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It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Find a Period-Looking Stereo for My 1991 Toyota MR2 Turbo

I don't want a head unit that makes my interior look like a nightclub. Is that really so much to ask?

The only part of my 1991 Toyota MR2 in a sadder state than its poor, burned-out old turbo motor is the stereo. Since I bought the car in 2014, its head unit’s faceplate has been touch-and-go, losing power with every other press of a button. After it failed completely in the tilted CD-eject position, I started looking for a replacement, only to come to a frustrating conclusion: Nobody makes head units for Radwood-era cars with period looks and modern functionality. And now that many of these cars are old enough to benefit from restoration, I daresay it’s time the aftermarket stepped up its game.

First things first, let’s back up and de-abstract what I mean by period looks. To me, that means no giant double-DIN touchscreens, but also nothing looking like budget party bus equipment—no chrome-painted plastic or glowing colored trim, please. This is for a Toyota with manual crank windows, not a Plymouth Prowler with butterfly doors.

The failed stereo in my 1991 Toyota MR2 Turbo, James Gilboy

Of course, if I wanted nothing more than the factory look, I’d just buy an original Toyota unit and install that. But because I don’t own any cassette tapes and don’t feel like fumbling with CDs every time I want to change albums, I want something a bit more modern and user-friendly. Something that accepts input from my phone, be it by aux jack, USB cord, or even that shitty, fragile connector known as Micro-USB. I don’t think I speak out of turn when I say enthusiasts of my generation with similar tastes and bigger budgets may also demand Bluetooth connectivity, and for nostalgia’s sake, maybe even CD players and tape decks.

Carmakers themselves know people want restomod-style stereos in this vein; Porsche itself offers a navigation-equipped single-DIN head unit for older 911s. At $1,550, though, it’s far from cheap, and the aftermarket hasn’t exactly come up with a competing product. Recommendations on social media have ranged from tasteless and cheap in the case of the Blaupunkt Toronto 420BT to tasteless and expensive, as with the Pioneer DEH-X3800UI. The only head unit I’ve found that might look right is the Sony RSX-GS9, which while resembling the home stereo of my childhood, costs almost as much as that fancy Porsche unit above.

Sony RSX-GS9, via Crutchfield

So weary am I of cruising with my earbuds in that I’ve—hypocritically—considered going touchscreen. I may know my way around Apple CarPlay, but I don’t like the system, and I certainly don’t want it in my personal vehicle. Not just because of my disapproval of touchscreen infotainment or the price of high-tech head units like this, but because a double-DIN touchscreen would require sacrificing my only two cupholders. I’ve had hot coffee dribble down my hip in traffic too many times to bite that bullet.

Cupholders pop out, cupholders pop in, James Gilboy

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