Originally appeared in the July/August 1989 issue of Car Stereo Review magazine.
Over the past four years, I have received many letters regarding the construction of the TERMINATORS steering wheel. This wheel, which resembles the type found in some jet airliners, has the unique distinction of having the controls for an Escort radar detector mounted in the center of its faceplate.
While the remote operation of a radar detector is not a new concept, locating the remote controls in the steering wheel itself is. In fact, several car manufacturers are just now beginning to mount the controls for sound systems inside the steering wheels of some of their newer models.
The following is a recount of the procedure I used for constructing the custom wheel in the TERMINATOR. Hopefully, the methods and ideas I used here will provide valuable food for thought for other projects you might be contemplating.
The most important consideration in any project is safety. You must be ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that any modifications made to the vehicle will not impair its normal operation. This is especially true of the steering mechanism. If there is even the slightest doubt as to the safety of a particular modification, then that modification shouldnt be attempted.
The subject of legality also needs to be addressed. Some states limit or ban the use of radar detectors. If you happen to be caught using a radar detector in one of these states, it could cost you a heavy fine and/or you could lose your radar detector.
Many states also have mandatory codes pertaining to the size and shape of the steering wheel itself. Some sound advice would be to check with local DPS officials before spending several hundred dollars on a wheel that you cant use.
The warranty of the radar detector itself should also be considered. In most instances, this warranty will become null and void once the unit is modified or tampered with in any way.
Also, to perform the modifications described in this article will require a certain amount of technical know-how. If you feel uncomfortable about your own "homebrewing" abilities, you might want to find a friend or neighbor who would be willing to get their hands dirty.
In order to compliment the "cockpit style" layout of the TERMINATORS dash, a control wheel from a Beechcraft King Air twin engine airplane was selected for modification. This wheel turned out to be an ideal choice. It already had provisions for a faceplate in the center, and being hollow, there was plenty of room for electronics internally. Besides, it would make for one heck of a neat looking steering wheel.
After an extensive search through the inventory of a local Beechcraft parts distributor, I was able to walk away with my prize for a mere $230.00. Unfortunately, the color of this wheel was white, while the color I intended to use was black. "No problem," I said to myself, "Ill just sand the white finish off and repaint the wheel black."
Six hours and three blisters later, I decided that my efforts were no match for those of the aerospace industry. The white finish on the control wheel had barely been scratched! Giving my aching muscles a rest, I let my fingers do the walking while I phoned various metal treatment facilities around the valley. Finally, I located a business that agreed to strip the white finish from the control wheel for only $20.00. What a deal!
With the stripped control wheel in one hand and my checkbook in the other, I walked in the door of an industrial paint shop. After several minutes discussion with the resident engineer, he persuaded me to use a gloss black powder paint.
This paint, he said, is actually bonded to the metal electronically, and then baked on for several hours to provide an attractive, yet incredibly durable, high gloss finish. From here, he proceeded to lecture me on the properties of materials and the molecular structure of other various coatings. Before he could continue further, I handed him the wheel and a check for $35.00.
Several days later I was informed that the paint job had been completed. Since I had spent $285.00 thus far, I was quite anxious to see the culmination of my investment. Fortunately, the outcome was even better that I had anticipated.
The selection of the radar detector proved to be a much simpler process. Since I have always been partial to Cincinnati Microwave products, the decision to use an Escort came as no surprise. In my opinion, this is one of the finest detectors available. And with a retail price of around $225.00, it also happens to be one of the most expensive.
Since Im not rich (yet), I have to justify everything I buy or I suffer from a big time guilt trip. I justified the Escort in a manner something similar to this. A Hyundai will get you from point A to point B just fine. A Porsche 911 Turbo is also quite capable of doing the job. The question is, "Which one would I rather own?" Once I had answered this question, the decision to purchase an Escort became astonishingly clear.
In addition to the control wheel and radar detector, some multi-conductor cable and a small sheet of Lexan (Plexiglas) will also be required in order to complete the project.
The cable needs to have at least 16 conductors and should preferably be of the shielded variety. If shielded cable is unavailable, plain multi-conductor cable will generally provide adequate results.
The Lexan will be used in fabricating the new faceplate for the control wheel. While other materials will work, 1/8 inch thick Lexan is cheap, easy to work with, and looks great.
In order to perform the required modifications, it will be necessary to dismantle the Escort. To do this, remove the on/off volume control knob and the alert indicator light from the front control panel. The on/off volume knob is held in place by two small set screws. Loosen both of these screws and the knob should slide right off. The alert light simply unscrews.
Once the knob and alert light have been removed, very carefully peel the label overlays off of the front and rear panels of the Escort. Exercise caution when performing this step as you will be re-using both of these overlays later on in the project.
With the labels out of the way, we can now access the four screws that secure each plastic end panel to the metal case. Remove all of these screws and then slowly pull the control panel and main circuit board assembly out of the front of the case.
Due to the Escorts modular construction, remote locating the control panel is a very straightforward process. Since this panel is connected to the main circuit board via a 15 pin plug and a 15 position receptacle, this process amounts to nothing more than fabricating a multi-conductor extension cable for the Escorts control panel.
Paying strict attention to the orientation of the 15 position receptacle, carefully disconnect the control panel from the main circuit board assembly. In addition to the receptacle, there is also a yellow wire that must be unsoldered from the board itself. Once this is done, the control panel should be completely free from connections to the main circuit board.
