Our project car, Sucker Punch, a 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air needed a touch of modern technology. With help from Dakota Digital, we were able to get our hands on a custom Dakota Digital VHX instrument cluster.
This is a completely custom part order and cannot be found on their website. VHX stands for Vehicle Hybrid Instrument Systems. The VHX-53C-K-W instrument cluster we installed provides Sucker Punch with the latest dashboard technology.
Moreover, VHX systems are available for the car, truck, or street rodder enthusiast alike. Still holding a rather traditional look, the cluster we chose will give Sucker Punch’s driver up-to-date and precise information during operation. Manufactured in the United States, Dakota Digital’s products include a limited lifetime warranty.
All of the items included with Dakota Digital's custom VHX instrument cluster.
Choosing What Felt Right
Of all the different instrument clusters available on the market, we coordinated with Greg Karpe, Product Specialist at Dakota Digital to help choose and design a custom instrument cluster.
“Since this was a standard application for us, we focused our time on creating a custom overlay to match the vision for Sucker Punch,” Karpe said.
We went back and forth with design ideas to ensure the custom instrument system would look right in this classic Chevy. – Greg Karpe
Furthermore, the engineers at Dakota Digital laid out the custom graphics digitally before any ink was laid on the overlay, making any changes a simple process.
“Our packages are aimed at the hot rod and custom car/truck crowd,” Karpe said. “The VHX series of analog instrument packages are just as happy connected to a carbureted 302ci Ford as they are a turbocharged LS3.”
In regards to our design choices, Karpe said the system we ended up choosing stands out from the options in Dakota Digital’s product catalog.
A Dakota Digital engineer designing Project Sucker Punch's custom VHX instrument cluster.
“The structure and layout are identical, but unique choices in font style and background design make it look like a full custom,” Karpe said. “It’s the best of all three worlds in terms of appearance, cost and timeliness.”
Moreover, Karpe said that although the overlay design for the gauge cluster is basic, it adds several hours to the base kit price, with custom layouts and scratch built systems taking even more time.
A Dakota Digital specialist printing and digitally cutting out the custom overlay for Sucker Punch.
“This kit enjoys all of the standard features found in all VHX systems, with the added perk of a revised face, which gives the system a whole new look,” said Karpe.
We watched as the custom cluster was carefully assembled after the overlay was printed.
VHX Gauge Features
Dakota Digital’s VHX gauge clusters feature several indicators and digital LCD displays. Special outputs include a shift output to activate external light and selectable 2000ppm or 4000ppm speed output for cruise control.
Dakota Digital’s VHX cluster without the glass overlay.
Complete with fully lit needles, backlit faces and highly visible LCD message centers, these are just a few of the features that make the VHX product lineup from Dakota Digital stand out from the rest.
Moreover, the VHX system provides excellent daytime visibility and while under computer control, fully backlit and dimming capability for nighttime driving. Monitoring solid state sensors coupled with microprocessor technology and driving precision stepper motors, the VHX gauge cluster system provides the driver with unparalleled accuracy.
Another view of our custom VHX instrument cluster.
Furthermore, the VHX gauge system has performance readings, including: high speed recall, high rpm, 0-60 mph time, quarter mile time, and quarter mile end speed (trap speed). Auxiliary gauge readings are available in LCD message displays with the expansion Bus Interface Modules (BIM).
What’s more, mileage readings include a million mile odometer, English to metric conversion LCD display, and your typical built-in indicators are included in each VHX gauge cluster. According to Dakota Digital, the user-customizable display feedback and additional features not typically found on any other brand or type of instrumentation are standard in the VHX system.
Installing The Gauge Cluster
Although the installation is straightforward and can be completed by following the instruction manual, there are several precautions that should be noted before proceeding. One precaution to take while installing the cluster is to avoid placing the control module next to or just opposite of the firewall from any ignition components.
We made sure to mask the area we were going to work with to avoid damaging the interior panel.
With our backlighting technology, LEDs are strategically placed in order to light up each number, tick mark and indicator; moving something too far or making a digit too large may result in improper lighting and decreased visibility. – Greg Karpe
Examples of ignition components include the high energy ignition distributor and the ignition coil. Ignition components can emit huge amounts of feedback or electrical noise, affecting the operation of electrical components which can cause erratic operation.
