You can't avoid your Chevy's instrument panel-you're face to face with it every time you slide behind the wheel. This group of indicators, gauges, and idiot lights is an information center-the monitoring station, if you will, for all your ride's vital functions. In this area, though, form is integral with function. A gauge panel should be easy to look at, it should be pleasant to look at, and-let's face it-it should look cool in your car. Our dogged '84 Z28 was a loser in almost all respects. Some of its stock indicators had ceased to indicate, and we'd say the DOT-mandated, dual-needle 85-mph speedo was dysfunctional the day it left the factory. Lookswise, the de rigueur Chevy gauge panel ain't particularly stylish, either. Looking to upgrade, we placed a call to Covan's Classic and ordered up an instrument panel for '82-89 Camaros, along with a full complement of Auto Meter gauges to fill it out. While installing this setup is more than an afternoon bolt-on job, it's doable-and the transformation is well worth the time.
Covan's sells a variety of dash panels for Chevelles, Novas, Chevy trucks, and Camaros dating back from '67 to newer '89 models. The panels themselves are available in several finishes and can be outfitted with Dakota Digital or Auto Meter gauges. With the multitude of choices, we opted for Auto Meter's Ultra-Lite gauges to give us the enhanced visibility and modern look of white-faced dials. As a bonus, the electronic speedo is programmable, so final calibration (and future changes) are quick and easy. Just as important in our book, however, is the wiring kit that comes with each Covan's panel. Its one thing to install a set of gauges-it's quite another to make aftermarket instruments work with your Chevy's factory wiring, and read properly to boot. Covan's wiring kits were developed with American Autowire (www.americanautowire.com), and both the harnesses and the accompanying directions are thorough. If you're comfortable with wiring, you can perform this installation. If you're not...well, you can still do it, it just may take longer.
"The guy at home should consider this a weekend job," said Matt Sims, wiring whiz at Johns Customz & Performance in Torrance, California. Pausing for photos and lunch, it took Matt a full day to install the Covan's Classic/Auto Meter setup. Wiring the cluster itself is fairly easy. Each wire is clearly labeled, and a little attention to detail and organization goes a long way toward keeping everything straight. Once the cluster is wired, things get interesting. Earlier Chevys are certainly easier, but we're talking the '80s here. The original Camaro gauge cluster connects to the wiring harness via two cavity connectors. The factory circuit board essentially plugs into the harness. Since connectors to duplicate this system do not yet exist, the factory harness must be adapted to join with the gauge wiring...which means pinning individual wires out of the factory connectors, installing new terminals, and pinning the wires into the correct slots in the new connectors. This is where those directions pay off. The Covan's Classic wiring kit comes with a connector-pin location chart indicating which color wire goes into which slot in the new connector.
There are a couple of caveats here. Because the "small" Auto Meter gauges are bigger than the stockers, two indicators will be somewhat hard to see. We put the critical water temp and oil gauges in the upper, easy-to-see positions. Checking voltage or fuel will require slightly more effort. And then there's the high-bean LED. We put it dead center, in between our turn signal indicators. When we say this thing is bright, we mean that we may be the only driver on the road wearing sunglasses and showing high beams at the same time. But that's one of the cool things about this setup; each person can position the gauges and indicators to their own liking. And as with so many other things, it looks easy when an expert like Matt does it. But even the wiring-phobic among us can accomplish the job with careful work and attention to detail. The payoff is tremendous-both function and form are greatly improved. Check out the pics as we show you some details of this instrumentation transformation.