Spannerhead Dot

Dashboard Confessions

July 17, 2011 by Matt

JZA70 Supra Cluster

Instrument clusters. Countless design hours go into the look and feel of these things, and yet, among the pantheon of automakers, their styles diverge so wildly. Every company seems to have its own interpretation of the way the car’s vital statistics should be displayed, and each one strikes its own balance between style and substance. It takes a deft touch to combine clarity with a dash of visual appeal, and it’s the area of car design where the tug-of-war between sober functionality and trendy graphics is perhaps most clearly on display (pun intended).

As something of an ergonomics nerd (if such a thing exists), they fascinate me. They’re the area of the car we observe most often while driving, so it stands to reason their layout and readabilty would weigh pretty heavily on our impression of the car we’re driving. And in the midst of my observations of an admittedly-limited cross section of the instrument cluster universe, I’ve developed a running list of preferences, a subjective and objective wish list of things I like to see when I glance down from the road:

  1. Pale or green lighting. BMW supposedly did a study in early in their modern life as a global company where they determined that amber lighting was optimal for the cluster, in that it allows the eye to transition most easily between the world outside and the information displayed on the instruments. Be that as it may, I’ve always held to the color theory that red or amber lighting simultaneously conveys either an angry/intense emotional tone, or a warm/sleepy one—neither of which are emotions I want to pick up on when I look at my car’s gauges. So as much as I’ve liked other aspects of my current BMW or my old Audi, I could have done without the color of their lighting. Conversely, I’ve found that pale or green instrument lighting has a couple of significant advantages when it comes to cluster illumination. Observe that most street signs or store lights are lit with a pale shade, or green hue, and lighting the instruments with a similar color range makes them feel like natural extensions of the outside environment. My mind switches effortlessly between outside and inside, without having to re-compute for color. Also, the impressions given by the color are cool, alert, precise and calm—exactly what I want to feel behind the wheel.
  2. A tachometer at least as prominent as the speedometer. This is especially important in cars equipped with a manual transmission. The relative size of the instruments communicate pretty clearly the car’s priorities—if the speedo dwarfs the tach, it’s evident the designers felt having a handle on the engine speed was something of a lesser priority to their target audience than knowing if they’re doing, say, 17 over on I-95. And given that the more connected one feels with one’s car, the more important it is to know just how fast the contraption under the hood in spinning, I just can’t relate to the slice of the buying public, or the designers who cater to them, who think that’s irrelevant information. A wonderful example of an automaker prioritizing in the right direction has been Mazda, with their RX-7, who for all but two years (’84-’85) placed the oversize tach front and center in the instrument cluster. Nicely done.
  3. Thin needles. This one is a bit nit-picky, perhaps, but few will argue that thin needles just makes the cluster feel more precise. It’s easier to tell at a glance if the needle is pointing at, say, 57 mph rather than the range from 55-59 mph, as would be the case with a chunkier needle. The angle of the a thin needle is slightly more apparent as well, which is often all we see when we glance quickly at the cluster.
  4. Lots of increments between numbers. This dovetails a bit with the previous preference in that it’s one of those things that just makes a given gauge feel more precise. With lots of hash marks between numbers, the gauges look like precision Swiss watches as opposed to cartoony wall clocks. The ’86-’92 Toyota Supra actually took a step backward in this regard during its mid-cycle refresh: The ’89-’92 cluster eliminated the gradations between numbers that were present on the instruments of the ’86-’88 cars, and as a result the later cars’ gauges feel more empty, arbitrary, cheap. One hash mark per 2 mph or 100 rpm minimum, please.
  5. Lots of instrumentation. Give me lots of information; the more gauges the better. Porsche has been an admirable example of this for ages—their 911 has long had oil pressure, oil temperature and a voltmeter in addition to the standard tach, speedo and water temp dials. As far as I’m concerned, you can never be too informed about your car’s mechanical state.
  6. Linear gauges. What do I mean by this? Let me give you a negative example: Most engine temperature gauges these days are little more than idiot lights—they rise with engine temperature to a predetermined position and stay there through all the engine’s actual temperature fluctuations, short of truly overheating. They’re weighted, in effect, to stay in a particular position, and as such communicate less information to the driver about what the engine is actually doing. I really do want to know whether the engine is 185° or 189°; it informs the way I treat the car; it helps in diagnosing running issues; and again, it makes me feel more connected to the car.

What say you? What instrument cluster features have you come to appreciate?

Filed under: Miscellaneous, Technical


  1. John D says:

    That picture is from your old T-top Supra, isn’t it? The only thing I remember about that car is that it had a wonderful soundtrack sans roof panels.

    They definitely got it right with the RX-7. Tach front and center, with thin needles and a broad range of motion. You could tell what was going on in the briefest glance. Handsome, too. If I were able I’d post a pic. I loved the interior feel of that car.

    I see you neglected to mention pillar pods (seen in above mentioned pic). Is more information really worth the clutter or is there a better way to integrate such data? I must say that I prefer the console gauges…but they are practically useless on the track. Hence the appeal of the pillar pods, I guess. But they’re about as subtle as an intake poking through the hood…

    • Matt says:

      Yep, that’s what it’s from. Had the really nice Japan-only Momo steering wheel on then too. And yeah, you didn’t really get to experience that car all that much before I parked it for the ill-fated engine swap, did you? You’re right; it was lovely with the targa top off. For as frustrated as I got with it, I do miss that car.

      When you say console gauges, do you mean instruments down near the shifter area? If so, I definitely agree that they’re pointless for track, or even everyday, use. The pillar pods have kind of a ricey connotation, but really don’t mind them there if the install is well done. The only alternative I’ve seen that gets the gauges in a busy driver’s line of sight is a dash-top multi-gauge pod, which works functionally, but looks silly. At least the pillar pods integrate somewhat with the interior; the multi-gauge pod always looks sort of tacked on.

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