These days, there are so many functional changes you can do to a classic car to improve both the performance and aesthetics of your ride. But, when it comes down to it, there are really only three things which affect your interaction with the car — the steering wheel, pedals, and gauges. There’s not a lot you can do to change the steering wheel or pedals (unless you go crazy and put a square wheel on there), but gauges are a completely different story.
For most popular cars, there are options galore with several manufacturers offering an assortment of analog and digital gauges. Whether you are just refurbishing your original gauges or going all-out custom, the sky (or at least the depth of your wallet) is the limit. Recently, I found myself in the market for new gauges after I bought my dad’s 1966 Ford Fairlane (not one of those “popular” cars I mentioned) and found Dakota Digital makes an instrument cluster that exceeded my expectations.
Feeling The Need
Dad built the Fairlane with the drivetrain from a 2010 Mustang Shelby GT500 after the donor car got up close and personal with a tree. He won the Best Ford in a Ford award at the Syracuse Nationals in 2013, so it’s not a project car by any means. But, since the day I got it, I haven’t been thrilled with the instrument panel.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the look and function of the gauges themselves. They are on a silver background with black numbers but have razor-thin black needles behind convex glass. They work and fit the look of the car perfectly. The problem is they are not made to fit the dash for which my father installed them.
There are a few reasons they aren’t right. First off, the clutch and brake master cylinders are under the dash in this area, so the analog gauges are too deep to be as inset under the dash overhang as they should. Second, to make them fit, he cut the original bezel (and even some of the dash) and attached them with a flat piece of painted sheetmetal which sticks out past the overhang. It doesn’t look horrible, but it is obviously a retrofit.
Herein lies the problem — you can’t read the gauges easily. The convex glass catches any-and-all available light, usually reflecting right where the skinny black needle is pointing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night (the glass even reflects streetlights), the gauge lights can’t overpower the reflection — even if you have them turned all the way up. I spend way too much time looking at the dash trying to figure out what the gauges read rather than watching the road.
I wanted an instrument cluster to fit in the stock location (or better yet, the stock bezel) which gives me all the vital information from the engine in a clear, concise package. If it could interface with the Ford Performance electronic control unit (ECU) so I didn’t have to run additional sensors all over the engine bay, I’d consider that a bonus. It also needed to fit with the restomod build style of the car. I wanted it to look like it belongs there, with just a little flash and a nod toward the future.
Researching The Options
To be honest, I probably named this section wrong because, to my surprise, I didn’t have to study very long to find out there aren’t many options for a ’66 Fairlane. I guess it is rarer than I thought or there just isn’t a massive demand from owners for a retrofit dash. There are a couple of options which consist of only a panel similar to what my father made already. I would still have to provide the gauges, which would be analog. I’d be in the same boat trying to find gauges to fit in the space. Unfortunately, this option didn’t check off enough boxes for my needs.
Without going full-on custom by having a dash made, the best option came from Dakota Digital’s VHX line of instrument clusters. The VHX is a direct-fit, six-gauge system that bolts into the stock bezel, includes all the needed sensors, and even has different plates for the radio area. Buyers can choose from either a black or silver alloy background, and red, white, or blue LED backlighting.
The features of the standard VHX dash are pretty incredible. The six analog gauges include a speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, engine temperature, volts, and oil pressure. Built-in indicators include turn signals, high beam, check engine, parking brake, and (if the vehicle is so equipped) cruise control, gear position, 4×4, and wait to start. The LCD message center relays a ton of additional information including an odometer, dual trip meter, clock, 0-60 timer, quarter-mile time, quarter-mile speed, high-speed recall, high-RPM recall, speedometer, tachometer, oil pressure, water temperature, voltmeter, and fuel level.
Here’s the kicker! The VHX can interface with the ECU through the use of an expansion Bus Interface Module (BIM) plugged into the OBD-II port. This allows additional information to be seen in the message center right before your eyes (see sidebar). Another cool aspect of the VHX is all the wiring goes to the control board with one Cat5 cable going to the cluster itself. Something else important to me, when it comes to the automotive aftermarket, is it is engineered and manufactured in the U.S.A. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Research over! I contacted Dakota Digital’s Marketing Manager Scott Johnson to find out more before making my purchase. I explained the engine swap, what parameters I liked to monitor, what my concerns were, and how I wanted it to look. Scott was super helpful by giving me a rough idea of what I was in for during the installation.
