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The history of Crutchfield's car audio DIY support

How we've helped customers install their own gear since 1974

When Crutchfield started selling car stereos and speakers in the 1970s, there wasn’t much to it. We carried a handful of models of each in a limited number of sizes or configurations. And in those days of the ’70s and early ’80s, selling car audio gear through the mail wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Well, not if you wanted to be able to give the customer everything they needed for a DIY installation project. But that was how we wanted to do it.

Any retailer could sell you a car stereo. Crutchfield wanted you to also have the wiring harness, adapter kit, and basic knowledge that you’d need to get the job done right.

A measured (and measuring!) approach

This meant taking lots of measurements, both of the gear and of cars. Crutchfield Editor Jim Richardson, who started here in 1976, remembers, "Radios were built to sort of fit the standard dash openings of the day. The radios had a nosepiece and a radio dial and later on a cassette slot with control shafts on either side of that. The hole in the dash was a rectangular slot with two circles on either side for the shafts. If the radio you wanted to go in there was bigger than the slot then you had to cut or file it to fit, or re-drill those holes in the dash."

An early Crutchfield installation diagram

In our early catalogs, we provided basic diagrams of common installation techniques.

In the second edition of our catalog (Spring/Summer 1975, for those of you keeping score at home), we made the commitment to sending approved reproductions of pages from Chilton’s guides to each customer who provided their vehicle information. Over time, however, we started including lots of images and all the key measurements for stereos and speakers in the catalog.

By 1992, we had dedicated a car research team to measure vehicles for fit. We got our hands on vehicles to take apart and measure any way we could. Which typically meant hours spent in junkyards, dealing with heat and dodging snakes to get every measurement we could possibly need.

Crutchfield vehicle research team members hard at work.

At the start of our research program, we logged countless hours in junkyards getting as much data as we could get our hands on.

But even before then, our amount of vehicle data had grown to be unparalleled in the car audio industry. According to Jim: "We started amassing some information in binders of cars we had worked on ourselves – either cars we owned or cars of our friends. While we were helping them we would take some notes.

"If someone called up and they happened to have a car that was in the binder we could give them some decent information about it. If not, we could give them some generic instructions on how to take the radio out of the dash. Then we’d have them measure the nosepiece and the space between the shafts, and using those dimensions we could tell them what fits based on what radios we had. And then we’d add the information that they gave us to our binder. It was crowdsourced information early on."

An early Crutchfield stereo specs chart

Until we moved our vehicle-fit info online, our customers used charts in our catalogs to find the stereos that fit their vehicles.

Since then, we’ve neither looked back nor slowed down. Instead of scouring junkyards, our research team now maintains relationships with local dealerships. This gets us access to the latest vehicles not long after they’ve rolled off the assembly line. The guys on our team do painstakingly careful measuring, documenting, and photographing of the disassembly process. Sometimes they'll shoot over 600 photos of an individual model.

Wayne and Ben in car

Wayne and Ben are the driving forces of our vehicle research team today.

Kits and harnesses changed the game

In the early days, the concept of a vehicle-specific car stereo mounting kit didn’t necessarily exist. There were lots of generic kits and kits that were made to work in a wide variety of vehicles, but not necessarily be a perfect match. It was often up to the installer to "make" the stereo fit the car, often by cutting into the metal dashboard and then trim it out with a very simple adapter. Also common was the ubiquitous underdash kit, which just attached to the underside of the car’s dashboard.

Carl Mathews, head of our car buying team, notes, "The kits were much more simple than they are now – a bit of plastic and a little bit of bent metal and maybe a backstrap to hold the radio in place. And the harnesses were just a Molex plug with some wires coming out. And that was all you needed to do most car stereo installs."

A 1976 listing of dash kits offered by Crutchfield

In 1976, we offered just a few mounting kits, as there were fewer car models on the road. Today, we carry over 1,000!

Crutchfield’s tech support manager of the time, Dave Schaefer, was instrumental in making sure our customers got the stuff they needed for a professional installation. He would source parts directly from car dealerships and companies like Scosche and Metra. He then used those parts to assemble our own more-complete stereo installation kits for customers.

And if there just wasn’t anything out there on the market for a specific car, that didn’t stop us. If necessary, we would fashion additional parts in our own in-house machine shop. Fortunately, the kit-and-harness industry has grown to the point we don’t need that shop anymore…though sometimes we miss it.

Crutchfield techs designing dash mounting kits.

For a time, we did our own designing and manufacturing of installation kits for vehicles that other kit manufacturers hadn't covered yet.

We’re also proud to say that Dave’s efforts led to industry standardization of wire colors, which makes stereo installation projects so much easier.

