was a mini clubman and i was given a not very old Pioneer cassette player, no radio just a cassette player, with a 3 channel equalizer built in.
    I remember excitedly fitting this on the right hand side of the steering column with some universal stereo brackets and twisted wires and insulation tape.
    Then for my second car, a S reg MK1 Fiesta 1.1L I bought a new Audioline unit from Halfords it had RDS which was constantly searching, a equalizer which at the push of a button that section popped of to immobilize the unit it even had a little suede pouch to slip the equalizer in to slip in your pocket.
    It also lit up green and it had 4x50W output, but it never sounded like it did, and i always carried a pen in the door pocket for rewinding chewed tapes.
    But for a Birthday present once, i was given a cassette kit which comprised a head cleaner cassette with little felt pads which you put a spot of cleaner fluid on then popped it in the deck to clean the heads and rollers, also in the kit was a tool designed to rewind taped fast, it slotted onto the cassette and you had to turn a hand wheel to rewind the tape quickly.
    Ah the simpler days 🙂

  22. By the way, my current steed has a Sony radio cassette that isnt even RDS, and the motor for the deck is running slow in it, so I bought one of those adaptors from ‘Asbo’ and I’m using my old Sony Ericsson mobile as an MP3 player, which sits in the cubby box underneath. It might get treated to an MP3 radio this year though

  23. My Mini 30 auto has the Philips unit that was fitted as standard and still works fine.

    As with all cassette players I had, the loss of treble didn’t always mean imminent death for the tape, and a wee jiggle in the unit usually got it back again!

  24. I can remember my first car radio it was a Phillips valve car radio that fitted under the dash and it a had a bulky power pack that was remotely fitted under the passenger seat and it took a few minutes to warm up and the joys of the Light Programme and Radio Luxembourg were yours !
    I later worked for a used car dealer and customers would by a car radio made in Hong Kong (can you remeber when things were made in Hong Kong !) for £6 off the market for us to fit and it would be totally impossible to supress it and they could only listen with the engine switched off. The other favourit was the customer who would want the radio transfered out of their existing car to their next purchase try fitting a radio that had origionaly came out of a Corsair 200E where it was part of the dash furniture into a Fiat 850. Maybe I’ll leave 8 track stereos and Phillips in car record players for another time.

  25. I’ve got a oldish book on car maintenance which has a step by step guide to installing a radio from scratch.

    There was a section on surpressing engines & how to install a central console to mount a radio were there wasn’t space in the dash.

  26. Almost, a Mk2 Cortina is used a lot, getting a vinyl roof & waist height red stripe along the way.

    The book is a reprint of a bindermag by the looks of it.

  27. My old Astra Mk1 had an “awesome” 4 speaker radio cassette (MW/LW) It had a little fader unit beneath and it really did sound good. I tired of tapes and no FM though so out it came, only for me to discover it wasn’t a astandard sized hole in the dash. Wedged the new ‘un in with some of those brown plastic corner braces you get on flat pack furniture. The CD player used to overheat though after say an hours use – same happened in the Mk 1 Golf too (same head unit). I wondered whether the head unit was faulty or if there wasn’t enough room in the dash of these old cars to circulate enough air around…

    The Cavs OEM tape player was knackered when I got it so I pulled it to find a whole nest of nasty twist connections and other electrical shenanigans hidden in the dash. Got the soldering iron out, whipped a new cheapo MP3 CD player in with an ISO adapter which makes life so simple (I had to get two actually, one head unit to ISO, one ISO to the cars wiring). Topped it off with a set of second hand Pioneer speakers out of the friday ad.

    The aerial was broken “half mast” so replaced that with a proper electric one from a scrapper. It wasn’t half noisy in operation, and it packed up after a month or two so its manual only now.

  28. I also had to get a harness for my Yaris, I wasn’t sure about taking apart the dash & screwing in the radio, but the shop I got the radio from had an installation service.

