After many years of walking car shows we have seen it all, ranging from incredible builds with amazing attention to detail to the ragged originals, and everything in between. Through the years we have noticed several key areas many enthusiasts ignore and it often reflects poorly on the whole car. One such area is the gauges. We’ve seen flawlessly painted cars with completely refurbished interiors still using worn and tired (not to mention non-functioning) gauges in the dash. Few things are more important inside a car than the gauges; after all, you will be looking at them every time you drive the car. Fresh gauge faces and accurate readings make a world of difference to the overall driving experience.
As faithful readers know, we are in the midst of bringing a ’71 Corvette back to life. The car spent most of its life in sunny Arizona and the interior had plenty of sun damage to prove it. We recently freshened the seats with brand-new leather (from Corvette America) over at Hot Rod Interiors by Glenn. While the seats went a long way to freshening the interior, they looked so good the instrument panels appeared that much worse for wear.
Happily, the solution is as simple as visiting the Classic Instruments website and perusing their offerings. Since they also do custom work, the actual finished product is limited only by your imagination. Choosing custom colors, fonts and pointers is a great way to personalize your Corvette. This is also one of those projects that should be started early in the restoration process since you must allow time for a busy shop like Classic Instruments to complete the renewal of all your gauges. By planning ahead, the gauges will be on the shelf waiting to be installed with the rest of the dash components (Corvette Central) and wiring (American Autowire).
Our Corvette is a non–numbers-matching car so it is being built as a hot rod. While we didn’t want to stray far from the factory look, we were not bound to exactly replicating the factory original gauges. To that end, we decided to go the custom route with the final objective of testing people memories. We wanted people to look inside the car and think at first glance it was all stock, but then to scratch their head wondering, “Hmm, did the ’71 Corvette have chrome bezels on the console gauges?” Well of course they didn’t, but the look is so period perfect it should leave a lot of folks guessing.
One other major change is the transmission. The car was originally equipped with a TH400 automatic. We decided mixing gears is more fun, so to that end we added a TREMEC five-speed transmission that was custom built by American Powertrain so the shifter will be in the stock location. It all worked out beautifully.
Once we had a good idea of how we wanted the instrument panel to look we placed a call to Classic Instruments to discuss the project. The speedometer and tachometer would be refinished in the factory design but with modified ranges, the tachometer would go to an optimistic 8,000 rpm, while the speedometer would add some visual performance potential by pegging out at 200 mph. Will Editor Brennan be “burying the needle” on these instruments? Not hardly, but we must admit the big numbers add a performance vibe to the interior. Speaking of the speedometer, while we could have used a speed signal from the American Powertrain TREMEC five-speed transmission we opted for the instantly accurate GPS-based (SkyDrive) speedometer. It should be mentioned that the redline on the tach is marked at a realistic 6,500 rpm while the final top speed will be controlled by the final gear ratio, driving conditions, and good old common sense.
The gauge cluster in a ’71 Corvette is made primarily of plastics. The combination of 47 years and the high temperatures of the Arizona desert will fade the faces, make the plastic brittle and fog the lenses. After some discussion, Editor Brennan (who also suffers from being brittle, has foggy lenses, and a faded face) decided to go with factory appearance, big gauges. He then decided to add a splash of chrome plating on the bezels of the small gauges. The chrome rings are vintage enough to almost convince people it was a factory option. By using black faces with red pointers, the traditional look continues.
The process on our end was really quite simple. We removed the original gauges and carefully boxed them up and shipped them off to Classic Instruments. Upon arrival, the gauges were carefully examined by the craftsman at Classic Instruments and after a phone conversation we agreed on the estimated price. We discussed the desired work one last time before design work began. Classic Instruments provided us with printed “proofs” of what the actual gauges would look like. We reviewed the design and signed off on the work. After that it was a simple waiting game and soon enough the big brown truck backed up to the door at Hot Rods by Dean with a box full of very fresh gauges.
Of course things weren’t quite that simple on the other end. The team at Classic Instruments employ a lot of very high-tech equipment to produce great looking, incredibly accurate gauges. Fitting the modern gauge movements in the stock location is their specialty and when we received the new gauges they fit like a glove; looked better than new (because we really like our subtle design changes) and came complete with senders, instructions, a custom wiring diagram just for our installation, and they even returned our old unused pieces.
We thought it would be interesting to get an inside look at exactly what goes into restoring and/or modifying a set of Corvette gauges. With that thought in mind we followed along as our gauges were dismantled and replaced with new units. You may be surprised to see this very technical process and to see how few parts of the original gauges are actually reused.
Installation in our dashboard proved to be even easier than a factory installation since the Classic Instruments center console panel came prewired. It was a simple matter of wiring to the panel and plugging in the gauges. In no time we had a factory fresh appearing dashboard. In combination with our fresh upholstery the car truly looks brand new. Few things can compare to sliding behind the wheel of a vintage Corvette where everything has been brought back to this high a level. The fresh interior will make driving a pleasure and that new American Powertrain five-speed will keep the needles moving on our new Classic Instrument package. Vette
Photography by Taylor Kempkes & Classic Instruments