At this point, you will want to remove the switches, meter, speaker, etc. from the original plastic control panel. Before this can be accomplished, however, it will be necessary to unsolder the power LED, alert light, and photocell. In order to prevent confusion, I recommend that these devices be unsoldered one piece at a time; individually removed from the plastic control panel; and then resoldered to the appropriate wires on the back side of the control panel. Note that the majority of the control panel assembly does not need to be disconnected in order to perform the remote modifications.
Next, use a nut driver to remove the mounting nuts that secure the on/off volume control switch, highway/city switch, and alert indicator light to the control panel. Also, using needle nose pliers, remove the press on locknuts that secure the other components in place. When you are certain that all of the remaining mounting hardware has been removed, pull the entire control assembly out of the original plastic control panel and set it safely to one side.
Now that we have an empty control panel, we can diverge for awhile and begin construction on the new Lexan faceplate for the control wheel. This faceplate will also serve as the new control panel for the Escort.
To begin, carefully trim a piece of poster board material until it fits perfectly inside the recessed area of the control wheel. Next, take a magic marker and trace the outline of the poster board template onto a piece of Lexan. At this point, don safety glasses and very carefully cut along the outside border of the outline with a Dremel tool. In order to prevent scratching, it is recommended that the protective paper on the Lexan be left in place until immediately prior to painting.
When you are done cutting, you should have something that reasonably resembles the size and shape of the desired faceplate. Now, take the Dremel tool and carefully sand away any excess material on the outside of the line. Repeat this process as many times as necessary until the faceplate fits perfectly inside the recessed area of the control wheel.
When the shaping process is complete, take the original Escort control panel and use it as a template to draw the size, shape and location of the various controls on the protective paper cover of the Lexan. In my installation, the highway/city switch, speaker, and alert display indicator are mounted at the top of the faceplate while the on/off volume control, power LED, photocell, and signal strength meter comprise the lower portion. By using the original control panel as a template, we can re-use the factory overlay as will be discussed later.
Cutting the mounting holes can be accomplished several ways. Best results are obtained, however, by using an electric drill to make the round holes and a dremel tool to make the rectangular opening for the signal strength meter.
After cutting the holes, peel the protective paper coating off of the Lexan and apply a smooth coat of gloss black spray paint to the BACK side of the faceplate. By applying the paint to the back side, a very beautiful, deep black finish will be realized. Repeat this process several more times, allowing for sufficient drying time in between coats. From here on out, its extremely important that you be gentle with the faceplate as this black paint can be scratched off of the Lexan very readily.
To modify the original Escort overlay, take a sharp pair of scissors and cut it in half at a location directly between the signal strength meters location and the location of the highway/city switch. Radius the newly formed corners with the same shape radius as the outside corners of the overlay. Next, position the highway/city portion of the overlay over its corresponding holes in the Lexan faceplate and press firmly into place. Repeat this process for the other half of the overlay as well.
With the two pieces of the overlay in place, we can begin to assemble the control panel electronics to the new Lexan faceplate. Start by mounting the on/off volume control switch, highway/city switch, and alert indicator light. Next, press the signal strength meter into its rectangular opening and tack into place with silicone glue. In a similar fashion, glue the power LED, photocell, and speaker into their respective locations. Now, set the assembled faceplate to one side and allow the silicone glue to dry for several hours.
You can take advantage of this drying time by wiring the interconnect cable to the Escorts main circuit board assembly. Start by assigning each of the colored wires in the multi-conductor cable a number from 1 to 16. When this has been done, solder wire number 1 to pin 1 on the circuit board. ( Pin 1 is the leftmost pin when looking at the board from above and with the row of pins closest to you ) Solder wire number 2 to pin 2 and so forth until all 15 pins on the circuit board have been connected. The final wire, number 16, is soldered to the circuit board itself at the location where the yellow wire had originally been connected.
This concludes the modifications to the main circuit board assembly. Now would be a good time to re-assemble the Escort. First, slide the main circuit board assembly back into the metal case. Next, mount the rear plastic panel to the case with four screws and then re-apply the rear overlay. Then, carefully feed the un-terminated end of the multi-conductor cable through the hole in the original control panel where the on/off volume control switch had been located. Use a tie-wrap for a strain relief and then mount the plastic control panel to the metal case with four screws. At this point, the Escort itself is ready for installation in some inconspicuous location.
Once the installation has been accomplished, it will be necessary to run the multi-conductor cable harness over to the control wheel. To do this, take the un-terminated end of the cable and snake it up through the center of the hollow steering shaft. If the control wheel has not previously been installed, perform that procedure now. Once the wheel is securely attached to the steering shaft, cut the multi-conductor cable at a point about four inches from where it exits the shaft.
Finally, to complete the project, splice the wires in the multi-conductor cable to those of the control panel. Wire number 1 goes to the wire located in position 1 of the white plastic receptacle. Wire number 2 goes to the wire located in the second position and so on for wires 3 through 15. Since the positions on the receptacle are numbered, you shouldnt have any difficulty in locating the proper wire as long as you proceed one wire at a time. Lastly, wire number 16 gets spliced to the yellow wire.
With the harness wiring completed, mount the new faceplate to the control wheel. Now comes the moment of truth; will it work or not? Relax, take a deep breath, and switch the radar detector to the on position. Hopefully, you will be greeted by the
BEEEEEEEP - BEEP - BEEP - BEEP of the Escorts speaker.
Congratulations on a job well done!
While an installation such of this may not be your cup of tea, the methods used here can be applied universally to almost every electronic device sporting a control panel. Just remember to plan ahead, take your time, and most importantly - practice safe sound.