The 5 best dashboards of the muscle-car era

1967 Chevrolet Corvette dashboard Mecum

2023 marks 70 years since the first Corvette rolled off the line in Flint, Michigan. To complement our extensive coverage of America’s sports car, from never-realized prototypes to Barbie partnerships to the future of Corvette Racing, we dug up this 2018 story focusing on interiors and starring the C2 (shown above). Enjoy! — Ed. 

When it comes to American performance cars of the 1960s, we tend to focus on style and quarter-mile times. Considering that cars were made to be driven, it is somewhat curious that ergonomics took so long to catch on with designers. Is it any wonder the aftermarket was so successful with accessories like tachometers?

Yet not all performance cars were designed with sweeping needle speedometers and poorly placed tachometers. All it took was one quick glance and vital statistics were easily registered without having to take your eyes off the road.

Who got it right? Here’s a subjective list:

1963–67 Chevrolet Corvette

Chevrolet’s redesigned Corvette was special for several reasons: Split-window style, four-wheel independent suspension, and great weight distribution, among other things. The 1963 Corvette also had “new conveniences [that] blend Sunday-driving ease with sports car function,” thanks to its functional instrument grouping: speedometer, tachometer, ammeter, oil pressure, and fuel and temperature gauges were grouped in a “single smart-looking cluster,” all within easy eyeshot. There were few changes through 1967, and for good reason—it followed a standard that was appropriate for a sports car and set one that should have been emulated by Detroit but rarely was.

1963–64 Studebaker Avanti

1963 Studebaker Avanti steering wheel
1963 Studebaker Avanti Mecum

The Avanti was a make-or-break model for Studebaker, which at the time was America’s oldest automotive manufacturer. With fiberglass construction and exotic, Euro-inspired style, this 2+2 from South Bend, Indiana, was unique in so many ways. The interior kept the unique which included “aircraft throttle-like controls” and functional instrumentation that included 160-mph speedometer, tachometer, ammeter, oil pressure, water temperature, manifold pressure, gas gauge, and clock. All this was illuminated by red backlighting that seems to have picked up in popularity in recent years.

1966–67 Dodge Charger

1966 Dodge Charger dash
1966 Dodge Charger Mecum

The 1966 Charger’s “four easy-to-read hooded circles” (150-mph speedometer, 6000-rpm tachometer, alternator, water temperature, oil pressure, and fuel) stood in contrast to the regular Coronet dashboard, which was a generic horizontal needle design with an optional tach only available on the console for the Coronet 500 trim level. While the Charger’s chrome bezels could be prone to glare, the dials themselves were large, legible, and illuminated by nifty electroluminescent lighting. Chrysler had previously used electroluminescence in 1960–62 which, at night, provided a gray-green glow with the added effect of depth as if it was rendered in 3D—something that is mimicked by today’s electronic dashboards.

1967–68 Mercury Cougar XR-7

1968 Mercury Cougar XR-7
1968 Mercury Cougar XR-7 Mecum

Only the base Cougar was available when Mercury’s pony car was introduced in the fall of 1966. The Cougar received a boost of European style with the XR-7 model, an upscale trim level introduced in the middle of the model year. Included in the XR-7’s standard features were “supple, glove-soft leathers” combined with vinyl for both front and rear seats, toggle switches, overhead console with dual map lights and warning lights, and map pockets and door assist straps, plus several other features. But it was the simulated walnut instrument panel, complete with “competition-type” gauges consisting of oil pressure, temperature, ammeter, tachometer, and fuel gauge, that gave the XR-7 its characteristic flavor. Add the GT package or, for 1968, the GT-E package, and you’d have yourself an American-style gran turismo.

1969–70 Pontiac Grand Prix

1969 Pontiac Grand Prix
1969 Pontiac Grand Prix Mecum

For 1967, buyers had the option to accent the GTO’s wood-grained dashboard with an all-new hood tachometer. When combined with the Rally cluster, the driver could grasp all major vitals while keeping tabs of the engine’s heartbeat without removing his/her eyes from the road. Now imagine that with a “cockpit-style instrument panel that almost lays every gauge, control, and switch in your lap.” That would look like the 1969–70 Grand Prix, a driver’s car with an instrument panel that curved around the driver (shades of the Studebaker Avanti). Sure, the hood tach mechanism didn’t take too kindly to hood-slamming, and the lighting has been described as done by overworked fireflies, but this was Pontiac at the top of its game, especially when equipped with the 428 HO and four-speed.




