Installing a car antenna
Robert Ferency-Viars is the managing editor for the Crutchfield car A/V learning content, and has been with the company since 1999. A Virginia native from the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he loves spending time with his wonderful wife and sons, listening to music, writing, and playing games with friends. Robert's love for car audio began at 16 when he installed his first car stereo.
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Through accident or otherwise, you may need to replace your car's FM radio antenna. But take heart — it's not as tough a job as you might think.
Connecting a fender-mount antenna
If your vehicle has no antenna, but does have a factory antenna hole, feed the antenna cable through the hole. To run the cable to the receiver, you'll have to find the route the car's designers intended. Look for a plugged hole near the base of the antenna. If we have a MasterSheet™ for your car, it may tell you where to find the hole. Don't use the same hole that other electrical wiring runs through — interference from those wires will likely be picked up by the antenna cable and transmitted to the receiver.
Here's what to do if your vehicle has a factory antenna: After unplugging the old antenna, attach a length of thin wire to the end of the cable. As you pull the cable out of the car, this wire snakes through the cable's path. Once you've pulled the cable all the way out, attach the wire to the end of the new antenna's cable. Then have someone feed the new cable through as you pull the wire back into the car.
Front or rear, the antenna is held in place from underneath by a base that swivels to become flush with the hole, and from the top by a nut that tightens against the top of the fender.
Connecting a pillar-mount antenna
For antennas mounted on the front pillar (the post between the windshield and the front door) or on the roof above the pillar, there are typically two screws securing the antenna/base assembly. Removing these screws will free up the antenna and cable, which travels down the pillar, exiting somewhere in the kick panel area.
Have a friend jiggle the cable until you can find it (you may have to remove the kick panel trim). A short piece of coat hanger with a hook on the end is helpful here. Now attach a wire to the end of the cable as done above for a fender-mount antenna.
Drilling a hole for a new antenna
If your car has no existing antenna hole, you'll need to drill one. Your first step is to note where other cars of the same model have their antennas. Once you've decided on the location and checked the clearance below the mounting surface, use a center punch to mark the location. Next, drill a small pilot hole (a 1/16" bit works well), using a low speed until the hole is started.
On sloping surfaces, apply duct tape around the area to keep the drill from slipping, and to prevent scratching if it does slip. Finish by using a larger bit to open the hole to the required size. If the hole needs to be bigger than your largest bit, use a reamer.
Step-by-Step Antenna Installation
The broken antenna
It happens to many innocent people every day, maybe accidentally, say at the car wash, or as a random act of vandalism. In my case, it was while sweeping a world-stopping eight inches of snow off of the car. All it took was one ill-placed push of the broom and — SNAP! — no more FM reception!
I opted to get a satellite radio system instead, so there was no need to bother replacing the old antenna — triumph! I really didn't miss FM radio anyway, except maybe for the local college station's acoustic music morning show.
The thrill of satellite radio distracted me for almost a year. But now, with the coming of spring, the season of new life and re-birth, I felt compelled to make things right — to restore the karmic balance between me and my car. So I set aside an entire morning to install a new antenna, and borrowed a photographer buddy to capture the experience, sure that I would be able to record my mishaps along the way in an effort to warn future adventurers who might tread this path.
I gathered everything I felt necessary for the job: replacement antenna, toolbox, vehicle-specific instructions for replacing the antenna (a Crutchfield MasterSheet™), and of course, a witness.
Under the dash
The first step was finding the antenna cable under the dash. Normally, you have to remove the stereo from your dash in order to unplug the antenna cable from the rear of the stereo. I was able to skip this step because I use an FM modulator to connect the aforementioned satellite radio system to my car stereo, and the FM antenna was plugged into the modulator. Fortunately, I could get to the modulator (and thus the antenna cable) without touching the radio, enabling me to bypass a major part of the antenna installation process. Nice!
This diagram of an FM modulated CD changer system illustrates how the radio antenna connects to the FM modulator, which in turn feeds the radio and CD changer signals to the receiver (black box on the far right).
After unplugging the cable from the FM modulator, I also had to remove two pieces of housing: the driver's side kick panel and a shroud covering the under side of the steering column area — a simple operation that gave me access to the antenna cable, which was held in place by several retaining clips.
Once the cable was free, I tied a string around the end, so that when I pulled out the old antenna, the string would be pulled along the cable's path inside the car body. This is probably the most important step in the replacement process, as you'll see on the next page.
Next we moved to the exterior of the car. I quickly realized how convenient it was having the antenna located over one of the front window pillars (the posts holding up the roof of the car). This placement made for the most simple and direct cable path. After removing two screws, it was easy to pull the antenna cable out of the pillar. The cable is attached to the old antenna housing, so it pulls right out. And along with the antenna cable came my fancy string.
Old antenna out, new antenna in
Once the old antenna was out of the car, I happily cut the string and discarded the antenna housing and cable. I then tied the string around the connector on the new antenna cable, and fed the cable through the opening in the car's roof.
It sure helped to have someone else on hand during this step. My cameraman guided the new antenna mast and housing into the car from above, while I used the string to pull the cable into the car's interior, down through the pillar and into the kick panel. That's where the string was a vital component of the installation, allowing me to guide the cable end toward the access hole inside the car. I then had to use my fingers to dig the cable end out of the car body.
Once I had the connector in my hand, I gently pulled the length of the cable through the opening and into the floorboard. From there, after removing the string, it was a simple matter to route the cable along the underside of the dash to the FM modulator. I pushed the cable into the retaining clips to secure it and plugged the end into the FM modulator.
Finally, inside the car, I replaced the kick panel and under-dash shroud. Outside, I inserted the screws through the new antenna's mount to secure it to the car. But does it work?
Tightening the final screw.
The final analysis
A "professional" installer would've tested the antenna before completing those last two steps, but I was on a roll and had no time for quality assurance! After everything was back in place, I turned on the radio. Ah! The local rock station came on over the long-unused preset. I pushed each preset button in turn, remembering the corresponding station almost instinctively, like a bird navigating its way home in the spring. I now have a functional FM radio again.
Total elapsed installation time: about 20 minutes.
Overall, replacing my radio antenna was a simple, pain-free process. Looking back, I had several things working in my favor:
- Since I'd already re-routed the antenna connector to an easily-accessed FM modulator, I didn't have to remove the stereo.
- My antenna is located over a front pillar, minimizing the cable run through the car.
Had either of these things been different, the installation would've taken longer and been more difficult. The radio in my car is difficult to remove, due to a securing screw located on the back of the stereo that's very hard to reach. And if the antenna had been on a fender (especially on a rear fender), then I would have had a longer cable run to deal with.
If you divide the antenna replacement into sections, it's easier to comprehend and organize the job:
- remove the stereo;
- trace and pull old antenna cable out;
- pull new cable in;
- put it all back together.
Final word on antenna replecement: it's all about the string. Without that little ball of string, snaking the antenna cable through the car body would be hit or miss. With lots of miss. And now, I'm off to catch a band showdown on the local independent radio station. The lineup is the White Stripes vs. the Wiggles — I'm not joking.