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HOW TO INSTALL A DIGITAL DASH INTO A CLASSIC CAR

By Paul Tuzson - Story & Photos, 29 Jul 2017 Features

digital dash 1896

Combining the precision of digital electronics with classic analogue gauges

Fitting a set of Dakota Digital analogue-style gauges to a classic 1967 Ford Mustang

This article on digital gauges was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Street Machine 

DAKOTA Digital is well known for taking digital instrumentation and marrying it with classic styling to suit street machines, muscle cars and hot rods. Problem is, not everyone likes digital gauges. Digital might be great for precise numbers, but nothing beats good old analogue needles for instant updates.

So now Dakota Digital has introduced an option which combines the precision and reliability of digital operation with traditional analogue instrumentation.

Known as the VHX range, the new instruments are available to fit a number of classic American cars, but are also available in clusters suited to custom interiors and can be purchased individually. All the basic functions are covered in the kits. Speed, revs, temperature, oil pressure, volts, odometer, trip meter and fuel level are all available. In our case though, we’re just replacing the factory units so we’ve just shown the five relevant instruments.

Apart from the funky visuals, the gauges come with lots of extras, including recall functions for maximum speed and revs, 0-100kph times, quarter-mile times and trap speed, as well as a shift light connection point. The Muscle Car Factory was fitting a set to a ’67 Mustang when we dropped by, and agreed to show us how it’s done.

DIGITAL DASH INSTALLATION STEP-BY-STEP

digital dash1. You don’t have to remove your steering wheel and/or drop the column to fit a digital cluster but it makes things easier. 

Digital dashIf you’re not sure how to remove your steering wheel, it could be an indication the job is beyond your skillset. You can download manuals for all the Dakota products so that’s probably a good idea to see what you’re getting yourself into.

Digital dash2. It doesn’t take much to unscrew the fascia, but you probably won’t get it out much further than this.

Digital dashThe speedometer cable is the main obstacle. Unscrew it from the back of the cluster if you can or disconnect it from the gearbox end and then as much slack as necessary can be fed through to create the access needed.

Digital dash3. As far as the speedo is concerned, you can use the output from the existing transducer from an ECU. Or you can use the speed sensor supplied with the kit. If you do use the unit supplied, you’ll have to pull the speedo drive out of the transmission and fit the plastic drive gear to the new speed sensor supplied. As with this Mustang, you may need an adapter.

Digital dash4. Normally Dakota uses LED turn signal indicators set in the new instrument cluster. However, the owner wanted to use LEDs set in the same positions as the original globes. The wires that fed these had to be located in the loom, which required a custom installation. Wiring can get a bit confusing when 45-year-old wiring has been partially redone with non-factory colours.

Digital dash5. If you want to use the wires from an existing loom and you don’t have a wiring diagram you can find out what’s what by examining the factory instrument cluster. Find the instrument connected to the component or sensor in question, place one lead of a multimeter (continuity) on the input for it and then probe the plug on the cluster to find the pin connected to it.

Digital dash6. Most of the senders needed are provided except for fuel. For that you can use your original unit. The system can be programmed to take input from fuel pick-up assemblies with different resistances. If you have a custom tank, you could adapt one from another car or Dakota does have one in the catalogue.

Digital dash7. It’s a modern system but the control box is very straight-forward. Inputs for Dakota specific sensors are on one side and inputs from factory specific components are on the other. The engine check light, parking brake switch, cruise control engage (if relevant), turn signals and high-beam wires are all clearly labelled.

Digital dash8. The box can go anywhere within reach of the three-metre connection cable. In a ’67 Mustang, MCF found that it fits nicely behind the instrument fascia. This is a good location because wires for everything that has to be connected to it are very close and it’s out of the way.

installing a digital dashTinning the ends of the wires with solder gives the screws something to bite into for a good tight connection that won’t come loose over time.

Installing a digital dash9. The air-con control thermostat for the aftermarket system had been adapted to the factory position, which worked well. Unfortunately it also left the switch hanging out a bit and interfering with the rear of the instrument fascia, preventing it from fitting properly. Always do a trial fit before attaching gauges to the fascia to find these issues.

Installing a digital dashIf a newly chromed plastic component is used, tape it up to avoid scratching.

Installing a digital dash10. Here’s where the rear of the instrument panel had to be cut away to clear the air-conditioning thermostat. It’s obvious why the protective masking tape is a good idea. Use a die grinder for this type of work as it offers better control with less chance of damage than a hand file. A quick trial fit of the basic fascia like this will show some problems but there could be more once the instruments are fitted.

Installing a digital dash11. The gauges pretty much drop straight into place in the fascia but perfect alignment isn’t automatic. You’ll have to check the front to ensure accuracy before tightening the mounting screws. Because they’re screwing into plastic you really only want to tighten them once to give them the best chance of staying tight over time and so avoid annoying rattles in the future.

Installing a digital dash12. Brett reckons you can’t be too careful with the plastic lenses on the front of the instruments when assembling these units. He says that in the past he’s found them to be so delicate that they couldn’t even have a light film of dust wiped off them without creating micro-scratches that were visible. These ones didn’t seem that bad, but his experience has made him very wary of touching the lenses with anything.

Installing a digital dash13. Sometimes parts from the initial dash, like the windscreen wiper switch shown here, have to be refitted. How hard can it be? Well, actually it can take a bit of effort to line these things up so that they work properly. It’s essential to take the time now because they’re the sorts of things that will annoy you later. Never use a power screwdriver, even a small one, to tighten screws into plastic components like this.

Installing a digital dash14. The instruments are all daisy-chained together with ribbon connectors with the smaller outboard gauges connected to the larger units. The connectors on the cables are arranged so that you’re forced to connect them properly. The two large gauges (tacho and speedo) are connected to each other by the mini loom with the four conventional wires.

Installing a digital dash15. The extra white wiring in the previous shot was for the LED indicators. The cluster should be connected and tested for correct functionality before final installation. You don’t want to go to the trouble of making it permanent until you know it all works! Set-up (and other aspects of operation) is controlled by two small switches.

Installing a digital dashThese couldn’t be seen in the installation, so we’re showing a pair from another car.

Installing a digital dash16. With the dash permanently fixed in place the steering wheel is refitted. Note that there’s a small pin in the column switch assembly that has to engage with the slot shown in the collar on the back of the steering wheel. This is for the self-cancelling indicators.

Installing a digital dashIf you don’t line it up properly your indicators won’t switch off.

WRAP UP

The finished install is a superb upgrade that keeps the mood of a classic while introducing all the benefits of modern technology. Of course all the Dakota Digital numeric display options are still available too. It’s also worth noting that Dakota Digital offers an in-factory fitting service. You simply send them your fascia and they send it back with whatever gauges you’ve chosen fitted.

Digital dashMind you, we have to say we’ve never seen an installation Brett couldn’t work out and some have been extremely challenging!

Installing a digital dashHere we snapped a shot of him actually working on the LS-powered Koch Mustang. Anything can be done if there’s enough thinking time available. You can reach The Muscle Car Factory on 03 9580 3548.