At times manufacturers blessed cars and trucks with instrument panels that rival fine clocks. The trouble is that many of these panels were developed in the automobile's adolescence when things like an engine's vital signs hardly factored. The low state of tune at the time meant that oil pressure and water temperature gauges rarely read any more than high or low or hot or cold, and even rarer did they do that very accurately.

Modern engines or early ones tuned for more output usually operate in ranges that far exceed those original gauges' capacity. Nowadays companies specialize in retrofitting old gauges with modern movements and re-screen their faces with modern scales but not even that is without flaws. The inexpensive retrofits pierce the veil of suspended disbelief (they look obvious) and the faithful looking ones often cost thousands of dollars. And for good reason, quality is expensive.

We swear we're not bashing retrofits but they fall short in another very critical cultural way that no money can address. During the Golden Age of the hot rod and custom car nobody ever dreamed of retrofitting an old gauge with a new movement and scale. They resorted to the familiar and more often than not they hung mass-produced accessory panels below their dashes and filled them with aftermarket gauges. So from a historical perspective a car built to appear as if it was a hot rod for 60 years isn't authentic unless it has at least a few aftermarket gauges in a panel under the dash.

Of course that isn't without flaw either. We've grown far more discerning over the years. Even when we faithfully build a vintage-themed hot rod or custom we do it to a far finer degree than our forebears ever did. So in an ironic twist, a mass-produced accessory panel hanging from a dash of a really high-quality car pierces the veil of suspended disbelief. Suddenly something that's so faithful to the past looks oddly cheap and out of place. Sigh.

This is where a really creative person will observe that it's not necessarily the idea of a panel that fails as much as what that panel represents. Mass-produced accessory gauge panels look out of place because they look too undifferentiated. They rarely fit because they look as if someone bought a part anyone else could buy and bolted it to a very specialized vehicle.

But if you build a gauge panel with the same passion and style that built the rest of the car then it will magically take on an air of authority. Bear in mind that building a part with the same passion and style as the rest of the car doesn't necessarily translate to trying to make it appear as if it's a factory part. That would defeat the whole idea of an accessory panel and gauges. And it would be dishonest: We've seen dashes enough times to know when something is out of place. There's a fine line between a handcrafted part and an imposter.

To show us how to walk that fine line is our pal Marshall Woolery. One of his customers has a 1936 Ford that bore a 1950s hot rod treatment yet lacked an appropriate gauge treatment. So he solved it by crafting an instrument cluster that at once respects the car and honors tradition.

Among other things this thoughtful panel takes advantage of otherwise unused space: the divot taken out of the dash to accommodate the shifter in Reverse and Second gear. That it fits that space and still accommodates the shifter makes it more sophisticated. That it matches the car's general shape and style without trying too hard to fit it in makes it authentic in a way. It's a custom part in a custom car and it makes no apologies for standing out just a little bit.

He used a very simple hammer-forming technique to form the panel. It's a process within the grasp of most enthusiasts. As the photos show he sandwiched a sheet between two wooden bucks and hammered over the edges—who with a saber saw, a vise, tin snips, and a collection of inexpensive body hammers couldn't do that? He used aluminum for its willingness to form with minimal effort but for those who lack a GTAW welder or the skill necessary to acetylene-weld aluminum could use steel with the same effect. For that matter one could form the panel and call on a pro or a well-practiced friend to weld up the seams. In that case exploit the easy-forming nature of the aluminum. It's much easier to shape.

Aluminum also has the advantage of an appealing natural finish (most people mistake it for a casting). It would be a shame to cover up aluminum but steel naturally requires a plating painting process. For paint we recommend a wrinkle finish: black for availability or brown for an Eisenhower-era field-radio appeal.

However you decide to finish it, a hand-made accessory gauge panel has a presence that no universal part can ever match. Plan it right and it'll take on a quality like a fine clock, a piece of functional jewelry that you can say you made.

SOURCE
Thun Field Rod & Custom
253-677-9526
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