In the 1960s and ‘70s, most cars were limited on engine monitoring devices. Most muscle cars were lucky to get a tachometer, which you had to pay for. Some higher-end models had the luxury of actual mechanical gauges instead of dummy lights. While these gauges worked (somewhat) originally, 30-plus years later, not so much, and they leave a lot to be desired.
Advancements in modern engine and vehicle monitoring have progressed by leaps and bounds, and Auto Meter has been there to bring better, more accurate gauges to the masses. Deciding which gauges to choose, depends on your needs, and there will be plenty of decisions to make.
For the most popular muscle cars, there are bolt-in options that replace the factory cluster. These packages typically include speedometer, tach, oil pressure, water temp, voltage, and fuel level. For the rest of us, we have to find ways to make the available standard size-gauges fit our cars. Auto Meter will certainly try to help out along the way, with standard gauge sizing and some unique concepts that can really add some dimension to your muscle.
One of those unique concepts is the quad gauge. These gauges, typically found in hot rods and customs, feature 4 individual gauges in a single body. Previously only available in the large 5” platform (which fits nicely in a ’50 Ford, but not so much in a ’72 El Camino), Auto Meter recently introduced the quad system in the more popular 3 3\8” size. This size fits quite well in early ‘70s gauge clusters without much work. The gauges utilize electronic sensors so the days of capillary tubes and difficult-to-route thermometer tubes are gone. You can even adjust for gears and tire size changes with the included electronic programmable speedometer.
For those who need more detailed monitoring, the classic 2 1\16” size allows for a larger sweep, which translates into easier reading at a glance. All the basics are available, as are the more specialized gauges such as wide-band O2, boost, pyrometers, nitrous pressure, etc., but Auto Meter has taken things a step further with a few very unique gauges.
The new DPSS digital shift light is a unique way remind you to shift with a set of ultra-bright LEDs. The single stage is nice, but for us, the 4-stage is the way to go. Using a progressive color scheme, the LEDs light up letting you know the shift is coming and lights red indicating an over shift. In addition, the 4-stage unit has peak recall, launch light, and 7-color lighting. If the nearest drag strip is a little too far away, you could always install a D-PIC performance meter. This easy-to-use gauge measures 1\4-mile times, 0-60, 60-0 braking, G-forces, reaction time and calculates horsepower all in a compact standard 2 1\16” gauge.
Sometimes installing all the gauges you want is not so easy in a compact space. Drastic changes are sometimes in order and for a resto-mod, almost expected. There are hundred ways to install custom gauges from the most basic to the radical fabrication. We picked out a few gauges from the Auto Meter catalog and installed them in our 1971 Buick GS convertible. We first dropped a set of Designer Black quad gauges in the stock cluster, then went for a radical redesign and modified the stock cluster to fit a full compliment of Cobalt-series gauges. The process we used might look a little unconventional, and it is. It is actually quite simple and with some patience and some sanding (a lot of sanding), excellent results can be had.
1. The stock gauge cluster has a square opening that measures 3.5”. A 3 3\8” gauge fits nicely, but needs a backing plate to cover the open spaces.
2. Using ABS plastic, square plates were trimmed out to fit the stock cluster. Note- the corners have been rounded. The edges were trimmed with a deburring tool.
3. The 3 gauges- quad gauge, speedo, and tach are loaded into the cluster. To finish it off, a little body filler could be wiped around the plates, sanded and painted. An easy solution to add a look and better engine monitoring.
4. For the more adventurous, this next process involves some serious surgery. The stock cluster gets sliced up with a body saw or sawzall.
5. Using a die-grinder, the remnants of the plastic were cleaned up. The idea here is to eliminate the jagged edges and smooth the remaining plastic.
6. Four 2 1\6” holes were cut in a piece of ¼” ABS. Then, using a compass, the plate was marked with concentric circles around the previously cut holes.
7. The rings are then cut out on a bandsaw. If you don’t have a bandsaw, you can use a jig saw. The 2 larger rings for the tach and speedo were cut in the same manner.
8. Using some scrap plastic, the rings were glued to the cluster using CA glue (available at any hobby shop).
9. The style is up to you. This is what we came up with. The speedo was centered over the steering wheel, with the rest of gauges angled for the best view.
10. Here is where this process departs from anything you may have seen. The front side of the gauge was taped up using painter’s tape, making sure the rings were fully covered and the sides fully sealed to the cluster housing. The cluster housing can be wiped with a rag, that has been sprayed with WD-40, to facilitate the next step.
11. A mixture of Duraglass and body filler (about 1:1) was made up. This mixture yields the high strength and durability of Duraglass with the easy-to spread and sand characteristics of body filler.
12. The mixture was spread over the backside of the panel, filling all the crevices, covering the rings and overlapping onto the outer sections of the panel.
13. Once cured, the plastic stand-offs were removed, taped up and filled with more body filler.
14. Using a thin metal spatula, the pod was separated from the panel. The WD-40 helps the body filler separate from the plastic.
15. Using a die-grinder and a 50-grit Roloc pad, the pod was smoothed. Then it was sanded with 50-grit sandpaper in the corners.
16. To add some extra dimension, we taped off 3 triangles on the lower section of the pod. Each section was sealed to the plastic and body filler. We don’t want any leaks.
17. The taped portions were filled with plain body filler and allowed to cure. With the tape removed, the area was shaped with a carbide bit in a die-grinder.
18. The rest of the panel was sanded and shaped with 50 and 80-grit paper. There will be spots that need more body filler here and there.
19. The pod was then placed back on the housing and more CA glue was used to permanently attach the two pieces. Sanding the housing, where the glue will be placed, facilitates adhesion.
20. The inner section was treated to more body filler to fill the little gaps, and also helps bond the pod to the housing. It was then sanded with 80-grit and 120-grit. We are texturing the part, so 120-grit is sufficient. If you want to paint yours, 220-grit, then prime and paint.
21. The new housing was wiped clean and sprayed with truck bed liner. This is very good stuff for adding texture and will stick to anything. A light first coat, from about 8-12”, goes on first. Then a second coat, with the can held 2-feet away, adds the real texture. The entire housing was coated this way. This technique closely matches the factory grain.
22. With the part dry, the gauges were installed. The scallops below the gauges really add a custom flair to this design. When done properly, this process will work on just about any custom job and is extremely durable.
A life-long gearhead, Street Tech Magazine founder and editor Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 5 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced. You can follow Jefferson on Facebook (Jefferson Bryant), Twitter (71Buickfreak), and YouTube (RedDirtRodz).