Custom Gauges

For All 1983-88 Cougars / Thunderbirds

Page Revised: 10 May 2019


Article by
Eric Dess

Many of the things we have today didn't exist or were too expensive to produce during the 1980's. One of the glaring areas of our cars where corners seem to have been cut was with basic instrumentation. This section will help you with customizing or adding gauges to your car.

But before you go out and plunk money down on aftermarket gauges, think carefully. Know which gauge(s) you want first. Is your car lacking a temp gauge? How about oil pressure? Maybe an air/fuel mixture gauge? Also, keep in mind that while having aftermarket gauges is way cool, they won't do you a bit of good if you can't see them. Keeping them in your line of sight is obviously the goal, but with some interiors this is a difficult task. We'll help you with the best solutions below.


Let's face it: your dash layout leaves a LOT to be desired. With only a fuel gauge and a speedometer, and a warning light for the engine and brake. And that's about it (although if you owned a 1984 XR7 you'd also have a tachometer). Ford didn't have a whole lot of money to put into your interior when they restyled the car for 1983; as a result, the instrument cluster got the proverbial short end of the stick. To say that you have minimal instrumentation would be an understatement. While it's not really practical to modify your existing dash cluster, you can still modify all around it.

1983-84 Cougar Custom Gauges

Most people long for a tachometer. A simple column clamp-on tach would work, although it does tend to block the view of some of the instrumentation. A few people have removed the clock and stuck one there—a great solution if you don't need the clock, or if your aftermarket radio is equipped with one.

1983-84 Cougar Custom Gauges

Your dash is limited as far as placement of other gauges (temp, oil pressure, etc.). One option is to mount them on the lighter panel, although this is not in your line of sight, particularly with a floor shifter. Another option is to mount them on the passenger side of the dashboard, facing toward the driver (similar to what Fox Mustang owners used to do). There should still be some aftermarket mounting panels for 1979-86 Mustangs that you can use. This works just fine if you indeed wish to do that to your dash.

1983-84 Cougar Custom Gauges

The easiest solution is a bolt-on Auto Meter A-pillar pod. Currently a 1994-2004 Mustang pod is about the best solution as far as fit and finish. As of this writing there are no complete A-pillar replacement pod panels for your car.

1983-84 Cougar Custom Gauges

This is a completely custom gauge cluster, made for a pro-street style Thunderbird. Obviously this would be the best solution although it does take some extensive modification to work.

1983-84 Cougar Custom Gauges

Here is another pro-street T-Bird with custom sheetmetal for the dash, and all the gauges where you'd expect them to be.


With the money Ford made off the 1983-84 cars, a new interior was ordered for 1985 (which continued through 1988), so new instrument clusters found their way into our dashboards. There were three types of clusters: base, full digital, and full analog. Here are some tips for adding to and/or modifying your gauges, no matter which type you have.

1985-88 Custom Gauges

Lucky owners of full analog clusters can modify quite a bit. Matt custom produces custom gauges overlays for our cars, and can even make Indiglo-style overlays. His work is outstanding, and after seeing it in person, we can vouch for his attention to detail. He will custom-produce anything you wish. Contact him here.

1985-88 Custom Gauges

Got a full digital dash? How about some custom colors instead of spinach green? This involves the disassembly of the cluster, and basically laying colored plastic or tape over the green areas, then reassembling. A very thoughtful and refreshing mod, to say the least.

1985-88 Custom Gauges

Your radio panel is a godsend, with 4 slots instead of the 1983-84's 3 slots. If you're not using your storage bin or EQ over the radio, ditch it for a custom panel and some aftermarket gauges. You can fit several 2 1/16" gauges easily in this area. If you have a console, you can also mount gauges in your lighter panel.

1985-88 Custom Gauges

Again, removing the clock and sticking a gauge or tachometer there is an option. We've even seen people remove a heater vent or two and shove gauges in there. Your dash is a veritable playground for custom gauges....go wild.

1985-88 Custom Gauges

How cool is this?! Obviously you'd be cutting up a perfectly good dash, and from the looks of things, the line-of-sight on these gauges would be quite cumbersome. But it is a solution.


Quality manufacturers of aftermarket gauges include Auto Meter, VDO, Dakota Digital and Nordskog among others. Since they sell so many, the cheapest and most plentiful places to find these gauges are Summit Racing and Jeg's.

For our cars, the easiest type to use, by far, is the electrical kind, which either works off your stock wiring or requires a sending unit change to receive an electronic signal. They're generally very accurate and usually come with a provision for internal lighting at night. Wiring them in is pretty simple too. Electrical gauges come in analog style or digital style, so you can match or contrast your stock gauges perfectly.

If you're seriously old school, you can use a mechanical gauge on these cars if you'd like, but be very careful. Mechanical gauges are directly connected to an engine or other driveline liquid under pressure via custom tubing. They are extremely accurate and are legendary for reliability and performance, as well as a usually lower price vs. electrical gauges. However, in most instances you cannot mount these gauges inside your car unless you have some type of signal converter in place before the firewall. In the United States, by law you are not allowed to have flammable liquid enter through the firewall for safety reasons. This means fuel, transmission fluid, oil, and so on. You are allowed to have a mechanical temp gauge inside the car. Some people like to mount mechanical gauges on their hood, right in front of the driver. Some just leave them under the hood, out of sight. There are inherent problems such as this when using mechanical gauges, and you should use one on these cars only if you absolutely need one, or if you know what you're doing.

Don't forget that from 1985-on, these cars had full electronic speedometers that fed off a signal from the speed sensor (VSS) on the transmission. This makes installing an aftermarket eletronic-driven speedo a blessing. Inversely, 1983-84 cars had a cable-driven speedometer. Using an electronic speedo in these cars would require a VSS installation (1983) or custom wiring to tap into the existing one (1984). From what we understand, the new speedo won't register correctly under 30mph for some reason. Installing a 1K resistor inline seems to solve that problem. You can always add a regular old cable-driven speedo as well.

Finally, we've provided a template below for 1985-88 cars with the analog cluster. If you would like to keep the cluster but just add aftermarket gauges, this template will help you cut out an aluminum or plastic overlay in which to install the gauges. Keep in mind that this does require cutting up the white (back) part of the cluster, and removal of the factory flexible circuit board, plus extensive rewiring of the cluster.

For a template to use on the analog cluster, download the PDF file here:

Download Guide