Dash Re-install and Construction

Though I have a post on the initial construction under the MG Shop heading on the “how to” of the dash, this may be one of those times when things have become better with age (unlike me) and deserve a better retelling. Time will tell.

Original ’78 dash

Unless you’ve followed this build from the beginning (four years ago), it can be difficult to remember that what I have now started life as a ’78 rubber-bumper car. Besides a number of exterior cosmetic differences from the early chrome bumper cars (RBs are higher, have the DOT mandated crash bumpers, inertia seat belts and a whole host of other DOT mandated bits and pieces), the dashes in the late model cars were particularly, to this writer, unattractive with all of their warning lamps and switches all slathered in padding and vinyl. The early model MGs sported a very functional and basic metal dash with a small crash pad and simple switches. To my mind, vastly more fitting to a sports car.

The early dashes come up for sale from time to time but good ones can bring a high dollar. In addition, to convert the late car to a true early dash requires replacing the cowl section as well as some other minor structural changes. Not outside of the realm of possible, indeed,  it’s done on a fairly regular basis, but not really in the spirit of what I was trying to do with the car—re-build it as an evolution of the original car less the DOT’s influence. My solution follows.

The ‘naked’ dash

Getting Started – The first step was to remove and strip the dash down to the metal. Keep in mind, I’d never had one of these apart so had no idea what might lurk underneath the vinyl and foam. Surprise, surprise! Once I removed all of the padding I discovered the panel wasn’t flat, as I had hoped, but sported a number of spot welded panels used to support the various contours (around the dash vents, the bottom lip, and top brow). In addition, because I was going to replace the original steering column and the whole column surround, I would need to re-fabricate that area to go with the new, round column. Lastly, rust had begun to attack the driver’s side corner so a repair would be in order.

As you can tell from the picture, there’s a sizable chunk of the dash contour missing from the passenger side under the cubby space that need to be fabricated to obtain a smooth transition from the center and to give the look of an “original” equipment piece. I used some 16-gauge mild steel I had around the shop and hand-fabricated both the missing under cubby metal as well as the new column surround contour. Because neither of these areas has any structural significance automotive assembly adhesive was used to secure the patch panels. In addition to being easy to use, it also meant that I wasn’t in danger of heat warping the dash that might come from attempting to weld on it.

Contour complete, primer on

Once the the patch panels were in place, I applied a skim cost of plastic filler over the entire surface and then sanded it flat. I didn’t bother with blocking the dash out like you would on exterior body panels because the contiguous surfaces are so small any surface irregularities would be invisible. Absolutely a case of spend time when it is needed and don’t when it’s not. Two primer coats followed by a light surface sanding to prepare it for black wrinkle paint was the next step. You can clearly see the new lower contours and the rebuilt column surround area in the picture. For no particular reason I elected to keep the original dash vents. A decision that I think I would change if I were to do this over.

Duplicating the Original ‘Look’ – One of the notable features of the early metal dashes, and one which I am particularly fond of, is the black wrinkle finish—undoubtedly done to reduce the glare that might come from a body color dash. In any case, it’s one of the hallmarks of the early cars and clearly, a central idea in the development of this

Wrinkle finish applied

modern version. It took me a couple of test panels to learn to correctly apply the paint—the application and heat are critical elements in achieving the right effect. If you do an Internet search, you will find all kinds of suggestions on how to apply the product correctly. What I found worked were two fairly heavy (but not running) coats followed by careful use of a heat gun to promote the wrinkling. Small areas, like between the instruments, seemed to wrinkle on their own fairly evenly but bigger surfaces like below the instruments and in the center needed some help get it right. The net effect is a bit eerie as it the appearance is fairly faithful to the early dashes—which this clearly isn’t.

The Cubby Door – At this point, I thought I had the biggest challenge behind but it wasn’t so as fabricating the cubby door turned out to be a test of my tin smithing skills. Like the rest of the dash, I wanted the cubby door to be reminiscent of the original part, complete with chrome strip, another one of those iconic touches. The difficulty in forming the door was in addressing the compound curves of the dash, coupled with the straight lower edge where it would hinge. The challenge of this is probably not particularly meaningful if you’ve never bent metal before, but if you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. No pictures survive of this, but I ended up building a simple buck out of wood that enabled me to sculpt the exact contour I needed as well as establish the perimeter profile.

