Dash Re-doo Dee-luxe

For most of the time I’ve been driving a Vanagon, I’ve been quite disappointedly aware of the cavernous empty volume inside the right half of the dashboard: Why wasn’t the dashtop there a hinged cover for a big storage bin? Now THAT would be a glove compartment! Not that narrow bottomless plastic joke we were punished with.

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And also, whenever I’m lamenting the piss-poor fresh air and heat distribution on some sweltering afternoon or a sub-zero morning, I’m looking at the stereo head and thinking, “man, right behind there is the airbox, I could punch right into it and have a big center dash vent, with heat or fresh. Just gotta move the radio, but where to put it so the access is still good?”

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I hope to do a new main gauge cluster panel someday, whenever I happen to have $700 to blow on decent gauges. I can’t remember the last time anyone played a CD, so I always thought I’d just get a round marine “mechless” radio unit to go alongside all the round gauges I want. One with Bluetooth, which my present stereo lacks, so we can play stuff off our phones, or off the laptop when we play movies. Lately it occurred to me we never even use the radio tuner either, broadcast radio sucks ass in the mountain west so I’ve had satellite radio for years. So something with an aux miniplug input on the back for the satellite head and Bluetooth is all we really need.

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So itching to do the vent project, I wondered what’s new in mechless units since the last time I looked, even though I can’t do the gauge panel yet. I looked around online and found there’s a variety of really small audio controller units now that cover it, Bluetooth input, aux input, and outputs to an amp, since I have a nice Alpine amp sitting in my old van I want to use, too. These units are basically tiny preamps with a couple of inputs and really stripped-down controls, which is also a big plus in my book (less is more for the driver, and besides, when did I ever use any of those fancy features on my stereo anyway?).

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I looked at several items along those lines, and ordered this one that’s made to fit a standard Contura rocker switch opening, it’s only about $80:

https://www.mtx.com/awbtsw-rocker-switch-bluetooth-receiver-and-control

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From there my plan quickly took shape, to accomplish several improvements with a dash R&I:

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  1. Modify dash and airbox to place directional louver vents in the center dash panel, the same part as the dash-end vents. I’ll have to move my existing voltmeter/USB/ciggy plug panel further right.
  2. Install a 2nd recirculating air flapper valve in the left end of the airbox, to augment recirc air volume with the cabin air inlet door closed (see my Cabin Air Control kit here: https://intrepidoverland.com/shop/cabin-air-control/. It comes with one recirc valve and can be installed without pulling the dash, but it’s only possible to put in a 2nd recirc valve with the dash and airbox out).
  3. Change the fan unit to one I have from an overhead rear AC unit, because the motors were a newer style with better bearings. I’ll lube and cover the left bearing to keep it clean.
  4. Relocate the fan motor series resistor into some cooling airflow instead of the airless cul-de-sac it sits in stock. They seem to survive well there nonetheless, but lowering temp can only extend the part’s life.
  5. Install the new audio controller unit in dash between vent control panel and new center dash vents. This will put the audio control exactly where the stereo on/off and volume are now.
  6. Install the audio amp up in that empty space above the glovebox, if possible in a way it’s serviceable if needed and the setting selector switches and pots are accessible to trim gain and reconfigure if I ever want to. This will keep all the audio wiring close instead of having to run wires to one of the seat pans or somewhere else I could fit the amp, and my speakers and crossovers are already in the front doors.
  7. Install the two-nozzle windshield washer frogs that Chris at T3 Technique so kindly gave me ages ago.
  8. Clean up and improve various accessory wiring that’s been added over the years.

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So, dash out, and airbox out, split open and on the bench. First I enlarged and lengthened the radio opening in the dash panel so the two vent units would snap in like they do in the dash-end openings.

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With dash inverted the airbox top has to be positioned accurately to mock this up. Luckily that’s easy, the airbox defrost outlets fit into the impressions they made in the foam seals around the dash defrost louvers, and the rear slope of the top almost touches the lower rim of the dash panel when they are in the van.

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With the top in position I could put the vent units in and project where their oval inlet spigots would need to penetrate the airbox top. Rather than try to trace it out on the irregular surface, I popped the guts out of one of the vent louver units, held it in the dash opening where each vent would go, and sprayed paint thru the oval spigot as a mask to mark the projected openings on the airbox top. In the picture below you can see paint drips and overspray left after I cut out the openings. Just a couple inches behind those openings will be the downstream side of the heater core when it’s all back together.

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The vent units would have to be inserted after the dash was back in, so I considered how to build something that would allow that and create a decent air seal around the vent spigots. Doing those irregular hole edges would be tough, though, and the vent spigots would also need to be extended to reach the openings. I needed to come up with something simpler, so I built an extension box out of Coroplast sheet, fastened to the top with some small sheet metal screws, and sealed up with Gorilla tape. I built out the box so the vent spigots will project thru it a little bit.

