By on August 28, 2017

CordiaCluster-12

Thanks to tech advancements in the field of digital display, we live in an age where today’s cars have beautiful, flowing digital gauges. Audi’s MMI system and its Virtual Cockpit, as an example, is a 12.3-inch master class in design.

Not too many years ago, though, it was completely different. Prehistoric electronics, combined with a race by manufacturers to out-spaceship each other, led to more than a few sets of gauges that had to be studied like tax forms.

The pictures in this post are credited to the absolutely fabulous site Joost which, it must be noted, should be clicked upon at one’s own peril. Why? Well, if you enjoy odd digital dashboards from the ‘80s and ‘90s, your personal productivity will be zero for the rest of the day. It’s a fabulous page.

Anyway, there are absolutely psychotic examples from the era, such as the hasn’t-worked-in-forever gauge set in an Aston Martin Lagonda, just about anything from Citroën, and the fighter jet-inspired Subaru XT instruments. Our very own Murilee prefers the “big-nosed climate guy” in the Cordia/Tredia cluster shown at the top of this page.

One of my favorites from the car concept circuit back then was the 1985 Buick Wildcat. All the digital gauges were contained in a fixed circular well around which the steering wheel moved, displaying a bizarre rainbow-shaped tachometer and a circle divided up into quadrants reporting on fuel level, engine temp, oil pressure, and system voltage. Fantastic.

Back in the real world, there were plenty of strange sets of digital gauges in mass production. I’m partial to some of the Ford efforts, like this strangely italicized cluster found in the 1989-1992 Probe.

fordprobe_dash2

But when it came to offering a variety of gonzo gauges, no one outdid GM. Digital sets which were supposed to vaguely mimic analog faces. Hybrid indicators which threw together new-age numerals and old-fashioned needles in a terrifying shotgun marriage. And who could forget the attempts at hammering a set of digital gauges in a space designed for a ribbon speedometer?

My own favorite from an era when GM experimented with mystifying instrumentation is the set of digital gauges for the Chevy S-10 pickup and Blazer. The combination of vertical and horizontal bar graphs is absolutely fabulous, and it was surprising to find a spaceship display in an agricultural truck. Adding in dot matrix numbers, mismatched colors, and GM’s insistence on using three partially filled circle-shaped hieroglyphics for the fuel gauge just seals it for me.

chevrolets10_dash1

Of course, technology of the day practically assured most of these clusters permanently winked out of existence three days after the warranty expired. What’s your favorite set of digital gauges? Modern or aged, there are plenty of them out there.

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60 Comments on “QOTD: Dig That Digital Dash?...”


  • avatar
    pale ghost

    1984 Pontiac 6000 STE

  • avatar
    tonyola

    This 1986 Subaru dash is a classic.
    https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/80/1e/34/801e34b3052d4b0b82cdd9a032986106.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      Matthew Guy

      Crazy, eh? Starship stuff!

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        Exactly! This stuff is for the movies, or for 16yo drivers. For normal people elegant analog dash is needed. Wonder why this tech only lasted so long and disappeared until recent few years?

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          it wasn’t robust enough to survive automotive duty.

        • 0 avatar
          JDG1980

          There is no such thing as an analog dash now. Hasn’t been for many years (probably at least since the OBD-II era began).

          You can get a digital dash that displays the readouts on a LCD or similar display, or you can get a dash that pretends to be an old-style dash by using electronic gauges with stepper motors that are designed to look like traditional analog gauges.

          I find the full digital displays easier to read, and there’s no reason to think they will be any less reliable than the faux-analog versions.

          • 0 avatar
            slavuta

            JDG….

            You probably want to say that all dashes are electronic. And yet, some gauges are digital and others – analog

            http://www.diffen.com/difference/Analog_vs_Digital

  • avatar
    notapreppie

    Hey, I recognize that first dash! My mom’s Mitsubishi Cordia had that!

    I remember thinking it was sooooo cool compared to the dash from the VW Vanagon that came before or the Ford Aerostar that came after.

    • 0 avatar
      Matthew Guy

      Cool! Murilee has a tremendous digi-dash collection, including that Cordia unit.

      https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/when-i-build-my-spaceship-it-will-be-equipped-with-this-mitsubishi-cordia-instrument-cluster/

  • avatar
    Hoon Goon

    I know it’s not a real one, but KITT’s will forever be my favorite. As a young man I thought that technology could never go farther. We were at the pinnacle of future dashes and it was glorious

    http://www.callmesavvy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/KITT-dash.jpg

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    The S2000’s digital dash is oft-criticized, but in the “heat of the battle” so to speak, it’s fantastically usable. Even if it’s not that pretty at Cars and Coffee.