    Thaking of Hong Kong, when I was young I remember having a few toys made in Hong Kong, along with some from Macao & Taiwan.

  29. First up…picture at the top of the page…Tears For Fears ‘Songs From the Big Chair’ is a classic which I played to death on cassette and vinyl. Superb stuff.

    On the subject of stereos, I fondly remember many a deal with a buddy who had a line in somewhat (possibly) warm Ford RDS units which were usually coded as part of their anti-theft routine. However, if you put it in the freezer for a day or two, it wiped the coding and you away you went. All for about £30 a pop. Made your slightly care worn old Escort / Monty / Cav or Astra sound a little bit more special.

    Happy days.

    p.s. it’s wrong to purchase (possibly) stolen goods…in case there are any coppers reading this thread….ahem!

  30. John @ 27–my first car (proper MG TF) had one of those-the main gubbins sat down in the passenger footwell and kept feet warm. It didn’t last and was changed for something a little more modern-it had transistors and push buttons. The replacement frog eye Sprite (that was a mistake) came with a Philps gadget that actually played 45s–after a fashion. And everything else since. At least I could work them –the current SEAT has been on the drive two years and I still cant work out how to make the radio do what I want it too! Ah progress!

  31. Your essay has childhood memories coming back. Back when my Mum had loads of tapes played in her Citroen AX. Same with my Dad in his Volkswagen Passat and Audi 80.

    When I started driving, tapes were no use as there was none in the house and my first car (2000/X Ford Ka Collection) had a tape deck. So I bought and replaced it with a CD player as I had plenty of CDs. It was an Alba CD player that could also play MP3s; had a USB port (for iPods) and a memory card slot. Only set me back £60.

    My current car (Peugeot 206 XSi) has a 6 CD multi-disc player, which is conveniently placed in the glovebox – rather than in the boot of the most cars.

  32. My Rover 400 & 45 had pretty good sounding Rover branded radio cassettes. The ZS hd a Kenwood radio/CD… also good.

    I have a copy of a late 60s “Vauxhall Motorist” mag which advertised the launch of Philips car radio cassette players

  33. I still have my first radio unit and all the tapes I used to listen when I got my car license (1997). It was (and is) a Kenwood unit with FM/MW/LW, RDS and autoreverse (wow!)… It never missed a beat, even though I recall taking it off and opening it a couple times to lubricate the tape eject mechanisms (were they? can’t remember for sure actually!) Anyway I assume it still works, bought it new in late ’97 for my first car – a Fiat Uno 1000 45hp then found its place in the ’00 1200 8V Punto when the Uno was scrapped.
    It served me well into 2004 when I decided tapes were too out-of-date (sorry) and bought a – Kenwood, again – CD/MP3 unit which I then moved to my 2nd Punto. Now this too is currently shelved cause the Grande I bought couple of years ago was specced with an integrated system.
    Great times though – even here in 70’s – 80’s Italy the lad walking around with his withdrawable hi-fi unit in one hand was stereotypical (no pun intended!)
    Sure integrated systems have largely contributed to the decrease in car hi-fi thefts – but the pleasure of picking your favourite stereo is now almost gone. The Blaupunkt (or is it a Grundig?) system in my Grande works fairly well FWIW. The only thing I actually miss is the random or “Shuffle” function – as strange as it may seem, I assure you – it isn’t there!
    Thanks for bringing this all back to mind!

  34. @ Mike.

    I have a Tina Turner tape somewhere with that XDS beep on it, took me years to work out what it meant!!

    I think something changes inside you as you get a little older, with my first car (and my poor mums Fiat Cinquecento) I spent hours and probably over £200 buying and installing quality cd players and big rear speakers, even going to the expense of buying Sony branded speakers small enough to fit where Fiat wanted them! But now I just want the best sound I can get without ripping the interior or cutting holes in parcel shelves!

