Well Informed – A Guide to Automotive Gauges and Instruments
One of the best upgrades you can make to your interior is right in front of your nose – the instrument panel! The gauges are the one thing you spend most of your time looking at, second of course to out the windshield, so it makes perfect sense to make the most out of your gauges.
If you’re driving around looking through a hazy, scratched lens at a speedometer that makes noise flanked by gauges that you don’t trust and half the lights don’t work, you’ll be amazed at what a difference a fresh instrument cluster will make. We’re not talking about just about the appearance, but your driving experience seems to change for the better. It just feels like your car runs and drives better when you’re looking at a clean, precise, cool set of gauges!
There has never been a better time to update your gauges. There are options for complete, direct bolt-in panels that look stock, but are packed with modern technology in the form of LED lighting, GPS speedometers, and precision gauges. Many companies offer the ability custom design the gauge faces, add logos, or build a complete one-off cluster for your project. Or if you’re looking for a real modern touch, there are flat screens that provide different layouts and information screens with loads of drivetrain data.
We reached out to a number of gauge manufactures to provide a look at some of the cool features and packages available. Be sure to look them up online to see more of the features and options available for your classic, muscle car or trick truck.
Thanks to their early acceptance of turbocharger technology, Buick was able to stealthily keep their muscle car segment alive and strong during the mid-’80s with the V6-powered T-Types and Grand Nationals. Today, even the Regals of that era can be built into good-looking cruisers with solid handling and performance. When it comes to adding a modern facelift to the interior, Dakota Digital has you covered with a new Retrotech series of instrumentation for the ’84-’87 Buick G-Body.
The RTX series focuses on retaining stock styling complemented with late-model features and technology. When opening the door, the vintage-looking odometer provides a factory appearance, but once the key is turned on, the LED backlighting comes to life and the TFT message center lights up with user-configurable data. Dakota provides Bluetooth integration, GPS, adjustable back lighting and more.
Sidebar – Tachometer
Connecting a tach isn’t difficult, but you do need to consider your ignition system. For a stock setup with a distributor, the tach wire connects to coil negative and an HEI distributor has a tach terminal on the cap. A CD ignition, such as an MSD 6, has its own tach output (12-volt signal). When you get into modern engines with eight coils, the gauge company (or EFI brand) will typically call out a wire from an ECU to intercept a 5-volt signal depending on the application.
Summit Racing Equipment
If you’re looking to keep your custom dash uncluttered, take a peek at Summit Racing’s Performance Series Analog Gauge Kits. Based on two 4-inch gauge assemblies, one features a programmable speedometer including a digital odometer while the other houses the fuel level, volt, oil pressure, and coolant temp.
The gauge set is available with a white or black background and orange needles. A polished stainless steel bezel finishes both gauges, making them perfect for street rods, custom builds, or classic trucks. A temperature sensor and oil sending unit are supplied along with mounting brackets and wiring.
Muscle car dashboards and instruments bear the brunt of half a century of sun and weather, affecting their looks while relying on technology that truly was never meant to be accurate this long on. One of the best updates you can make to any muscle car is with a new dash and gauges, which is exactly where Classic Dash shines. They offer a number of new dash assemblies and Mustang fans will be excited to see their new Six-Gauge Panel for ’69-’72 Mustangs.
This new panel will accommodate a 5-inch speedometer and tachometer with four 2 5/8-inch auxiliary gauges. The assembly is molded from ABS composite material and CNC finished for a perfect fit. The dash is available in matte black, brushed aluminum, or a carbon fiber finish. If you prefer, Classic Dash can supply new AutoMeter gauges for a ready-to-mount dash assembly.
A Classic from Classic
Classic Instruments designed this beautiful new gauge assembly for the ’33-’34 Ford, but it would certainly look right at home in other applications. The engine-turned aluminum faceplate is finished with a chrome bezel for a sweet finish when installed.
The cluster includes a 3-3/8-inch electronic speedometer flanked by oil pressure and coolant temp on one side with fuel and voltage on the other, along with indicator lights. The speedometer accepts signals from most any transmission and the fuel gauge is also programmable. LED lighting provides an attractive glow for nighttime cruising and the assembly is housed in an injection-molded housing with a single connector for ease of installation.
Sidebar – Sending Units
Many electronic temperature and oil pressure sending units rely on a ground through their threads and into the block. In this case it is best to use a conductive thread sealer, or none at all.
New Vintage USA
It’s safe to say that everyone buys gauges based on the front panel design and function, but New Vintage USA is taking a different approach. Sure, they’re known for their bold, distinctive styling, but they recently developed a new Phoenix Direct wiring system that makes connecting these gauges even easier for the builder!
New Vintage’s patent pending technology leads the installer through color coded connectors for the sensors or signal sources, then simply plugs-in followed by popping in the minor gauges. On top of that, the Phoenix platform is full of great features like settable mileage, built-in indicators, shift warnings, performance timers, and more.
’67-’72 C10 Auxiliaries
If your ’67-’72 C10 didn’t come with factory gauges, Speedway Motors has what you need to add a set of instruments to watch over your drivetrain. Their new C10 All-Electric Under Dash 3-Gauge Panel was designed to match the styling of the factory gauges so these auxiliary gauges will look right at home mounted under the dash.
