Quantifying The Value Of Aesthetics With A Dakota Digital Upgrade

Aesthetically, there are few differences between the OE Instrument panel (on top) and the upgrade Retrotech instrument panel from Dakota Digital. The same design and look are maintained for the pedestrian view. However, don’t judge a book by its cover! There’s much more hiding behind the lens in the Dakota Digital instrument panel.

Many may not consider our recent Dakota Digital Retrotech Analog/Digital Instrument System to upgrade a budget item. Let us assure you that it is, and well worth the sticker price. For safety and simplicity, this upgrade ranks as one of the best conversions we have done on our project truck. Here is why we selected the Dakota Digital RTX gauge kit (Part # RTX-60C-PU-X) for our project truck.

The stock piece is made up of three major sections. While these were cutting edge at the time, manufacturing techniques and materials have changed tremendously in the past 60 years. These parts were never designed to last this long, and sadly, it shows.

Things we take for granted today were not even a thought when the original instrumentation was built in the late-1950s/early-1960s. The material formula used to create the clear plastic lens was in its infancy. As a result, the lenses cracked, crazed, and scratched causing vision problems when the light hits these imperfections. The cracking due to age can be seen in the photo with the oil pressure warning light above. The photo on the left shows what happens when a flash of light hits the surface scratches that have accumulated over the years, most likely from the routine cleaning of the lens.

Our first-generation Chevy C20 truck was revolutionary when it rolled off the assembly line. When introduced to the public in late 1959 for the 1960 model year, the truck featured a drop-center frame that was designed to place the cab lower. This placed the vehicle’s center-of-gravity in a more advantageous position for handling. The goal was to make the truck drive more like a car.

The gauges were very plain, with a simple needle and no warning indicators built into the individual gauges. The indicator needles were treated with a special paint that helped with the limited light these panels produced. Most lighting was a dull yellow that brightens and dims with engine speed. After decades of use, the reflective paint on the indicators fade and the numbers on the odometer are barely visible.

In addition to the lowered cab design, an independent front suspension was added to the C/K series trucks which also helped the car-like ride. Despite these cutting-edge changes, the C-Series trucks were still work-vehicles and sparsely appointed.  The cockpit was bare, with only the minimal equipment the public expected in a fleet-style vehicle.

The back of the stock instrument panel is a cluster of wires and electrical components that are just waiting to cause a problem. As evidenced by the corrosion on the instrument panel’s housing, these wires are subject to the same type of corrosion and probably don’t work as well as they were designed.

In fact, our project truck originally hit the showroom without a radio or speaker. For many of us, that bare-look of the factory truck has a pleasant appeal. Traditionalists look to maintain that factory appearance and forgo the technological advances that have been made in equipment and instrumentation in the past 60 years. Especially in budget-type builds.

About A Budget Build

When a project car builder decides to commit to a budget-type build, every part has to be cost-justified against the complete build. When we started the project, our goal was to build a truck that the “everyman” with a family and a tight budget could pull off. So how could we justify buying a sophisticated instrument system when the original gauge cluster still worked?

The stock gauge panel is very plain and constructed with advanced material for its time. Cardboard tubes were placed over sensor lights and capped with a red lens to act as a warning indicator. This system worked but time and technology allow better and more efficient lighting in modern instruments.

Yes. The original factory gauge cluster worked, but not as well as anyone would hope. After all, the components were 60-years old and put through years of wear. The solid cable speedometer looked and acted more like a windshield wiper than a precision measuring device. The speedometer needle fluctuated 10 MPH in either direction consistently.

A comparison between the back of the OE gauge panel and Dakota Digital’s upgraded Retrotech instrument panels shows a whole new level of manufacturing. Modern practices and materials allow for a cleaner and safer design.

The entire electrical current was wired to go through the instrument panel, as was the norm in vehicles serviced with a generator instead of an alternator. Like all cars and trucks of the time, the instrument lights were nice and bright when the engine RPMs were high but dimmed significantly when the engine dropped to idle speeds. Additionally, the factory instrument lights had that eerie yellow glow that is reminiscent of a 1950s horror/drama feature film.