    As for incidents involving high power ICE I will never forget the story of a lad who’s father worked alongside mine. Apparently this man came into work one day with a face like thunder and a mood to match. It transpired that his son had bought an Escort and duly fitted the new stereo, the amp and several speakers into the back shelf. He then switched it on and played a rather bassy song. The vibrations were so much that the rear window came out and landed on his dads car parked behind showering his bonnet with broken glass!

  35. Great stories, but I know I am getting old when I read of folk getting nostalgic about fitting their first in-car hifi and it’s a CD player… 😀

  36. Strangely it woud seem CD players are dying off, the MP3 player would seem to be reaplceing them, I have noticed more units with no CD but USB and SD cars slots instead. Not actually seen a CD changer in Halfrauds for quiet a while now. So is would seem that the Cassette has a much longer lifespan. (Oh and I still use them as well!)

    I have heard that CD sales are falling but oddly LP sales are on the rise

  37. Remember the mid 90s, my dad getting a new tape deck for his Granada.
    It could fast forward and rewind between tracks, giving CD style functionality to the old medium!

    Remember the little displays used to have graphic equalisers, the little bars going up and down almost mesmerising!

    Best car entertainment system of recent times was the Xantia tape deck. It had an aux input, so you could use an iPod, and this in an early 90s car!

  38. Interchangeability encouraged theft, but replacement was far easier and cheaper. The CD player on my modern Volvo gives up after half an hour, but I live with it rather than fork out for a new one or chance an eBay replacement which may show the same fault in a month – if it doesn’t already.

    Back in the 1980s our Constabulary used to ‘visit’ suspected thieves and if they found a number of hard-to-explain stereos in one home, they’d confiscate the lot. Every two or three months, they’d sell the units on at auction in surprisingly large numbers. Dealers who knew about the auctions must have saved hundreds of pounds a year by getting original-looking units legally at ‘dodgy pub’ prices. The best bargains were £20-£30 ‘lucky bag’ job lots of 8 damaged or non-working units. Most were junk, but in some cases just a few knobs were missing – with replacements being sourced from non-working units in the same bag. A pity the one working unit I’ve yet to use from that bag won’t fit the Volvo.

  39. I had the hideous push-button job in my Ital 1.3HL – and struggled getting an aftermarket stereo to fit in the curved-away-from-the-driver dashboard!

    After that had some good fun – and a particularly eventful time with a burning smell and smoke-filled car once – fitting units to various Capris (2.8i) during the 1990s before eventually getting hold of one that had not only a CD player but also *GASP* a graphic equaliser! This was a Granada Scorpio (1992 variant IIRC).

    @Mike – you did know that it’s not “sand script” but Sanskrit of course… 🙂

  40. The post millennium Skoda Fabia still had cassette heads in most the models (including the top of the range, oddly) up until around 2005.. And even then the lower spec models still had them..

  41. I used to spend a small fortune on blank tapes.
    Maxell XL90 II were my favs, but I used to like the 5 pack BASF Chrome II….these were £4.99 from Comet.
    I always put a nice Pioneer in…….
    It was a big deal when you had the digital diplay.
    Always used the strip connectors to wire them in…..always a tight squeeze as well cuz they never leave enough cable length in the dash.

    Happy days indeed.

  42. I’ve got a Hi-fi tape deck with the track find feature.

    It needed a 5 second gap between tracks to work, & there was a record mode that would record the right sized gap.

  43. Ah yes, I remember my first car, a lowly Mk2 Astra Merit which had just a Philips digital radio which was promptly replaced by an Aiwa tape deck. That was a good sounding unit and stayed with me throughout my Mk2 phase (I had 3). Then I got a Vectra (which with its 8 speakers on the first one) sounded good using the standard Philips cassette deck.

    Now, I’m a Blaupunkt man. Bought a high end bluetooth/MP3 unit back in ’08 for the 2nd Vectra (10 speakers!) and it has been used ever since, fantastic clarity of sound. Incidently, I found the Vauxhalls had the best speakers (especially the last one)whereas the BX had the worst.

