Jump in any modern car and get set to fire it up and chances are the dashboard will light up like a pinball machine gone berserk. Warning lights (also referred to as telltale lights by many manufacturers, and idiot lights by most automotive enthusiasts) will indicate a variety of malfunctions, including pressures and temperatures that are outside of the normal range, emission system failures, doors that aren't closed, low fuel levels, and there's probably one that glows brightly when the current payment is late.

Indicator lights in place of gauges aren't really new; Hudson used them to indicate low oil pressure and low generator output in the 1930s. The argument then as now is that drivers don't pay much attention to the gauges, so consequently a warning light is more likely to get noticed. But while that may apply to the average motorist, those who look at their cars as more than a means of transportation like to keep tabs on their vehicle's vital functions, and the best way to do that is with an accurate instrument.

Over the past year or so teenager Matt Love has been giving his first car, a 1956 Ford, the street rod treatment. Under the watchful eye of his proud pop, longtime street rodder and Vintage Air VP Rick Love, the Vicky hardtop has received a number of updates, and now it was time to enhance the instrumentation.

In stock form the Ford featured a speedometer, fuel level and temperature gauges, warning lights for low oil pressure and generator output, and a clock. Presumably the timepiece was there so the driver would know how long the car ran after one or more idiot lights came on.

To update the Ford's dash panel Matt turned to John McLeod at Classic Instruments. Classic not only offers a complete assortment of gauges in a wide variety of configurations but they design and build custom instruments and do retrofits. As the term "custom" implies, Classic Instruments has created one-off gauges for a long list of the finest cars built by the most notable builders. The retrofit process, as Mcleod describes it, is not a restoration of instrumentation but rather the fitting of 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." Matt chose gauges that were close to original in appearance but far better in terms of accuracy.

Automotive gauges can be divided into two basic categories, mechanical and electric. At one time mechanical gauges were favored because "those are what race cars have". Of course most early race cars didn't have an electrical system so that narrowed the options. In fact, the best reason for using mechanical gauges was that they had greater indicator needle range—the numbers could be spread out, making them easier to read than the typical short-sweep electrical gauges. But, thanks to modern technology, that has changed. With the development of the air core movements and sophisticated circuitry, electric gauges can have up to 300 degrees of pointer movement, as much as will be found on most mechanical gauges, with unparalleled accuracy.

In most cases, when retrofitting an older instrument panel the range of the oil pressure and temperature gauges will be increased, a voltmeter will be substituted for an ammeter, and the speedometer will be electric rather than mechanical.