  • avatar

    280ZX. The dash was gages, but the voice, recorded on a record disc, complete with bad accent….we never tired of “Hey, when is door NOT a door”…(opens door)…”A door is Ajar”.

    • 0 avatar
      ash78

      My SIL, upon turning 16, inherited her mom’s Mercedes E-class wagon. After about 2 weeks of driving it, she came home and asked “Is ‘Ajar’ Spanish for ‘Door’?”

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    My kingdom for a true digi dash, not for a cheap LCD/LED which breaks in four years.

  • avatar
    Blackcloud_9

    1986 Chrysler Laser dashboard. I thought it was the coolest thing going when my friend bought the car. It was mechanical (electronic?) nightmare of course. He had to bring the car three times to have the whole dash display replaced (under warranty, fortunately). He said he would be driving along and all the readouts would go blank. He would bring the car in. The dealership would hand him back the car, sans dash. He would then drive the car for the better part of a week without any driving info at all while waiting for the replacement electronic wonder to arrive.

  • avatar

    I’m partial to the Chrysler dashes from the 80’s. Too bad they couldn’t get James Earl Jones to record warnings in his Darth Vader voice. An ’85 Dodge Daytona or Laser with digital gauges and JEJ’s voice would be fantastic.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      I always thought the voice warnings should be gender-specific. Women could choose Javier Bardem and guys could choose Scarlett Johansen.

      ScarJo cooing at me to buckle up would do the trick about 105% of the time.

    • 0 avatar
      olddavid

      It took the better part of a year of driving 600’s, 400’s Daytona Turbo Z’s, etc., before I found the “off” switch above the glovebox latch. I also remember enjoying driving almost all of them after coming from Ford Credit in October 1982. The 600 ES with a five speed was a damn good car in 1983. Context is the key.

  • avatar
    Scott_314

    I was about 10 and had a chance to ride in a Chrysler New Yorker. Thought the dash, and the talking “your door is ajar” were the coolest things ever.

    Great find.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      IIRC the voice synthesizer chipset was the same or similar to the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQUnerK1n-M

      we had a bunch of those when I was in grade school.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    I have a NX1600 digital dash to swap into the 240SX whenever I get around to splicing the harness for it.

  • avatar
    arach

    I think the ’83 Datsun 280zx did it “right”.

    It may not be the most spaceshippy or the most amazing, but all you’d have to do is get rid of that weird grid pattern in the background, keep the electronics the same, and I’d be 100% satisfied with that dashboard 35 years later.

    No BS, Just very clean essentials with a small DIC cluster which was ahead of its time.

    I remember being upset with that car for- with a voice module- reminding me to turn off my headlights. Its the only time I ever felt like I was talking to a robot, because I wanted to be like “You idiot- if you know my headlights need to be turned off, why don’t you turn them off instead of telling me about it”.

    In retrospect I now know how the world works and I realize it wasn’t a smart alec computer just being difficult, its just a voice module that was incapable of turning off the headlights. Its amazing how dumb even smart teens can be.

    I still don’t know why it wasn’t smart enough to have auto headlights when it was smart enough to TELL me to turn the headlights off. But thats not the question at hand.

    Dash rating: A+.
    https://i.pinimg.com/736x/c5/1e/6d/c51e6decf3089d05670703411c792547–digital-dashboard-ui.jpg

  • avatar
    slavuta

    There is no digital dash I like. I am big fan of analog dashes. Because they are easier to read and operate smooth, and they make car look classy. I drove Civic Si and looked at this electronic tach. It seem to be always late refreshing RPM reading. POS

  • avatar
    quaquaqua

    Considering how many fossils here wax nostalgic on the horrendous 70s underpowered, marshmallow-suspensioned domestic rustbuckets, I have absolutely no shame in admitting digital dashes make me completely giddy – the more Tron-like, the better. And I’m annoyed how many cars now have full digital displays and either make them tacky and gimmicky (Ford) or so plain you can’t even tell they’re digital.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    C4 ‘Vette “Exploding Scoreboard” dash for the win.

    https://gsdesign1.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/original.jpg

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    I don’t understand why these instrument panels failed so soon. Theoretically, a set of LEDs on a logic board shouldn’t be that hard.