    The 400’s 4 speakers aren’t too bad – perhaps a little bit tinny.

    I have the habit of keeping all my old head units to the point where my cupboard is full of them!

  44. Did 8-track tape make it to your shores? I think it was primarily popular here in the U.S. I’m still using cassette and 8-track tape at home and in various cars.

  45. My 1977 Chevette had an Audioline (“upmarket” Harry Moss) pushbutton AM/FM unit with tapes played by a mains/battery Panasonic cassette recorder mounted on the tunnel in front of the gearlever and powered by a cigar lighter adaptor.

    Remember the fake cheapo radios designed to clip over your posh head unit to fool the local youfs while parked up?

    MP3 users don’t know the fun of trying to get a cassette out of its box with one hand while driving along.

  46. I notice that period radio cassette players can sell for more than a modern CD/MP3 player. It’s all very well going for ‘the look’ with a period head unit but having to put up with the apalling sound quality from the 4 watts per channel is another matter, particularly if you have a ’70s car.

    I think a modern head unit in an old car makes for a much more enjoyable drive.

  47. My Rover P6 had a showroom fitted 8-track . I went all modern years later with a gizmo called a cassette adapter .Saved buying a new C-player . It slotted into the 8-track and I could play the thoroughly modern new fangled cassette .
    Best was I didnt have to throw away the boot load of 8 track tapes I carried around. More than 6 filled the glove box – hence the box lot in the boot for long trips.

  48. Great post, ahh the memories. Does anyone remember Pye car radios in the ninties ? Back then I thought they were just relabeled Pioneer decks. (lol)
    I remember blowing all my money on a Pye RDS deck in my VW Polo Mk1. I was proud for the best part of a week before it was nicked after I had got sick of carrying it around with me.
    Today I have a 16 Gb USB flash drive in my Qashqai and I must admit that I am having problems filling it with music worthwhile.
    I am getting old.

  49. God article. “What was strange however, was the way it only did this trick with an album you had bought and paid for, not a cheap C90 blank!”

    I don’t think the internals of pre-recorded tapes wre as good as the best TDKs, Maxells etc. Never liked BASFs with special mechanics – they tended to jam.

    Even TDK didn’t wholly recommend their C180 tape.

    I can remember trips to Scarborough in a friend’s Dad’s Humber Sceptre – made much better with an 8 track. Bench seating in slippery comfort for 6. A little outdated in the mid 70s.

    I used a domestic cassette in my parents 2CV. I used an old electromagnet as a resistor to lower the 12v to 6. I can still remember Donna summer singing her heart out as a badly towed caravan rolled in front of me.

    CP

  50. Memories……. Installing an ancient Ford stereo (bought from the classifieds of the local paper) into a 1980 VW Golf 1.1L. As an 18 year old I was living the dream!

    My chosen speaker system was a couple of Panasonic bookshelf speakers from our old HiFi, that would bounce around helplessly in the boot. A system that has clearly caught judging by the townie crew on a saturday night in a provincial town.

    Can you still buy a decent head unit that is styled plainly (like the old Blaupunkt’s?) I really hate the garish lights of modern systems.

  51. Happy days indeed! Best sounding unit I’ve come across was the ford branded set in my parents siera E800 BVK digital PLL tuner, casette with Dolby noise reduction and generally amazing sound especially on FM radio. The aerial was mounted on the rear but was not electric so if you left it up and opened the boot lid it used to clip it so the top section eventually broke off. units in similar escorts were not as good – the front speakers sounded dreadful, and the aerial as part of the rear window never really worked either.
    in the ford fiesta LX diesel from 93 which followed years later, a decent stereo had been factory fitted but the tape deck couldn’t handle the vibration from the diesel powerplant meaning most tapes wobbled and shook and made vocalists sound like darleks! due to the electronic eject mechanism, a casette single (yes remember those) belonging to my mum of Enya and “anywhere is” got stuck in there for about a week on auto reverse! my old man thought I was a hero when I worked out you could electronically stop the tape deck and resume radio playback so 5 live and the football was restored!
    As an aside, I’m not sure what manufacturers do, but their is obviously some clever circuitry in car stereos which widens the stereo effect on FM stations when your in a good reception area, sounds amazing in comparision to any domestic hifi tuner!
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t see DAB being viable for radio in cars at present unless the transmitter network has been seriously improved! in the experiences of DAB which I’ve had in cars, reception has been dreadful.

