Car Stereo Mysteries
December 16, 2004 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Why is my car stereo cutting off and on? [+]

I have a '97 Ford Contour I bought in '99. About a year after I purchased it the stereo started cutting on and off. It seemed to happen most when I hit the break hard or went over a large bump in the road. It also seemed to happen more during the winter months. At first if I kneed the side of the stereo it would sometimes respond by coming back on.

My husband's father owns a store which primarily specializes in car stereos. We asked him what the issue might be and he said he didn't know, but thought replacing the stereo would help (no, he wasn't just trying to sell us something). We did replace the stereo, but it continues to go off and on. It will usually go off and on repeatedly and then stay off for a good long while.

Now this happens even more randomly than before although it'll still cut off if I go over a huge bump. I live in Atlanta where an 11 mile commute translates into 45 minutes in my car and I've gotten to the point where I'm going to go absolutely insane if I don't figure out how to get this fixed.

Any ideas?
posted by lynda to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total)
break = brake. I just got home from work travelling in a car full of silence. Pardon my insanity.
posted by lynda at 4:45 PM on December 16, 2004

my car stereo (2000 Kia Sportage) does this too. it seems to be tied to the weather, in that in rainy days it happens frequently but not on any other days. I have found that the power windows can make it go back on, FWIW.
posted by norm at 4:51 PM on December 16, 2004

That sounds like an electrical problem. I'd bring it to your friendly local repair shop, explain the symptoms and that you replaced the stereo, and let them take it from there. Please don't suffer in silence!
posted by naomi at 5:01 PM on December 16, 2004

Maybe it's a poorly seated power connection to the back of the stereo? I would suggest having someone at the FIL's store unplug everything, then plug it all back in for you to see if it's a crappy connection. If it's not, at least you'll know.

If you have other electrical problems with the car? Lights, heater, etc.? If they're having the same issue, I would suspect the alternator. Beyond that, I dunno. Try asking Tom and Ray at Car Talk.
posted by glyphlet at 5:06 PM on December 16, 2004

This happened to me too. I removed the stereo, reseated all the connectors, gave the cables a good jiggling and it hasn't happened since.
posted by fatllama at 5:37 PM on December 16, 2004

What glyphlet said, bad ground, or a short in the wiring. Find the in-line fuse on the positive power lead - cut into the line an run a separate lead into it from a separate 12-volt source. Find the negative line, tap into it as close to the radio as possible and screw the free end into a metal screw elsewhere that goes into the body, not plastic (or tap into a screw into the metal body of the back of the radio & do the same). Helps?
posted by Pressed Rat at 5:39 PM on December 16, 2004

There are so many problems with my car I don't know if any of them are connected. Here's a short list of all that's wrong with my car. If you have any suggestions for any of it or have an idea how much it might cost to fix, please let me know:

- The blower only blows full blast, not low or medium or whatever other setting is usually available. This too came and went - some days low would work and some days it wouldn't. It hasn't had a good day for about two years though.
- The right window doesn't roll down (power windows only)
- The clock light went out as I was driving it off the lot and hasn't come back on since.
- The odometer/spedometer doeesn't work. I got this fixed a few years back and recently it stopped working again.

The car actually seems to run fine - it's just every little thing that doesn't work.

Unfortunately my in-laws are 800 miles away so I can't bring the car into their store.

Any ideas on how much at least the stereo will cost to fix? Back when the odometer/spedometer was fixed (at the same time, the brake lights had gone out, but they weren't burned out) I got an estimate to repair the window to the tune of around $400.
posted by lynda at 6:46 PM on December 16, 2004

A reasonable car stereo shop ought to troubleshoot for bad connections for not too much. AS long as nothing's basically wrong with the unit - maybe $50?

