Digital Dashes for US Classic Cars: Workshop

By: Paul Tuzson

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Digital dash classic cars 1 Digital dash classic cars 1

Take your American classic into the 21st century with a more accurate digital dash. It's easy...

From Unique Cars issue #316, Sep 2010 

How to: Digital Dashes for US Classics

Apart from providing useful, even vital, information about the state of your car, instruments simply look good. They’re a sort of functional decoration and changing them can change the whole mood of a car. As an added bonus, they’re one area of a car in which good looks and practicality don’t have to be a compromise. In fact, there are endless options for combining the two factors. The digital dash is one of them.

While mainstream car manufacturers briefly flirted with digital instruments in the 1980s, the concept never really took off in factory cars.

The aftermarket is a different story, however, and digital instruments have long been popular with the hot-rod fraternity.

Dakota Digital is the most common type of instrumentation used in street cars and, aside from long-term familiarity with the brand among rodders, the company’s products are increasingly common in muscle cars.

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They’re generally described as digital dashes but the proper terminology for Dakota Digital products is vacuum fluorescent digital dashboards. Like everyone else, we’ll stick with the popular terminology.

Leo, from the Muscle Car Factory, was fitting one when we dropped in. He agreed to show us how it’s done and, in the end, it’s a pretty simple job on a ’69 Mustang, which is what we’re looking at here.

Dakota Digital produces a range of instrument clusters specifically suited to various US vehicles. That’s fine if you own an imported classic but if not, there are custom clusters that can be adapted to any car, although dash modification could be needed. Individual gauges are also available for those wanting to retain an original dash configuration. All the basic functions are covered in the clusters – speed, revs, temperature, oil pressure, volts, odometer, trip meter, fuel level – as are clocks and a compass.

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Less common, more performance-oriented instruments like oil temperature, transmission temperature, fuel and nitrous pressure, amps, boost and vacuum, cylinder-head temperature and exhaust gas pyrometers are also available.

While digital information is precise, there are times that an analogue indication is useful, so speed and revs are indicated by bar graphs next to the numerical display.

Default units are imperial, however metric can also be displayed along with the appropriate lettering.

The gauge clusters have all the functions needed for compliance and to match expectations shaped by modern cars rather than cars of the era to which these instruments are most often fitted.

Looking at the clearly labelled connections on the control box gives a clue to this.

There’s auto and manual instrument illumination dimming, gear, shift-point and 4WD indication, provision for diesel glow-plug starting procedures, and even a connection for cruise control.

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Apart from default numerical information, scrolling messages can display info like cumulative hours of operation, distance since last service, brake fault warning, high speed and high rev recalls, even a ‘check engine’ warning.

For those interested in performance, there’s a 0-60mph timing function. In a similar vein, a quarter-mile elapsed time function is standard and the unit also logs quarter-mile terminal speed. Again, this is all standard.

Each instrument in the cluster must be calibrated before it can display accurate information. There are detailed instructions for doing so in the manual. The speedometer, for instance, can be set two ways.

You either drive over a measured mile while the control box counts the number of pulses from the sender or drive and hold a known speed and then adjust the speedo reading to match.

You can do this with another vehicle or on a chassis dynamometer that can display road speed. The latter is the superior method.

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You shouldn’t drive the car much without calibrating the speedo because, as the manual points out, it may create erratic readings on your odometer.

Calibrating a non-standard fuel tank sender can be a bit tricky. During the procedure the display will call for zero, one-third, two-thirds and full tank levels. You have to add the correct amount of fuel when the calibrating program says.

Your tank should be empty (or as low as you ever want it to get) when you start the calibration procedure and you’ll need to know its total capacity so you can add the correct amounts. Calibrating the other sensor is easier.

As we’ve shown, these units are not terribly difficult for a home operator to fit. We haven’t shown how to run all the wires because this Mustang had had a whole new wiring loom fitted when we arrived, but it’s just a matter of running wires from your sensors to the control box.

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This will be different for every car, particularly custom modifieds. Although it’s not technically difficult, it certainly is time consuming and if you elect to have the unit installed by someone else it will add to the basic cost of the unit considerably. It’s another good reason to have a go yourself.

