Importing a Car radio

I like the simplicity of my VW Polo’s standard radio unit, but I really need a bluetooth handsfree kit and iPod connectivity. I first tried an after-market kit that added the needed functionality to the factory radio, but after returning it for the third time (each time waiting more than a month for the replacement via normal postal service) and still having problems with the iPod connectivity, I decided it was time for a complete new unit.

Car radio’s are a lot more expensive in South Africa than in the States, so I decided to buy a unit from Amazon. I found a great touch-screen unit (Pioneer AVH-P3350BT) for a fraction of the cost of a similar unit in South Africa. I’ve had the unit now for more than a year and I’m very happy with my purchase. There was, however, a couple of issues. Here is a list of them to help prospective buyers thinking of going the import from USA route:

– The first problem I had was the supplied  routing harness didn’t fit my vehicle. Of course one cannot expect manufacturers to supply harnesses for all the different vehicles, but I thought I could source one from one of the local radio installers. No luck there – seems like they just cut and bind the wires to fit. I didn’t like that too much, as I would like the option to go back to the factory radio in case I sell the car.

Luckily I still had the after-market bluetooth adapter with the right connector, so I just soldered the wires onto that. First problem solved.

– Next problem was the fitting for the antenna – the connection on the radio needed a different adapter than the on I had on my vehicle. Luckily I was able to make an adapter  from spare parts i had on hand (mostly TV aerial fittings.)

– Ok, so now the radio worked, but to watch DVD’s the radio had to detect that the handbrake was enabled. This is due to a US law that prohibits watching movies while driving. The unit has a wire that you need to connect to your brake switch. Well, I really didn’t feel like searching for the brake switch wire hidden somewhere in the car, so I looked for a way to bypass it (we do not have such a law in SA, so I’m not doing anything illegal here.)

The unit needs to detect nothing on the wire when you turn the vehicle on, and then a connection to Ground (handbrake on) before enabling the DVD player. At first I tried to tie it directly to ground, but the radio was too smart for that. Luckily it was quite easy to bypass in the end – see this post for more details.

– So now everything worked, but the radio was much smaller than the opening. The unit came with a bigger cover (facia trim), but it was just a thin piece of shiny black plastic and it looked terrible next to the Polo’s dashboard. I used plywood to cut a new facia trim and managed to get a near perfect Matt finish by using a couple of coats of Blackboard spray paint (paint you can spray on anything to create your own black board.)

– Everything done, so how does the imported radio work in South African conditions?

The biggest problem is the tuning frequencies – in the US the stations are only on the odd frequencies (e.g. 94.1, 94.3, 94.5) so you cannot tune into a station like 94.2 (it skips all the even frequencies). For some people this would definitely be a deal breaker, but luckily I only listen to Talk 702 ( 92.7) when I’m not listening to my iPod, so it doesn’t matter to me, but be sure to avoid American-specific radios if you need all the frequencies!

The DVD player works well, but you may have problems with certain DVD’s, as it is a different  region.

The bluetooth connectivity is a great asset – it shows incoming numbers, phonebook, last dialled numbers, signal and battery strength and a lot more. I keep my phone’s bluetooth permanently on so I’m always ready to receive a call when driving.

The iPod interface also works like a charm. Only negative for me is the socket is in front of the radio, so there’s always a cable sticking out. To make it less visible, I use a black USB extension that goes to my iPod in the cubby hole.

Otherwise it’s a great little unit and works perfectly for me!






Handbrake bypass switch

I bought a Pioneer radio and wanted to bypass the brake detection circuit to watch DVD’s. The unit has a wire that needs to detect nothing on the wire when you turn the vehicle on, and then a connection to Ground (handbrake on) before enabling the DVD player.

On the internet you can find a circuit where they use a relay to bypass it. The circuit looks like this:

Relay handbrake bypass


It works as follows:

  1. When you turn on the vehicle, there is no power on the Blue (Amp/delayed power) wire, so the relay is not energised and the Green (handbrake detect) wire detects nothing (connected to the Normally Open pin of relay)
  2. A short while later, power is delivered to the blue wire, energising the relay (switching it on)  and now the Green wire detects ground.
  3. The Blue wire is now permanently powered (that is, until you switch the vehicle off), so the Green wire keeps on detecting Ground (handbrake connected)

This circuit works, but for me the relay solution looked too clumsy and wasted unnecessary power keeping the coil energised, so I made the same circuit with a transistor.

Transistor brake bypass

This circuit works basically the same:

  1. When you turn on the vehicle, there is no power on the Blue (Amp/delayed power) wire, so the transistor is turned off and the Green (handbrake detect) wire detects nothing
  2.  A short while later, power is delivered to the blue wire, switching the transistor on,  and now the Green wire is connected to  ground.
  3. The Blue wire is now permanently powered, so the Green wire stays connected to ground (handbrake connected)

The transistor circuit is much smaller than the relay circuit and consumes  almost no current!