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    The Corvette’s dash looks the best, but having the ignition key-slot and the wiper control behind the steering wheel is bad ergonomics.

    Some model’s speedometer upper ends are highly optimistic.

    I have read (probably here) that the upper end of speedometers is often set so your cruising speeds will fall near the 12-O clock position

    ^I feel I have read the same as TG.

    64 Impala has the sweep across design of speedometer… only goes to 120, so it fits the “balance the visual” theory.

    No Mustang dashboards? The 1966, through 1970 were some of the best. They were symmetrical, like the 1963-1967, but had a unique style all their own. Each dash was completely restyled every two years, and had options such as a floor console, roof console, and an optional full set of gages surrounded by fax wood grain, stainless steel, or fax “camera case” leather.

    Actually the Corvette had very good ergonomics. Even the C5-6 had similar gauge layouts that work. The key or start button is in the same place and falls right to hand vs a 911 on the left by the door.

    As for the upper end on the speed it just depended on the car and the engine it had. The 160 in the Corvette was obtainable. The Grand Prix in 69 would bury the 130 MPH with no problem with the 428.

    The Supercharged Stud. was capable of some great speeds with records set on the salt flats.

    1963 Thunderbird. The trim on the door panels wraps all the way around the dash. And then the pivoting steering column. Space-age!

    They are all nice, but in my humble opinion the 1959 Chevy has the most beautiful & stylish dashboard to come out of Detroit. Thats my two cents worth.

    I have to agree with you, William… I had a 1959 Chevy Nomad 4 door wagon in High School, way back when… Loved that car and it carried all my friends and our fishing equipment. It was still in beautiful shape when I traded it in on 1970 Doge Challenger with the 383.. Good days…

    The Nomad was a 2 door 55 through 57 only. They made a top line 4 door version in either 6 or 9 passenger for 58 through 60 or 61. Few people know this, unless they were around then. It had the nicer interior and chrome trim than the lower trim levels. It came with either the 348, that leaked oil, or the under powered 283, which I had. Great grocery getters and fun to look at. Wish mine was of the 2 door variety..

    I agree with Bill and Will. The dash on a ’59 Chevy doesn’t really tell you much, but it’s a work of art that will never be repeated nor replaced. And the batmobile fins! Cars used to be cool, and make visual statements. Now we have grey, silver, red, and blue cars, with the occasional yellow. Interiors are grey, black, or red. And for the most part, they’re not even cars, they’re CUV/SUV things or trucks. I miss the ’60s & ’70s, the colors and variety. When was the last time you saw a green car that wasn’t a Sublime Mopar?

    THe upper end does not HAVE to be optimistic. However, there are some things chat need to be changed to keep it form being optimistic. C2 corvettes had “lifting” bodies, so speeds above about 85 MPH began to get a bit dicey. Power trains based on SBC with the Muncie 4-speed were good but needed the improvements set forth over the next 50 years. Ditto suspension, and its “willowy” frame.

    Nevertheless, it was darned good for the era, and against any contemporary competition.

    That said, I still have my 1965 roadster which I bought in 1969.

    I drove my buddy’s ’67 427 HP Vette often and we both pegged it just as often in the days of ZERO highway speed limits in Nevada. OH THOSE were the days my friend. 🙂

    I agree. My neighbor had a 1966 Corvette for many years and he corrupted me and built a 427 for my 1966 Chevelle which had a 230 6 cylinder in it previously. We installed it in 1983 and it still runs great 40 years later. I’m buying parts to restore the dashes in my 2 1966 Chevelles and 1 66 El Camino now. It’s amazing how easy it is to buy reproduction parts online now.

    Corvette: Sports car evolving into grand touring depending on your definitions
    Avanti: Sports car
    Charger: mid-size platform available with high displacement engine = muscle car
    Cougar: pony car (sporty compact car)
    Pontiac Grand Prix: full size car

    I get it that many modern commentators seem to lump everything 60s and early 70s into the muscle car category. For me muscle car has to fit the GTO formula of midsize, big engine, mass available, reasonable cost in era for the average buyer. The 49 Olds 88 with the rocket V8 is the spiritual predecessor to this concept, the 50s Chrysler 300 cars are not (they are cool, and powerful, just not muscle cars).