Additionally, I asked if it was possible to make a few little customizations to personalize the gauge cluster. The dash is pretty dull, so I wanted to pop some color into the cluster with a different color background, red needles, and some yellow and red on the tach in the danger zones above 5,000 rpm. “Yes, as long as it doesn’t involve reconfiguring the cluster, some slight custom alterations or artwork options are available to help make your interior your own,” Scott said. “There is a slight fee to get the design work done, but we do offer this service to our customers.”
My mind was made up, so I placed the order for a custom-touched VHX dash for the Fairlane. It arrived surprisingly quickly seeing it wasn’t an off-the-shelf part with the extra artwork. Now it was time to get down to the business of installing the cluster. When it comes to anything electrical, I am completely intimidated, so I took it over to my friend Larry Styers’ house to stand over my shoulder and make sure I was doing it right.
Out With The Old, In With The New
On the initial opening of the package, I was a little worried I might not be able to do this. But, I took my time and read through all of the instructions entirely before I made the first cut. The first step was to disconnect the battery and get the old dash out of the way. Luckily, dad wired the old gauges rather simply. He gave plenty of extra length on the wires so the cluster could be put on top of the dash in case he needed to get into the clutch/brake master cylinders. Dad used an American Autowire harness, so all the wires were labeled and connected through two pigtails.
As mentioned earlier, the VHX cluster is entirely separate from the control panel and only connected via one Cat5 cable, so the cluster itself is easy to remove. But, I decided to keep the pigtail connectors in case I wanted to remove the control panel as well, so I clipped the wires close to the gauges to leave a little extra length. I was also able to remove the speedometer signal interface box, as this would now come from the ECU.
With the old cluster out of the way, it was time to figure out where to mount the control panel. As you saw above, space is a premium behind the dash in this Fairlane. Both the clutch and brake master cylinders, ECU, and Vintage Air air-conditioning unit reside in the close confines.
The beauty of the VHX cluster having only the one Cat5 cable connecting it is you can mount the control panel virtually anywhere. Dakota Digital does recommend you keep it away from ignition electronics or things that could create interference. The problem I ran into was a lack of usable space to mount the panel under the dash. Larry’s expertise came in handy here. He had some super-strong industrial glue, so we decided to attach the panel using Velcro right above the cluster on the bottom side of the dash — a perfect solution.
The Benefits Of BIM
As you know, modern-day engines are controlled by the computer (ECU). If you’ve done a modern-engine swap (as dad did in the Fairlane), there is a wealth of valuable information you are leaving on the table by not connecting to it. Dakota Digital has your back with the Bus Interface Module (BIM). This series of modules allow you to add 16 additional specialty-gauge readings without having to cut more holes in your dash, add a console, or add gauge pods. YES, I said 16 more readings.
The BIM interface allows you to display engine data in the message center on most lines of Dakota Digital instrument panels: RTX, HDX, VHX, and VFD3. It has an input to read engine information from vehicles using either GM or Ford’s 1996-current OBD-II, some Chrysler 2000-current OBD-II, or any car using CAN OBD-II protocols (2008-current).
The BIM-01-02 module connects directly to your engine management system (i.e., CAN, AEM, or any EFI system) through the diagnostic port to extract data. Granted, how much data you can collect depends on the engine/trans management system it interfaces with, the number of sensors you have (or can add), and to some extent how much room you have under the dash. If your OEM ECU doesn’t monitor something you want to be displayed, additional BIMs can be added without communicating directly with the ECU, provided you have the bandwidth for more sensors on the engine.
I installed the BIM-01-02 OBD-II interface on the Fairlane. The information available depends on the vehicle, but here is a list of what most cars will have:
- Engine Temperature
- Check Engine Indicator
- Intake Air Temperature
- Transmission Temperature
- Ambient Air Temperature
- Gear Position
- Oil Pressure
- Boost Pressure
Facing The Fear Of Wiring
We are all intimidated by something. When it comes to car-building, wiring is something I always try to outsource. It is usually beyond my realm of comfort, but Scott put my mind at ease that I could do this myself, so I decided to tackle it. I’m glad I did.
