Instructions to Improve SS Dash Gauge Cluster Lighting

By Paul Carreiro, Updated June 2nd, 2004


One of the more common complaints from 4th Generation Monte Carlo SS owners is the dim gauge cluster. If you're like me, you have to squint to see your fuel level or other gauge readings at night.

The problem is the result of a combination of a few different factors. The lamps used to illuminate the gauges are not the brightest to begin with. The stock lamps (8 type 168 bulbs) are rated at 3 candlepower. In addition the gauges are not directly lit by the lamps. They are illuminated by reflected light from the back of the gauge cluster faceplate. The rear of the faceplate is a bluish color that darkens with age. Both these factors, combined with a few burnt out lamps make the gauges very dim at night.

There are a few things that can be done to alleviate the problems stated above. Correcting the dim gauge problem is quick, easy and cheap. This write-up details the following upgrades:

There are a total of 8 lamps that are used to provide illumination to the gauge cluster. All but 3 of these are very easy to get to. The 3 in question are behind the speedometer. Removing the speedometer to get to these is not outlined in this write-up. To get to these 3 lamps, the speedometer would have to be removed, which requires disconnection of the speedometer cable. You can fix 90% of the dim gauge problem by just replacing the 5 easy to get to lamps. We recommend you start with those 5 first, then if you want more illumination, you can go after the remaining 3 lamps behind the speedometer.

When you expose and remove the gauge cluster, Tachometer and Speedometer as described in this write-up, DO-NOT attempt to clean the face of any of the gauges, the Tachometer or Speedometer with any form of cleaner or even water! The white paint used on the gauges, Tach and Speedo is water based and will instantly smear and disappear if you attempt to clean it with any liquid. At most, use a light dusting brush. Be very careful not to touch any of the pointers. They break off easily!

In addition, remember that the dash and electrical components become brittle over time. Do not force any part or over tighten any screw. Take your time and do not rush. If a part or fastener is stubborn, do not force it! The lamp sockets are especially prone to being severely brittle. Use caution when removing and installing the lamps.

Parts and Tools Required

The stock lamp type used in the gauge cluster for illumination is type 168 which has a rating of 3 candle power. There is one alternative for brighter lamps:

We recommend using the type 2825 lamps in this write-up. They are significantly brighter than the stock type 168 bulbs. You will want to turn down your brightness control (that's right.. turn down) when you use these to ensure bulb life and to reduce the amount of heat generated in the gauge cluster. The Sylvania 2825 bulb can be purchased at your local Pep-Boys or Autozone as well as other well stocked auto parts stores. In my case, I used one type 168 bulb, and 4 type 2825 bulbs to replace the 5 easy lamps on the cluster.

The following tools were used in the process of this write-up:

Gauge Cluster Disassembly Instructions

The following are step-by-step instructions for disassembling the instrument gauge cluster:

Lamp Upgrade Instructions

Reflector Improvement

One of the problems with the design of the SS gauge cluster is the fact that it is illuminated via reflected light off the rear of the gauge face plate. This face plate is blue in color and does tend to darken with time.

Image 16, Image 17
A great way to improve the reflection coefficient of the face plate is to paint the rear of it with a highly reflective paint. I chose a silver paint (Testors Model Paint). You could use white or a very light blue. Which ever color you choose, will be somewhat reflected on the gauges. My gauges no longer have as much bluish color to them, and have a more white illumination with the silver paint.

One step further would be to also paint the cluster sections around each lamp with the same reflective paint. This would improve the reflection coefficient more, although I chose not to do this, and it proved not to be necessary. If when you get done, you still want more illumination, this is an option to you.

Another suggestion offered up by Brian McMillan is to adhere aluminum foil to the reflective portions of the dash with 3M Super Trim Adhesive. If you go this route, make sure to keep the foil away from any exposed electrical connections. I don't recall there being any exposed electrical points, but just keep it in mind. This would certainly be the best reflection coefficient of all. If you try this, please let us know how it turns out.

Yet another suggestion offered up by Dan Grostick is to paint the lamp sockets with some highly reflective paint, instead of painting the rear of the face plate. Dan reports that this provides excellent luminesence of the gauges when combined with the lamp upgrade. Make sure you mask off the lamp socket contacts while you paint.

Other Suggested Improvements

One suggested optional improvement is to remove the cluster housing by removing the four pal nuts that secure it to the car. Turning the cluster housing over reveals the printed circuit board. The light socket and gauge connections rely on a tension fit to the PC board. By soldering the connections to the board with a 25 watt soldering iron and rosin core solder, the lights will be even brighter and the gauges (particuarly the voltmeter) will no longer behave erratically. As mentioned earlier, since plastic parts can be extremely britle after many years of heated operation, use extreme care when handling and soldering the contacts. This suggestion comes from Joe Milko. Thanks Joe!

Wrap-up and Reassembly

Image 6
Before you close everything back up, make sure all of your indicator lamps (right side of the cluster) are working. To do so:

With all of the above conditions set, all of the indicator lamps should be on (BRAKE/OIL/CHOKE/SERVICE ENGINE SOON/HIGH BEAM/SEAT BELT). If any of them are not on, try wiggling the lamp to see if it will come on. If it does, remove the lamp and clean the contacts of the lamp socket, then replace the lamp. If the lamp does not light, replace it with a type 194 lamp.

Turn your turn signal in each direction to ensure the indicator lamps are working. If not, replace with type 194 lamps.

To reassemble everything, just reverse the order of the disassembly instructions listed above.

That's it! As you can see, it is very simple, quick and easy to do. The difference in illumination will be obvious when you get done. If you have any comments or suggestions that would make this procedure easier, or if you spot an error, please drop me a note. When I get back from my business trip, I'll add pointers and remarks to the images contained in this write-up.

Good Luck!

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