It’s no secret we have a love for all things old and Jeep. “They just don’t build ’em like they used to,” rings so true in every facet of Jeep building these days—for the better and the worse. Our favorite Jeeps combine a mix of new and old. Drivetrain strength has been hugely improved. We’ll gladly take a new set of take-off Jeep axles over an old toothpick axle set. Well, style is a matter of opinion, but we haven’t seen much of it in new vehicles. Take the venerable 4.0L inline six over the newer 3.6L and 3.8L JK engines? No contest. Give us a well-working fuel injection system any day over an old mechanical carburetor. While there are some things that just aren’t as good as they used to be, most timeless things can easily be made better with thanks to the endless list of aftermarket parts available at our fingertips.
That’s what Dakota Digital specializes in. It adds modern dashboard conveniences to classic rides. The company’s Direct-Fit Instrument Systems mount directly in place of stock instrument clusters, adding high-brightness vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) digital gauges to a factory replacement dash, making it extremely easy to monitor engine parameters at just a glance. While Dakota Digital has a number of universal digital gauges available, they also have a few different Direct-Fit products to cover all CJs from ’55 to ’86 and fullsize Jeeps from ’63 to ’91.
The Dakota Digital Direct-Fit Instrument system is available in three kit variations to fit ’63-’91 full-size Cherokees, Grand Wagoneers, and J10s. It includes the control box, a VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) panel with screen-color options of either blue or teal, and speed, water temperature, and oil pressure sensors and their wiring harnesses. We should also note that when we opened the box, we found a checklist of parts with a signature of the Dakota Digital employee who made sure this kit was complete.
We have a ’79 Cherokee Chief that just got a newly balanced and blueprinted AMC 401 outfitted with a 50-state-legal Howell EFI system at Jeeps R Us in Laguna Beach, California. As we started to add sensors to the AMC engine, we remembered that the speedometer was the only stock gauge on the dash that still worked. We, like many fullsize Jeep owners, had the triple-gauge below-dash mount that gave us our Jeep’s vitals. Having already given up stock restoration by going with the Howell EFI system, we weren’t about to get squeamish installing some digital gauges, especially since we could take care of every broken readout with one unit. It was more money than we intended on spending during this Cherokee Chief resto-mod, but we were already thousands over the original budget anyway.
A sweet all-inclusive digital gauge package is something we won’t ever regret adding to our ’79 SJ, and as luck would have it, Jeeps R Us has a lot of experience installing the Dakota Digital kits. The gang was able to get the kit installed in much less time than it would’ve taken us (and with much less cursing). With the Dakota Digital Direct-Fit gauge system in, we fired up and broke in the engine for the first time. The engine hours shown on the built-in engine hour counter are the actual engine hours on this motor. There’s nothing like starting fresh.
Aside from the speedometer, tachometer, fuel, oil pressure, and water temperature readouts, the Dakota Digital control box also has these built-in indicators that can be triggered.
- Left/right turn signals
- High-beam indicator
- Check engine indicator
- Brake warning indicator
- 4WD indicator
- Cruise control indicator
- Gear position indicator
- Diesel wait-to-start indicator
After removing a few screws (a few were missing) Roger Alvarez pulled the instrument bezel out of the dash. The guys at Jeeps R Us have installed many of these Dakota Digital kits on CJs and fullsize Jeeps, so we blew through this install. If you install this at home for the first time, expect it to take about half a day.
With the instrument cluster and bezel out of the way, there is a clear view into the dash to run the wires for power, ground, and the necessary harnesses for the sensors. It’s best to find a spot for the control box as close as you can to the instrument bezel and display panel.
The Dakota Digital control box (the brain) feeds the display panel via a ribbon cable. All power, ground, sensor inputs, and switch connections go into the control box. With easy-to-read labels at each terminal on the control box, it’s pretty hard to screw up the wiring job.
The control box was mounted on the flat angled panel behind the instrument cluster. From here, the ribbon cable can easily reach the VFD display panel, and it keeps wire and harness routing similar to the way it was from the factory, instead of trying to run wires to another part of the vehicle.
A direct-fit speed sensor is supplied that fits in place of the speedo cable. It comes with the harness that connects back to the control box. It will need to be calibrated using one of two methods described in the supplied directions.
The speed sensor mounts in place of the mechanical speedo cable to the original speedometer. The yellow sensor is not part of the Dakota Digital kit and is instead part of the Howell EFI kit that feeds this Cherokee Chief’s AMC 401.
A solid-state oil pressure sensor and isolated water temperature sensor are supplied to ensure that the correct readings are given to the control box. These have to be used with the Dakota Digital control box (no other aftermarket sensors). Heat-resistant wiring harnesses are supplied to reach each sensor.
Since there can be slight variations from engine to engine, Dakota Digital supplies a number of NPT bushing adapters (1/4 inch, 3/8 inch, 1/2 inch, 12 mm, and 16 mm) to fit the 1/8-inch NPT sensors.
Luckily for us, the 1/8-inch NPT isolated water temperature sensor threaded straight into the Edelbrock intake manifold’s port. The water temperature sensor is effective from 100 to 300 degrees.
Our AMC 401 had a port near the oil filter that we threaded the solid-state oil pressure sensor into. The oil pressure sensor is effective from 0 to 100 psi.
The classic stock Jeep instrument cluster is cool, but it’s much less cool when it doesn’t work, which is most of the time in our experience. The cluster unscrews from the instrument bezel and can be removed.
The factory instrument bezel has plastic lenses that can be retained if desired. Ours were old and hazy, so we decided to go without. If you go without, Dakota Digital includes a plastic spacer to make sure everything fits flush.
With the spacer in, we tried fitting the VFD panel in the back of the bezel. There were minor clearance issues with some plastic that we had to trim down, but it was easily remedied and the VFD panel was correctly installed.
What was old and broken is now new and shiny, for the most part. We should probably clean up this bezel a bit later.
There are two switches included with the Direct-Fit Instrument system. Both are simple two-wire switches that hook straight into the control box. These are used for tach and fuel level settings, as well as performance testing.
We’re trying to keep this resto-mod looking as period-correct as we can. A big Edelbrock air cleaner hides the Howell EFI throttle body, and the Dakota Digital harnesses are well concealed in the wire looms.
The Dakota Digital Direct-Fit instrument system brings many of the onboard conveniences of a modern vehicle to a nearly 35-year-old Jeep. With the instrument cluster turned on and working, we set the correct resistance for our fuel-level gauge (this took a few tries). You might also notice the engine hour counter showing only 0.5 hours. That is actual engine run time. By the time you read this, we’ll hopefully have put on many more hours and broken this motor in!