There is a comprehensive trouble-shooting guide at the back of the manual and it’s a good idea to read it before proceeding with the installation.

Dakota Digital vacuum fluorescent digital dashboards are far from the only choice available when it comes to digital instrumentation. There are many other types that can be fitted and performance-oriented models have many more features.

However, Dakota Digital’s integration of its products with classic bezels has led the way in street cars and continues to do so. The unit shown retails for around $1200 depending on how the local dollar is looking against the greenback.

To have Leo order one in for you, call the Muscle Car Factory on (03) 9580 3548.




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1. This is a ‘65 Mustang kit. A coolant temperature sensor with adaptors and oil pressure and speed sensors are standard, others are optional. Use the push-button switches supplied or your own push-button types. The actual wiring is quite easy.


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2. Here’s what Leo started with. Older instruments are stylish and generally suit the vehicle to which they were first fitted, but a more modern approach is often popular.


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3. You don’t have to remove the steering wheel to fit a digital instrumentation cluster but it certainly makes things easier.


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4. You can fit the cluster with the steering column in place but it’s much harder. Loosening the under-dash column retaining bolts and dropping the column a bit will make the job easier.


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5. This is a converted LHD car. You can see holes for the lower dash retaining screws; another two at the top of the cluster have yet to be drilled to match those on the new cluster.


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6. Once the retaining screws have been removed, you shouldn’t have much difficulty wiggling the dash free. Unplug any connectors as the dash insert comes out.


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7. This cluster had new lenses fitted, which give old instruments a whole new lease on life as you can see. However, the owner wanted a totally modern dash in a classic surround.


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8. Achieving this means old instruments have to be removed from the bezel. This is usually pretty straight forward as shown here.


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9. It’s extremely easy to fit lenses to the bezel. Make sure lenses have metric rather than default imperial labels. The wrong labels won’t affect the display but will be unroadworthy.


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10. This is the digital display unit and it’s designed to be a particular distance behind the lenses. If you’ve bought a model-specific cluster, this will be set automatically. In custom applications this will have to be adjusted manually.


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11. Re-assembly. With a vehicle-specific dash you won’t need to do this because you won’t have to pull it apart. It was necessary here as original lenses were imperial and had to be swapped.


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12. Plugging in connector for the wiper switch. The original switch has to be screwed to the back of the Dakota cluster but where it fits is clearly marked. This is the only original wiring used.


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13. There are lots of ribbon cables across the back of the display, but don’t worry – they’re permanently attached. It’s simply a matter of snaking the cable through obstacles behind the dash and getting the plug to where you’ve mounted the control box.


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14. The locations (mirrored for each side) of top and bottom screws for this Mustang are shown. Locations vary for different makes and models. Re-tighten steering column retaining bolts!


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15. This is what was behind the kick panel on the conversion car. Leo managed to get the control box into place above all this but it was positioned so high we couldn’t shoot it.


16-Digital -dash -classic -cars -control -box16. Another Mustang from The Muscle Car Factory has the control box located in a more typical position behind the kick panel.


Digital -dash -classic -cars -2617. Sensors are needed to supply information to the cluster. The tacho is connected to the negative side of the coil. It’s essential the earth from the engine to the body is in top condition. If not, you’ll almost certainly have problems with the instruments. If in doubt, create a second earth between engine and body and ensure it has maximum contact area. Remove any paint that reduces contact area then cover connections with grease.


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18. Dakota Digital units come with specific oil pressure and coolant temperature sensors that must be used for correct operation. These should be attached without Teflon or other sealing compounds that might interfere with a good earth. Threads on the sensors are self-sealing so leakage shouldn’t be a problem.


19-Digital -dash -classic -cars -push -buttons19. Two push buttons are supplied and have to be located somewhere reachable, yet out of the way; this is a typical position. They are used to select various functions and modes and for scrolling information on speedo and tacho displays.


20-Digital -dash -classic -cars -fuel -sender -unit20. There’s built-in compatibility for several types of fuel sender units but others can be used if you go through the set-up sequence for a non-supported sender.


21-Digital -dash -classic -cars -modern -look21. The finished result. Modern looks and functions combined with classic style. For many, it’s a combination that’s hard to beat.


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