Depending on the make of your car you ought to be able to get the window fixed for much less than $400. I had a mid-90's Olds that the dealer wanted around $300 to fix the power window. I went instead to the AutoZone & ordered the motor for around $50 and then went to a small local car shop and they put it in for another $50. Or, it could just be a faulty connection (pesky, aren't they?)
posted by Pressed Rat at 8:59 PM on December 16, 2004

Now this happens even more randomly than before although it'll still cut off if I go over a huge bump

I think that would indicate some kind of short or bad ground in the wiring, for sure. I'm not sure how much to fix, but don't take it back to the place that charged you $400 for the speedometer. In Atlanta, a good mechanic probably charges somewhere around $60 - $70 an hour, and my guesstimate would be this is not more than about a two hour job, with minimal parts. If they quote you more than $150 or so for an estimate, I'd say try somewhere else.

(I'd guess your blower and window are unrelated to this. That's probably some problem with their individual switches. If you had an overall electrical problem, there should be a lot of other things not working, too. Your clock light could possibly just be a bulb or a fuse. A good mechanic should offer to take a quick look at these other problems for free and give you a separate estimate for them, if you want.)
posted by sixdifferentways at 8:59 PM on December 16, 2004

The problem with your full-speed-only blower is probably a bad blower motor resistor and/or relay, which should be really cheap to fix, and might be covered under a recall.

The radio is almost definitely bad wiring - to track it down, try smacking on the dash in various places while the radio is on, and see if this makes it go in and out. Replacing stereo wiring is not that hard, and should be pretty cheap.

It seems like the Contour has been plagued with electrical problems. Check this page for a pretty comprehensive list of common problems that covers almost all of the things you have mentioned, some of which might be covered under recalls.
posted by sluggo at 9:33 PM on December 16, 2004

Based on the problems that you've described, it's not an alternator problem. This is the one thing I know how to diagnose (other than running out of gas.)

For future reference, if your alternator is going bad, you'll lose electrical power to all systems at the same time. This happened to me while driving on the highway. My headlights went from bright to off all by themselves(!) and the CD player spit out the disc. In a couple of minutes, I was stranded. That really sucked.
posted by glyphlet at 10:48 PM on December 16, 2004

As everyone else seems to have already said, it's probably just a frayed wire shorting against a metal part inside the dash. Easy-peasy to fix.

The blower only blows full blast, not low or medium or whatever other setting is usually available. This too came and went - some days low would work and some days it wouldn't.

Either dirty contacts or a dying resistor.

The right window doesn't roll down (power windows only)

New switch and/or broken power lead.

The clock light went out as I was driving it off the lot and hasn't come back on since.

New bulb.

The odometer/spedometer doeesn't work. I got this fixed a few years back and recently it stopped working again.

Unfortunately for this one, you (read: mechanic) really just have to take a look inside and see what's going on first.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:09 PM on December 16, 2004

Radio: my experience with this is that it was simply the connection in the back of the radio. Looked up how to remove it (it was aftermarket, needed to MacGuyver a tool), pulled it out, and found that one of the two clips on either side that held in the connector were broken. I held it in while hot-gluing it, and that held it. Yours sounds like it could be similar. Could possibly be the ground; I've heard that too. But the other is easier to check, IMHO.

Blower: resistor or switch. I once had a air conditioner that didn't turn off for a year or two (always heard/felt the compressor cycling). It was the switch, and it was unfortunately a bit on the pricey side.

Window: Switch, or more likely the motor's just quit from being too old. I've had that happen, too. For me they'd unstick if you bang on the motor (taking apart the door), but it's not a cure, just a "my window's stuck down and I really want to close it" sort of quick fix.

The clock light I'd just check the bulb.

On preview: apparently Civil_Disobedient beat me to the punches.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:18 PM on December 16, 2004

Thanks everyone, I appreciate the suggestions!

RikiTikiTavi , the motor quit from being to OLD? It quit about 3 years ago when the car was about 5 years old - do they really not build things to last anymore?

Needless to say, all these problems have really put me off buying ANY Ford's in the future.
posted by lynda at 3:40 AM on December 17, 2004

Lynda: I assume so--it just quits rarely. I have (had, I'm trying to sell it) an Explorer. Runs great, but sticky power windows are par for the course for the older ones (at least so sayeth my mechanic).
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:57 PM on December 19, 2004

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