The $50 Ham: Going Mobile

So far in this series, everything we’ve covered has been geared around the cheapest and easiest possible means of getting on the air: getting your Technician license, buying your first low-end portable transceiver, and checking in on the local repeater nets. That’s all good stuff, and chances are you can actually take all three of those steps and still have change left over from your $50 bill. Like I said, amateur radio doesn’t have to be expensive to be fun.

But at some point, every new ham is going to yearn for that first “real” rig, something with a little more oomph in terms of power, and perhaps with a few more features. For many Technicians, the obvious choice is a mobile rig, something that can be used to chat with fellow hams on the way to work, or to pass the time while on long road trips. Whatever your motivation is, once you buy a radio, you have to install it, and therein lie challenges galore, both electrical and mechanical.

I recently took the plunge on a mobile rig, and while the radio and antenna were an order of magnitude more expensive than $50, the process of installing it was pretty cheap. But it’s not the price of the thing that’s important in this series; rather, it’s to show that ham radio is all about doing it yourself, even when that means tearing your car apart from the inside out and rebuilding it around a radio.

Choosing a Rig

Whatever radio you end up buying is going to depend entirely on how you plan to use it. Technicians will probably want a dual-band radio that covers the 2-meter (VHF) and 70-cm (UHF) bands, which will give you access to local repeaters. Features and quality vary by brand, but if you stick with one of the “Big Three” – Yaesu, Kenwood, and ICOM – you’ll get good value for the money. Alinco probably belongs in there, too, and you can find decent mobile rigs that are higher-power versions of the much-derided “cheap Chinese handy talkies” that are available for not much more than $50.

My choice was a Yaesu FT-8900R, a now-discontinued quad-band radio. In addition to the usual UHF and VHF bands, the 8900 also has 6 meters, known as “The Magic Band” because it can be worked in so many different ways, and 10 meters, which offers some interesting options for simplex, repeater-less, communications. Technicians have access to all of the 6-meter band, but only a small slice of 10 meters, and then only using single-sideband voice. The FT-8900R is an FM-only transceiver, but since I have my General class license, I can use it on the 10-meter band. The radio can also be set up as a cross-band repeater, which holds some interesting possibilities for me.

Almost all FM mobile ham rigs these days are digital, and many of them support one or the other of the digital modulation schemes, like System Fusion and DMR. Many have support for the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) built-in, which lets you report information like your GPS location automatically. The manufacturers have responded to the market in offering as many or as few bells and whistles as possible, so whatever you want, chances are good that someone makes it. Strangely, mobile rigs are the one area of ham radio where there’s not a lot of homebrewing, although there is an active community that repurposes old UHF and VHF business band radio for ham use. But most people just buy a well-engineered COTS radio and use the installation to express their homebrew creativity.

Planning the Install

Nearing peak disassembly. The radio will go just below the drop light.

And let me tell you, modern cars and trucks require a LOT of creativity and ingenuity to achieve a clean, professional installation. I started doing mobile installs many years ago, when cars had much more metal in them and far fewer electrical components and wiring harnesses. Back then, it was easy to find a reliable ground, and you never had to work around airbag computers, seatbelt pre-tensioners, and infotainment components. Modern cars are a lot more challenging to do installations in, but they’re a lot more fun too, since you get to marvel at the skills of engineers who design pieces that can be assembled quickly with minimal tooling, and then curse their names while you try to disassemble something with no visible fasteners.

Protip: many control-head cables have RJ-style connectors. Protect the locking tab while running the cable with a little heat-shrink tubing.

Planning your install is probably the most critical step. Many mobile rigs come with separable faceplates, so that the radio itself can be trunk-mounted or installed under a seat, while the control head with the display and microphone can be placed where it’s easily used. This is a huge bonus when installing in a modern car where options for placing a large one-piece radio are limited; the small control head is far easier to wedge someplace and still be usable. In my case, I decided to remove one of the overhead storage bins in my 2004 Toyota Sequoia and install the head in its place, while the radio itself would go in one of the side pockets in the “way back.”

