Going Digital: 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Build Gets Custom Gauges

dakotadigitalhals-leadartIn the 1950s, most cars had very few gauges. A speedometer, a fuel gauge, and a temperature gauge were about all that was available. If you lost oil pressure, or if your charging system failed, the tell-tale sign for those situations was something that we called an “idiot light.” Idiot lights basically told you that if you kept driving the vehicle with that red light on the dash, you’re an idiot. What it really meant was that you’ve either lost oil pressure, or your alternator is not recharging your car’s battery sufficiently.

1955cluster

Fuel, temperature, speed, and a pair of idiot lights. Just doesn’t seem to be enough to drive on these days.

For a complete restoration where the car owner is seeking show points for awards, perhaps the limited factory gauges would be enough. Those gauges are sufficient for leisurely rides to the park or a car show, and they were good enough way back then, so why not now? Because these days, we’re spending more on our builds, and often times we’re investing a substantial amount of money into the drivetrain. We’re also driving our cars more often, as well as further distances, and Dakota Digital can help bring your gauges into the 21st century.

When you put thousands of dollars into your engine, it makes sense to monitor your its vital statistics with a full set of gauges. For the most part, a five or six gauge set will be more than sufficient, with additional gauges added on for more performance-oriented applications, such as boost, cylinder head temperatures, and the like. A tachometer isn’t always necessary for a car with an automatic, but what gearhead doesn’t want a tach?

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It has the same amount of real estate, but provides much more information than the factory cluster.

Dakota Digital knows quite a bit about instrumentation, and has been providing a way to monitor engines digitally since the mid-1980s. One of the hottest, award-winning products to come from this Sioux Falls, South Dakota, company is the VHX line of instrumentation. While the classic vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) line is still doing remarkably well, the newer VHX instrumentation has been giving the VFD series a run for its money.

The VHX series utilizes similar input as the VFD, providing a digital signal to the remote-mounted control box, which sends that information to the gauges or cluster via network cable to display the information in an analog format. This allows the gauges to work off of minimal electrical input, with just a single wire to the control box to provide the power to all of the gauges. If you’ve ever installed a six gauge set, you’ve likely seen that adding a separate power wire for all gauges was the best method to get accurate readings.

All of the included senders have a long harness that can be connected to the control box. The clock can be digital readout, or an analog design to match the cluster.

VHX Tri-Five Cluster Installation

We recently installed a VHX-55C instrument cluster into a fresh, frame-off 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air restomod. In addition to the VHX, we also added the matching VLC analog clock to fill in the opening on the right side of the dash on the Bel Air.

Dakota Digital VHX Series

PN: VHX-55C-S-W

  • Direct fit
  • Three face colors
    • Black alloy, silver alloy, or carbon fiber
  • Three LED colors
    • Red, white, or blue
  • Speedometer
  • Tachometer
  • Fuel level
  • Oil pressure
  • Voltage
  • Water temperature
  • Odometer
  • Trip meter (2)
  • Indicator lights
  • Ability to add more gauges
  • Control box can be mounted nearly anywhere
There are several choices for this vehicle application; for those who like the blue, digital readout of the VFD series, a complete, replacement cluster is available for the Tri-Five Chevrolets. The VHX, however, will allow you a few more options when it comes to color.

The owner of this beautiful build chose the silver-faced gauges with white LED back lighting (PN VHX-55C-S-W) and the matching white-face analog clock (PN VLC-55C-S-W), and to make things much easier for this application, Dakota Digital also has the four-piece set of dash chrome for the Tri-Five cars (PN CHC-55C).

This highlights the direct-fit instrument clusters that Dakota Digital makes for numerous Ford and GM applications, in addition to its universal applications and five and six gauge sets. The VHX-55 is not only designed to take the place of the original instrument cluster, but to enhance it in both looks and functionality.

While many car owners still like the look of the factory instrumentation, the VHX doesn’t require any cutting or fabrication, and actually takes up less space behind the glass because it’s completely digital inside. Everything is handled electronically, so the gauges are not loaded up with bulky balance coils that receive current and move the needle one direction or the other.

DakDigtri5-093

The owner isn't cutting corners on this build, it's getting lots of attention.

The other advantage to the VHX-55 is that it adds more functions to the same real estate that was taken up by the original cluster, with a voltage and oil pressure gauge, as well as a tachometer. There is also a pair of message centers that allow you to add even more functionality.

DakDigtri5-044

The matching clock is the icing on the cake. A digital version is available, it matches the message centers.

Where the original cluster typically had a fuel gauge, water temperature gauge, and a pair of “idiot” lights, the VHX allows you to add other senders/sensors to your vehicle to display that reading in the message center.

The VHX is available in black alloy, silver alloy, or carbon fiber with red, white, or blue LED back lighting. What’s unique about both the printed gauge face and the message center is that no matter what lighting condition exists, the gauges and message centers are readable.

Whether it’s early morning or late in the evening – even if the sun is cast across half your instrument cluster – you can still read the full display. Dakota Digital’s Scott Johnson said, “We designed the gauges that way, so that they can be read in almost any lighting situation, day or night.”

Top: Being programmable, the speedometer and fuel level sender can be set up to provide the proper readings.
Bottom: The control box receives the inputs for all the gauges, and sends that info via a standard Ethernet cable provided with the VHX set.