The 2 1/16-inch gauges mount in a show-quality black anodized bracket, so the stainless steel bezels really stand out. The gauges include oil pressure, battery condition, and water temp so you can keep tabs on what’s going on under the hood. Speedway includes the water temp and oil pressure senders along with mounting clamps and hardware.
If you’re intent on adding a little custom flair to the instruments in your dash, head over to SpeedHut’s website and start your imagination. Their new Triple GPS Speedometer and Tach are fully customizable right from your computer! Select the background, the design of the numbers and increments, don’t forget the pointer, and of course the bezel form and finish. You can even add your own logo!
The Triple gauges are based on a 4.5-inch diameter housing with a half sweep tach and speedo with two more gauges in the lower half. The tach shares voltage and oil psi while the speedo shows temp and fuel level. The gauges are built into a slim case to secure the high torque stepper motor for accuracy and finished with LEDs to provide plenty of glow for a nice look at night.
Sidebar: One-Off Instruments
In addition to the seemingly countless off-the-shelf gauge and custom instrument options available from a wide range of manufacturers, several companies also offer custom services for restoring or retrofitting original instrument clusters with modern movements and internals and electronics. We’ve seen some amazing clusters restored and retrofitted for show-winning street rods, trucks, and customs.
Speaking of custom, if you have a vision for an entirely custom gauge assembly to finish your dash, be sure to talk to one of the gauge companies, as their craftsman can often help create a completely custom assembly, from the electric and mechanical instrument components, to the graphics and housing assembly.
Looking for a cool-looking direct-fit upgrade for your project? Cleveland-based Intellitronix offers complete packages based on analog styling or with modern LED digital readouts and bar graphs. Either design is controlled with state-of-the-art microprocessor-controlled technology for precise values and are designed as a direct-fit for many applications.
For anyone with a ’73-’79 Ford truck (or ’78-’79 Bronco), this digital gauge panel would make a great upgrade. The LED readouts are available in white, red, blue, or green and a smoked plexiglass faceplate is included. The speedometer is easy to program with on-button calibration and the tach can be used with coil-per-cylinder engines or an old-fashioned distributor. Intellitronix stands behind their gauges with a lifetime warranty and also offers individual gauges.
Flat Screen Dash
Looking for something different and high tech? Holley’s EFI Digital Dash features a customizable screen with a variety of gauge and indicator screens that can easily be programmed to display nearly any parameter of your driveline. Plus, you can set alarms, a shift light, a switch panel, and can even play back data logs.
The full color touch screen display is 7-inches across with a low-glare surface combined with high brightness for easy viewing in afternoon sunlight. Overall, the assembly is only 1-inch deep and features a sturdy aluminum housing to provide flexible mounting choices. To keep things simple, the dash is designed to plug right into a Holley EFI system.
Clear View with VDO
The Viewline series of gauges from VDO allow you to create a custom instrument cluster from a wide selection of unique styles. The gauges are available with onyx, ivory, or sterling dial faces with interchangeable bezels. The electronic speedometer is easy to program and incorporates turn signals, high beam, and brake warning lights topped with a multifunction LCD screen.
VDO is known for their ruggedness and reliability, so the Viewline series has been designed with fully sealed dual lenses, reverse polarity protection, anti-corrosion materials, and excellent shock and water resistance. The full Viewline series offers tachometers and gauges for voltage, fluid temperature, outside temperature, pyrometer, oil pressure, turbo boost, and fuel level, as well as a traditional quartz clock.
Sidebar – Signal Generator
If you’re still running a trans with a mechanical output you’ll need a signal generator such as this unit from Classic Instruments. This device simply screws right in place of the old mechanical cable and creates an output for your new electronic speedo. Other options would be to use a GPS based speedo, or upgrade your trans to a modern electronic unit!
When you’re getting serious about monitoring drivetrain statistics and even recording the data to review in the pits, MoTec has you covered with several different displays to mount in your dash. Their C1812 is their latest pro-level display logger and features a 12-inch, high resolution screen with video inputs and 250MB of internal logging memory.
Another option is their C125 logger dash that features programmable LEDs and an easy to view 5-inch screen. MoTech provides a number of selectable layouts to suit your application or offers a Display Creator option allowing you to design your own dash with graphics, images and even logos or custom icons.
3X as Cool
Stewart-Warner gauges have been hot rodding favorites for over 50 years and they continue to embrace modern technology while developing cool new gauges. Case in point is the 3-in-1 Nostalgia Gauge Set gauge sets that combine the most useful gauges into two classically flavored gauge pods.
The 3-in-1 set is based on two 4 3/8-inch diameter assemblies that feature three gauges each. The speedometer is joined by the oil pressure and water temperature while the tach features the fuel level and voltage gauge. The tach spans up to 8,000 rpm while the speedometer pushes up to 140mph. The gauges are surrounded by polished bezels with a black/cream background and red pointers.
In Dash InVision
AutoMeter understands that instrumentation is the focal point of any interior. They also understand the high-tech demands of modern drivetrains, which is why they developed their InVision Digital Dash. The 12.3-inch LCD display provides four different screens to choose from to monitor speed, rpm, fuel level, oil pressure, water temp, and volts. High beam, turn signals, and a warning light are also built in.
To ease installation, AutoMeter offers their InVision panel with new dash assemblies, such as this example for squarebody GM trucks. Each kit is supplied with a wiring harness and sending units for temp and oil pressure along with a joystick to customize the dash. You can even set warning lights or beeps as alarms for overheating, low voltage, fuel or oil pressure.