  52. Just bought an XJ8 from 98, with a tape deck, all I need now is a Nokia 8110 (off the Matrix), and I’ll be rockin it 90’s styl. By the way anybody got any idea how to bring the ariel back to life, it makes a sound, but unlike a zombie doesn’t rise from the dead.

  53. Rover/Philips systems weren’t bad but most definitely not the best… Nakamichi was *always* the last word in cassette audio. Jaguar/Alpine did its’ best but just got pipped by the Japanese brand. What on earth were PSA/Clarion on????

    Blaupunkt was just solid, no frill ‘it worked well’ sort of units… good stuff.

    Thank god for MP3/AAC… ~long gone is the crappy audio cassette….

  54. Great stuff.

    Always use TDK was my only rule with cassettes.

    I had a 52 reg ZT-T with the godawful cassette player. Why?!

    Strange thing is now all I want is an i-Pod socket, a DAB and good speakers and amp. The DAB situation is annoying as all I really want it for is to listen to Test Match Special. No-one does LW any more!

  55. Did anyone esle sit with their fingers ready to hit record when listening to the sunday night charts on Radio 1 to make compelation tapes for the car?

  56. How many of you substituted a wire coathanger for a bent/broken aerial in the wing of their car?

    I had one on my 1976 Mini Clubnman for years and girlfriend thought it was a fancy shaped aerial.

  57. I did think that Test Match Special was on Radio 5 Extra on DAB, it least it was a few years ago.

    I used to make some chart tapes, but normally kept it running. I was too young to drive then but used to listen to them on a personal stereo whilst being driven.

  58. ahhh those were the days my maestro had a rather smart philips radio cassette with a metallic grey finish out of a top spec rover 800- separate bass and treble controls if you dont mind! this was retro fitted with a “snatch plate” system with a compartment for a 9v battery to give memory back up if needed, lol
    this was followed by a pioneer ***4050 removeable
    not forgetting the pioneer ts1080 speakers

  59. What a prolific thread! Talk about feeling old – I remember having to buy a radio licence when I put a Pye (ex-Ford) radio in my Wolseley 6/90 in about 1968. For the fascia speaker and baffle I adapted the remains of a 1950 Ultra TV – the wood when stripped exactly matched the Wolseley’s walnut coaming. Looked great.

  60. The Ford head units in the 80’s were actually made by themselves (what became Visteon) and were very good.

    The Vauxhall’s in the early 90’s started to use their own designed units, though while they were made to a standard spec and appearance, many of them were made by different companies. Some were made by Phillips, Some by VDO and some by Delco (GM), yet would appear identical when fitted.

    Rover’s Phillips units were very good, although the cheap bottom of the range ones were very badly screwed together. Early 90’s ones used to suffer from LCD failure. The later cars with the R660 units used to have buttons that rattled like mad

    The so called “BMW Business” units were actually made by Blaupunkt. The last Rover Minis actually shared the same CD player as the new mini, albeit with a revised plastic fascia on the unit.

  61. Good article, it takers me back. Those Philips units in the 90’s Rovers were good head units let down by rubbish speakers. My Dad had several 80’s and 90’s Rovers by virtue of working for a British company that had a ‘British made only’ company car policy. Rovers were his default choice as he wasn’t that keen on the alternatives, although he nearly chose a Peugeot 406 and a Nissan Primera on a couple of occasions. I remember cursing his choice when the speakers would hiss and vibrate instead of making the noises on the tape. I could never understand why Rover would spend so much on the head units which were good for the time, and only spend about 5p on the speakers.