VHX Functionality And Programmability

One of the other advantages of having a digital gauge is the ability to program your gauges. For instance, instead of offering several different fuel gauges, the fuel gauge can be programmed based on several different sending unit ranges. Whether your fuel sender has readings equivalent to early Ford/Chrysler (73 ohms empty, 10 ohms full) or 1965 and up GM (zero ohms empty, 90 ohms full), there is no need for a different gauge or sending unit. The VHX series also has a custom set-up for creating your own empty-to-full reading.

Digital cables transfer the information from the control box to the back of the gauges/cluster. That information translates to either a sweep hand or a digital display in the message centers.

Buying new wheels and tires for your car? No problem with the VHX, because all you really need to do is find a stretch of road one-mile long and the set-up function allows you to set your own speedometer, regardless of how fast or slow you drive. You enter the set-up menu, set the start point, and then drive to the end point and push the button, and your mileage and MPH are set.

The benefit of GPS is really that no calibration is ever required, regardless of tire size changes or gearing for the track. -Scott Johnson, Dakota Digital

Another option for the VHX is GPS for your speedometer, which acquires information from satellites and reports your speed based on your location. Johnson said, “The benefit of GPS is really that no calibration is ever required, regardless of tire size changes or gearing for the track. It’s just always correct and a signal can be acquired on anything in a hurry.”

Of the other gauges that make up the VHX-55, the water temperature and oil pressure have their own senders and are calibrated to work together. For additional gauge readings, such as cylinder head temperature, transmission fluid pressure or temperature, air pressure, boost, etc., dedicated senders from Dakota Digital allow you to select the function you are adding, without trying to find another hole in the dash – because the data for additional senders is displayed in the message center.

DakDigtri5-116

With the accuracy of digital input, and the visual appeal of the needle, the gauges deliver high-tech performance without giving away the secret.

Entering the set-up menu allow searches for new senders, and when cycling through, you can select the proper sender type and the function you want to display. If you want that data to warn you of a high or low reading, that can be designated for many of the gauges as well. If you want to see when your coolant temp reaches 230, the message center will flash a warning, regardless of what is set up to display there, as warning messages override the existing information in the message center.

DakDigtri5-118

The chrome kit helped finish off the dash, but the VHX looks just as much at home in this gorgeous ’56 Chevy.

Even a low fuel warning is possible in the message center, which can be set to warn of a 10 percent fuel level situation. Minimum values can be set as well. The message center will flash if battery voltage is too low, or a low pressure warning can be set to flash in the display, too. The secret behind all of these functions are the remote, momentary push-button switches used for set up.

Holding switch one (SW1) down while entering ignition mode will display the word “set up” on the message center. Through a series of short and long pushes on the button, you can cycle through the menu to set up your VHX, or to add new gauges. There is more to these two buttons and the message center, because there’s much more than just a speedometer on the VHX series of gauges.

The control box is where all of the data is input, and includes a few extras. Add-on BIM (Bus Interface Modules) will connect to the auxiliary input on the control box.

But Wait, There’s More …

Once the system has been set up, those two momentary switches (SW1 and SW2) allow you to cycle through a few different functions. Do you want to know what your zero to 60 times are? How about your quarter-mile times? These also are available with the VHX because with time, speed, and distance plotted through the setup menu, your time to distance is already calculated as Dakota Digital added those parameters to the VHX, which can be accessed with SW2.

DakDigtri5-049

Dakota Digital provides harness for the included senders, as well as the two momentary switches (SW1 and SW2) that allow for programming/display options.

Now how about things like top speed? Say you loaned your car to a friend, or had it in the shop for a repair. Cycle through the menu on the second message center (with SW2) and the top speed can be displayed to show if your friend is as trustworthy as you thought when you told him to “take it easy.” The top speed will overwrite the previous top speed, until it has been reset.

Want to find out if the shop working on your vehicle revved your engine higher than they should? Push SW2 until you get to the high RPM recall in the second message center and see where they took it to. That, too, will overwrite any current reading and will always display the highest RPM reached, until it is reset.

Of course, there are plenty more readings to keep track of all the places you go, too. You have an odometer that, first time out, can be set to any number or started at zero miles. Dakota Digital can reset this for you later if you want to keep track of your mileage with a new engine or drivetrain. SW1 has two trip meters and will show your current speed in MPH and KPH, plus your odometer reading. While driving, you can choose which message you want to display in either message center (including the time in the second message center).

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There’s a lot going on behind that lens: six gauges you can see, and a lot of programming ability that you can’t see. That’s the beauty from within on the VHX series.

The VHX series is not limited to these functions, as there are also provisions on the control box to add a few of those “idiot lights” we spoke of earlier. Added to the speedometer are several warning lights, including brake, check engine, 4×4, etc. Turn signals and the high-beam indicator are also on the speedometer face.

If you’re looking to up your game and get into the digital age with your classic, you can find all of the custom and direct fit applications on the Dakota Digital website. Keep tabs on events and opportunities by “Liking” the Dakota Digital Facebook page, too. Like the VHX, Dakota Digital has far more than what you see here, including LED taillamp, and cruise control systems, to name a few.

Article Sources

About the author

Michael Harding

Michael is a full time Power Automedia writer and automotive enthusiast who doesn’t discriminate. Although Mopar is in his blood, he loves any car that looks great and drives even faster.
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