Over the years we’ve found that some of the best opportunities come out of chance conversations. Take the time our esteemed editor, Brian “Private Eye” Brennan, heard about a good-running Flathead Ford engine that could be had for free, if we could figure out how to get it off the roof of what was once a hospital.

With the capable assistance of former staff member turned freelancer Chris Shelton, Brennan, and yours truly, the engine that was once used to power a backup generator was dragged out of its enclosure by the three of us, and man-handled down a flight of stairs. Then, thanks to a crane operator willing to set the Flattie in the back of our pickup for a case of his favorite beverage, it was ours.

While the V-8 was a great find, along with it came an industrial instrument panel fitted with vintage gauges, which eventually found their way into our Model A pickup. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for the cool-looking mechanical temperature gauge to quit working. It was sent out for repair not once, twice, but three times. However, the results were always the same, the cab would smell like ether (that is what’s in the tube and internals of the mechanical-type gauge), the dial would drop down against the pin, and we had a cool looking but useless gauge.

About the time we gave up on fixing our vintage gauge and were resigned to a newer substitution that would result in a mismatched but useful instrument panel, another problem cropped up with a different project. We were in the process of installing a transmission in a ’41 Ford that was equipped with a sender for an electronic speedometer rather than a mechanical. While we could have changed the transmission’s electronic sender to a cable drive, the fact is the electric speedometers are so much easier to calibrate. We just needed a way to convert our stocker from a cable to wires. A chance meeting with John McLeod, of Classic Instruments, would lead to the solution of both our problems.

Founded in 1977 by the late-Frank Hettick, Classic Instruments’ business philosophy was that the latest in technology could make electric gauges every bit as good, if not better, than the mechanical variety. At that time the big argument for mechanical gauges was they were commonly used in race cars, but of course one reason for that was many race cars lacked an electrical system. Another more compelling argument for mechanical gauges was that they generally had a wider needle sweep and a broader scale, making them easier to read and seemingly more accurate. However, thanks to new, sophisticated movements and circuitry, electric gauges could have up to 300 degrees of pointer movement with unparalled accuracy; Hettick was onto something.

In 2001 Hettick decided to retire and pursue other interests (he was a master of “space art”) and new owners assumed operation of Classic Instruments. Under the leadership of John McLeod the company’s product line has grown substantially and now includes a variety of bold instrument designs by such people as Tom Gale, former chief designer of the Daimler Chrysler Corporation. In addition they’ve developed a line of instrument panels for everything from early Fords to Camaros, they’ve produced custom gauges for some of the most prominent builders in the country, and, what’s near and dear to our heart, developed a custom department that retrofits original instruments to modern electronic movements. As they describe it “The retrofitting process is not a restoration of instrumentation. It is a customization to fit gauges in stock locations using the original housing. You can keep the look of your gauges nearly original in appearance or customize them to fit your project.

Before we get into the Classic Instruments’ process for modernizing gauges, lets take a look at how our old gauges worked.