    Anyways, I think muscle car in the title is misleading.

    Are we reading the same headline? It uses the term muscle car to define a period of time, not calling everything on the list a muscle car.

    Fair point.

    Muscle car era is what 64-71…? depending on if you use the smog-control choking engine performance moment vs. the body style changeover as the cut off. That makes several of the listed vehicles pre-muscle car though.

    Think of it this way: “Greatest hemlines of the miniskirt era” and the article is 4/5 ballroom gowns, some of which were sort of made in the right era.

    I would say that the first ‘muscle car’ was the ’61 Chevy with the ‘409’
    California drag racer named “Dyno” Don Nicholson entered a 409 Impala at the Pomona Winternationals and promptly chewed up the entire field.
    BTW…In that era, none were referred to as ‘ muscle cars’…*I was an owner of both a ’63 & ’64’ Chevy Impalas

    Definition of ‘Musclecar’ originally was a big block in an intermediate car, which is why the ’64 GTO gets credit. Of course, there is the Rambler contingent, in ’57…
    I was in high school, and got my first car (’55 Chevy Delray stickshift with all the right stuff) in 1961; a big block in a full-sized car was muscular, not gen not considered a “Muscle Car,” a moniker coined well after ’61, fyi. :-<) Wick, age 78

    The Grand Prix depending on what year could be full size or mid size.

    Note too the term muscle car is not size dependent. They all were full size till the GTO and then it migrated to the other size platforms and only the Pony car got its own label.

    Much to do about nothing.

    One of the few things that are more divisive in America than politics these days is the question: what is a muscle car?

    I agree with Scott the corvair corsa had cylinder head temp on it due to the fact they were air cooled, and if the belt jumper off game over engine overheated within 30 seconds

    I had a 70 Grand Prix SJ was a 455 with 400 turbo and a 12 bolt posi. The car was a total blast to drive nice and comfortable but would still handle curvy road very well for such a large car.

    Is a Chrysler 300 a muscle car?
    In 1955, Chrysler unveiled the C-300 coupe. Though they had no way of knowing, they had just kick-started one of the greatest eras in American history: The age of the muscle car. Many people consider the Chrysler 300 “Letter Series” to be among the first muscle cars in history. If you don’t think a Chrysler 300 is a Muscle Car you have never ridden in a 1959 300C 485 HP and 475 lbs.ft Torque Yep they were big but not much that could stay with them in those days

    The 69 Grand Prix was built on the GM A body chassis (stretched a few inches in length) as the GTO. Definitely smaller than the full size cars of the era.

    I look at the Charger and the Mercury and they are pretty much the dash of the era. There is a large amount of similarities between the charger dash and a GTO.

    There has to be some more noteworthy dashes from the muscle car era

    My dad bought a new dark green/black leather ’67 XR7 when I was 11 years old. The car was beautiful, complete with the very European sports car dash. It must have made an impression as I went on to own both a ’67 and ’68 XR7.

    The dash of a 1966 GTO is, to me, the most iconic. And the fact that I look at one every time I cruise in my classic does not influence that statement – oh, uh, well, maybe just a tad bit.

    The Corvette Dash is very well done. In fact well done enough it is a very similar lay out used on the C5 and 6. Even the ignition is in the same place. Wipers and lights now on stalks.

    The one improvement on the new car is they now use a pod to hold all the gauges and they are lit by black light on the side to highlight them.

    The ergonomic are perfect as everything falls to hand.

    Having driven both lately I noted this before this story.

    I had a ’68 Cougar XR7 for a while, and I agree that its dash was quite European, if only in inspiration. My favorite part was the toggle switches for the interior lights, etc. They were cribbed directly from the E Type Jaguar.

    There were some really cool gauges over the years, from color bars to vertical axis rotating truncated cones. The 67-8 Cougar XR-7 was nice that it had all the gauges and switches, but the base model gauges looked much better IMHO. The base model had no oil and amps gauge, so I added needles to my gauge (only the oil was functional, amps needles never moved back then anyway) and it looked pretty good.

    Have to agree. Even though I’m a Ford guy I think the late 50’s and early 60’s mopars had the best dashes overall. They all looked like they were designed by artists.