After planning where the parts will go, you’ll need to figure out how and where to run wires. Ham rigs take a lot of current — 7 to 10 amps on transmit is common — and they require a direct run to the vehicle battery with heavy-gauge wire. Don’t scrimp on this and try to tap into something under the dash like we used to do for installing an after-market stereo. Find a plug or grommet in the firewall and do it right. Fuses are a must. You do not want a 12-gauge wire running through the car acting like a fuse when something shorts out. Ask me how I know.

Physically protecting the power wires – all wires, for that matter – is really important too. Spend a couple of bucks on some corrugated plastic split-loom and wrap the wires up, especially in places where people are likely to step on them or kick them.

Neatness Counts

The nice thing about modern cars is there are plenty of concealed places to run wires. The bad thing is getting access to them. Almost every plastic trim piece in a car is held in place with some kind of plastic fastener that’s as likely to break as it is to release cleanly. Invest in a set of trim removal tools; these will give you a better chance at releasing these fasteners without breaking them or marring the finish of other pieces. Still, count on a 50% failure rate at this phase.

Nice and neat and safe from feet – make sure you loom your wires to protect them from damage.

I managed to run my wires fairly easily. The wire for the control head went through the headliner to the trim piece on the “C” pillar (the third roof pillar from the front); while the power and remote speaker wires went under the rear passenger door sills and under the driver’s seat to the center console. I lucked out in that I had previously installed an inverter in the console, and so had very large-gauge wires already in place. I did take care to properly loom the radio’s wiring harnesses, though, and to use good crimp connectors installed with a proper crimping tool. I also made sure the fuses were easily accessible for replacement.

Finished install. The front face could use a little more illumination for easier nighttime use, though.

Next Time

Probably the most critical task in any mobile ham installation is dealing with the antenna. Not only must you spec out a proper antenna for the job, you’ve also got to mount it. That can be as simple as plunking down a magnetic base and screwing the antenna on, or as pucker-inducing as taking a hole saw and drilling through your roof. And even after that, there are other jobs, like tuning the antenna, testing the install, and mitigating any noise being induced by the car itself. Those can all be challenging jobs, and we’ll cover them in the next installment.


33 thoughts on “The $50 Ham: Going Mobile

  1. I went the really cheap and easy route: Handheld radio with a battery eliminator plugged into the accessory power port and a mag mount antenna with the feedline fed through a gap in the window. I got into the local repeaters with no problem at all. I was asked several times what rig I was using, because I got in so loud and clear. They were amazed when I told them what I was using. I joked that I had 5 Watts of ‘awesomeness’!

    It seems to me that unless you spend a lot of time in your vehicle or are a long way from the repeaters (e.g. long commute or doing storm chasing/Skywarn), installing an amateur radio transceiver into a vehicle is a questionable expense. It is also providing some nice ‘burglar bait’, which I’ve heard happens on occasion. I’m sure that others will disagree, but this is my experience and what worked for me. 73!

    1. Be careful with the battery eliminator approach – it needs to be a nice clean power supply, otherwise the supply noise will get into your transmit audio.

      Had it happen when I first got my license over 20 years ago.

    2. When I was a ham — in the 1970’s — VHF and UHF repeater operators discouraged use of transmitters over 5 watts because they were unnecessary (it’s line of sight no matter how strong your signal) and strong signals could overload the repeater front end, which was extra sensitive to deal with handheld sources. I worked 2 meters for a few years and in those days before cell phones people marveled at the repeater phone autopatch.

    3. “burglar bait” is definitely a consideration in my neck of the woods, and we have the very least intelligent kind. If you left an empty photo frame in view, they’d probably break your windows fantasising it was a top of the line ipad they were gonna pawn for hundreds.

      1. Ahhhhhh. The advantage of a “clean” car. Everything is easy to see.

        Low-tech life hack would be leave it full of unused fast food “wraps” and unused paper cups and straws.

        Only have to worry about raccoons and bears with great eyesight.

