Tech Corner: Building a Custom Gauge Cluster

Gauges are one of the most important parts of a vehicle’s operating system. They provide real-time feedback of engine conditions, allowing us to tap into the system and see what is and isn’t working. And while many stock gauges give you an internal monitor of basic functions, the truth is they don’t offer as detailed or accurate a picture as we really need. Some modern and classic cars don’t even have factory-equipped tachometers, temperature gauges, or ammeters. Whether you’re looking to upgrade or replace, finding gauges to match a factory setup can be difficult. This is just one more reason to build your own custom gauge cluster.

Picking the Right Gauge Options

Attempt to balance your choices with your build when picking aftermarket gauges. Any basic cluster will probably include a speedometer, tachometer, water temp gauge, oil pressure gauge, fuel level gauge, and an ammeter. But if you’re running particular accessories like a supercharger or turbocharger, you’ll want to pick up the appropriate gauges to match, such as a boost gauge or air fuel ratio gauge.

Sometimes you only need a few select gauges or potentially even just one. In this case, you can buy aftermarket clusters or simply fit a single aftermarket gauge to the dash. However, if you want a true and tailored view of both your engine and the modifications you’ve made, a custom cluster is your best bet.

Picking the Right Style

Once you figure out exactly what options you want in your custom gauge cluster, pick a style. The sky’s the limit here: analog, digital, antique, modern, metal, wood grain, etc… Narrow your choices by considering what works best with the overall feel and design of your ride, but mostly decide between electric or mechanical gauges.

Electric gauges are usually smaller and lighter, with a half sweep visual (think of the top quarter or half of a clock). They take measurements from a sensor installed in the engine bay. Mechanical gauges, on the other hand, give readings via a physical tube connection. These usually provide a full sweep view (about 270° of needle movement) and are traditionally less expensive. There’s no particular advantage of one over the other but depending on the gauges you’ve chosen, or other modifications you’ve made to your project car, one option may present itself as the better choice.

When picking a style for your custom gauge cluster it’s also important to think about consistency. Make sure the aftermarket company you choose actually offers all the gauges you need before you commit to a certain design. AutoMeter is an excellent brand to look into, as it offers a wide variety at affordable prices. Because of this, the company has established itself as a go-to brand for many auto enthusiasts.

Consider Sizing and Placement

There’s one more thing to keep in consideration before you begin purchasing gauges and that’s size. Priority gauges need to be easy to see and in an immediate line of sight. If you’re looking for suggestions on which gauges need to be big and which can be small, take a cue from the gauge cluster designs used by the automakers. By no bias, the Dodge B Body Rallye dash of the late 1960s is a great example. In that cluster, the tach and speedo are large and placed right behind the steering wheel, while the other gauges are smaller and off to the side.

When seeking inspiration on how to lay out your custom gauge cluster, look to the automakers. This 1969 Dodge Charger cluster is a great example of an easy-to-read design.

Chevrolet and Ford also followed the same principle in their performance models, and the basics of such a layout are great examples to follow. The idea is to keep everything in your immediate vision that is of utmost importance, so you won’t look away from the road for long to get the information you need. Size and placement are relevant so before you begin to buy, you will want to have a design in mind.

Making a Faceplate

Designing the layout of a custom gauge cluster will rely on the shape of the faceplate, and the shape of the faceplate will rely on the demands of the vehicle. If you’re working with the original dash, there will be an opening dedicated to holding the original faceplate. If you intend on using this opening for your custom gauge cluster, the parameters of said opening will dictate the shape of the new faceplate. This shape will also tell you the limits of your layout, meaning you may just wind up with something close to the factory equipment. If you’re working with a custom dash, the possibilities are endless, since you can use much more of the dash’s surface area to hold gauges.

A range of materials can be used when constructing a new faceplate. Many custom builders opt for standard sheet metal, as it gives a rugged, raw, and race-ready look. Others choose diamond plate or fiberglass for a more polished look. Ultimately, you can use any material for this, so long as it is strong enough to hold up the gauges and you can shape it to fit the opening properly.

Remember: Measure twice, cut once.

If you intend on using the factory mounting area of the original faceplate and gauge cluster, you’ll want to use the opening and the mounting points to make a template. To start, you can cut a piece of cardboard to fit the general area. Starting too big isn’t a bad thing, as you can gradually trim the piece down to fit into this opening. Once the shape you need has been achieved, mark your mounting points. And once the template is complete, use it as a pattern to trace the actual faceplate onto your new material of choice.

As mentioned earlier, the shape of the faceplate will play a role in the look of your custom gauge cluster, as they’ll determine size and placement. Because of this, you may want to start by shaping the new faceplate before you begin purchasing new gauges.

Practice Makes Perfect

As you’re running through the process, you might start asking yourself if it’s worth going through all this trouble rather than simply buying an aftermarket gauge cluster. Truthfully, sometimes it’s not. Many aftermarket gauge clusters are extremely well-made and will offer everything you need at a great price. However, some applications, such as those that run a rallye dash, could run you into the realm of $2,000. You can build your own for just a few hundred bucks. Sometimes it just comes down to budget, skill level, or personal preference. Whatever motivates you to tackle a custom gauge cluster, we promise the reward of hard work (and low cost!) will certainly drive you to take on more fabrication tasks to build up experience and talent.

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