Rotary Heater Panel Conversion

For All 1983-88 Cougars / Thunderbirds

Page Revised: 10 May 2019


Article by
Eric Dess

The stock 1985-88 Cougar stock (non-ATC) heater panel tends to be a little too low and inconvenient to use. And it's even worse if you have a floor shifter. There is a slicker, better solution: a conversion to the newer-style rotary panel. Not only will this make your car's heater panel much more functional, but it just screams "custom" and will get you noticed at car shows. By the way, you can also do this to a 1980-84 car as well; it'll just have to go back in the stock location as that dash is a little less forgiving.

Rotary Heater Panel Conversion

Now if you have the storage bin above the radio, you're all set. You'll have to give it up as this is where the new panel will go. If you have the factory EQ and want to continue using it, or just want to keep things as-is, then you'll have to put the new panel back in the stock location.

Parts Needed

Essentially this is all you need to do the job:

  • The new panel
  • Cable for the new panel
  • All related wiring harness ends, nuts, and bolts
  • New rear defroster switch (if your car has that option)
  • Wiring diagram (very helpful!)


First, remove the old panel and slider cable assembly. Then, you'll need to do a little rewiring for the new panel (not too much, believe it or not), install the new cable, push all the harnesses in, and bolt it up where the storage bin was. You also will have to cut the vacuum lines going to the old panel and using vacuum tees, splice in the new one. The most amazing part about this job is that even if you've never done this, it's a very logical and enjoyable project, and one that's not too confusing either. When you're done, you'll look at it and wonder why it never came like that from the factory.

Before you start it's highly recommended that you read these tips (special thanks to Adam):

  • 1990-91 Taurus/Sable climate controls will definitely work. After that, it's unclear because at some point between 1992-95, Ford switched to a motorized heater door controller. The panel looks identical from the outside, but the temperature knob has an electrical connection instead of the cable linkage. Also, some later Mustang and F-150 panels use a pulley-style cable instead of a straight cable, like our cars have from the factory. At this time it's unknown if the pulley-type cable system can be installed in our cars. Be sure to double check the year of the car and the style of panel before you do this installation.
  • We'd recommend picking up a few extra blower switch wiring connectors from the junkyard as they are rather brittle.
  • The red harness may have some wiring color discrepancies. The Taurus may have a purple/green wire that interchanges with the solid purple wire on your Cougar. And the Taurus may have a light green stripe that's yellow on your car. Wiring color specs are not set in stone!
  • The 2-wire lighting harness does NOT have compatible prongs, so you can't swap the pins into the new connector like you can with the other harnesses. You can simply tape up the old plug and use tap connectors to connect the new plug.
  • If you're planning to put the rotary panel in the stock heater panel location there is some slight tweaking that needs to be done. A usual solution is to cut off the guide pins on the back of the new panel, drill new holes in the mounting area, and use clips to keep the panel in. You may also need to space out the panel with nuts or washers. Remember, this isn't an exact science and mods will need to be made in order to retrofit this panel in your dash.
  • The Cougar/Thunderbird defroster switch has four wires, not five. It is missing the dash illumination wire. That wire is light blue/red and you can tap into the stereo wiring harness to get it.

For an in-depth, step-by-step instruction manual on how to convert your car to the rotary heater panel, download the PDF file here:

Download Guide