    As for me, I liked the monochrome digital cluster on the facelifted 1990-1993 Buick Riviera and 1990-1991 Buick Reatta. It was elegant.

    http://consumerguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/90121301990711.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      it’s not the LEDs, it was the circuit boards driving them. heat and vibration would kill electrolytic capacitors, thermal cycling would break solder joints and traces, and unsealed connections would corrode.

      modern validation requirements for automotive electronics are incredibly stringent, only behind aerospace. people wonder why e.g. automotive infotainment systems look outdated compared to their iPhone, and the answer is the car’s system has to endure temperature extremes, thermal shocks, vibrations, and mechanical shocks which would reduce your iPhone to a useless paperweight.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      The vast majority of the early digital displays do not use LEDs, most are VFDs, and as Jim noted what causes the majority of them to fail is a bad solder joint and that doesn’t apply just to digital dashes, there are lots of analog clusters with the same problem. A large cottage industry has emerged to re-solder those failed connections, whether it be a dash board, radio display, or some other sort of module. Fact is that the other electronics are not as validated for longevity as the powertrain computers.

      Google fix GM truck instrument cluster or Ford radio display and you should find a whole host of videos and instructions. You’ll find them for lots of cars but since Ford and GM trucks are the best selling vehicles in the land everyone and their brother has made a how to.

      • 0 avatar
        JDG1980

        Over a long enough period of time (decades), VFDs can “outgas” and become much dimmer or stop working altogether. LEDs and backlit LCDs generally don’t have these issues, which is why VFDs are mostly a thing of the past now.

        • 0 avatar
          schmitt trigger

          VFDs were the technology of choice because it was s rather straightforward to make them in different shapes.

          Also by adding filters one could obtain different colors.
          Within certain gamuts, of course, as their natural bluish color would render the yellows poorly.

          But they were fragile and required a high voltage inverter to drive them.

          To me, anything which has a VFD display reminds me of a VHS tape machine.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    My uncle had a 300zx and it had this digital dashboard:

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/310748443009761753/

    It made my mom’s Cressida’s 3 button transmission eco/norm/power buttons seem old fashioned.

  • avatar

    I had a 86 6000-STE that had the full digital dash (Darth Vader’s bathroom) I loved it!

    Ironically that was the least problematic part of the car even 13 years after it left the showroom.

  • avatar
    idesigner

    My 1987 Audi Coupe Gt has one.
    I believe it was an option that year, still works fine today.
    The cool part for an 87, its has the shift light for fuel economy and mpg read out.

  • avatar
    ldl20

    You missed the best part of the S-10 Blazer cluster: changing the measurements to kilometers! I used this trick on the highway a few times to scare the unsuspecting when my oldest sister let me borrow her Blazer LT. Add in a nervous, agitated look on my face, along with a little back and forth slop on the steering wheel (very easy on these trucks), and hilarity ensued….

    Ah, good times!

  • avatar
    cicero1

    I just want the ability to change the color – digital or not – red please.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    I like the digital readout between the gauges on my wife’s Terrain. She keeps it set to MPH but I like to play with the “last 50 miles mpg” readout and check things like “miles to empty” etc.

  • avatar
    Mn12Fanatic

    I think the foxbody cougar had the best digital dash. It even had MPG readout! (who knows how well that worked). It was also surrounded by woodgrain! http://www.coolcats.net/modelyear/images/85ls_dash.jpg

  • avatar
    iNeon

    My biases are clear– I like the current Chrysler-style hybrid digital/analog clusters, but they’re begging for better processors(and maybe already got them since my 1G Dart’s system was engineered) and another layer of graphics.

    I’m waiting for the LCARS/Majel Barrett graphics/voice pack!

  • avatar

    Back around 2000 I was in the market for an S12 200SX. The first one I almost bought was an ’84 with the digital dash. It was absolutely ’80s-tastic with green LED’s, and a horizontal row of LED bars along the bottom for the tach that gradually got taller as you went up the scale:
    http://i.imgur.com/j6uKPUv.jpg

    That one got sold out from under me, but a few months later I scored the ’88 V6 that I still own, but, for better or worse, features analog gauges.

  • avatar

    1989, color CRT touch screen on the Riviera, and Toronado Trofeo. And that’s in addition to the digital dash cluster. Epic and advanced, and it seems like they mostly still work.

    http://static1.businessinsider.com/image/54206299ecad04276cbe14cc-480/1992-oldsmobile-trofeo.png

    • 0 avatar
      tonyola

      I don’t think Buick ever got the color CRT. They still used the blue-green screen in 1989. In 1990, the Riviera and Reatta abandoned the CRT for more conventional-looking instruments and controls.
      http://www.blogcdn.com/www.autoblog.com/media/2006/12/1990.buick.reatta.1437-e.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      JDG1980

      It’s amazing in retrospect that GM, of all companies, actually managed to implement a touchscreen infotainment system on a production car in 1986 (that was the first year the Riviera had it).

