While most automotive enthusiasts spend the majority of their driving time looking out the windshield, little thought is given to the next most popular place our eyes spend time while on the road. No, I'm not talking about the attractive person in the passenger seat, but rather the car's dash and instrumentation. As a driver, you likely don't even realize how often you steal looks at the instrument panel, quickly checking speed, rpm, or other engine functions before returning your attention to the road.
One of the reasons you may not notice how often you glance at your Corvette's gauges is the car's superbly engineered cockpit layout. Thanks to some careful planning, the instruments in a Corvette-even a '71 Stingray like Project C3 Triple-Ex-are placed so as to give the driver as much information as possible in the shortest time, with minimal distraction. At a time when many manufacturers were producing massively powered beasts of cars with a sweeping speedometer, a minuscule tach, and often just a light to tell the driver when oil pressure was lost, Chevrolet did an excellent job of providing full, easy-to-read instruments for its flagship performer.
But while proper gauge placement is critical, it's even more important that the instruments monitor engine and speed functions accurately. Unfortunately, the electric engine instruments installed in early Corvettes-along with the somewhat antiquated cable-driven tachometer-often work poorly or not at all, potentially leading to outcomes ranging from a pricey speeding ticket to an even pricier engine failure. While we're exaggerating a little here, knowing that your gauges work properly does instill a sense of confidence that your engine is operating within the correct parameters.
There are always choices when it comes to the instrumentation in your Corvette, and returning the dash to factory specifications is certainly a good option for stock restorations or even mildly modified cars. Companies like Corvette Central offer all the pieces required to restore your car's instrument panel to like-new condition, as well as dash pads and other pieces to make your car's dash look great. Because our project car is a blend of factory appearance and extensive performance modification, we chose to keep the dash's configuration generally as it left the factory, but replace the notoriously inaccurate stock gauges with more-precise Auto Meter Pro-Comp Ultra-Light instrumentation.
Installing aftermarket gauges in the factory dashboard of a C3 is no walk in the park. We had to remove most of the car's dash, perform a considerable amount of fabricating to get everything to fit where we wanted it, and even sacrificed our center air-conditioning ducts in order to make the IP more ergonomic. Even so, the center section was fairly easy to mock up and construct, and the engine gauges were easy to mount and connect, thanks in large part to the included wiring and hardware.
The speedometer and tachometer were simpler to install, only requiring the factory instruments to be removed and inserts fabricated to house the slightly smaller-diameter Auto Meter units. Of course we also chose to get rid of the groovy AM/FM/8-track in favor of a modern Alpine stereo unit, since we have a few more CDs lying around than we do 8-tracks. (Rumor has it that Editor Heath listens to Best of the Bee Gees in 8-track form, though he strenuously denies it.)
Once finished, we found the new instrumentation to be both easy to read and accurate. Best of all, the Auto Meter Pro-Comp gauges modernize our Corvette's cockpit, better fitting the theme of this customized machine. As an interesting side note, we previously thought we had a cooling issue with the car, as the factory coolant-temp gauge would climb above 220 degrees (F) on a hot day. The new Auto Meter gauge verified that the engine was actually running a steady 180-190 degrees-right where it should be.
Best of all is that with proper instrumentation, we'll be able to accurately monitor the high-performance engine we're building to install in C3 Triple-Ex. We won't tell you what that engine will be just yet, but we can hint that we'll use these new Auto Meter gauges to keep an eye on the new powerplant's parameters while hunting LS7s. Stay tuned.