True Car Nut
Join Date: Sep 2002
Location: Chicago, IL
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Dashboard Diary, Chapter 2
Okay, in our last episode I pulled the dashboard gauge cluster out of my '93 SSEi in the process of adding a remote starter, cleaning the dash lenses, and putting a red LED in the gauge cluster (the car _does_ have a security system, but no visual deterrent to go with it, and I want to discourage morons who wouldn't know that before breaking in).
So anyway, we're talking some major excavation into the dashboard, right? So at one point I'm under the dash with a drop-light, _behind_ the HVAC controls, the stereo and the air ducts, and up in a crevice I can see the corner of a small cardboard box. "Woo-hoo, buried treasure!" I think. Visions of drug smugglers go through my head. (I once bought a '78 Trans Am that had been searched by the DEA at the Mexican border: all the carpet had been sliced open, and all the dashboard ducts came to me loose in a paper bag...)
I poke it around a little bit and finally get two fingers around it, pull it down and out, and it'*...
...a pack of Kool cigarettes. Almost full, with an Illinois tax stamp dated 1994. Good grief.
There'* no way to accidentally drop the box in where I found it, it was dated one year _after_ the car was built and two years before I bought it (plus I quit smoking in 1993 anyway), so all I can think of is that some seriously absent-minded dealer mechanic might have left it in there somehow. Wonder what else is buried in my car? Has anyone seen Jimmy Hoffa lately?
Okay, on to the LED. I've got Radio Shack part number 276-011, a red 12-volt LED with black plastic holder for $2.49. It installs in a 5/16" hole, and while the gauge cluster is disassembled I'll be finding a space for it, drilling a hole in the gauge faceplate and running the wires through and out the back. The red lead will be connected to an always-hot fusebox connection; the yellow lead (the negative lead) will be connected to a switched-hot, accessory circuit that goes off when the car is switched off. Thus this little bogus "alarm" LED will come on when the car is switched off (by using the switched accessory circuit as its ground), but won't be blazing away in my face while I'm driving, since when both circuits are hot, no current will flow through the LED and it will go out.
The gauge cluster is disassembled to the point that I can get at the actual dial faces from both sides: the clear cover comes off the front after removing the screws around the perimeter, and the outer layer of circuit boards are unplugged and removed from the back. This gives enough open space from the back that I can see large open areas of the faceplate to pick for drilling a hole. Finally select a spot below the tachometer, centered midway between the "0" RPM digit and the hub of the tach needle, about a half inch from the bottom of the faceplate, where there are two unused warning light openings in the backing plate. This spot is nicely visible through the car windows from either side and not blocked by the steering wheel, and with the unused lamp openings directly behind the faceplate itself, all I need to cut is the outer layer of faceplate. There are also two openings in the back of the cluster where the bulbs themselves would have been installed, so I can run my LED wires straight out the back. Neat.
Finally select the outer of the two bulb openings, drill a small hole through the faceplate from the back side to make sure it'* centered in the opening, then enlarge the hole to 5/16" from the front. Pass the LED wires through from the front, and the LED itself snaps nicely into the hole. Neat again.
Carefully reassemble the gauge cluster, and finally reach the point of putting the backplates on, am down to two screws remaining, and they're the wrong ones. Aaargh. Have two long screws to put in, but the mounting holes bottom out too shallow. After some backtracking I figure out where the long screws were supposed to go in, get the short ones out, rearrange, and get it all buttoned up. Gauge cluster looks much cleaner now, especially the faceplate, with two new wires sticking out the back from the new LED.
Male and female spade lugs are added to the LED wires so it can be unplugged whenever the cluster needs to come out again. Add matching spade lugs to a length of 2-conductor wire which runs back into the dash next to large wiring harness, down to back of fusebox below where it will tap into a couple of circuits. Red lead from LED is connected to always-hot power feed to fusebox. Yellow (negative) lead from LED is connected to IGN/Retained Accessory Power lead, so that LED will use that circuit as a ground when car is off. (There'* also an IGN/Radio circuit, but can't use that as power antenna starts to go up when it senses current from LED.)
Lay a shop rag on top of steering column, lay dash cluster face up on it, and maneuver it back into place, working LED leads into dash ahead of it. Turn cluster partly down to face me, and with some fiddling, get the main wiring harness plugged back into it. Turn it downwards a bit more, angle right end out slightly, get fingers in back, and finally get right-side wiring harness plugged back in as well. Cluster then snuggles back down into place, and perimeter T-15 screws go back in.
Back under the dash to snug up the support nuts for the steering column. Discover that I have routed one of the LED wires round the wrong side of the cellphone cable before soldering it into place behind the fusebox, so now I can't reinstall the fusebox hinge. Have to cut wire, reroute it, resolder and reassemble. Waste 10 minutes, plus cursing...
Last step for the evening, before reassembling upper dash, is to pull the headlamp switch to tap into external lighting output, to get a lead down to the remote starter that will allow it to blink the parking lights for confirmation. Remove three screws from headlamp switch, then find that gauge cluster is slightly in the way. Remove all screws from gauge cluster again, wiggle it to the right about a half inch, and finally get enough clearance to weasel out the headlamp switch far enough to reach the wires behind it. We want to tap into (but not cut) the solid brown wire. Use the soldering iron to melt off a piece of its insulation, solder a new wire onto it, tape it up again, and drop the other end of the new wire down inside the dash to meet the remote starter wiring harness being installed down below.
So at this point we have the upper wiring done, the gauge cluster is all nice and clean, and the LED is blazing away whenever the car is off. Driving at night is gorgeous; I had forgotten how nice and sharp and clear the red dash backlighting used to be when I first got the car, and the compass and DIC displays are now staying on nice and solid, too.
Next up: Installing the little black box to bypass and override the VATS chip in the ignition key, and we try to solder some really tiny wires without going blind or insane...
-- Andy Green