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I mocked up again and traced the vent unit spigots onto the face of the extension box, then cut out the oval holes a little larger all around. I glued a sheet of some rubberised gasket cloth onto the box face, and from the backside cut oval holes a little smaller than the vent spigots, leaving a lip of the rubber sheet, so when the vent spigot goes in, the lip bends and seals around it, which you can see on the left below (the shadow is cast by the spigot end; the white Coroplast got painted black later).

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Put the 2nd recirc valve in the left end of the airbox. This one was a leftover of a flat ABS version I used to make for the right end, I just trimmed off whatever I needed to make it fit the left end instead (my newer version is round and is easier to fit up there. A few people who installed the Cabin Air Control kit when their dash was out have already done that, and I can supply a 2nd one for anyone else who wants to).

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The audio controller is too small for the radio opening, so I made a little surround face from ABS sheet. It’s secured from behind the dash with a couple tiny #2 screws. I needed really short screws so the tips wouldn’t stick out the face since it’s only 3/16″ thick.

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I mounted the amp with 4 long M4 bolts thru the dash housing. The bolts are all nutted in place so they project downward and stay there if the amp is removed. The forward 2 each have 2 nylock nuts adjusted at heights so when the slotted forward edge of the amp mounting frame is slid onto those bolts, it’s clasped snugly between the nuts top and bottom. Then the rear edge of the amp frame is held up by the 2 rear bolts, whose nuts are accessible from under the dash, so I can remove it if needed without removing the dash (didn’t get a picture of this).

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Then, knowing exactly where the vent units will go, and after negotiating the amp position to make room for them, I cut out new holes for the repositioned voltmeter/USB/ciggylite socket panel.

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And wired it all up. The amp needs a 30A feed and ground, while the audio controller uses minimal current. I wired the controller’s power feed to the key-in warning circuit (#Su, I guess for “schlussel”). I like my stereo to go off automatically when I leave the van, but I also have a separate power switch to power it without the key in. The unit’s blue amp-on trigger wire triggers a relay instead, which then switches on the main amp and also powers the satellite radio head’s ciggy lite power supply, to keep the load small on the tiny #Su circuit. It has a 1/8″ female miniplug input and output jacks, so the output needed an adapter cable for the amp’s RCA inputs. Ran extensions for all 8 speaker wires so they’ll be accessible under the dash in front of the lower heater cover panel, where I already have a lot of accessory wiring. The amp is positioned so that I can get to the setting switches and pots on the other end by just removing the right dash-end vent.

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And after a bunch of other dicking around, prepping wires and such while I had open access, changing the window washer frogs, etc., the dash is back in, I finally get to see the new look! And now the venting is how it should have been built at the factory, I mean, doesn’t that look proper?:

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My satellite radio head and phone ride on a custom mount I made, it swivels so the passenger can work that stuff from their seat. The satellite audio output cable goes to the back of the audio controller under the dash. It’s all quite tidy and functional.

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And a closer look at the little audio controller. About as simple as it could be, there’s just power on/off, input select toggles between Bluetooth and aux (and the button backlighting changes from blue to red to tell you; nice touch!), volume up/down, and track fwd/back and play/pause if the feed is Bluetooth. I was happy to find play/pause also mutes the sound if the feed is by the aux input, they don’t even mention that in the instructions, but it’s a sweet feature when I’m using the satellite radio.

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Having the center dash vents is fabulous. The new audio system works great and takes up almost no space at all, as you can see. And to christen the new system, a classic Zep track came on first time I switched it on.

4 Comments

  1. mike hanyi

    I see this conversion has a lot of very good potential, My thinking would take me to the next step of throwing out the original dash pod, fabrication one wider similar to a VW mk1 cabrio in style, using a different vw cluster, possibly a double DIN head in the new wider pod

    this concept makes installing the indash air conversion even cleaner.

    Reply
    • Chris

      Thanks for the comment, Mike. The instrument idea I mentioned is just an ABS panel with an array of round analog gauges, which I still plan to do. But similar to your idea, I was going to lengthen the panel and cover to include a round mechless head. But the little audio controller solved that for me, so there’s no need for me to make the panel any larger, and at an inch wide, I couldn’t get any cleaner than that. As for a double-DIN unit, meh, that’s more of the bells and whistles I was eager to rid myself of. But making your ride your own is half the fun, so whatever you want to do with yours, I’m cheering you on!

      Reply
  2. John Gates

    Chris
    As usual, very creative work! I have my dash out and heater box apart and wonder about the coroplast you mention and how it connects to the heater box. Did the two odd-shaped holes you cut matter? Or did they end up super ceded by the coroplast?
    I’m seriously thinking of copying this idea. Thanks, John

    P.S. I think I got your second to last Vanistan engine and love it.

    Reply
    • Chris

      Hi John, thanks for stopping by! You got it, the box I built out supersedes the two oval holes. I just left them as is when I built out the box because they’re plenty big for the air volume, but you could just saw out a big opening and then build a box extension like mine over it.

      You could use any sheet material, I almost went with sheet metal or ABS but remembered I had a sheet of Coroplast so chose that because it’s so easy to work with, you can cut it with a razor knife.

      You were close, you actually have my third-to-last engine! Hope it’s serving you well.

      Reply

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