Adventures In Speedometer Replacement, or: How Honda Builds Good Stuff For Cheap

Since I'd already fixed an annoying problem in my Crown Vic, I figured I might as well fix an equally annoying problem in my '92 Civic: when the temperature dropped below about 50°, the speedometer stopped working.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, that's not a big deal for about nine months out of the year, since it stays above 50° most of the time. In the winter, however, it's pretty maddening. I've worked around the problem in the time-honored fashion (memorizing approximate speeds at certain RPMs in a given gear and keeping an eye on the tach), but that method sucks when you're about to enter a known speed trap.

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Normally, the first step in this process would a trip to the local self-service junkyard for a replacement speedometer. However, I already had an extra Civic speedometer lying around.

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That's because the car, being a cheapo DX model, had no tachometer when I bought it. I don't feel comfortable driving a rev-happy Honda engine in a tach-challenged 5-speed car, what with the unpleasant potential for thrown rods and all, so the first thing I did was head straight to my local self-service wrecking yard to obtain a tach-equipped instrument cluster from a 1992-95 Civic.

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The only decent one at the junkyard that day was sitting in a car with an automatic transmission, which meant I'd have a nonfunctioning PRNDL indicator next to the gas gauge. Previous experience with Honda products had taught me that Soichiro's minions make all their cluster harness connectors for the same make/model/year of car compatible, which meant that I'd be able to drop the new instrument cluster in place and everything should work fine.

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But I had another, more serious hassle to deal with here: the odometer reading on the new cluster showed 38,000 miles, but the one in my car had more like 175,000 miles on it.

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I learned from painful experience with this CRX (seen here in mid-head-gasket job) that your life becomes a Kafka novel when you try to sell a car with an odometer reading way below the actual miles. Many laws exist to prevent unscrupulous types from changing odometer readings on used cars, which means the DMV has a lot of special procedures for the situation. With this CRX, I got it for free after it had been stolen and the instrument cluster ripped off, and so I'd dropped a junkyard unit in. Worked great… but then I sold the car to a friend, who hadn't given a shit about mileage discrepancies. We'd just filled in the title-transfer forms with some plausible-sounding odo numbers, based on the previous registration forms that came with the car. The real pain came when he sold the car a year or so later, because then the new buyer completely wigged out over the odometer readings; we're talking about a quasi-beater car that sold for $1500, and a hundred thousand miles here or there doesn't affect the price much at that point, but that made no difference. Next thing I know, I'm getting all these ominous letters from the DMV and angry phone calls from the car's new owner, and it took a helluva long time to get it all straightened out.

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Right. So, what I did with the replacement cluster for my '92 was to disassemble it and swap the 175,000-mile speedometer in place of the 38,000-mile one. That way I get a tach and the odometer reading stays the same. The first step here is to pop the front bezel off the cluster; you do this by poking a half-dozen little snaps with a screwdriver.

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There's a bit of a trick to getting the top snaps to stay half-out of their slots when you turn the assembly over to get the bottom ones, but this part is pretty much a breeze. This is why I prefer doing this sort of project with Japanese cars; by this time, a Detroit-made cluster would have disintegrated into shards of brittle plastic, with low-bidder metal clips sproinging off into the nearest weeds, while a German cluster would no doubt require the application of a C4 charge and wielding of several proprietary $549 tools in order to get to the speedo.

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Before removing the bezel, you need to deal with the knob on the trip-counter button. On a German car, this would be held in place with a maddeningly eensy and/or unreachable set screw; Detroit would probably use a dollop of epoxy. On a Civic, it's just pushed onto the shaft and pulls off easily.

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Once the trip-counter knob and the six plastic snaps are dealt with, the whole bezel just lifts right off.

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With the bezel gone, the gauge units become quite easy to reach.

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To get the speedometer out, remove three screws on the back. That's it!

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So why is it that my original speedometer doesn't work in cold weather? Well, that's because I screwed up and dropped it while transferring it into the replacement tach-equipped cluster, and that seems to have joggled some component into being unhappy when it gets cold. Now I'm just going to install the low-mileage speedometer, and then I'll keep my eyes open for a junkyard unit with about the right number of miles; I'll install that one when it comes time to sell the car.

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Now it's time to remove the old cluster from the car's dash. I've been gathering dash clocks from junkyards for a couple of years now, so I've become a heavy-duty expert on the differences between American, Japanese, and German instrument-cluster construction. Detroit and Germany make cluster access and removal a horrible nightmare (for different reasons), but Honda appears to have put a lot of thought into making this process relatively simple. First, you remove a couple of screws from the instrument panel cover.

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After that, you need to persuade some clips out of their receptacles to get the rest of the cover free. Here we see the philosophical differences between Detroit and Japan; in Detroit, it's all about assembling the car as quickly and easily as possible, damn all other considerations. That means that the clips and snaps that hold this sort of trim component in place tend to be designed to be installed exactly once. You're going to break most of them during the removal process. Most Japanese cars, on the other hand, are built to allow the possibility that you might need to, say, replace a turn-signal indicator light or something, and thus it's possible to remove the clips without breaking anything.

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On the right-hand side, near the center dash HVAC vents, we've got some little metal clips; it's easy to pop a thin screwdriver under them and work them free.

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Just work your way around the perimeter of the instrument panel cover, dislodging clips and snaps as you find them.

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The clock and hazard-light switch connectors must be disconnected. Honda makes their harness connectors pretty easy to unlatch and separate, in stark contrast to… well, you can see where this is going.

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Here we go, no more wires holding the instrument panel in place.

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About two minutes later, the instrument panel cover is off.

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The cluster attaches to the dash with four easily-accessible screws. The Germans, particularly Mercedes-Benz, prefer to use approximately 13,000 screws for this purpose, preferably in hard-to-reach and/or invisible locations.

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There's not enough slack in the wiring harness to get the cluster all the way out of the dash, so you pull it out far enough to get to the connectors. My Civic's cluster has three electrical connectors. This job is more painful on older cars with cable-driven speedometers (the cable connector is almost always hard to reach, requires 10,000 foot-pounds of torque to remove, is coated with a mixture of grease and dust, and allows zero slack for maneuvering), but fortunately most cars built in recent decades have all-electronic speedometer rigs.

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Disconnect those three connectors on the back of the cluster…

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…and soon you'll have the whole unit out of the car.

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Then it's just a matter of disassembling this cluster and swapping the good unit for the bad one.

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Just reverse the previous steps and install the cluster back into the dash.

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Then you need to reinstall the instrument panel cover, which means persuading all those clips and snaps to line up just as happily as they did when new. Since this is at least the third time this one has been removed and replaced, the chances of breaking something are pretty good.

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Everything went find until I tried to get the part by the right-side vents to pop back into place.

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I got a little too rough and one of the metal clips broke off. No big deal; that side of the panel has a bit of a gap, but it doesn't rattle. I'll grab a couple of clips next time I'm at the junkyard. This whole job took about 30 minutes to perform. We're going to rate it a 1.5 out of 10 on the Jalopnik PITA-O-Meter™.

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Works great! Here's the new speedo operating just fine on a 44° day. No, I didn't take my eyes off the road to take this shot.

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DISCUSSION

brawndopowered-old
BRAWNDO_POWERED

I just want to add that were you to do this on an 80's luxury British car, there would be approximately 10,000,000 screws to undo. No need for special tools like on German cars (I need to spend $130 for a steel rectangle that depresses all the rockers? Fuck you, BMW, this is why you lost the war), but you will need an almost savant-level ability to figure out in what order every panel is removed.

I maintain that BL went under because of the warantee fees involved with replacing things like speedo clusters on XJS'.