    4. Yes many have and still do use portable radios as in vehicles, but there are limitations. In our small rural city, there where locations where my dad’s /\/\otorola business band radio’s receivers couldn’t handle the broadband noise, in my experiance, the Chinamart portable can’ either Some storm spotters end up installing amplifiers, because where they need to be to view a storm safely places the out of repeater range with 5 W. of transmitter power, not to mention the receiver’s audio is lacking in many environments. The connectors of portable radio have limited number of cycles. Yea I understand how low cost portables, are attractive, but in time most hams find a way to go with actual mobile radios.

      1. The antenna feed line on most mag mounts I’ve seen have a BNC connector while handheld radios have SMA connectors. A BNC-to-SMA adapter places the repetitive stress of antenna connect/disconnect on the adapter. Of course there is the possibility of stress of the adapter on the radio’s SMA connector. In practice, I’ve never really had a problem. Careless treatment of the radio can cause problems.

          1. True. Rule of thumb is around 0.5 dB per adapter. For working with a handheld radio into a repeater in a metropolitan area (my situation), that’s generally not a problem. For weak signal work, yeah, that can be a problem. Like I said in my original post, this is what has worked for me. Everyone’s situation is different.

      2. The bad thing about a handheld in a car is the ergonomics. They’re designed for two-handed operation as you hold the radio in one hand and push buttons/turn knobs with the other. The screen is tiny, designed for reading while the radio is in your hand. In contrast, a securely mounted mobile may be operated with one hand, mostly by feel. It never falls between the seats.

  2. Dan,

    Thanks for the article on installing your radio in the car. Keep the ham radio articles coming I really enjoy them. A good site for more information on mobile radio installation is:

    I admire you effort towards making a first class installation of a really nice radio and I wish you good luck getting some DX on 10 and 6 meter FM during the summer – you should have a blast if the right conditions should appear!

    Here’s some notes on my relatively cheap & easy setup with no drilling required for my Honda CRV – Icom 2730-A (decent radio with analog fm on 2 meters & 432 – plus the ability to control everything in the radio by computer thru the icom CI-V interface if the desire to hack that should come my way in the future) – I got it on sale for about $250 at HRO about a year ago – pretty cheap as it’s analog only. It is important if you have a small car like mine that you have a radio with a detachable face . It’s easy to stuff the detachable face into a cell phone cup holder – no holes required. For power I’m violating a lot of good advice by powering it off the cigarette lighter – the ratings for the outlet say it can supply more than enough current for the high power setting on the radio and I haven’t noticed any problems but you may find different. For the antenna I’m using the Comet CP-5 NMO mount on the hatchback – this is the weak link to the no holes method. Even though the coax is very small, the constant opening and closing of the hatch will chew the coax up after awhile – so view this method as one with a limited life time. I recommend the NMO mount as the design allows the antenna to take hit’s much better if you buy the right kind of antenna like Larsen. I have a Larsen that lasted more than 10 years despite getting hit by all sorts of objects in low clearance garages.


  3. Beware of modern vehicles, practically every bit of plastic has got an airbag inside it these days. However, if your google-fu is strong enough, eventually you’ll turn up a police modifier/upfitter guide for your vehicle (Hint try other countries if the police don’t use it where you are) that will tell you where the safe places to bolt things on are.

      1. Awesome. That might be the only info around for some models. I’d recommend trying to source the other guide as well though, as they also will have the best places to leech power from and info for other considerations.

  4. All fine and dandy, but .. eh, what’s the point ? My local 2 meter, and 440 repeaters are infested with a clique’ish group of hooligans with no regard for common courtesy or respect to newcomers. One particularly revolting denizen sounds like Darth Vader, constantly wheezing and sounding like a pompous tool.

    As for HF bands, again, it’s a complete waste of spectrum when “net check ins” are the only reason to transmit a message “blah blah blah acknowledged”….ooooookaaaay, now what ? (oh, and this doesn’t even address the complete and utter lawlessness on certain HF freqs..plenty of operators with mental illness, and FCC enforcement is nil).