As Dave told us, "every radio manufacturer had a different color code for the back of the radios. Now, everything is color-coded. Red is switched power. Yellow is constant. All that stuff did not exist. Pioneer, Sony, everybody had different colors for everything. We wanted to standardize color codes for every radio in the industry. I talked to the owner of [kit and harness manufacturer] Metra at the time, and he said, ‘Dave, if they ever do that, I’ll eat my hat.’ The week that I left Crutchfield, I got a call from Sherwood and Blaupunkt and they said, ‘Dave, we’re switching over to your color codes.’ It was a real nightmare for so long. And that was all driven by Crutchfield because that kind of standardization was not something that was going to happen easily."

Never stop learning

As the Crutchfield catalog evolved, readers could count on articles that illuminated the murky endeavor of cutting into their car dash and doors and wiring new gear for power. At first, it was Bill’s first-hand account of upgrading the audio in his ’60s-era Porsche and then his ’70s model Mercury. And it continues today. We offer tons of installation overviews for a wide variety of vehicles in the Crutchfield Research Garage.

Crutchfield installation articles in print and online

We've been writing about the stereo and speaker installation processes in specific vehicles since 1976...and we have no intention of stopping that trend.

Then something happened that seems like a natural in retrospect, but was a game-changer at the time. When a customer opened their box of newly purchased car audio gear, they found a handy booklet accompanying it. It was called "The Installation Doctor." Combining personal stories, tips, and detailed instructions, the Doctor – Dave Schaefer, in fact – walked customers through the finer points of installing car speakers, a radio, and more in their vehicle.

[Read the full story about the Installation Doctor.]

Installation Doctor

Since we shipped the Installation Doctor with every car audio order, that left room in the new and improved Crutchfield catalog for specific vehicle profiles, an exciting way to see the latest gear in popular cars of the time. In the decades since, the Installation Doctor evolved, becoming a highly coveted installation and tuning manual, a VHS video guide, and eventually our vehicle-specific MasterSheet. And as we transitioned to retail online in 1995, we populated with everything you needed to know about the gear we sell and how to install it. That remains true today.

Inside Crutchfield, we call them "learn" articles – helpful content that sheds light on the products we sell. From shopping to installation to fine-tuning, we strive to provide everything you need to know about what you’re about to dive into. It’s so ingrained in how we do things that it’s easy to forget that not everyone does it that way.

Tech support from the start

Having a tech support department has long been a mainstay here at Crutchfield. We knew from the start that for lots of customers, doing the DIY thing would be embarking on an entirely new journey, so we wanted to be available by phone if they hit any kind of snag. We started with just a few techs and limited contact hours. Now, have grown into a big department staffed by highly trained experts.

Dave Schaefer, former director of the Crutchfield tech department

One thing at Crutchfield has never changed: our dedication to providing our customers with the tech support they need to install their gear.

Innovative help

In the late 1980s Crutchfield Advisors were using a paper-based system known as the Kit List to help customers find the right stereo, speakers, and dash kits for their car. Carl recounts, "Each line of the kit list was a car year/make/model/trim level. It would tell you which radio and which kit if any was required to fit that radio in the car, harness number, and which speakers would fit in which locations: front door, back door, rear deck. There weren’t even that many speaker locations."

But of course, not every car was in the database. Crutchfield Advisor Brad, who’s been with us since 1982, would occasionally take calls from customers with vehicles with little or no information available. He recalls, "We would have the customer do some measuring. What size is the hole? Tell me about the bolt pattern. Is it a 3-point or 4-point? What are the distances? Look at the depth you have. They’d measure and we’d tell them what we could go with."

An early guide to measuring one's own stereo

In our first few years of business, we sometimes relied on customers to provide us with their dash measurements. But we made sure to help them know exactly what to measure.

Eventually the information in the Kit List went into a computer database (originally called Albert). This made it much easier for Crutchfield Advisors to find the right gear and for the car research team to add even more data for each vehicle.

Albert, Crutchfield's first vehicle-fit database computer

When it was time to go digital, we went big. Albert was our first database system. It let our advisors use a computer instead of physical charts to match up vehicles and stereos. Barbara, pictured here, is still one of our IT services managers.

Crutchfield also started selling car audio gear that didn’t require any fit information. Senior Creative Director Mike Sokolowski fondly recounts, "There were a lot of calls from a younger demographic for amps and subs. One ace in the hole we had was the Crutchfield amplifier. They were really good quality amplifiers that had a 2-year warranty. Of course the classic question: ‘What hits harder, two 10s or one 12?’ Talk about a subjective question! Because customizing an amplified subwoofer rig is a little more complicated, you would have long conversations about that stuff."

Crutchfield amps, circa 1991

For a time, we manufactured our own brand of car amplifier. We just had to channel our enthusiasm for more power somehow...