    • Strangely I think that Rover at least up to 92/93 always fitted quite good quality speakers. Certainly the ones in our Rover 216GSi (1990) sounded no worse than the rather expensive Kenwood units I used to replace them with. The ’92 827 has very good sounding speakers fitted. I personally found the Philips units I tried (no factory fitted head units here in Germany) to be vastly inferior to Blaupunkt or Becker in FM reception and tape sound quality. With a good tape deck – Dolby C – a well recorded Cassette is IMHO very hard to tell from a CD once the car is on the move and makes it’s own noises to mix in. Maxell XLII 90, later XLII-S 90 for me all the time…

  62. I loved the era of simple car stereos – I guess, like everyone, I had favourite brands – my first radio, in my Chevette, was a Saisho with 3 band EQ from Dixons, fitted by the dealer. Such a change from what I would do later…

    Highlights, I guess, were a really nice JVC in my MG Metro – which I figured out how best to EQ my recordings for as well, so my parents’ nice stereo with 24-band EQ got severely messed with when I was making a compilation tape. Carefully queued up tape, worked out 46.5 minutes of tracks… the cars always sounded good when I had time to work on that sort of thing.

    Then I had a really cheap deck in my Fiat Panda 4×4, which I’d carefully baffled and shaped the speakers into the rear quarters with. 3-way speakers, but with in essence a “ported” design behind and the Panda’s naturally boomy acoustics saw one boy racer so impressed with the radio that he offered me a much more expensive Panasonic with the quick-release kit as a straight swap. The Panasonic went into my X1/9, as back in the mid ’90s I rarely bothered to put the roof on or lock it (no point if the roof was off) when out; a pull-out radio was all the security it needed.

    An early website job got me my first Blaupunkt, a Montreal RCM 45 I think with a CD changer. This went from XM, to CX, to 480; I may have upgraded the head unit at some point. Features of note were things like being able to let it sit in a carpark and 20 minutes before you returned to it, it’d pop the antenna up and record traffic messages, and the display was variable through colours.

    What was lovely about this was the selection of mixtapes I was given – and one sad bit was that when I got a new car with a CD player, the last mix tape I got was never played. Now I’ve recreated them as playlists in iTunes, but it’s not the same.

    After that the most interesting things I installed were in my Delica and MR2 a few years ago – the Delica got a pop-out LCD/DVD thing which had a Commodore 64 hooked up to it in the glovebox, and the MR2 had a full and very expensive Kenwood DNX double-din system with bluetooth, GPS, subwoofer, matching speakers and iPod control. So many modules to install and hide, but it worked brilliantly, and not a scotchlock connector in sight.

    It cost more than the car was worth in theory!

    After that it’s all been a bit boring. I insisted on having the tape module fitted in my RX8 (it had space for one below the six-CD changer), I’m currently debating fitting the original tape/radio into my SLK as I like tapes so much (but will probably get DAB instead and a return to Blaupunkt), and spent an inordinate amount of time repairing the dedicated tape/CD in the Voyager as previous inhabitants of the vehicle had decided the tape deck was a cunningly disguised moneybox. Only for pennies though, irritatingly.

    One of the people I knew through work had worked at Jaguar with the in-car entertainment/electronics area. For the XJ40, they had originally designed a comprehensive system, I forget if it was Bose or B&W or similar (yes, during XJ40 development, not the current XJ) which was about £400. This was presented to management, who reacted with horror and said £100 for the stereo. When asked if this was just for the head unit, they were told that was for the whole lot. Hence, naff speakers and IIRC a Philips radio in this flagship car…

    Bangernomic Gav: Live the dream, get a Nokia 9000i.

  63. Great article. I was learning to drive at the time that cassette players began to disappear from cars. I remember shopping for my first new car in 2002. I entered a VW dealership, took one look at a mid-range Polo with a cassette player+ two speakers and I simply turned around and left. Fast forward 10 years, and I purchased a new Ford Fiesta. One of things that swayed my decision was the excellent sound system and bluetooth/ voice command/ iPod connectivity. Car manufacturers should think twice before scrimping on sound systems!