“The biggest concern is making sure every feature found on the gauge face is still properly illuminated,” Karpe said.
Furthermore, Karpe said creating a custom circuit board is very costly and time consuming.
Observing Sucker Punch’s space where the cluster was to be installed into, we had to make a few adjustments to ensure proper fitment. Utilizing a powered hand saw, we masked the area, marked what needed to be cut, and began to cut away.
We utilized masking and marked cut points to ensure proper fitment for the instrument cluster.
As for tools, all we really needed to complete the installation with ease were a pair of pliers, masking tape, and a pen to mark our measurements. The powered hand saw was only used to make the cluster fit perfect into Sucker Punch’s dashboard.
The install was seamless once the proper cuts to the interior panel were made.
Wiring the Dakota Digital VHX cluster was straightforward. However, there are a few precautions we had to take prior to wiring anything.
We had to make sure to ground the engine block because if we failed to do so, the control box can cause incorrect readings and erratic operation. Proper vehicle grounding is vital for any gauge or electronics to operate correctly.
Be sure to mark your wires to avoid any confusion during the wiring process.
The engine block should have heavy ground cables connected to the battery, firewall, frame, and body of a given vehicle. An 18 AWG or larger wire should be used to ensure sufficient grounding. Particularly, this wire should be run from the terminal to the car’s main chassis ground.
What’s more, to ensure the ignition system does not interfere with any other dashboard functions, do not run the tachometer wire alongside any other sender or input wires. After wiring everything, we had to set up the speedometer and properly calibrate it through the cluster’s menu.
Left: The boost pressure sensor comes included with the BIM-03-2 for our super charger. Right: Dakota Digital speed sensor SEN-01-5. This is a pulse generator and is used in place of a mechanical speedometer cable.
Installing the Bus Interface Module
The Bus Interface Module (BIM) is an add-on product to Dakota Digital gauge cluster systems. With the BIM in place, it allows us to add auxiliary gauge functions such as fuel pressure, vac/boost, and trans temp right into the system eliminating the need to add additional gauges.
A shot of the BIM-03-2 add-on component for the VHX cluster.
The add-on component we installed into Sucker Punch is the BIM-03-2, a bus interface module for boost pressure. The module we installed connects to a solid state pressure sensor.
“Our VHX analog and VFD3 digital systems each offer the same information and features out of the box, and any can be expanded upon with the BIM-series of expansion modules, so it really is a question of what fits the dash and what color you like,” Karpe said.
With two power and data interface ports on the module, either port can be connected to the gauge system or to another module, allowing numerous units to be daisy chained together. Just make sure you do not connect the power and data interface port to anything other than a Dakota Digital gauge.
Our VHX control box for the custom instrument cluster, which contains several connections.
Also, be sure to mount the BIM in the interior of the vehicle, not the engine compartment, to avoid electrical noise or feedback.
“The central control box is crucial for simplified wiring while supplied sending units and available expansion modules make our kits both easy to install and full of information,” Karpe said. “They are also customizable to ensure the driver has all of the information they need available, all in one compact cluster.”
Sucker Punch’s Stewart Warner vintage style gauge before the install.
In the end, the install was simple and straightforward. We were able to accomplish a clean install, with everything fully functional with no problems.
By the looks of it, the cluster complements Sucker Punch well, giving a good contrast to its white interior panels. Despite having to cut into the dash a little bit, there weren’t really any setbacks during the installation of the cluster.
As for drawbacks, there were not any really except to be careful during the wiring process. Duly noted, always make sure to be cautious when wiring with live electric current to avoid shorting any components.
The finished product, a custom cluster that has classic and clean styling.
Dakota Digital’s VHX digital gauge system gives Sucker Punch a taste of modern innovation while still holding onto its vintage roots. With each modification carried out on Sucker Punch, it is slowly becoming a new classic if that term exists.
We wonder what is going to happen next to Sucker Punch. Stay tuned to the build thread as we continue to install and innovate this beauty.
Also, be sure to check out Dakota Digital’s website to view their entire product line and inquire about special orders. With several options available, Dakota Digital is always willing to help you innovate and create what caters to your tastes if you don’t like what you see initially.