Crutchfield takes to the web

In 1995, Crutchfield launched a modest early website, mostly to sell Sony products. But by 1997, was advanced enough to allow customers to enter vehicle information and to find select products that would fit their car – a capability far beyond any other car audio retailer online at the time. Jim Richardson helped with that aspect of the website:

"There were IT people and editors and a few designers. And between us we had to figure out how to take this relatively raw, ugly data and present it so the text looked okay on the screen. Bill Crutchfield decided this needed to be serious. He sent the team across the street – he didn’t want us to be bothered by the things going on in the main building."

Crutchfield's website, circa 1997

While we're proud of the fact that we were one of the first A/V retailers to start selling products online, we're happy that our site has come a very long way since then.

Once the Crutchfield website established itself, it proved to be an exciting complement to the thriving catalog business. And as the web and technology in general have grown, cars and the demands of a service-based industry have also changed. Carl observes: "As cars evolved, things got gradually more difficult in some cars. And the database information has evolved. And customers’ expectations have evolved. Do-it-yourselfers in that time were more self-sufficient; there was no internet."

We're still finding new ways to help

Over time, Crutchfield has added its Outfit My Car tool to help customers find the right gear online. In 2014, an internal application called KitFinder brought together car gear information like never before. Sokolowski describes it as such:

"I have never seen a shopping tool that works with three dimensions of data so seamlessly. It can reference data points on the radio, data points on the car, and data points on every single interface item possible that will allow you to install the radio in the car. It can tell you what features you’ll gain, retain, and lose, and the price tradeoffs for each." KitFinder is what allows most customers to quickly compare several options for speakers and stereos whenever they enter their vehicle information.

Crutchfield’s newest tool for do-it-yourselfers is the ReadyHarness service. Since 2017, Crutchfield has offered to pre-wire new stereos with vehicle-specific wiring harnesses. This saves hours on installation time for those without the time or inclination to solder, crimp, or otherwise attach the wiring necessary for an aftermarket stereo to work in a vehicle. In some cases, it even includes steering wheel controls. This has proven to be an unbelievable value based on the high customer ratings it's received.

With our ReadyHarness service, we connect your stereo and vehicle wiring harnesses for you.

With our ReadyHarness service, we connect your stereo and vehicle wiring harnesses for you.

A company-defining legacy

Prompted to describe the calls he got in the early days, Brad recalls, "Most of the folks were DIY-ers who wanted to do it themselves. Everybody knew it was backyard mechanic work. They just needed to know what the parameters were: What’s it going to take? What size opening for the radio? What size for the speaker? We could provide that information."

Amazingly, when it comes to helping car audio customers get the best information possible, things haven’t changed THAT much for Crutchfield in the past 50 years. To learn for yourself what we have to offer, surf the site or give us a call at 1-888-955-6000.

  • AJ from Midlothian

    Posted on 1/1/2020

    Ah yes, the old paper cross-reference charts - remember them well. Crutchfield has been my go to source for car audio since the early 1980s and just bought my latest unit from them last month. They've been a blessing for DIYers over the years. Keep on chooglin'!

  • Dave Rothert from San Jose

    Posted on 3/15/2019

    I have been buying from Crutchfield since the 80s and still have one of their amps when they were closing them out. Ironically I just bought a new head unit and cable from them to go in my '75 Cadillac which was built in '74.... quite a project with me building custom kick panels and sub enclosures. Great people to work with!

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 3/27/2019

    Thanks for your continued support Dave! And we'd love to see some pics of your Cadillac when it's finished, maybe even for a feature in our Custom Car Showroom if you like.
  • Frank Safranek from Escondido

    Posted on 3/14/2019

    A very interesting and nostalgic read. I was subscribed to the Crutchfield catalog back in the early 1980's. I'm sure I still have them in a box around here somewhere. Was delighted to rediscover the company again this past year.

  • Frank White from McPherson

    Posted on 3/14/2019

    I've been buying gear from Crutchfield since the 80s. It's interesting to see how much the business has simultaneously changed and stayed the same as you've adapted to the Internet. I have never had anything remotely approaching a bad experience with Crutchfield. Also, I really enjoy the history and scans of retro catalogs and guides. We've come so far!

  • Bill Komulainen from Camden

    Posted on 3/14/2019

    Ah the old days! I remember talking to Bill back in the '70s wondering about upgrading my factory 4 watt system in my VW. Our conclusion to strap the new 18 watt under the dash. It was perfect! Thank you for the extensive history. You guys do great work. PLEASE don't dumb-down your focus on your customers. Seriously, cost cutting pressure can encourage any organization to make bad strategical choices. Even yours. It's totally what separates you from the masses. Bill K

  • Brandon O. from Wapakoneta

    Posted on 3/14/2019

    An awesome read. I am very grateful that Crutchfield has done so many painstaking hours of research to make my life easier. I was blown away by how easy it was to get everything I needed for my vehicle. Thank you Crutchfield and keep up the great work.

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    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 3/14/2019

    Thanks, Brandon!

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