  64. I own 2 Rover 75s with the inbuilt Alpine Head Unit with a tape fitted and CD Changers and in the 7 years I have owned them, I have hardly ever used the tape. On the second car, I don’t even know if the tape works!

    Excellent article on how things used to be. I remember when my dad got a Sharp tape/radio for his 1979 Volvo 245 estate. Wow, it had track searching on the tape player, that popped out the RW/FF button when the track to track gap was detected. That was high tech stuff!

    I kept the player when the car went off to the breakers, and it resides in the garge somewhere for the day when I own an older car of that era.

  65. Giz from MacDroitwich is looking for a povvo spec Rover radio/cassette for his Maestro.

    Sorry it this has been addressed, I didn’t read the whole thread.

  66. ” povvo spec Rover radio/cassette for his Maestro”

    Surely the poverty spec Head unit was just a plastic panel to fit in the hole? 🙂

  67. The irony is that a really high quality radio cassette, such as a top one from Nakamichi, will still give better sound than any car CD or MP3 player!

  68. Excellent article, brings back lots of memories of bodged radio fittings

    – shorting out my mate’s Amstrad cassette player when it moved and touched the bodywork – it was positive earth !

    – fitting various Rover SD1 and Jaguar units to my ’73 Todedo. All taken out of cars under warranty for various reasons. They usually played OK in my Toledo, or were my expectations just a little lower ? Admittedly one routine ‘modification’ was I usually had to remove the top covers so I could press the cassette home against the too sensitive auto-eject mechanism

    – and last but not least, being asked by a mate to fit a radio ariel in the front wing of his girlfriend’s dad’s new Austin 1800. My mate was too worried about making a hash of it himself. Yes, you’ve guess, I managed to file a wonderful furrow down the pristine Harvest Gold paintwork when said tool jumped out of the hole I was creating. I can still hear the silence that fell upon the scene when we all realised what I’d done.

  69. Yes, the Vauxhall built in dashboard radios of the mid to late 90s were pretty good. However the yellow on brown display they used was not very impressive!

  70. Great feature, brings back memories, I fitted a Sharp cassette car radio in both my Leyland Maxi and Austin Maxi, they were one best car radios at the time, I have now fitted one of Sharp 9130 or simular in my Austin Maxi, and Princess. I remember back in the 80s that 4 speaker output radios were just comming on the market, Audioline etc, so graphic equalizer amps from Dixons,Argos etc were used to provide 25 Watts and 4 speaker output to your Pioneer speakers which was also the Bees knees at the time. My Rover 800 Vitesse and Sterling has Phillips car cassette radios with CD changer, I still have some tapes but these days use a cassette adaptor to drive MP4 player.Rover 400 as the same set up. Regards Mark

  71. Great piece.

    I’m still using a radio casette in my current Escort (due to poverty)- its the standard Fisher Price Ford with excellent radio reception. I haven’t attempted to feed it a casette. Wish all consumer electronics were as foolproof.

    Had one of those (then) space-age Kenwood rotating face head units once in my Fiat Tipo. Bloody awful thing. Sound quality was fine, but trying to program the thing was a nightmare, and attempting to change anything whilst driving inevitably meant accidentally pressing the wrong tiny button and bringing up some sub-menu or other, which would have me tearing my hair out with frustration. As with mobile phones and other new technology, they always seem to make you jump through hoops just to do the most simple things, whilst loading in lots of totally useless features that you either don’t want or don’t know how to use!

    Gah!!

  72. No 86 @Chris Baglin

    It does make you wonder why aftermarket car stereos can’t have the simple controls and big buttons that the factory units that were fitted to cars like the Escort.

