Killer Kong Project Update: Giving Our Dash A Dash of Brilliance

While there was plenty of parts bin sharing going on at the Big Three during the 1960s muscle car boom, none seemed more welcomed as the incorporation of the Rallye dashboard from the ’68 Dodge Charger to other Dodge and Plymouth B-Body offerings in 1969.

Some might notice the addition of the Auto Meter monster tach. Small changes were made to see if we liked them long before we started our interior restoration.

The aerospace-themed redesign of second generation Charger included a new dash that was far different than its predecessor, a matte black face trimmed in brilliant chrome surrounding full instrumentation akin to small private aircraft.

The Rallye dash was found only on the Charger in 1968, but was so praised by auto journalists and new owners alike, that it was later incorporated into the no-frills performance Super Bee and Road Runner, as well as the Coronet R/T and GTX in 1969 and 1970, from Dodge and Plymouth respectively.

Two dashboard frames were produced, one with small outlets for A/C and the other without. Besides the lower corners either sporting adjustable and directional vents or textured block off plates, and the center lower dash pad incorporating equally adjustable center vents, the two differed very little.

The top dash pad featured a slight relief for the heater and/or air conditioning control panel and was the same for either configurations, equally for the padded glove box door and smaller lower driver’s side pad.

Disassembly is always easier than reassembly. We made special notes to bag all of the hardware pulled from specific portions of the dash so we didn't have to hunt for them later.

Since we weren't planning on running A/C - or a heater for that matter - or a radio, we made short work of removing all of the unnecessary weight from our dashboard.

Only Slightly Custom

For Killer Kong, our on-going ’69 Dodge Charger R/T clone – “clone” being the key word here – we needed to dance around a couple issues.

Our gauge cluster required a lot of TLC. When built, Rallye gauges offered either a pricey "Tic-Toc-Tach" clock/tach combo or just a large clock. Our Charger came with the latter, and since we wanted the reliability of an Auto Meter tach, we discovered that the Sport Comp surprisingly fits perfectly in the dash bezel.

Ideally, dashboard restoration should be done outside of the car, having need to remove the windshield and its trim and weatherstripping first, to access the screws holding the dash to the window frame.

By rebuilding the dash out of the car, we would be able to better repaint the frame, install our refurbished components and rewire everything before reinstalling the dashboard back in the car. Yet, we know most of you don’t do this either, so we wanted to “keep it real” so to speak. Also, we really don’t want to reinstall that windshield. It sucked the first time.

Since our Charger came as an A/C-equipped SE, but we’re not running the heavy and cumbersome unit, nor are we going to attempt to weld in patches and smooth them out while still in the car, we’re stuck with the lower openings. C’est la vie. There’s a couple other custom touches that we added that many might despise while others might really enjoy. Such is the spirit of hot rodding.

Our original bezel was so faded and scratched that we attempted the 'super budget' fix of spray bombing all the bezel black and retracing the chrome and white letter with paint pens. Yeah, that didn't work out too well.

Today, many restoration shops offer a rechroming services. The process results in a near-perfect product, but is usually more expensive than buying a replacement bezel, which is what we did with Classic Industries.

Using a hose clamp and a few screws, we created a cheap-o bracket that holds our aftermarket tach in place. We specifically chose the Sport Comp for its fit, its internal incorporation of the shift light, runs up to 10,000rpm, and black-faced-and-polished-ring look so it'd match our Charger's original gauges.

A Dirty, Dirty Mess

Our original dash was complete, which is a key point of interest when sourcing out a new project car. When a dashboard has been modified with parts store cheap-o gauges or an aftermarket radio, chances are they’ve really tampered with the wiring. And everybody knows that cleaning up other people’s messes is no fun. Replete with its AM radio and in-dash central speaker, our control panel was thankfully virgin.

We turned to Classic Industries and their all-new Mopar catalog for all of our gauge and dashboard needs. Offering the entirety of the Rallye dash cluster, it was hard not to opt for the re-manufactured Tic-Toc-Tach, as it looks spot on.

Removing everything was first; the A/C vents, the upper and lower dash pads, the radio, the nearly-rotted-away cardboard glove box, gauge cluster, radio panel and upper glove box panel.

Gone too were the A/C control panel, ash tray and cigarette lighter, rear speaker control knob and under-dash map light. Each part was assessed, cleaned and separated into piles depending on which would need to be replaced, restored or sold off.

The wireloom was complete but ragged and aged. Blindly wrapping everything with black electrical tape might look aesthetically pleasing but it leaves much to be desired in the way of longevity. The tape’s adhesive had lost its bite and was slowly unraveling, like an old Hollywood monster mummy. Dust and age had coated everything, hampering connections and gumming up switches.

We had shortened the original clear plastic gauge lens to accommodate the Auto Meter tach. The original gauges' faces had faded, and in a couple cases, had actually discolored due to the wattage passing directly through the altimeter. While there are plenty of shops providing gauge restoration services, we found it more affordable and timely to go with Classic Industries.

DTM Racing‘s Dan Weishaar instructed, “I use a small bowl filled with warm water and CLR. The stuff is meant for cleaning out corrosion in plumbing pipes, but works great for cleaning terminals and switches. I let [the terminals] soak in the stuff for a few minutes (or longer) until they come out looking brand-new.” Once clean and dried off with a rag, we also wiped down all the lines and surfaces before rewrapping most of the under-dash loom with fresh black electrical tape.

This Ain’t No Restoration

While these “before and after” images might convince you of Just Dashes’ talents at restoring our ages and misshapen lower dash pads, the real talent comes in Just Dashes ability to customize your dash’s look and appeal. Be it custom colors or textures, they can pretty much do it all.

We asked that Just Dashes simply match the color and pattern but to stealthily fill in the large hole for the center A/C vents. When we got our lower pads back, they even provided extra dye for safe keeping.

Our Kind of Padded Room

While we couldn’t patch over the lower A/C vents, we could eliminate the center vents. Amazingly enough, we failed to find any retailers selling replacement lower dash pads. They simply aren’t available just yet. That’s why we reached out to Just Dashes. When we first talked with Just Dashes’ Jason Tessler, we had to tease him that calling the company “Just Dashes” is a big fat lie.

In fact, Just Dashes specializes in restoring door panels, head and arm rests, and dash pads, as well as dashboard frames, gauges clusters, bezels and even speaker grilles, far more than “just dashes.” All parts are restored by trained craftsmen using specially-matched vinyl for the correct grain.

We shipped off our lower dash pads to Just Dashes, where they were examined and color-matched with their records of original factory materials and new, replacement materials. The original vinyl and foam were then stripped from the pad bases where new high-density, closed-cell foam was installed and hand shaped to match the original design.

Next, a coat of adhesive was sprayed over the foam and installed into Just Dashes’ Thermo Vacuum Forming machine. Inside, the parts are heated, making them soft and pliable so the vinyl can be vacuumed formed over the foam. The heated vinyl contours itself to the pad and is immediately cooled with a fine mist of water. Cool enough to work on, the excess vinyl is trimmed and glued down by hand.

It’s only after the vacuum molding process that the pad is hand-dyed in the exact factory color. This was how the original pads were colored too, so don’t panic. And the dye is extremely durable. Once completed, each part is hand examined and checked before being shipped back to us for installation.

The original non-R/T wheel was swapped out for a R/T-style three-spoke steering wheel that we found nearly a decade ago at a swap meet. Unfortunately, restoring the wheel would require stripping it down to the cast frame and getting chromed as well as reswrapping it in new faux woodgrain. Rather, we opted to pick up one of Classic Industries' spot-on wheels for a fraction of the cost.

No air bags, paddle shifters, or radio controls here. With the help of a cheap-o steering wheel puller from Harbor Freight, swapping out our wheel, horn button and center took just a couple of minutes, but makes a night-and-day difference.

Bare Bones And Basic

Besides removing the air conditioning, we also chose to ditch the radio completely. We’re big believers in listening to the music your engine is making, so we opted for a radio delete plate from Classic Industries. Believe it or not, Classic – the veritable “new kid on the block” when it comes to Mopar – was the only one who had one! Since we were replacing the radio plate, we went ahead and opted for their gauge bezel and passenger side plate as well.

When it came time to wire our '69 Charger - we left much of the loom alone, as it's not necessary to gut the car to get it running right. We turned to DTM Racing's Dan Weischaar who helped us chase wires, clean terminals and showed us the "right way" to solder connections.

Before reassembling our dash, we needed to get our gauges right. Non-R/T equipped Chargers came with the full array of dials reading the vitals except for a tachometer. Instead, a large 5-inch clock sat in the space next to the speedometer.

Since we’re drunk with illusions of drag racing this street machine, we opted to run an Auto Meter Sport Comp 5-inch monster tach with the incorporated shift light in lieu of the pricier-although-original Tic-Toc-Tach that R/Ts came with originally.

Surprisingly, we found that the Auto Meter tach fit the cluster almost perfectly, and required a bit of finagling to fab up a bracket to hold it to the factory gauge panel frame. We had shortened the original clear plastic gauge lens to accommodate the Auto Meter tach. For the rest of the gauges, including the speedo, water temp, altimeter, oil pressure, and fuel, we turned to Classic Industries for all of our gauge needs.

The one problem we encountered with our Sport Comp tach swap was figuring out an accessible way to disconnect the tach after wiring it, that would allow us to remove the cluster if the situation required. We picked up a standard light-duty trailer male/female plug connector for a couple of bucks. Dan showed us how to 'overlap-and-crimp' a butt connector, rather than just clamp it down.

The most common mistake made while wiring is forgetting to slide on your shrink wrap before making the connection. We fed our solder in through both ends of our butt connector by heating up the connector itself, 'sweating' the solder through the connector. Once cooled, we used a heat gun to cover the rock-hard solder connection in shrink wrap, making a clean, flawless connection that will outlast the wire itself.

The original gauges’ faces had faded, and in a couple instances, had actually discolored. While there are plenty of shops providing gauge restoration services, we found it more affordable and timely to go with Classic Industries. Attaching our freshly cleaned and rewrapped loom to our new gauge terminals, our cluster was ready to slide back into place.

We bypassed the firewall spade connector and re-routed the power straight to the under dash factory spice. As far as the starting circuit, we added the Ford relay (gasp!), so that power to the starter post was only energized during cranking and jumped the relay on the starter directly to the main power post on the starter.

“The main two issues with stock Mopar wiring is that they run all the power through a blade-style bulkhead connector, then the ammeter,” explained Weisharr. “While these are barely adequate for the stock systems requiring 35-50 amps, with today’s modern electrics, we are seeing requirements of around 100 amps.”

Weishaar continued, “Passing such a large amount of voltage through a single blade connector is risky at best. After the bulkhead connector, the wiring goes to the ammeter. This stock gauge was never designed to handle all the current of higher output systems.

“Should this fail, it will begin to overheat under the dash and can lead to distortion, melting or even worse, under dash fire. NAPA still offers high-quality replacement stock-style connectors for the bulkhead, but if you are not to concerned about 100 point restoration, rewiring these cars to bypass these design flaws should be a priority to any Mopar owner.”

We conned Editor Kevin's father Kerry to blow a Sunday afternoon and help us repaint our prototype replacement dashpad rushed out from the lifesavers over at Legendary Auto Interiors. Thankfully, we had plenty of spare vinyl paint from Just Dashes, which went on beautifully.

With new gauges, bezels, restored lower dash pads and even freshened wiring, our dashboard is looking pretty complete, especially with our newly repainted dash pad, which was shipped out from Legendary Auto Interiors at the 11th hour.

The Final Touch

Coming through in the 11th hour was Legendary Auto Interiors (yet again!) with a replacement dashpad. In fact, they rushed out their only existing prototype to help us meet our deadline. The trouble was that it was black.

We intentionally stripped our Charger's interior of A/C, the console, the AM/8-track and even the arm rests to clear the 'cage. Legendary's new replacement dash pads are made exactly to factory specs, with formed metal frames, modern foam and spot-on molded vinyl.

Mike Saless, Legendary’s Sales Manager, gave us some easy steps to painting it, and since Just Dashes had provided us plenty of extra vinyl paint used for the lowers, we had everything we needed.

After dusting the black pad in several light passes of white, we used a gravity-fed paint gun to shoot the Just Dashes custom-mixed cafe brown vinyl paint in the same fashion.

Letting it cure overnight, the new dashpad slid on and when bolted down and fitted to the A-pillar covers, our dashboard was complete!

While our Charger’s cabin looks all but completely buttoned up, we still have some bugs to shake out and some wires to chase before being street worthy, but we can finally close the book on Killer Kong‘s interior.

Killer Kong's restoration looks pretty much done...that is, except for a motor! What kind of Mopar mill would you like to see beneath this Charger's hood?

 

About the author

Kevin Shaw

Kevin Shaw is a self-proclaimed "muscle car purist," preferring solid-lifter camshafts and mechanical double-pumpers over computer-controlled fuel injection and force-feeding power-adders. If you like dirt-under-your-fingernails tech and real street driven content, this is your guy.
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