Since the automobile began rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly line, they have had a dash with gauges. At first they were simple, mainly an ammeter gauge to make sure the battery had power and the generator was charging. As cars became more complex, more gauges were added to the cluster. Soon, gauges with fuel levels, oil pressure, water temperature, speed, and tachometers found their way into the mix. However they weren’t a standard option on most cars. Even well into the 1960’s extra gauges were usually an option when ordering the car from a dealer. Even today, some base models come with only the basics such as temperature, fuel, and a speedometer.
Nowadays, when people check out cars, one part of the car that pops out and grabs their attention is a set of gauges. Simply changing the stock gauges in a car can change the interior dramatically. A set of gauges can set the tone of the car such as a large tachometer sitting on the dash can make the car appear to be more of a race car. If you have a 1930’s car and want to maintain a stock look, antique factory looking gauges can help compliment that look. Gauges help to keep tabs on how the motor is running and displays the vitals of a car as a whole.
In the middle of downtown Sycamore, IL, the Auto Meter Factory continues to be a landmark.
Auto Meter was founded in 1957 by Vern Westberg. He started by manufacturing in his own house, making electric tachometers. Back in the 1950’s, tachometers were cable driven and not too terribly accurate so he developed and proved the accuracy of an electric powered tachometer. From humble beginnings in Westberg’s house with only one product, they now have a gauge available for just about any style or application you can imagine. This selection includes everything from custom street rods to gauges for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series cars. With their extensive history in this market, we took a deep look at Auto Meter, how they produce gauges, what they offer for your ride and why they are one of the best in the business.
When the time comes to select a set of gauges for your ride, there are a lot of things to consider including: brand, price, style, size, color and what your buddy has in his ride. One final consideration that’s brought up is whether to install electric or mechanical style gauges. Auto Meter broke down each style for us and explained the difference in how each one works and their capabilities. Everything starts in Auto Meter’s Sycamore, IL headquarters.
Taking a nod to the past, Auto Meter is housed in a building that is over 100 years old and has been beautifully restored. The building retains many of its original features, such as the wooden columns and tin ceiling. Even though the building is a century old, their technology is state of the art.
“We are very proud of our attention to detail and the level of quality we have.” Joseph Mills – Auto Meter
Catching up with Joseph Mills of Auto Meter, he told us that “We are very proud of our attention to detail and the level of quality we have.” Now this might be a broad statement you’ve heard before, but we soon found out how seriously they take attention to detail and quality. This focus on detail and quality is exuded through-out the entire company and at every level. This helps explain why they have been around so long and will continue to be; a company won’t last long if it produces bad products.
To start, lets tackle the debate of electric or mechanical style gauges. Both have their applications and are good gauges but the old connotation that mechanical are more reliable and more accurate than electrical simply isn’t true.
Electric Vs. Mechanical
Which style gauge really works best, electrical or mechanical? Is one a better quality or more reliable than the other? “Anymore, it really comes down to preference,” said Mills. Many years ago, mechanical was believed to be the most accurate out there, but in reality, modern electric gauges are more accurate. Some people might argue this point, but the proof is in the pudding. There is actually three different variations of mechanics for gauges: short sweep electric, digital stepper motor and full sweep mechanical.
Short Sweep Electric
Short Sweep Electric motors being wound.
The short sweep are an electric powered gauge and called air core meter movements. The mechanism that makes the needle move is much like an electric motor consisting of a small magnetic core with copper windings around the core. These react by the amount of voltage they see, which is regulated by the ground, through a sending unit. The name of these is literal in that the range of movement on the needles is only 90 degrees of rotation, or from a 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock position. This style is still incredibly accurate to within a five percent margin at the worst. Short sweep electric is the most cost effective version of gauges as well.
Digital Stepper Motor
The digital stepper motor version of gauges provides the highest possible levels of accuracy, precision, response, and durability. These are controlled by a microprocessor on the circuit board and are the style of gauges seen in modern cars. If you’ve ever sat in a brand new car, turned the key and saw the gauges go from the far left to the far right before reading, then you’ve seen digital stepper motor gauges. Every single time the car is started they recalibrate themselves in this fashion, providing an accurate reading every time.
