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Many builders, whether they are your average shadetree mechanic or are part of a professional shop, understand the important aspects of a vehicle’s build. The powertrain must be reliable and make the power that is desired. The body should look presentable. The suspension should be secure, solid, and give the driver confidence to take corners. The brakes need to slow the momentum down quickly while keeping the vehicle in a straight line. The interior needs to be comfortable and safe. Pretty standard stuff, right? Let’s talk about the interior for a second. What do you look for in a good interior? Comfy seats? A great steering wheel? Working air conditioning? All good points, but there is one that more often than not we’ve seen overlooked or ignored: the gauge cluster.
The gauge cluster is your window to the vitals of your vehicle. For many, a full set of gauges is the only way to go…you know how fast you are driving, you know how many RPMs the engine is turning, and you have a view on your engine’s coolant temperature, oil pressure, electrical charging situation and the amount of fuel remaining on board, at least. But for many, those gauges are mere suggestions at best, non-functional at worst, and what’s the answer? You could have a rack of add-on gauges that tell you engine vitals, or you could make your own dash completely out of aftermarket gauges. You could opt for a digital cluster if you just want the information, but some of us like the appearance of the original gauges, but want modern functionality and accuracy. What do you do then?
This 1976 Charger is driven almost daily...but the gauges aren't bothered to provide information. That needs to change.
This 1976 Dodge Charger runs great and sees quite a bit of Interstate driving. But when it comes to the gauges…well, there’s a lot of hoping and praying going on. The speedometer works because it's the second one the car has had (the original one failed shortly after 50,000 miles on the odometer). The fuel gauge operates, but when the tank is topped off the gauge only reads three-quarters full. The oil pressure and engine coolant temperature gauges don’t work. Neither does the ammeter, which is rather worrying because all of the electrical power of the vehicle passes through that one gauge. As many an unfortunate Mopar owner has found out, the moment that the power proves to be too much, bad things will happen. Usually with billowing clouds of smoke and fire following.
The Charger's gauge cluster, in its current condition, looks like it has just about everything you need to know. But don't be fooled...only the speedometer is accurate, the fuel gauge kind-of functions, and no other gauge works. Could be worse, however...the base cluster only had an idiot light for oil pressure. And is there anything more annoying than the blank gauge locations that proved the original buyer was too cheap to buy the right gauge cluster?
We not only wanted to bring the gauges of the Charger back to a functioning status, but we also wanted to upgrade to a tachometer-equipped gauge cluster that was sourced from a 1978 Dodge Magnum, increase the speedometer readout to 140 MPH (like you would find in a similar vintage Dodge or Plymouth police car) and to convert the ammeter to a voltmeter. This is where Classic Instruments comes in. While Classic Instruments offers Direct Fit gauge replacements for many popular GM and Ford applications, like Chevelles, Tri-Five Chevrolets, “dentside” era Ford trucks, classic Mustangs and others, there is no Direct Fit application for a 1976 Dodge Charger. What then?
Classic Instruments offers a full line of Direct Fit clusters for many popular applications. Pictured above are examples for the 1973-1991 GM "Squarebody" truck line, 1973-1979 Ford "dentside" F-series, and 1964-1965 Pontiac GTO. Other applications include 1957-60 Ford truck, 1960-1963 Chevrolet Truck, 1966-1977 Ford Bronco, 1970-1972 Chevelle/El Camino, plus many more.
There are two options if you find that you have an off-the-wall gauge cluster you want to work like new. The first is the Retrofit line. Retrofit is perfect for someone who wants to keep the look of their vehicle’s stock gauge cluster but wants them to act as accurately as a modern vehicle’s instruments. The team at Classic Instruments will modernize your cluster with electronic movements that fit the stock locations of your original gauge cluster. If that doesn’t go far enough, a second option is a Custom order. Unlike the Retrofit line, the only thing that stands between you and a set of gauges is your imagination. Go as mild or as wild as you like. Pick the faces, the fonts, the colors, the shapes, the sizes, all of it.
The answer for the Charger was to locate a Rallye gauge cluster. These tachometer-equipped dashes aren't easy to find, but we got lucky and scored this well-used one, sourced from the remains of a 1978 Dodge Magnum.
To start the order process, you need to fill out the Custom Work Order form that is found at ClassicInstruments.com. Be sure to fill out the form to the best of your ability and if able, have your idea sketched out completely. This is only the first step in the process, so don't worry if you have questions or aren't 100% locked-in to the idea at this stage.
Your first step, regardless of which option you choose, is to fill out the custom order form on the Classic Instruments website. You don’t have to have all of the answers the moment you fill it out, just complete the form to the best of your ability. Once you have the form filled out, it’s time to package up the cluster and send it to Classic Instruments. Use a reputable shipping company and do not skimp out on packaging materials. You might have a few questions at this point in time, such as:
Great questions! Here’s the answer to both: every individual cluster, even those in mass-produced automobiles, are going to be different. If you set the instrument cluster from the 1976 Charger next to the 1978 Magnum cluster that is replacing it, or even a second 1976 Charger cluster, you’ll find differences. Even though your eyes will tell you that they are the exact same cluster, down to the gauges, there are tiny little details that the average gearhead might miss, like a mid-year change of a parts supplier that throws a kink into the overall plan. Having your cluster in hand allows Classic Instruments’ technicians the opportunity to see what they are working with exactly, to understand the details of what you have, and to plan out what they will need to complete the modifications to the cluster of your car to your satisfaction without guessing.
When the team at Classic Instruments receives your parts, they will take detailed photographs, refer to the order form you submitted, and look over everything that you sent to determine the details of the task at hand. They will create a plan and determine a timeframe that they will need to accomplish the modifications you have requested.
Once the team is ready with their plan, they will contact you and you will receive a PDF file, complete with a preview of the modifications you've requested. At this point, if you have changes you want to make, now is the time to say so. Once you approve of the work, you will put down 50% of the cost up-front and you will receive a deadline for completion. Any changes made after approval takes you back to the drawing board and you incur the additional costs, so make sure you're okay before you green-light the build!
When the team has a game plan created, this is when Classic Instruments will reach back out to you. They will explain what is needed, what they can do, how much time they need to create your custom gauge setup, and probably the most important thing you are worried about, how much it will cost. They will also have a visual representation of the work that they plan to perform in a PDF file for you to view. This is where any changes you want to make should be addressed. Should you accept the job, 50% of the cost of the job will be due up-front before work starts and the deadline for completion will be set at that point in time. Should any issues crop up in the process of creating your custom job (say, for example, a speedometer needle broke and some extra time will be needed and a new needle will be purchased), Classic Instruments will cover that. If, on the other hand, you have a change of heart after the work was started, you will go back to the “quote” part of the program and the cost to change the plan falls on you.
Understand that creating your custom gauges will take time. Unlike the Direct Fit gauges, where the only wait you will experience is the amount of time it takes the shipping company to get the box with your new cluster in it to your door, building a custom cluster from scratch or making old gauges act like modern units takes time. And you aren’t the only person in line. SEMA builds, AMBR builds, Ridler cars, and other customers are waiting in line, just like you are. There are only so many technicians available for the work. But if you need a reason to be patient, go check out Classic Instruments’ galleries for the RetroFit and Customs work that they have completed in the past. That’ll ease the pain of waiting for your custom gauges to arrive.