How To Retrofit Modern Gauges in Your Classic

Posted: January 14, 2016 By: JamesR

before after dash

When restoring a classic or antique vehicle the interior can be one of the most difficult areas to get right especially if you want a factory original look.  One of the areas that most guys will change is the dash board, especially if your project has a swapped motor.  You might not think that matching your gauges with the engine and transmission is an important step but it is a very important area that is often overlooked.  The next time you’re at a show pay close attention to the car’s gauges, I can almost guarantee there will be a few guys that are using the iconic, parts store 2″ gauge pod to monitor their coolant temp, oil pressure, and battery voltage.  Im not saying there is anything wrong with these gauges because they are a cheap solution for viewing your engine levels without affecting any other parts of the vehicle.  The only downside of these gauges is their appearance, to get a factory looking interior it must be free of parts that wouldn’t have come with the car originally. If comforts such as a modern radio, speakers and A/C are a must, there are many ways to tuck these out of view to retain an original look.  Aftermarket companies have created solutions for all of these issues but your happiness will come at a price.  A retro looking dash for a 60’s Chevy truck will cost you about $400+, that’s a lot to spend on just the dash.  Depending on your gauge layout there is another affordable option that will not only retain a classic original look, it will also allow the use of modern gauges.  In this article I’ll show you how to retrofit modern gauges into an original cluster by only making a few minor modifications to the factory hardware.

 

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My 1963 Chevy C-20 originally came with a 230 CID Inline 6 and minimal interior functions. The dash only had two actual gauges, speedometer and fuel.  The rest were indicator lights that would illuminate if the levels were too high or too low and it didn’t even come with a temp gauge.  I have since swapped in an 80’s 350 SBC rendering my original warning lights as more of decoration.

 

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I’ll admit for the past year I lived with one of those cheap gauge pods zip tied to my ash tray, it functions great but wow, they look tacky.

 

Dash Removal

I had originally planned to repaint the gauge faces and trim, then mount my gauge pod under the dash the way it is designed to be mounted.  I first removed the gauge cluster which proved to be a much more challenging task because the threaded clips did not want to budge.

 

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After finally removing the cluster I carefully disassembled it and made sure to keep track of where every piece came from.  I managed to not break any of the fragile parts and overall the cluster was in really good shape aside from some fading and wear expected from a 53 year old truck.

 

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With the faceplate removed, I was able to take a measurement of my temp, battery and oil pressure gauges to see what my options were for replacement gauges.  The stamped area where the warning lights were measured almost exactly 2″ making it a perfect fit for a standard 2″ gauge.

The new gauges I put in were n’t super expensive, they were the same type of parts store 2″ gauges that were previously in the truck, minus the pod mount.  The key difference from the previous gauges is the sweep of the needle.  My old ones would travel from the 8 o’clock position all of the way to the 4 o’clock position. In order to re-use the original lense I would need gauges that did not interfere with the engraved lettering around each gauge.  I picked up the new set for less than $40 from the parts store down the street.

 

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To cut the holes perfectly centered in the old location I used the new 2″ Eastwood Punch & Bead Die, but not exactly how it’s meant to operate.  Since I didn’t want to create a bead around the rim of the gauge opening, I flipped the cutting head to the opposite side creating more room for the cutting head to travel before it makes contact with the bead forming area.  This allowed the Eastwood Punch to be used the same way as a traditional Greenlee style metal knockout punch would operate.

 

Punch 1

The oil pressure and battery gauges already had holes in the center so a drill was not needed to use the punch.  I clamped the threaded side of the punch in the Vise and made sure the punch was perfectly centered.  I tightened down the bolt by hand and used a wrench to get it the rest of the way through.

 

filing 1

The punch created a perfect 2″ opening but the diameter of the gauges was 2 1/16″ so I used a round file to slightly open up the hole to allow the gauges to slide in nicely.

 

drill 1

The temp gauge was slightly different so a centering hole was needed in order use the punch die.  I marked the middle of the opening and used a centering punch to make a small indent to prevent the drill bit from wandering.  I first drilled a small pilot hole to ensure i was centered and then proceeded to drill out to 1/2″ which is the needed diameter for the punch.  It is very important that you drill a pilot hole before going to a larger size bit, anything larger than about 3/16″ really needs a pilot because larger drill bits are not meant to start a hole.  I’m not saying that you wont be able to drill a 1/2″ hole on its own but the life of your drill bits will greatly decrease.

 

Test Fit

I punched this hole and test fit the gauges to make sure they easily fit into each of the holes, I wouldn’t want to file them after they were painted.

