replacing a non-standard OEM car stereo

I hesitate to post this to GQ, but I think this is the best place for it.

My wife wants me to replace the stereo in her '99 escort zx2 with something a bit snazzier for her long commute. Not the speakers, just the stereo. I thought this would be easy, but the stereo is part of a molded elliptical console. It’s not just a rectangular unit that can be popped out and replaced. The buttons and knobs are part of the console along with the temperature controls. For you car stereo folks, what do you normally do in this situation? Do I have to replace the stereo at the dealer, or can one of those retail electronics chains handle it? How much extra dough will I have to shell out?

I’ve looked for an answer at various car stereo installation sites and FAQs without success.

Sounds like the Ford modular radio that they phased in during the late '90s. I have a stereo like that in my '97 Taurus. Only the controls are in the dash. The actual radio is in the trunk, connected via cable to the controls on the dash.

I don’t think it’s possible to actually replace it with an in-dash radio. Maybe a remote CD changer might be a better choice?

I’m unfamiliar with what the aftermarket has to offer.

One possibility is to get an optional Escort stereo, assuming they offered a better model than the one she has. New, it would probably be astronomical, but usually good used ones are available at a reasonable price. Presumably it would be a drop-in replacement, but it might not hurt to verify that with a wiring diagram or by checking with someone knowledgeable at a Ford dealership. If such a unit incorporates a colored dash panel, you might have to choose between a color mismatch or a long wait.

If the main consideration is adding a CD player to an otherwise satisfactory unit, there are adaptors that go between a Discman-type player and a cassette deck. They work well, although the resulting system is more of a bother than an all-in-one factory unit.

I don’t know if you’ve checked out yet, but they list two types of zx2s, one with premium sound, one without. Both indicate that “special parts (not free)” are required for installation. They do have an 1-800 number available for installation questions, that may be worth pursuing.

Can you tell us what you mean by “snazzier”? What exactly are you trying to accomplish? If it’s the sound you’re not happy with, in most instances upgrading the speakers (and, in some cases, adding an external amp) will have a greater effect on performance than the head unit (most head units these days are pretty decent, it’s the crappy speakers that kills the sound). Many OEM head units have preamp outputs even if they’re not used in most installations.

If you’re looking to add a CD changer, PIE electronics offers interfaces to use aftermarket CD changers with some Ford head units. Your local dealer can probably order one for you. But it might be easier (and cheaper) to find a Ford CD changer on ebay.

Crutchfield offers an adaptor for the Taurus/Sable with the elliptical console part (doesn’t work with auto climate control, though). Dunno if this would fit the ZX2 (probably not), but this is probably the sort of thing you’re looking for. Give Crutchfield a call; their advisors have a lot more info than what’s on the site. You might also try posting your query on Usenet on

If it is the oval Ford dash combined radio/ air controls, then there is hope. Crutchfield has a replacement for it that allows you to put a regular rectangle dash stereo in. It IS 50$ though. You can that put ANY(for the most part) aftermarket stereo you want in. Crutchfield comes with lots of instructions that make it pretty easy to put in your own car stereo with minimal trouble.

This is the item you’re looking for. The Taurus/Sable part mentioned by dead0man and myself is definitely the wrong one.

Yes, the Escort/Tracer, and the Taurus/Sable use a similar looking design, but they are actually totally different.

Your local Best Buy or Circuit City carries the Escort installation kit; it’s $60, but it does include the wiring harness adapter as well, which would be $16 separately.

One the Escorts, the radio itself is an ordinary unit, with all of the compnonents right inside the radio; it’s just a regular rectangle radio grafted onto the oval dash, which you’ll see when you remove it.

You’ll notice four little holes on the front of the radio; these require what are commonly called “Ford keys” to remove. They’re two U-shaped pieces of metal, and are around $5 at Sears or Wal-Mart; they also come included with Blaupunkt radios. (I’ve tried using bent coat hangers as a substitute; it’s very frustrating if it works at all, and you’ll get scratches all over the place… do get the Ford keys.)

The instructions in the kit are very detailed and accurate, but also lengthy and confusing. Even so, follow them to the letter and you shouldn’t have problems. When/if you do this, get in touch with me and I’ll give you some extra tips that you’ll find helpful.

I’m aware of some of the ZX-2s having a premium, upgraded factory sound system, but I’ve never seen one. This would consist of an outboard, higher-powered amplifier, probably in the trunk. People may tell you you’ll need to bypass this amp; you don’t. I’ve done dozens, if not hundreds of aftermarket deck installs in Fords; the factory amps still play fine. And I never use any of the “factory amp interface adapter” pieces on Fords either.

Your aftermarket radio will come with a plug with wires; this fits the radio of course. The install kit will come with another plug with wires; this fits onto the factory Ford plugs in the car. This way, you’ll never have to hack up the car’s factory wiring, since you’ll be using the adapter. You can easily connect these two plugs’ wires together at your kitchen table, making the job easier. There’s a wire in there that will turn on any factory amp; make sure you hook it up.

Tools you’ll also need: Small Torx driver, needed to transfer your heater knobs over to the new kit. Solder/soldering iron/electrical tape or crimpers/butt connectors, depending on how you’d like to connect the two plugs’ wires together… I prefer soldering, but either will work if done right.

For aftermarket radios, avoid the $80 specials; they’re usually very unreliable. Stick with a brand name CD deck in the $130-200 range, like Pioneer, Kenwood, Alpine, Sony, Clarion. In my experience, Aiwa decks are underpowered compared to the rest, and they eat CDs a lot.

Time frame, for an inexperience person, but who’s good with his hands: 10-15 minutes getting the factory radio out; 30-40 minutes at the kitchen or workbench, assembling the kit and the wire harness adapter; 10-15 minutes putting the car back together. On the other hand, I’ve worked on a whole bunch of these cars, and I know the kit’s pieces very well; I can do one of these in about 25 minutes.

Let me know if you need any more help, and you also might visit the forums at

Thanks for all of your help, folks. This is exactly the kind of information I was looking for. :slight_smile: