DIY Dash Upgrade That You Can Tackle At Home With Simple Hand Tools

Whoever was the first to say, “it’s all in the details,” was a very wise person. Paying attention to the details is what separates something that is good from something that is great. Unfortunately, when taking a look at Phil Sanner’s ’71 Nova, it’s readily apparent that many “details” were overlooked before he bought it. If you remember, we introduced Phil’s ride back in April 2021. He purchased it from a classic car dealership that, unfortunately, didn’t think that details matter. So far, we have fixed the cooling issue, added power brakes, and even upgraded the headlights to LED units. However, there is still more that needs to be done — like taking care of the hacked-up dash.

With the radio and gauges mounted under the dash, the interior of Phil's Nova really needed some help.

What’s Going On Now

In this installment, we decided to upgrade the busted dash with the help of Classic Industries, Dakota Digital, and RetroSound. We need to do this because a previous owner had cut the dash bezel for a DIN-style radio and then removed it when they sold the car. Then, someone else installed another DIN-style radio under the dash and left the gaping hole where the radio should have been mounted. The Nova deserves better.

Dash

Before the new dash could be installed, the old parts had to be removed.

Phil could have tackled the situation in a couple of different ways. First, he could have simply placed the under-dash-mounted radio in the dash where it should have been installed, to begin with. This would have solved the issue of the large-by-huge hole. However, the bezel had other issues in that most of the screw attachment holes were busted.

The new dash bezel is a factory restoration piece, so the new Dakota Digital gauge cluster attaches via the factory screw hole locations. When doing this upgrade, you will need to move items like the wiper switch and headlight switch to the new bezel.

However, to make it look like it should and not “hacked,” we decided a new dash bezel from Classic Industries was just what was needed. The bezel is an exact reproduction of the factory original and comes in various styles. We were able to order Phil’s without provisions for warning lights or an A/C vent hole. At $249.00, it is a simple and worthwhile fix that will definitely enhance the interior.

The Snowball Effect

Since we were replacing the bezel, we took a good look at the gauge cluster. Sure, it worked — or so we believed. However, it only utilized a fuel gauge to monitor, well, just the fuel level. As far as any engine vitals, the cluster was void of any gauges, which means anyone driving the car would have to wait for an “idiot” light to come on, signaling that an issue was already in play. To remedy this, a previous owner mounted a set of mechanical gauges under the under-dash-mounted radio — using zip ties!!! Yep, it looked bad.

dash

We didn’t have a wiring diagram for the Nova, so we simply traced the circuit board to figure which wires for what function needed to be connected to the Dakota Digital control box. For instance, the top connection point (second from the right) is for powering the dash lights, we simply used the corresponding wire in the plug to connect to the Dakota Digital control box to control the dash lights in the Dakota Digital gauge cluster.

Phil’s gauge upgrade came in the form of Dakota Digital’s RTX system. This new cluster would add many monitoring features to the car and get rid of the unsightly, haphazardly mounted gauges under the dash. The RTX series is perfect for those wanting to retain a factory look, as it focuses on retaining a stock appearance while offering many late-model features enthusiasts can use to monitor their hot rod. In fact, at a casual glance, the average passerby might not even notice these are not original equipment. The driver, on the other hand, will immediately notice the difference when the ignition is turned on.

The functioning of the Dakota Digital dash is handled via the control box. Wiring connections for sensors and lights (high beam, brake, etc) are made at the box. When selecting a mounting location, avoid placing the control module near the firewall. We mounted ours on the left side, next to where the gauge cluster will reside. If you have A/C, this area will not work.

The cluster is illuminated via LED backlighting that you can change at will to reflect your favorite color. The cluster includes a TFT message center that can be configured to display just about any piece of information the driver could need. The features the RTX gauges offer make it a worthwhile investment at $1,295.00. If you think you can purchase a fully restored gauge cluster with even a few factory gauges in it for much less, I would like to hear about it. Plus, The RTX delivers a factory appearance and a lot more features and available upgrades.

Tuned In

Finally, how fun is cruising without tunes? I’ve heard many say the sound from the engine is all the music they need. Not everyone agrees with that premise. The factory bezel was hacked and that was the initial impetus for replacing it, so there were no plans to cut the new bezel for a new-fangled stereo. To fill the factory hole, an OE radio could have been located, but why settle for an antiquated unit when modern features are available in an OE-appearing system? To get those modern features, a RetroSound Hermosa head unit was selected to fill the void in the bottom right area of the dash bezel.

The RTX gauges utilize an electronic speedometer which is controlled by this adapter that screws onto the transmission, replacing your speedometer cable.

The Hermosa radio is a modern head unit that retains the original look of a classic radio while offering modern features like an AM/FM tuner with 30 presets, a built-in 300-watt amplifier, two rear-mounted auxiliary inputs, Bluetooth connectivity, a rear-mounted USB port, dual RCA pre-outs, and a color display. Another great aspect of the RetroSound radio is that it is a modular unit. This allows a perfect fit into nearly any dash. At $295.00, it’s a better value than any other “new” radio that would require hacking the dash.

Whoever cut the original dash discarded the radio-mounting cups that are needed to fill the holes where the volume and tuning knobs are located. These are not reproduced and we'll have to see if we can find a set at a swap meet or online. I'll talk more about the radio install once we locate a set.

What To Expect

We want to let you know upfront, this is a time and labor-intensive install. You will be disassembling the dash of your car. For some, this might be a scary proposition. But if you take your time, you can do this yourself. You will need to have an understanding of your car’s wiring, and having a service manual with a wiring diagram is a good thing. We didn’t have a service manual but were able to trace the needed wires by following the leads on the circuit board behind the gauge cluster. Unfortunately, that might not be an option for everyone.

The gauge's numbers and needles can be changed to almost any color you want to enhance your car's interior. What's more, there is a small screen that is part of the dash that allows you to monitor many aspects of the engine's function and even quarter-mile times.

It took us a couple of days to complete the install, but we could only work on the upgrade nights after our real jobs ended. That said, Phil is more than happy with the new OE-appearing dash and is quickly learning the new features his RTX gauges offer. “I haven’t started to use all the features yet that the gauges offer, Phil says.” If you take your time and have some patience, with the help of Classic Industries and Dakota Digital, you can upgrade your hot rod to have a factory-looking dash that offers many modern features.

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About the author

Randy Bolig

Randy Bolig has been working on cars and has been involved in the hobby ever since he bought his first car when he was only 14 years old. His passion for performance got him noticed by many locals, and he began helping them modify their vehicles.
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