You've got to love a project with amazing elements of both art and science. Nissan 300ZX enthusiast and talented tinkerer Kelvin Elsner has been working on this custom vaporwave-aesthetic digital gauge cluster for months. It's not in a car yet, but it's an amazing design and computer coding feat for one guy in his home shop.
Elsner and I are in at least one of the same Z31 groups (that's the chassis code for the '80s 300ZX) on Facebook and every once in a while over the last few years, he's dropped an update on his quest to make a unique, modern, digital gauge cluster for his Z car. This week, he dropped a cute video with a great overview of his project which made me realize just how complex this undertaking has been. It even made its way to another car site before I had a chance to write it up (nice grab, Lewin)!
Anyway, Elsner here has taken a digital gauge cluster from a modern Ford, reprogrammed it, designed a super cool physical overlay for it, and set it up to be an incredibly cool retro-futuristic upgrade for his 300ZX. Not only that, but he worked out a security-encoded ignition key and retrofitted a power mirror-tilt control to act as a controller for the screen! Watch how he did it here:
The pacing of this video is more mellow than what usually goes viral on YouTube, which is another reason why I like it so much. I strongly recommend sitting down for an earnest end-to-end watch.
The Z31 famously had an optional digital dash when it was new, but "digital" by '80s standards was more like a calculator display. Elsner's system retains the vaporwave caricature aesthetic leveraging the modern, crisp resolution of a Ford Explorer gauge cluster. The 3D overlay is really what brings it home for me, though.
You can add all the colors and animations you want, but that physical depth is what makes a gauge cluster visually interesting and distinctive. Take note, automakers.
I shot Elsner some messages on Facebook about his project. I'm grateful to say he replied, so I can share some elaborations on what he presented in the video. I'll trim and paraphrase the details he shared.
He's not an automotive engineer by trade, considers this project a hobby, and doesn't currently have any plans for mass production or marketing for sale.
As far as the time investment, the first pictures of the project go far as back as 2019. "Time-wise I'd say it's at least a good few months worth of work but it was spread out over a couple years, I only really had spare time in the evenings and definitely worked on it off and on," Elsner wrote me on Facebook Messenger. And of course, it's not running in a car yet, so we can't quite say the mission is complete.
The part of this project I understand the least is how the display was hacked to show this cool synthwave sunset and move the gauges around. I'll drop Elsner's quote about firmware here wholesale so I don't incorrectly paraphrase:
"The firmware stuff I stumbled on when I was researching how to get the cluster to work—you could get this cluster in Mondeos, but not in the Fusion in North America. It turns out a lot of people were swapping them in, and in the forums I was browsing I found that some folks had some modified software with pictures of their cars added into them.
"I was on a hunt for a while trying to figure out how to do the same, and I eventually came across a post in a Facebook group where some folks were discussing the subject, and someone finally made mention and linked to the software that was able to unpack the firmware graphics.
"This was called PimpMyFord, and then I used Forscan (another program that can be used to adjust module configurations on Ford models) to upload the firmware."
Another question I had after watching the video was—how the heck was this modern Ford gauge cluster going to interpret information from the sensors and senders in an '80s Nissan? The Z31 I used to own had a cable-driven speedometer and a dang miniature phonograph to play the "door is open" warnings. Seems like translating those signals would be a little more involved than a USB to micro-USB adapter. I asked about that and Elsner added more detail:
"On the custom board I made, I have some microcontrollers that read the analog voltages and signals that were originally provided to the stock cluster, and they convert those readings into digital data. This is then used to construct canbus messages that imitate the original Ford ones, which are fed to the Ford cluster through an onboard transceiver ... So as far as the cluster is concerned, it's still connected to an Explorer that just has some weird things to say," he wrote.
Here I am thinking I'm Tony Stark when I hack up a bit of square stock to make a fog light bracket, while this dude is creating a completely bespoke human-machine interface that looks cool enough to be a big-budget movie prop.
With the extinction of combustion engines looming as a near-future possibility, it's easy to be cynical about the future of cars as a hobby. But projects like this get me fired up and optimistic that there's still uncharted territory for creativity to thrive in car customization.
Check out Kelvin Elsner's YouTube channel Blitzen Design Lab—he's clearly up to some really cool stuff and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.