 

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Now that the faceplate is punched and the rest of the cluster was taken apart I put the rear housing and the bezel in the Blast Cabinet to remove all of the old paint.  I wanted to get everything to a nice bare metal surface before I applied anything else on top.  Since the faceplate was made of very thin metal I used Glass Bead Media in the cabinet, glass bead is one of the more gentle abrasives that is great for use on aluminum and thinner metals.  For even more delicate projects walnut shell media is best because it will still remove light rust and coatings but without damaging the part.

 

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After all three were blasted I cleaned them off with the blow gun and wiped them down with PRE Painting Prep.  Before applying paint the parts needed to be primed.

 

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I used Self Etching Aerosol Primer which chemically bonds to the metal giving a clean bare surface to apply paint.

 

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Since the exterior of the truck will be painted dark metallic gray with satin black accents, I wanted to continue that color scheme on the inside of the truck.  I plan on painting the dash and door panels the same gray metallic as the outside of the truck so to stick with theme I painted the trim bezel with Eastwood Satin Black Wheel Paint.  It has just enough gloss to stand out from flat black but not enough to go blind from sun reflection.

 

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The faceplate received 2 coats of Eastwood Silver Metallic Interior and Trim Paint, it is a great looking color that will stick with the theme of the truck.

 

pre needle paint

While these parts were drying I decided to paint factory speedo and fuel gauge needles white to match the new aftermarket ones.  Having all of the needles white will give the dash a more refined and classic look without being right in your face like the orange would have.  There was no use in trying to spray them so I decided to brush on the color with One Shot White Pinstriping Paint.  It has great coverage and only needed one pass to get full coverage.

 

mask needle

In order to mask the needles off I used a piece of a tan file folder that I cut using a pair of tin snips.  For the fuel gauge I cut a 2″x2″ square with a small 1/8″ tab on the middle of one side and then folded it down.  I set the tab down into the base of the needle so I would be able to paint all visible areas.  For the speedo I cut out a shape that was very similar to the shape of the gauge and then cut a small slit in the bottom to slide the needle around.

 

painted needle

Using a small brush I carefully coated the entire face of the needle and then carefully removed the file folder. I touched up any missed spots and let them dry before final assembly.

 

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The last area that needed refinishing was the original plastic lens, It was in great shape and all of the painted lettering was in near perfect condition but there was some light surface scratches on the outer side that needed some plastic polish.  The scratches were a little much for normal plastic polish so I decided to go with Autosol Polish for Chromed Plastic.  It is slightly more abrasive than the standard plastic polish but it’s nowhere near as coarse as a metal polish making it perfect for the cluster lens.  Using a microfiber towel I applied the polish in a circular motion doing only small sections at a time so the polish would not fully dry on the surface.

 

post paint reassembly

A few hours later after the paint was dry I began to reassemble the cluster by first installing the new gauges to the faceplate.  I made sure to line them up perfectly and carefully tightened down the gauge retainers on the back side

 

Back panel

Next I installed the speedo and fuel gauge back into the rear of the cluster.  I was able to leave out the plate for the other side of the cluster because it formally only held the warning lights, plus I needed the clearance for the new gauge connections.  On the other side, a small amount of metal had to be removed behind the old oil pressure light in order for the oil feed line to pass through.

 

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With the cluster fully back together the results were staggering. It doesn’t even look like the same cluster.  It goes to show that with a few hand tools you can create show quality custom pieces for your ride and at a fraction of the price a custom shop would charge.  I was able to complete this whole project in about 4 hours, that’s including the 2 hours it took for the paint to dry.

 

before after dash

The interior of the truck has only just begun, but this was a great starting point to motivate me to continue on with the project.  At first glance the cluster looks factory but, now has the convenience of modern gauges.  Luckily I have already taken care of welding in the floor patch pieces  and dealing with any other rust spots so all that is left is making it look nice.

Check out the Eastwood Blog and How-To Center for more How-To’s, Tips and Tricks to help you with all your automotive projects.  If you have a recommendation for future articles or have a project you want explained don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

– James R/EW

 

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2 thoughts on How To Retrofit Modern Gauges in Your Classic

  • Just great ! Totally hot rodding two old Fords ( 1929 + 1937) and this is what I needed. Thank you so much, good work. A year or so ago, I bought a Mig + Plasma set. My next purchase, when I save a bit more cash ,will be a bead roller ,maybe motorized.

  • Transforming a car’s classic look into a modern look is a really tuff task as the classics are designed in a completely different way when compared to today’s automotive. Here the dashboard is given a very dashing and amazing look, also, the images inserted helps a lot in understanding the steps. Thanks for sharing.

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