    And I’m an extra class/advanced, whatever they call it nowadays, from the 70’s – when my first HF rig was a Heathkit SB-104 and my 2 meter HT was a Yaesu FT-207R. The hobby has been dumbed down (like so many other standards today) where I’ve met newly licensed tech class operators who couldn’t solder a resistor onto an old school circuit board if their life depended on it.

    “back-in-the-day”, it was common to have QSO’s about technical subjects (like antenna impedance matching, smith charts, 3 phase AC, etc, etc…now ? it’s more like “oooh, my tummy hurts from that huge triple cheeseburger i had…” – followed by some weisenheimer burping ……

    yep, it’s so much fun ….. smh

    1. IMHO the FCC is letting ham radio kill itself. There is no enforcement of rules unless they interfere with a paying service, and if the hams raise a stink about abuse, it just gives them more ammo to take it all away. I have heard people threaten to call the FCC on each other, and if they do, all they are doing is giving a bunch of people who wanna get the hams out of there more ammunition to do so. And I agree, if there is any action on VHF at all, it is more like the old CBers than the tech minded folks that used to inhabit those airwaves.

      The low bar of 5WPM Morse code and vendors only selling to people with licenses kept a lot of the rif raff out.

    2. Shannon, my sentiments exactly. I got into Ham Radio almost 30 years ago because building equipment was fun and I really enjoyed the challenge of creating a rig that worked as well as a Kenwood or Yaesu. Unfortunately, I have yet to find more than a dozen Hams who could even tell you what was inside of their Rig, much less be able to design and build one. I really do long for the “old days” when you could talk about radio to someone who was passionate and knowledgeable about the technical aspects of the hobby.

      I too am extremely disappointed with the dumbing down of our hobby. I find it sad that the requirement for getting a license today is little more than a pulse and the ability to memorize enough answers to pass a essentially worthless multiple choice test. If I were making the rules, I would probably retain the Morse code requirement for General and Extra class licenses and raise the difficulty bar significantly for the Technician class license. Ditch the multiple choice and replace the questions with answers that actually require calculations and at least a Boy Scout merit badge level understanding of basic electronics. Things like doing some impedance calculations, drawing a common-emitter transistor amplifier, creating a signal processing diagram for a dual-conversion superhet would be great test questions. This requirement would actually require potential licensees to LEARN something meaningful about electronics in general and radio specifically before they could get a ticket. My intuition tells me that much of the noise, profanity, and stupidity that exists on 2M, 220, and 440 would go away, because you would bring people into the hobby that are actually interested in technology rather than taking about who has the best chili dogs in Los Angeles.

      Maybe I’ll revive my $75 all-band SSB radio project. It might even find its way onto Hackaday this year!

  5. I would have a real hard time putting $500 into a ham radio in my car. I would get so much more enjoyment out of a halfway decent stereo system and a cheap 2 meter FM only rig. I have a few mobile radios, and the one that gets the most use is a small old Radio Shack rig. It is small enough to hold in place with velcro, it is low enough power that I can run it from the cig lighter, and it matches well with a mag mount antenna. I can tote the whole thing from car to car, and I can shove the whole thing under the seat if I am in a questionable parking spot (ie not at work or at home).

    Personally, if I were to blow $500 on a radio, it would be for an old low power AM broadcast transmitter that could be retrofitted to the 160 meter band. I think that would be a fun project, and save some cool old iron from the scrappers.

  6. The 8900 is an amazing rig, really two independent rigs in one chassis. Downside is, if you want to take real advantage of all the features, you will quickly find that there is -one- antenna option, and it ain’t subtle: read, thief-bait.

    My current fav toy while on the go is an Anytone 878 DMR HT. It covers the UHF/VHF bands, analog and DMR. It pumps 8 watts on the internal battery, which seems to last forever.

    DMR lets even a tech licensee talk worldwide, which is just amazing.

    My rig for the car connects to an induction (through the glass) external antenna and a speaker-mic. I get the bennies of the mobile rig, DMR and relatively low profile antenna without the hassles of installation.