The range of movement on the digital stepper motor gauges is 270 degrees, making the view of the needle easier and more accurate than the short sweep versions. Since the needle has a bigger area to move, the difference in reading will be more precise than the short sweep electric versions. The degree of accuracy with a digital stepper motor gauge is within a one percent margin, making them the most accurate gauges out of the three options. One huge benefit of these gauges is that because they are controlled with a microprocessor, they can be configured to collect data for future use, such as a tachometer recall or high temperature. Some race teams have even hooked computers up to the gauges to data-log races or passes on a drag strip that’s replayed on the gauges. Now that is very useful information, especially if the driver claims the oil pressure never dropped!
A laser alignment tool prepares circuit boards for automatic component insertion for digital stepper motors.
Full Sweep Mechanical
The final type of gauge movement is the traditional mechanical gauge. These gauges literally have a mechanical movement that take their measurement and move the needle. This means that an oil pressure gauge actually has a line running from the motor to the gauge, pushing the needle for a reading. The main advantage of a mechanical gauge is they don’t require any electricity to operate. This would be optimal in a drag racing car that might not run an alternator, or a dirt track car that only runs a magneto. The downside is that the connections can be bulky and require passing lines through the firewall. These gauges do have a 270 degree range of movement like the digital stepper motors, with the accuracy being within a two percent margin.
No matter which style of the three you choose, each one still works great and they are all incredibly accurate. Even with all three variations, the decision still boils down to what you prefer and what demands you have out of your gauges. Lets take a deeper look at how the gauges themselves are made.
How Are Gauges Made?
Auto Meter produces almost everything that they can in Sycamore, IL. Over the years this has included bringing lots of cutting edge equipment into the facility so they can have complete control over the manufacturing and assembly process from start to finish. Every single gauge is still completed by hand, with minimal automation. To make sure that they are up to par with the best way to produce gauges, the entire facility has been TS and ISO Certified, which is a standard of quality few places receive.
Every component that comes into the Auto Meter production facility is thoroughly tested by Quality Assurance personnel to ensure proper form, fit and function.
To start, every part that is manufactured and compiled into a gauge at Auto Meter, goes through a Quality Engineers hands. “Every single piece, every single raw component that comes into the factory is examined very closely before it ever gets the opportunity to make it into the production line,” says Mills. To take this a step further, there are computers throughout the factory that keep all the required specs for every part so that at any given time, somebody can check the specifications out.
The first step in making an Auto Meter gauge is building the components that go into the gauge. For the stepper motor electric gauges, they start by printing the actual circuit boards. From here, components are placed with a computer into their respective slots. After every tiny component has been placed, the entire board goes through a machine the size of a school bus that bakes the soldier and cleans them.
A rack of finished boards awaiting final testing.
After the boards come out of manufacturing, they are placed into a secondary machine. “This machine checks every single function of the board to ensure 100% compliance on every single board,” said Mills. Mills explained that as the gauges are going down the production line from one station to the next, the processes in place ensure the next person is checking the previous persons work.
For the short sweep electric gauges with the air core meter movements, they start with the actual motor by winding copper around the magnetic core. Over the years, Auto Meter found that having the cores made off site wasn’t producing reliable movements, so they bought the equipment to bring everything in house. “We are the only TS and ISO certified facility in the entire United States that winds our own air core meter movements,” said Mills. Once the motors have been manufactured and tested, the next step is to produce the gauge faces.
Instrument dials are screened in Auto Meter’s in-house screening department.
All gauge faces are screened in house, by hand. This allows a close eye to be on the face and catch any blemishes before the gauge is assembled. Once the screening has been completed, assembly of the actual gauge begins. “We operate in what’s called ‘Cellular Manufacturing,'” explained Mills. Many years ago, Auto Meter asked the employees how they could arrange things to improve work flow. One thing that was implemented was Cellular Manufacturing where people work in teams assembling different gauges. What that means is that as those components are manufactured and assembled, they are done by people that specialize in that part of the process. Each cell has the correct tools, screws, and experienced personnel to assemble the gauges correctly.