      Another of those GM ideas that was perfectly sound in concept, but just lacked the technology to do it well at the time. This was also true of the much-maligned Cadillac “8-6-4” engine. (The modern Silverado, Tahoe, and Suburban do cylinder deactivation, and it works just fine now.)

  • avatar
    Stanley Steamer

    The digital dash on my beloved 1984 300zx turbo was the only part that didn’t fail.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    My younger brother had an ’83 Subaru GL-10 4-door 20+ years ago, and it had a digital dash. I guess my Google-Fu isn’t so good, because I can’t find a picture now.

  • avatar
    Fred

    I’m good with real mechanical gauges, but the current crop of electronic controled idiot gauges are just for decoration. A series of leds that change color from green to yellow to red as conditions change would be more useful. I know temps change while I’m driving but the guage never moves, same with oil pressure. Frankly I find a tach with an automatic is useless. Save some dash space and give me some large digital numbers for speed. Besides today most drivers care more about what music is playing and some IM post than actual car data.

  • avatar
    Marko

    C’mon, no Allante yet? Crank up “Danger Zone” on that Bose Symphony Sound and make your commute feel like “Top Gun”!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7v80sSlPFw

    And the Nissan Maxima had a simple but elegant digital dash – with an HUD, no less – in 1989!

    http://www.caraudiohelp.com/nissan_maxima_digital_dash_hud_tutorial/images/fullres/nissan_maxima_digital_dash_hud_test.jpg

  • avatar
    JDG1980

    My second car was a 1989 Ford Probe with that “italic” digital dash. It was actually a major reason why I purchased the vehicle; I’ve always found digital speedometers easier to read than analog ones, and I love technology.

    The Probe had over 160K miles when I got it (around 2000). It was my daily driver for about two years. I had some A/C issues (which were finally fixed when I found a service station that realized it was a rebranded Mazda and not a pure Ford) and some transmission roughness near the end that convinced me to dump it. But the dashboard never gave me any trouble.

    My parents had a 1986 Chrysler New Yorker as their main car for about three years in the mid-1990s. It had the trip computer and digital dash. As with my Ford Probe, there were other reliability problems, but none directly related to the dash electronics. Even back then, I think the reliability issues of these dashboards were a bit overblown.

    1995 to 2010 was a dark age for those of us who love digital dashboards in cars. “Analog” gauges were in again, even though these were not really traditional analog gauges but digital gauges that happened to display their readouts using a needle connected to a stepper motor instead of on a LED/LCD/VFD. Then in the mid-00s, the tide started to turn again. With mass production of cheap, good-quality color LCDs, it became less expensive (and better looking) to have a large, high-resolution color dash display covering everything than to wire up three faux-analog gauges and two dozen idiot lights. This was especially true once drivers started expecting at least basic trip computer functions such as MPG display (so they needed a LCD anyway to do that). And reliability is no longer an issue. Good times!

  • avatar
    HillbillyInBC

    A guy I carpooled with back in the 80s drove a Mitsubishi Starion with this gauge cluster (also featuring “big-nosed climate guy”).

    http://autosofinterest.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/1986-Mitsubishi-Starion-dd.jpg

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    I always liked Fords digital “gauges”, but especially in the Panthers until 1997. So much so that if I’m shopping Panthers and it doesn’t have the digital gauges, it’s no sale.

    I’m torn. I like the new TFT screens for gauges but I still like needles. Being able to tell at a glance if all is well rather than “is that a good number or bad number?” is appreciated.

    The airplane I fly is all analog, but the one I’ll be transitioning to is 95% screens with only a few analog gauges. One plus of this will be less delay due to a faulty gauge or gauge back-lighting.

    • 0 avatar

      Well the Aero Panther Town Car had mandatory digital gauges, so you can shop those always.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I don’t know much about small airplanes but wouldn’t gauges be preferred over the long haul for a privately owned aircraft?

      • 0 avatar
        gearhead77

        If most pilots could afford to switch to a “glass” cockpit, they would. Problem is that your average single-engine airplane owner has, for example, a 1979 Cessna or Piper that’s worth about 60k. To upgrade that airplane would be half the value at least, if not more. The homebuilt guys have more leeway and are big users of the new tech screens.

        The stuff that makes those gauges work (oil lines, backlighting,etc.) goes bad just like my “big” airplane. And when the gyroscopes that power the horizon and directional gyros fail ( many are vacuum driven) it can prove fatal in low visibility. New tech stuff adds a computer with accelerometers and such to provide what gyros used to. They aren’t without fault or failure, but there’s usually redundancy too.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    https://i.ytimg.com/vi/iAP3XmGszgM/maxresdefault.jpg

    Best one I could find quickly on Fords later digital gauge.

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