Ancient ICE: retro radios for your classic car

That push-button Motorola looks just right in your Cortina, but won’t stream your podcasts – or will it? Gordon Cruickshank twiddles some knobs and finds that almost anything is possible


One of the few things that niggles me about my 1989 BMW 635 is that it came with a horrible ’90s radio – all swoopy chrome and flashing lights.

I could search for the correct period radio-cassette, but then I’d miss out on DAB, Bluetooth and BBC podcasts. So I’ve been investigating alternatives. As a result this column is less about collecting than finding suitable old-looking things for the classic car you’ve already collected.

If you do want a period radio that matches your car’s age you’ll find dealers at the big autojumbles as well as online. And once you’ve found the right head unit you can have it invisibly converted to VHF, DAB or Bluetooth (including hands-free phone) while retaining the original look. It will cost, though: expect to pay £400 upwards for a mid-range upgraded unit, while specialists Tadpole Radios ask £1800 for a DAB and Bluetooth-converted set for a 1960s Rolls-Royce. At Chrome London there’s a range of period radios any of which can be modernised, starting at £295 for an original VW campervan radio (plus £55 for MP3/iPod connection) right up to a hens’ teeth original Becker for a BMW 507, now with all digital doo-dahs – £3795. But a 507 is worth a couple of million so it’s peanuts.

There are also DIY Bluetooth conversion kits available if you’re brave enough to try your own electro-vivisection. Another option is to buy new: Blaupunkt has cottoned onto the classic market and makes cleanly styled black units which would look fine in a 1980-2000s vehicle. The Bremen (£330) offers DAB and Bluetooth in a smart design which appears to have a cassette slot, but which conceals USB, SD and 3.5mm aux sockets. A decade ago Becker updated its Mexico unit with DAB, Bluetooth and even satnav, but that was the last of a famous line and is now hard to find.

If you’re happy with a generic look, Classic Car Stereo and Moss Europe offer vintage-looking twin-spindle head units with chrome or black fascias hiding DAB and Bluetooth functions, from £159 on. American makers Retro Manufacturing also makes a very compact head unit with a wide ‘pick and mix’ variety of fascia and knob types in all finishes, so you should be able to suit a pre-war car up to the 1960s.


Eight-track cartridge players offered non-stop music, and some classic owners still like the idea

As with any radio you will need an aerial, and electric ones for FM are easily found at £30 and up; for DAB you may need an amplified unit and there are a variety of windscreen or concealed ones on the market.

Maybe you don’t want to spoil your open tourer with any sort of visible audio. If so Classic Car Stereo has hidden music, with concealed speakers and Bluetooth receiver. Or there’s a man in America who makes a particularly neat standalone 100W Bluetooth kit, just a single pull switch that he can match to your existing knobbery. After all, you can stream any audio you want from your phone.

Going further back, there are still 8-track cartridge fans, and one of these non-stop players could look cool in a ’50s convertible – about £20 onwards. And yes, you can still find pre-recorded cartridges, although you’ll have to settle for music up to the mid-1980s when the 8-track had reached its sell-by date.

There have been record players too, featuring crushing needle weights to minimise scoring your favourite 45s. Using on the move not recommended, but a cool accessory for a 1950s or ’60s open boulevard cruiser.


Becker’s final Mexico hid Bluetooth, phone and discreet satnav behind its classic-look fascia

But the big boom from the ’70s onwards was in cassette players, growing in sophistication from dead simple ‘push to play’ to absurdly complex 1990s equipment, when equalisers and VU meters boomed and flashed on your dash. You can find plenty for all eras, from £20 on Ebay (but a gamble whether it works) to several hundred from a specialist supplier refurbished and tested. An ’80s or ’90s tape deck from quality names such as Blaupunkt or Becker will cost you more than a new head unit, perhaps £450. But don’t worry – you can still use your iPod by buying a Bluetooth cassette adapter for a tenner.

You’ve probably thrown out your CDs – in a few years you’ll regret that when CD follows the cycle of becoming retro-stylish, like vinyl and even cassettes, which are now seeing new music releases. But if you still want to enjoy your musical beer mats you can combine those with DAB, MP3 and Bluetooth in one of Continental’s range which would nicely suit an ’80s or ’90s European vehicle, but are increasingly hard to find. And having done my researches, what will I buy? Since I too rarely drive the car, I see that for £30 you can buy a new retro-look Bluetooth receiver. I think I’m going cheapskate.

Motorola classic Jensen radio

Motorola magic
Chances are your Jensen Interceptor no longer has its original radio. Here’s the factory spec unit, upgraded to Bluetooth and phone functionality. DAB option available.
For sale Chrome London, £2295

Becker Mexico radio

German style
With its ivory buttons and knobs this Becker sits beautifully in a BMW 507, or other 1950s German classic. Upgraded to modern tech.
For sale Chrome London, £3795

Dial-a-tune player

Classic 1970s Pioneer KP500 radio-cassette, serviced and tested. For under-dash Installation. An auxiliary input can be fitted for around £25 extra.
For sale Ebay, £299

Push-button player

Push-button player
FM/MW radio refurbished with 180W output and aux input for iPod/MP3. Bluetooth and phone options extra.
For sale Tadpole Radios, £918

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