    1. Another downside with the FT-8900 is it won’t do SSB, which on 10m is where much of the activity is.

      If Yaesu came up with a cross between the FT-897D (which can do 160m-70cm) and the FT-8900 (which has dual-watch and cross-band), I’d consider purchasing it.

    1. I’ve dealt with that kind of mess from other causes. You think “one melted wire, what’s the biggie?” It’s not one problem, it’s created a ton more problems, it will have melted off it’s own insulation then hot cheesewired itself into bundles of other wire, bridging circuits, which may have taken some of the current to ground themselves, and also got hot and bridged other circuits… So you’ve gotta go down it’s run inch by inch and find out what it screwed up, and test all those branch by branch to find all the twigs of that failure cascade.

    2. Back in my volunteer firefighter days, I had a blue light installed on my dash – I know,; I was young. I didn’t want any wires showing, so I searched around under the dash and found a gap around the defroster vent that was just enough to squeeze a length of trailer hookup wire through. I jammed the wire in there, wired it up to a switch, and thought it was pretty slick.

      One day months later while going to a fire with my light on, the cabin suddenly filled with acrid smoke and the alternator light came on. I made it to the scene, did my thing, and checked out the damage to my truck. Sure enough, it was the wires to the blue light that burned, and a fusible link opened too, hence the alternator light. Turns out the defroster vent wasn’t plastic, but metal, and road vibration had slowly worn through the insulation until it shorted out. About 5′ of insulation burned but luckily caused no other damage.

      Lesson learned – fuse the hell out of everything and make sure you’re not rubbing against metal.

    1. It can be a mixed blessing… makes cabling easier, but obviously it means there’s more signals in close proximity to interfere with each-other.

      We’ve got an Icom IC-706MkII G which, when used with a remote head cable, picks up its own comms cable signal on the HF bands.

      My second attempt at setting up the Yaesu FT-857D on the bike used a 25-pin printer cable with break-out adaptors at each end for head unit and microphone: that combo lead to a projector-like “tick” on my transmissions, made worse if I twiddled the VFO knob due to cross-talk within that cable. I ended up making my own 24-conductor cables using 3 runs of CAT5 soldered to DB25s: this has been reliable.

  7. Due to the FCC broadband mandate, there still should be a gut of obsolete programmable commercial radios. Give a pass on any that use crystals, as the crystals aren’t available any more. When packet radio came to this area hams where able group together, and make bulk purchase of radios of a lower cost. while I wasn’t a part of that, I did have a legal sole sole proprietorship,that gave me access to wholesalers, that help local hams save a few pennies. Where I would never be try to get business tax deductions, there was no requirement that the proprietorship be operated to earn a profit. After a disabling medical condition, I gave up my State business mark, and sales tax ID.

    1. Wondering how some of the old gear can be hacked into legal specs and used for a wider range of entertainment or utility. I’ve been fascinated with interfacing older equipment with modern MCU’s and computers. Thanks to others inspiration regarding programming even the cheap RTL-SDR’s to be used for more purposes… I downloaded VS Community 2015 and Visual C#/C++/VB 2010 Express to get back into coding lazy style. FYI… for the help section in Visual Express 2010… download the Ultimate ISO and copy the folder out. Now, off to reading up on SDR dll’s and other interface devices libraries.

  8. one more worry is will this 50 watts of RF and 10 to 20 amps of DC current draw
    freak out any of the car computers or electronic???
    It happens !
    My little mp3 FM transmitter is so dirty it sometimes jams the tire air sensors on the SUV ( dodge) and drive-through burger 2-way radio( del taco), and last year I fried a cyber-brand UPS by sitting the 25 watt ham radio backpack unit next to it on my desk and keying the mic ….
    in the 90’s my uhf ham car radio would set off car alarms on the street near by , sometimes even ones that were driving next to me…

    1. Can’t say I’ve noticed any problems operating 100W on HF… or 50W on 2m SSB. If anything, I get more problems with dodgy vehicle electrics interfering with me.

      Some motor scooters are horrendous for the amount of RF they emit … can hear them a good block away on 2m FM.

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