One of Auto Meter’s state of the art manufacturing cells in action.
Every single gauge is hand assembled by the teams within their respective cells. The employees start by putting the gauge face onto the movement. From there, the face and movements are placed into the gauge housing. The needle gets installed next, and is checked for proper placement with a computer that doesn’t see distortion like a human eye. All the screws are torqued to a specific amount by a pneumatic screw driver, so nothing is over torqued. The last piece to install is the glass itself. These are also installed using a machine that applies a specific amount of pressure to keep the glass tight but not break. Now that the gauge has been assembled, they test the gauge one last time before placing them in a box and onto the shelf.
The thousands of different variations of “off the shelf” gauges Auto Meter produces will fulfill most peoples desires when selecting a set of gauges. However, for those of us who have to take everything and make it ours, they have a solution for you as well.
What if you’re building your dream ride and just can’t find something that fits the bill? Or what if you just have to modify every piece on your car so that you know its something that nobody else has? Auto Meter has embraced the custom side and can make just about any combination you could think of. One of their Engineers figured out that with all the options of combinations available, there is over 28 trillion possible configurations. That doesn’t include any paint schemes that are brewing inside your head.
The 28 trillion combinations include custom backgrounds, changing the font style and size along with different sized and shaped needles. The options for backgrounds include custom colors, brushed aluminum, or carbon fiber. The screening of the numbers can be changed but they can also add emblems or additional numbers as well. For instance, if you have a ’68 Camaro they can screen on “68” to all the gauges for a custom touch. They could also screen on a Bowtie to match the Bowtie on the grill. Finally, the needles can have different shapes and sizes to suite your fancy. Even the color of the needles can be changed including two tone paint to accommodate the look you’re after.
Hand painting custom gauge faces and needles.
But what if you can’t find what you like in those 28 trillion combinations? Auto Meter can go further than that. What they can do is send you the blank gauge faces where you can paint them how you would like. After you’ve done your custom paint job, you send them back to Auto Meter where they will screen the numbers on and complete the assembly of the gauge.
Three custom gauge faces made, with the best being selected for assembly.
For those that go down the custom gauge path, these gauges are held to an even higher level of quality. The manufacturing process is the same as the off the shelf gauges, with a few modifications. When you select your face color and font combination, Auto Meter actually makes the face three times. This allows them to have three samples to choose from to find one thats absolutely perfect.
“We want to give value to the product, even in a premium product line,” said Mills. After going through the entire custom process, these gauges aren’t put in the regular cardboard box like an off the shelf gauge. These come in a real cedar box, with your name engraved on a gold plaque. If you think that all this customization must cost twice or three times the amount of money as an off the shelf gauge, you’ll be happy to learn that generally they only cost ten to twenty percent more, making them affordable for a custom one-off accessory.
This device feeds in the correct screw and torques it to correct level
Consistently Hitting The Red Line
Currently, Auto Meter has over 50 different styles in their product line up not counting the custom gauge option. In previous years, some of the lines were a budget friendly gauge that used less than superior components. Auto Meter figured out that by streamlining their manufacturing process and building the same internal components for every line, the cost came down and there was less faulty product. What this means for you is that there is no worries regarding quality, just pick what you like and run with them.
Some of Auto Meter’s extensive finished goods ready for orders.
This goes as far as the gauges that are in a NASCAR Sprint Cup car are literally the exact same gauge internals going into your ride. In fact, if you bought the gauges running in the Sprint Cup series you would be getting a better gauge as the NASCAR gauges have been stripped of certain features to comply with NASCAR rules.
From their humble beginning in 1957 with Vern Westberg, they now have over 200 employees. One of these employees is Jeep Worthan, who was their first salesman and has grown the company for over 41 years! So when the time comes to get a set of gauges for your ride, make sure to check out Auto Meter. With their trillions of options and high level of detail, you can be sure you will find the perfect set of gauges for your ride!