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GM’s divisions offered stylish tachometer options for its mid-1960s A-body muscle cars

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Photography from the Hemmings archives.

The tachometer’s significance beyond simply serving as an add-on accessory to instill a sporty image and enhance dealer profit was manifested in the muscle-car mania of the 1960s. Drivers were using it in increasing frequency because high performance cars were more likely to be operated in situations where it would be beneficial, such as drag racing and other venues. Though tachometers (and in some cases additional gauges) offered for GM’s A-bodies of this era were also available in various tamer models, for this article we’ll focus on the muscle cars of 1964 to 1967.

1964 GTO.

Pontiac’s stylish optional tach for its 1964 GTO had a relatively small face and it was located in the far right pod of the four on the instrument panel, but at least it was on the dash, unlike some alternative locations chosen by its competitors. That meant less eye movement from the road was required when trying to read it. Pontiac also offered an optional Rally clock that couldn’t be ordered in conjunction with the tach, and a vacuum gauge that could be installed by the dealer for the extra-cost console.

1965 GTO.

The 1965 GTO’s redesigned tach face was larger, its needle sweep was greater, and positioning was improved when it became the third dial from the left, which was more in front of the driver. The tach was included in the new extra-cost Rally gauge package that also provided instruments for oil pressure and coolant temperature in the far right pod, and added a checkered flag and revised design to the speedometer, which was in the second pod from the left. At the far left was the fuel level indicator and battery warning lamp. The gauge faces and dash panel were restyled for 1966, but the four-pod layout and its positive attributes remained.

1966 GTO.

For 1967, the optional Rally gauges carried over with small updates, but the major news was Pontiac’s innovative new hood tach, which could be ordered as a dealer accessory, and later in the model year as a factory-installed option. It exuded a performance image and it was mounted right in the driver’s line of sight. However, some questioned the practicality of placing a delicate electronic instrument outside the cabin where it was exposed to the elements, repeatedly subjected to the shock of closing the hood, and could be stolen more easily.

1967 GTO.

Despite the concerns and the fact that the dash tach was still available throughout the multi-year run, Pontiac’s hood tach became a muscle-car icon that inspired similar units from competing automakers and the aftermarket. Restyled for 1968, the 1967 hood tach was a one-year-only design, making it even more unique.

1964-’65 Malibu SS.

The 1964-’65 Malibu SS’ clock would have to be moved to its own housing atop the dash when the optional tach was specified because the latter would displace it in the round pod directly in front of the driver. The tach was situated between two larger dials that contained the speedometer in the left one, and the fuel indicator and standard-with-the-SS ammeter and oil pressure and coolant temperature gauges in the right.

1966 Chevelle SS 396.

When the dash was redesigned for 1966, the gauges became optional for the SS 396, and were included with the tach (which could also be ordered separately) in the Special Instrumentation package. The new horizontal speedometer, and the fuel indicator and standard clock that flanked it, left no room for the tach, however, so a new unit nicknamed the “knee-knocker” featured a chromed housing and was mounted on the lower dash close to the driver. When the Special Instrumentation was ordered, the fuel indicator was reduced in size and an ammeter was added next to it to the left of the speedometer, and the temperature and oil pressure gauges replaced the dash clock on the right.

The optional console also included a clock, so when it was specified and gauges weren’t, it would take precedence over the dash clock and a block-off plate would be installed in the instrument panel where the latter would normally reside.

1967 Chevelle SS 396.

Chevy carried over the dash layout and extra-cost Special Instrumentation for 1967 with a few revisions, the more notable of which was mounting a smaller tach in its own housing at the far left of the panel on the same level as the speedometer. Since it then covered the left turn signal indicator, another one was included in the lower area of the gauge face earning it the nickname “blinker” tach. The higher positioning required less eye movement from the road to read it than the “knee-knocker” did.

1965-’66 Buick Gran Sport and 1967-’69 Buick GS.

Buick and Oldsmobile made even more of a compromise, as the 1965-’66 Skylark Gran Sport, 1967-’69 GS, and the 1964-’65 4-4-2 all had their optional tach mounted on the console. Each was tastefully styled and could be easily read…by a passenger sitting in the center of the back seat.

1964-’65 4-4-2.

The console location was adequate for a quick check of cruise rpm or periodic glances, but not during a drag race when you needed to know the instant the engine reached its shift point. Oldsmobile’s tach was included with the console option for those years, but Buick’s console and consolette could be ordered with or without the tach. Oldsmobile and Buick also offered a clock at extra-cost, but no ancillary gauges.

1966 Oldsmobile 4-4-2

1966 4-4-2.

Though the 1964-’65 4-4-2’s horizontal speedometer, and the warning lamps and fuel indicator layouts left no convenient space for a tach on the instrument panel, for 1966 Oldsmobile changed to a pair of large round dials to house the speedometer in the left and warning lamps in the right with a rectangular fuel gauge between them. A small optional tach in its own housing could be added to the far left side of the instrument panel. The extra-cost console included a vacuum gauge for 1966.

1967 4-4-2.

Oldsmobile’s optional Rocket Rally Pac for 1967 packed a considerable array of instruments into the right-hand dial including an ammeter, temperature and oil pressure gauges, and a clock, all orbiting a tach in the center. According to Oldsmobile paperwork, it had become available later in the 1966 model year. It was listed as “U21 Instrument Cluster–Rally Pack” (yes, with a “k” in this instance) in the “Oldsmobile Division General Motors Corporation 1966 Factory Installed Optional Equipment” sheets dated March 9, 1966. This option was since reported to have been installed in a very small number of 1966 cars.

Except for Buick’s ubiquitous optional console-mounted tach and its lack of additional ancillary gauge choices, for 1968 the design and placement of tachometers, as well as instrument packages, would continue to evolve with updated offerings in the modernized A-bodies. But that’s a story for another time.

Have you ever owned or driven a performance vehicle that excelled in instrument design? Or do you recall owning or driving a sporty car that was conspicuously lacking in that area? Tell us about your experiences.