Feb 9, 2019 update to the Ford E-250 project car

Project Van: Upgrading the Electronics

We picked up a cheap used van, fixed the rust on the van’s roof, and started towing with it. After a few weeks, it was clear we needed to do a few upgrades.

Keyless Entry

First, though, we got bored one evening and decided to decode our Ford E-250’s VIN. VINs have all sorts of information stored in them, and it only took us a few minutes to find a free Ford truck VIN lookup tool online. The results: Looks like we have a white cargo van with grey interior (duh). The rear differential has 4.10:1 gearing, which is cool, but no limited slip, which isn’t. Other options listed: Power windows and locks (definitely), and keyless entry.

Wait, what? We knew about the rest of the options, but we definitely didn’t have keyless entry. After all, the previous owner of our van, Grassroots Motorsports’ corporate office, bought it when it was just a year old, and never received any key fobs. They spent 200,000 miles inserting a key to lock and unlock the doors. Just for fun, we decided to see how much it would cost to buy a few key fobs.

For $8.50, we were willing to take the chance, so we did. The new fobs arrived a few days later, and we put the van into programming mode via instructions from the internet (cycle the key 8 times), clicked the button on the fob, and BOOM! Just like that, we now had keyless entry.

Audio Upgrades

We weren’t looking for greatness from our van’s stereo. After all, it’s tough to get great sound out of a giant uninsulated box. But we wanted the basics, meaning a working radio with a Bluetooth connection. We didn’t have that. We had this, shown with the special removal tools we used to yank it out of the dash:

The stock radio was technology straight out of 2006, and the volume knob was broken. Clearly it was time to toss it in favor of something better. Fortunately, our van’s dash hole was about the same size as a standard double-DIN radio, so our options were nearly limitless. Well, there was one limit: budget. We hopped on eBay, hoping to score a cheap, full-featured Chinese radio.

Success! For just over $100, we scored this radio. We’d mention the brand name, but we saw the same radio sold under dozens of different labels, and we’re pretty sure they’re all the same. What can it do? Everything. It has Bluetooth, USB inputs, a cellular connection, steering wheel controls, a GPS navigation system, and even solitaire (seriously). Plus, a backup camera was included in the price. Any name-brand radio with these same features seemed to fetch $4-600, so we clicked “Buy” and waited a few weeks. Worst case, we figured PayPal would probably help us get our money back.

To make our installation easier, we bought adapter harnesses from Metra for the radio and speakers. The company builds an infinite array of products to make putting a stereo into your car quick and easy, and it’s extremely reasonably priced, too.

And once everything had arrived, we went to work. First step: Remove the factory radio.

Then we built an adapter to go from the stock Ford radio plug to our new radio. We used the Metra adapter and the Chinese plug.

One word of caution: We wouldn’t call the radio’s instructions good. The wiring diagram, for example, was simply a blank page.

Next, we needed to mount the included GPS antenna. We stuck it to the center of the dash, using the van’s HVAC actuator cover as a convenient place to hide the wire.

Next up: The backup camera.

We used some small nuts and bolts to attach it to the license plate surround in the rear door.

Then, to connect the camera to the radio, we used a standard two-prong RCA cable and routed it next to the factory wiring harness that runs from the van’s dash to the rear door. One side of the cable carried the camera’s video signal, while we stripped the plug off the other side and tied it into the right backup lamp. On the radio end of the RCA cable, we attached that side to the reverse switch input. Pulling a reverse signal from the backup light saved us time and complexity, because we would have otherwise needed to de-loom the van’s main wiring harness and find a reverse signal.

Success! Note that we aimed our camera so we’d be able to see the trailer hitch, making hooking up a trailer much, much easier.

Next, we needed to add an auxiliary port, since the radio’s input is on the rear.

We ordered a port on Amazon, drilled a hole in the dash, and screwed it in. We’d later upgrade to a port that included a USB plug, too.

Now that the wiring was finished, it was time to install the new radio.

Our dash’s opening required some slight trimming with a dremel tool.

Success! With the radio installed, we threw some used 6x8” speakers in the front doors, then tested it out. The internal amplifier isn’t the best sounding thing in the world, but it’s totally good enough, and every feature on the radio seems to work as intended. Is it perfect? No–we’ve experienced a few crashes and the occasional weird menu or button–but for the price we can’t complain. We’d absolutely install the same radio again.

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