Aesthetics In A Budget Build

Here’s where it gets difficult. What value do you place on aesthetics? Part of what we love about our project truck is the patina look of the exterior. That grungey, work-hardened, years-of-neglect appearance. Putting a shiny part on the exterior of this truck would defeat the entire sense of this project. The goal would be shot.

As we have already pointed out, Dakota Digital’s instruments take many factors into consideration. For the Retrotech Series gauges, maintaining the OE look as originally designed was critical. Adding in factors that we have learned over the years, like reducing eye strain with efficient lighting, components manufactured with cutting edge materials, right down to the paint used on the clear plastic lens. While the instrument panel looks like the original, it is a clean sheet designed product using every modern technological advantage.

That doesn’t mean we have to live without modern technology, however. Sitting in the driver’s seat, there are two things that dominate the view. The steering wheel and the instrument gauges. To anyone outside of the cockpit, these items are not noticeable. Yet the driver’s entire personality is influenced by the condition and appearance of the steering wheel and instrument cluster.

The Retrotech Series gauge kit is spectacular in the daylight, but when the sun goes down, this instrument panel really comes to life.

Personally, we believe that anyone would feel better about their drive with a great instrument panel, despite that lack of other creature comforts and worn exterior appearance. It’s easy to justify the price of a top-shelf gauge kit from Dakota Digital that has state-of-the-art technology, yet looks exactly like the original factory unit.

Every project build, from top-dollar builds to budget builds, should strive to be a little bit unique, and something the builder can be proud of. The best builds are a great representation of the builder.

Form And Function

Dakota Digital offers several different product lines of instruments, each with a specific focus. We opted to upgrade with their latest gauge set, in the retro RTX series. Having Dakota Digital pay attention to the first generation C/K series trucks was exciting as many manufacturers simply overlook these models. The RTX line is dedicated to retaining the stock look without sacrificing the late-model features that are available to modern cars.

Unless they are side-by-side, a casual observer would not notice the subtle differences in appearance from the original (left) and Dakota Digital's Retrotech gauge design. A side-by-side comparison shows the additional driver information the Retrotech Series gauges provide. For instance, the original oil pressure indicator is a warning light that only provides a visual display when there is extremely low or no oil pressure. The Dakota Digital display provides oil pressure information at a glance. There is no need to add an additional direct pressure gauge.

For the installer, the Dakota Digital gauge kits are a snap to install and the key feature that Dakota Digital has become known for – the one connector to the back of the display – simplifies the installation, and eliminates the solid-cable speedometer drive. These older speedometer drives are prone to failure and inaccurate readings.

The original instrument panel is open with several bare wiring connectors for lights, fuel gauge readings, turn signals and the like. These connectors are easily shorted out because they are not protected in any fashion. The RTX panel is sealed with one closed connector for instrumentation, and one connector for the alarm. This prevents the potential of anything causing a short circuit behind the dash.

The left side of the instrument cluster has a similar upgrade in driver information. The original panel (left) used a warning light for the generator output. When the generator failed or engine speed dropped too low, the generator indicator would glow with a red light. The Retrotech instrument panel displays current to the battery via a modern alternator unit. Most early C-series truck owners have already swapped the problematic generators with modern alternators, which makes this instrumentation upgrade an important factor.

The OE instrument cluster was equipped with an ammeter instead of a voltmeter. Over the years, most project car owners have changed their charging system from a generator to a modern alternator. This renders the ammeter useless. The options have been to add a voltmeter by cutting a hole in the dash or mounting one on the dash someplace. Other builders, like us, just did without. The Dakota Digital instrument panel comes with a voltmeter, which solves the issue completely.

Modern Upgrades

The single most impressive feature of the RTX instrument panel is the lighting and display abilities. The instruments read exactly like the original display at first sight. That is to say, the instruments are laid out and the needles move in the same direction as the originals.