Cubby door outside

Cubby inside

To shape the door, I clamped a piece of 16 gauge mild steel to the hinge area of my buck, then carefully bent and hammered the remaining metal to form to the buck. Once the basic shape was established, I removed the partially formed door from the buck and continued forming over a steel block slowly working all of the hammer dings out of it. Each time I worked the door for a while, I would return it to the buck to correct any warpage induced by the constant annealing of the metal. Of all of the parts of the dash, the cubby door was the most difficult to complete and the part that most tested my skills…and patience.

Cubby hinge, lock, and keeper

The hinge assembly was fabricated using a piece of piano hinge I had laying about, simply riveted to the door and then I hammered the rivets flat so the hinge wouldn’t bind when closed. The door retention cable was made from piece of 16 gauge insulated black wire and a pair of soldered-on round electrical terminals. Simple stuff. The cubby lock was sourced from and early Austin Healey 100-6 and the catch is the stock MGB piece fitted in the original location.

Test fitting instruments

Instruments and Details – For instruments I settled on Sun for the oil, fuel, volts, and water temperature partially because of the nostalgia of the brand to the era and partially because they fit the stock openings. Sadly Sun didn’t/doesn’t make a matching tachometer or speedometer in the correct diameters but I found suitable matches to the dial faces in the Autometer brand and painted the bezels to match the others. Switch gear is a grab bag of what I had on hand supplemented with a few period additions—the map light switch and lamp and the Lucas momentary washer switches being two of the more obvious.

  • instrument dim – stock from the ’78
  • headlamp – stock column mounted switch from the ’78 relocated to the dash
  • driving lamps – standard issue on/off rocker available at any British parts seller
  • heater fan – wiper switch from an early car wired for the purpose
  • wiper switch – stock two-position wiper switch from an earlier model
  • washer – Lucas momentary toggle switch
  • hazard lamps (in center console) – stock on/off rocker
  • number lamps – stock on/off rocker
  • heater/defroster controls – stock from the ’78 but reworked to use the earlier style knobs and to fit in the location
  • map light switch – OEM replacement for an early car, the lamp itself is an original
  • ignition switch – Lucas two-position on/off, no accessory
  • starter – Lucas frequently also used for a horn button
  • kill switch (in console) – something I had on hand but commonly available

View from driver’s seat

More Details – To keep the glare off of the instruments, I fabricated an eyebrow over the binnacle and riveted it to the edge of the dash proper, then finished it with some press-on rubber u-channel. The eyebrow was another one of those seemingly insignificant parts, that turned out to be far more involved than I initially thought and for more or less, the same reasons as the cubby door—delicate compound curves. I covered the outside of the dash studs with some small rubber plugs I had around, cutting off the plug, then hollowing them out slightly so they would fit over the studs caps. Lastly, I used some more of the -channel to finish the back edge of the dash.

Console test fit

Next to tackle was reproducing the center console in steel (the original is molded plastic). As with the dash, the goal here was to fabricate something that looked as if it belonged in the car. I also knew that I would need some additional space for some auxiliary switches. This was another one of those tin smithing jobs that was harder than I thought it might be as it involved bending a vertical u-shaped channel to capture the side panels that would, at the same time, be recessed the same way the ’78 console was. It all seems so simple when it’s just in your head. When complete the piece fit beautifully in the same location as the original and I was even able to use the same mounting points.

In the main I’m happy with the result. If I had it do over again I would probably eliminate the whole dash vent area, the warning lamps, as well as blank out the instrument area so I could use a set of matched gauges and have more flexibility with the location of switches. But that’s the nature of improvement, isn’t it? never being quite satisfied with the outcome no matter how nicely it ended up. Here are a couple parting shots of the final installation.

Dash and console

From the driver’s seat