    The ’70 Chevelle SS had a nice cluster, but even the ‘Vettes of any “muscle car era” can’t beat a fully-optioned ’67 to ’72 Chevy/GMC pickup cluster. All the info one could ask for!

    I, too, am a fan of the “no gimmick just business” ’70 Chevelle SS dash. The Corvette has a pretty cool dash for a non-muscle car. But if we’re including pretty much soup to nuts, then the coolest dash would be a ’65/’66 Corvair Corsa dash.

    All incredibly similar except for the Charger and that one you would have to see at night to understand why it is the only one that belongs here.

    Agreed! My 67 Charger instruments are a awesome when driving at night. The green glow is so note worthy that it can actually distract you from the driving chore at hand.

    Massive runaway win for the 66/67 Charger. It’s not just the dash, it’s the way it ties the whole space-age interior together. And the crisp electroluminescent dash lighting instead of incandescent bulbs with blue-green filters over them. And a full gauge set instead of a bank of idiot lights. Best dash of the second half of the 60s for sure, rivaled only by the “Astra Dome” full-size Chrysler dash of the early 60s.

    Very nice of Hagerty to include the Studebaker Avanti in the article. GM lovers will be GM Lovers, Ford lovers will be Ford Lovers and Mopar lovers will be Mopar Lovers… the Avanti is classier than all of them… truly in a class by itself, whether considered a Muscle Car or not…

    I fully agree with you. I am a Ford man but the Studebaker Avanti has by far the best layout of the specimens presented in that from the drivers viewpoint it would seem as though you can see all of the gauges, whereas the Corvette gauges are largely hidden from view, although the layout is great.

    Just noticed that the Avanti steering wheel is on upside down which, if fitted correctly, will give the driver a much improved sighting of the instrument panel. Even the Corvette would be better with the wheel upside down.

    I suspect the steering wheel has been turned. Had the photographer taken the time to center the wheel before photographing the dash, the look would be very different.

    The partially hidden gauges are because the photographer took the picture from behind the drivers seat in the cargo area. Sitting the drivers seat, you have a great view.

    Also “hidden from view” are the Avanti headlight switches. I wonder where they might be?
    (Yes — trick question. Their location was noteworthy at the time.)

    Let’s not forget the Avanti’s big sister, the Studebaker GT Hawk (62-64) had the same layout before the Avanti appeared on the scene
    With any of the R series engines burying the needle was no problem

    if the discussion is about dashboards , and not what constitute muscle , in cars; then I agree most heartedly that STUDEBAKER nailed that element! I had 3 Studies- 62 Lark,63 Lark, and 66 Cruiser.Each of them had a pleasant ,convenient dashboard layout, even if not as elaborate as the Avanti. From mainstream American cars of that era, I personally prefer the interiors of Chrysler , Ford and GM in that order.

    Ed, you’re only right to a degree: I like great cars from any maker, not just ‘tribalized’ by marque/nameplate! And have been since the ‘fifties. The Avanti is wonderful, and not primarily plastic, which is a plus, but then it’s the eldest in this contest. Q: is that wheel posed upside down? Yep, I see the center cap emblem, but is it on upside down? The grips on the rim seem to say ‘ten and two o’clock’ position, like we were taught in drivers’ ed back then.
    PS/ I favor GM mostly, and care the least about MoPars, but still, I can appreciate a good ride when I see one. Studebaker was always the ‘under-dog’ favorite, for lots of reasons not the least of which was style! Wick

    I whole heartedly agree with the Javelin dash. Aircraft cockpit inspired wraparound, push controls for lights and wipers. My 72 had go-pack instruments, 4 guage pod, 140 speedo, tic-toc tach, set in a burl wood pattern panel. Gorgeous! No surprise not mentioned here, AMC often overlooked by Hagerty.

    I noticed that too, but at least the horn button was upright. Is anybody else troubled by the Cougar wheel being 180° out of position? If you’re gonna take a picture, straighten out the wheels!

    Gary, totally agree, steering wheels off and not centered is one of my greatest pet peeves. Drives me up the wall …lol

    Please note that it wasn’t the factory that installed that steering wheel upside down. Furthermore, it’s really hard to beat the Avanti dashboard; the Avanti was a truly unique automobile that still looks modern today.

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