    I bought a Pioneer for my ageing CR-V because it had an SD card slot, USB slot and a input jack (before anyone asks, no I haven’t used any of these features since I got it – but I will, one day…)

    The Pioneer is so complicated to set up – everything is accessed by various menus and a horrid volume control/joystick thingy that is trying to do too many things to be successful at any of them. It has a huge display which can feature dolphins swimming in blue LCD for some strange reason – it can’t display the CD track time in a format you can actually read without binoculars though. It does sound good though and is incredibly powerful. I just want it to be easy to use.

    There must be a huge market out there for great sounding, simple to use car stereos. A generation grew up on fitting decent stereos that had a volume control, bass and treble control and simple to use buttons. Why is nobody catering for us thirty and forty somethings? And why can’t you change the display colour on most modern car stereos? I have a Kenwood fifteen years ago that gave you a choice of green or amber, so why is the illumination on my Pioneer blue?

  73. I recently went past the car stereo display of a major electronics store – wow, not a single unit I would ever consider to buy! As above, even from a distance they all look like you’ll never be able to actually use them when the car is moving. When I needed a new head unit in recent years ebay was my friend – after buying new (and expensive) in my early motoring years. The best bit was finding a digital FM stereo unit with electronically controlled auto-reverse deck that fitted my Maxi’s dash without the need to saw a rectangular opening into the pristine dash 1989!

  74. I got a Rover R750 with RDS from ebay to fit to my Maestro TD. It was an original optional fit, so the manual for it was in the Maestro owner’s handbook. People can’t believe the sound quality with a mix of Blaupunkt and Kenwood ebay sourced coaxial speakers that I swapped for the original Rover ones. I found old neoprene mouse mats cut into ring gaskets helped the sound and stopped the parcel shelf supports zizzing. I did the whole thing for £30.

    I still use tapes – I got a bag full of good compilations for peanuts, when Woolworths stopped selling them. The glove box lid has cassette slots, and there is a slot near the steering wheel for the one in use. I also use a cassette tape adapter and a cheap moblie with a mount for its MP3 player. If I can work it out I might try to use a personal DAB radio with the cassette tape adapter, the older ones that drain batteries more are getting cheaper on ebay.

    The best part of a 90s tape stereo today is nobody wants to nick it!

  75. I tell you summat, the stereos in new Pugs are a pain in the bum. Yep they have the USB slot, but half the time they wouldn’t connect, and then midway through an important phone call, the bluetooth would crash… I now have an improvised hands free kit in my car that involves one of those tape adaptors, plugged into my phone, and uses the car speakers 🙂

  76. My first upgrades were replacing a MW/LW motorola radio with a Goodmans radio cassette in my Dolomite (little speakers sat on the shelf below the dash. Same with the Acclaim, but this time new speakers fitted neatly behind the dash in their proper place behind proper grilles (stereo has arrived!) My Rover 600 SLDI had a dealer fitted upgrade (Pioneer radio cassette with 6 disc changer in the boot) Really needed better speakers (Rover were using Goodmans at the time!) so replaced these – great improvement. My dad had Audi 80’s with Blaupunkt – so much better! – Bought a Sony mini system for the kitchen last yet – DAB radio, MP3 playable CD’s Aux in for MP3 – and amazingly a cassette deck!! – I think audio books kept cassettes going longer but its amazing how long they have lasted given other technology that has come and gone….

  77. Sorry just remembered – remember Fischer C Car Cassette boxes with the little white buttons and the pop out trays? had one for 6 cassettes in the Acclaim and when it got broekn into the theif took the box and the cassettes leaving Barry White’s greatest hits sitting on the dash – when the police asked me for any additional info I did say they just needed to find somebody who had a sense of humour and who did not like Barry White!…..

  78. I remember reading somewhere that the last new car to be sold with a cassette player in the UK was a Lexus, believe it or not..

  79. My Dads 1986 Mk2 Cavalier had those tape drawers.

    Most of the time they held some story tapes which didn’t come with boxes & were always good for keeping me & my brother & sister quiet on long drives.

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