Owning and driving classic automobiles is a rewarding experience. Whether you prefer traditional restorations or resto-mods, cruising around town to shows, cruise-ins, or just to get some groceries in style, really generates that feeling of pride and joy that an autophile needs. That feeling quickly dissipates anytime said vehicle leaves you stranded on the side of the road.
Engine monitoring can often eliminate many of these impromptu roadside displays. A simple glance at the volt meter, fuel gauge or water temp lets you know something isn’t right, letting you know you need to check it out. For the restoration set, there are services that rebuild the original gauges to factory specs. This works great for restored cars, but often is cost prohibitive, leaving you to suffer the consequences. For those who don’t mind a little modern technology in their cruiser, the options are much more vast.
Updating the gauges in a classic car not only increases the ability to accurately monitor the engine, but also adds some visual aesthetics as well. If done well, the new gauges will add to the look, not diminishing the original feel of the dash. If the car has been retrofitted with a modern engine, the gauges really need to be addressed as well. It is a little more difficult to retrofit mechanical gauges to a modern EFI engine than it used to be, case in point- the 4.6l modular motor in this 1951 Ford Custom. That is not to say it can’t be done, but where the original gauges were questionable in accuracy, modern electronic gauges are pinpoint.
One issue with retrofitting gauges into 1950’s and an older car is the size and shape of the gauges. Many classic automobiles use a single large (6-inches plus) gauge to display all the prominent information. This can make it really difficult to retrofit modern gauges in its place. The largest non-vehicle-specific gauge readily available is a 5-inch unit, and most of these gauges are just speedometer or tachometer, leaving the rest of the gauges in the smaller 2 1\16 inch size. Auto Meter, however, recognizes the classic car industry and has begun offering several options for installing resto-mod gauges in older vehicles. The biggest gauge is still only 5 inches, but now quad gauges are available. These gauges use the 5-inch frame and display the four most needed instruments- Fuel, Oil, Volts and Water Temp in one gauge. In the Olde Tyme II series, there is even a brand new speedometer with a smaller tachometer display in a single 5-inch gauge (which is the one being installed here). These are analog-style gauges, not digital readouts. They look the part, but controlled with the accuracy of electronic sending units. There are many gauge styles to choose from, the Olde Tyme II units feature full sweeping dials with domed lenses and classic styled needles.
To show just how clean and factory-appearing a set of aftermarket gauges can be, we installed a set of Auto Meter’s new Street Rod Olde Tyme White II gauges in the dash of a 1951 Ford Custom. The center gauge in the ’51 is a single 5.5-inch unit, displaying all of the instruments in one place. This piece was replaced with a 5-inch speedo\tach combo. The other four gauges were installed into the dash in place of several switches and knobs that were no longer needed; specifically the choke, cig lighter, ashtray, and the interior light switch. The interior lights will be integrated to the headlight switch and who is going to smoke in a beautiful hot rod with a brand new interior? We might add 12-volt accessory port later, hidden of course. The end result is quite nice and does not take away from the original look; it actually adds to it.
1. In order to fully attend to the needs of the dash, it was removed from the car. Lots of JB80 lubricant was used on the 57-year old screws and bolts.
2. The windshield was out for this part, which really helped. It can be done with the windshield in place, but it was a lot easier with it out.
3. The original gauges, radio, and switches were removed. More JB80 was used. Only 2 studs were broken in the process.
4. You can buy a special tool to remove the light switches. We made our own using an air tool fitting and a die grinder. Coupled with a nut or a second fitting with the opposite threads (male vs female) and some thread locker, and you will have the perfect tool to get those difficult switches out. And it only cost about $1.
5. The wire mesh on the dash is wrapped around the radio opening, a screwdriver was used to gently pry the edges up.
6. The mesh then came off with ease, exposing a new problem. The dash is not smooth metal under the mesh, and the paper backing on the mesh literally turned to dust.
7. The switches and knobs to the right of the gauge cluster used a metal box behind the dash as a mount. This piece was spot welded in place. This had to be removed to fit the new gauges in the dash.
8. Once the dash was prepped, the 2-inch holes had to be opened up slightly for the 2 1\16-inch gauges. An air body saw worked perfectly. Another solution would be to use a die grinder (which we used as well).
9. The wire mesh had to be trimmed out as well. Here we used a die-grinder and a metal stone to open it up to the same size as the dash.
10. The center cluster required an adapter to be made. The original gauges were pulled out and the plastic lens was removed. The metal trim hardware will be reused.
11. The metal trim was traced to a piece of 1\4-inch ABS plastic. This could be masonite wood or metal, but ABS works really well in this application.
12. The 5-inch Auto Meter gauge was measured on the back side. This measurement was divided into the radius. Accuracy is important here for a good fit.
13. The ABS was marked for center and a compass was used to mark the center hole for the gauge.
14. Then we used a jig saw to cut out the adapter. The center hole first, then the outer shape. It would be much more difficult to cut the inner circle last.
15. The gauge was test fit before cutting out the outer circle.
16. The dash was sanded down to bare metal. There was a significant amount of pitting on the forward edge of the dash, where it meets the windshield.
17. The entire dash was sprayed with Eastwood’s Rust Encapsulator primer. This ensures that all the rust was killed, in case we missed any, and will prevent any future rust from forming. Then the dash was sprayed with Extreme Chassis Black. This paint is a little harder than most, and will resist chipping and scratching better.
18. To remedy the unsightly dash under the mesh (we don’t want to see any light through the mesh), a careful application of 3M Super 77 spray adhesive went on the dash.
19. Then we applied a little scrap of ultra-suede fabric. This might seem like overkill, but replacement black-out paper costs a lot more than scrap from a previous project. Any heavy black fabric will work, we considered vinyl, but the ultra suede is much thinner and interfered less. You could source some scrap from your local upholstery shop at no charge, in most cases.
20. The suede was trimmed with a razor around all of the holes. This stuff does not cut easy like vinyl, so we just made a series of slits in the appropriate areas.
21. The mesh was sanded down and sprayed with a little Silver Cad paint. We tried to polish this up, but it was too stained from sitting in the elements for the last 20 years. Plus it is really hard to get to the center of the mesh. Media blasting would have destroyed it. Another option would be soda blasting.
22. The little Ford crest trim on the dash was a must have. This piece was badly oxidized. We cleaned it up, but left the patina. It really adds some flair to the dash.
23. All done. The gauges dropped right in and are ready for business.
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).