With my dad’s simply-thought-out previous efforts and the use of the BIM module, the wiring turned out to have more bark than bite. The BIM-01-02 module eliminates a lot of the wiring you have to do without one. “The BIM-01-2 is the most popular model, allowing for simple integration with an OEM ECU (with OBD-II compatibility),” Scott says. “Bear in mind, a BIM module is not used in every installation; they are designed to either simplify the installation with ECU integration or to expand the functionality of an instrument system. If neither of these is needed, a base instrument system will do the trick.”
Using the BIM meant the only sensor I needed to install was oil pressure. Everything else comes from the ECU for the 5.4-liter harness or was already installed such as the fuel sender. With the wires properly labeled already from the pigtail connectors, I was able to eliminate the wires I wouldn’t need from the old analog gauges. I started by wiring the power first: constant (red), accessory (pink), and ground (black). Next came the indicators, which for me was just high beams (green), left turn signal (light blue), right turn signal (dark blue) and the lights (DIM, light grey).
The next hookup I made was the supplied SW1(red)/SW2(white) switch, which allows you to scroll through the LCD menus. I ran the switch down under the dash so I could reach it once I installed the cluster. This was followed by the two wires for the fuel sending unit — the black ground wire goes to FUEL- and the tan wire goes to FUEL SND.
All that was left was to wire the oil pressure sensor directly into the control panel, for which Dakota Digital provides the sensor and wiring. The oil pressure sensor is located down underneath the engine right next to the oil filter. I lucked out as I found the old analog pressure sensor installed with a T-connector off of the OEM digital sensor going to the ECU. The T-connection was necessary, so the ECU didn’t throw a code. I just screwed off the old pressure switch and installed the new one in its place, and Larry snaked the wires up through the firewall to me.
All I needed to do was strip the three wires and connect them to OIL- (black), OIL SND (white), and OIL+ (red). The next step was to hook up the BIM, which just required me to plug in the OBD-II cable and run the I/O cable to the control panel. With the wiring complete, I double-checked to make sure they were secure before velcroing the panel to its spot under the dash. I hooked the battery back up and verified the little status light was flashing on the control panel. The very final step was to plug the Cat5 cable into the control panel and the back of the VHX dash.
The After-Install And Final Thoughts
After securing the dash to the bezel with the supplied screws from Dakota, I put the VHX unit in its final resting place. I have to say; it looks killer compared to the old cobbled-together panel my dad made. And it is so easy to see at night! It looks like it came with the car, yet still has that little hint of a digital upgrade.
I won’t go through all the steps of configuring the readings on your dash because every car and person’s taste is going to be different. Instead, I will give a little advice. Take your time and don’t get ahead of yourself by jumping ahead in the instructions for configuring each menu. Even if you think you don’t need a particular option, or you think you know how to set it — go through each step — it will help you understand everything so much more.
Also, if you are using a BIM module, my advice is to go through the steps within the VHX manual first and then go back through the steps in the BIM module instructions, so you know you’ve got everything set. I ended up doing this after I had missed a couple of steps and things weren’t reading right. Once I calmed my excitement and read through the steps methodically, all my readings came out as expected.
I can’t contain how much I love the look and function of this dash. My little custom touches give the dash that little added pop of color I was looking for, and when I turn the key, the backlighting makes seeing everything so crystal clear. I’ll be honest, when I bought it, I had no idea the message center had so much information available until I went through the menus! Trip odometers? Quarter-mile times? Are you kidding me?
All of the gauges sweep nice and smooth, and I love running with the tach and miles per hour on the LCD to have an exact number. I am incredibly impressed with the ease of installation, especially for a wiring rookie like myself. All-in the install took me about 4 hours, but I was shooting pictures and talking to Larry a lot of the time so it can be done much quicker.
This is my first Dakota Digital dash, and I can’t think of one bad thing to say about it. While it would be great to have the option of their premier HDX dash for the Fairlane, I know there is a lot of engineering that must happen so the demand has to be there before they can go there. With that said, if you are a Ford Fairlane owner and are thinking about upgrading, give Dakota Digital a call or check out its website. You won’t be disappointed.