However, this unit really shines with the lighting capabilities (pun intended and deserved). The instrument panel is backlit by LED lights. LED lights last longer, produce a brighter light, and are 90 percent more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs. In short, you get more light, using less electricity, for a longer period of time.

Using less energy may not seem like a big deal, but when you add an electric fuel pump, and EFI system, add a stereo, electronic cooling fans, and other electrical components, the electrical charging system can get pushed to the limit quickly. Part fail and electrical charging systems need to be repaired or replaced. For safety and economical reasons, It pays to be a miser with your electricity.

The Retrotech Series instrument panel offers 17 different preset lighting configurations at your fingertips.

Lighting

When it comes to the lighted needle colors, sweep color, and the digital TFT display, Dakota Digital’s RTX systems offer more than 30 different color options. For ease of use, the factory has preset 12 color themes that can be selected quickly and easily. This allows the user to quickly create an operating environment that is pleasing to look at or fit your mood. Additionally, there is an option to choose the color zones independently and suit your personal preferences whenever you please.

The gauge configuration, calibration, and customization can all be done through a Bluetooth app or right on the gauge set with a toggle switch provided with the kit.

Interior lighting is critical for safe driving. Gauges lights that are too bright or too dim cause problems with eye strain or simply being able to read the gauges quickly. The longer a driver is searching for information from the gauge cluster, the less time their eyes are on the road. Sharper color contrasts between the background and gauge displays when needed, and warmer contrasts when appropriate. If the gauge lighting is bright enough, the glare is reflected off of the driver onto the windshield, which presents a safety hazard on its own. Dakota Digital has carefully thought through this aspect of lighting.

The RTX instrument cluster daytime and nighttime brightness can be swiftly controlled through the system’s setup menu. This allows the user to choose a preferred lighting intensity level, which is toggled by the activation of the headlight switch. Dakota Digital offers an optional DIM-1 rotary type dimmer control if the user prefers on-the-fly type lighting intensity adjustments. An option that should be considered for drivers that frequently go between bright light city driving and dark country roads at night.

Dakota Digital has added some of the modern indicators that drivers have come to expect in quality instrumentation. The engine warning light, brake warning light, shift light, and high beam indicator are nice additions to this package.

What’s Included

Like almost every instrument kit built by the Dakota Digital team, this RTX kit was designed from scratch. The instrument housing is machined and filled with hand-selected electronics that are completely built in-house. What makes digital-type gauges so desirable is the high definition message center and accurate measuring of critical engine operating parameters. The message center can be configured to display almost any information that a driver would need to know.

Everything needed to complete the upgrade is provided in the kit.

To make this happen, the RTX series uses a central control box that receives all the input and displays the information on the display panel as configured by the person doing the installation. Using a central control box with one wire output to the display panel keeps the installation simple and makes the setup easy enough that a first-time installer can do it without fear.

Included In The Kit:

  • Display panel
  • Display cable
  • Control Box
  • Double-sided tape
  • Screws
  • Buzzer with 3 feet of cable
  • Switch (for configuring the display)
  • Switch mounting plate

Installation is fool-proof. The control box will show the installer if the system is working properly with a status light. It will even let you know if the Bluetooth (BT) system is working properly.

Summary

It is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we all have a different idea of what true beauty is. However, some things are timeless and their appearance is cherished, no matter what era it is viewed from.

We have discovered the Dakota Digital RTX line of gauges maintain the original standards of appearance while upgrading the technical elements of instrumentation to the most modern capabilities. There’s confidence in having modern technology, and a cool factor in keeping the original look.

The only drawback that we found with this kit lies in the fact that it will not work with GMC trucks of the same era. We feel for our GMC brethren but this is a problem that GMC truck owners are familiar with. There are many other aftermarket upgrades that fall into the same category. Dakota Digital is likely to remedy this for the GMC fans in the near future.

Stay tuned for our next article on the Dakota Digital RTX installation article where we discuss the technical side of each component and show the installation in a step-by-step procedure.

Article Sources

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
Read My Articles

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