"What’s under that padding"? (Or: flat dashes made easy
Padded dashes in MG's have been a source of
consternation and discussion since they were introduced in 1968. Many
owners still prefer the clean, classic look of the early “flat” dashes
MGB's featured until 1967, when the Feds required padded dashes in all cars
sold in the US.
Owners of ’68-'71 MG's got a double whammy, as their
“Abingdon Pillow” dashes lost the glove box all other MGB's had.
so many other things on the MGB, many owners have seen fit to undo what
the government so thoughtfully required and have gone back to a flat-dash
Before you start tearing out your dash, it would be
wise to figure out exactly what you hope to achieve. If you think you’ll
just swap your pillow dash for an early style, think again. It’s tough
job with a fair amount of custom fabrication involved, as Tony Barnhill outlined on
For most folks the better answer would be stripping
their existing dash, or a dash of a similar year. This still requires some
First off, and this is very important, do not strip a good dash.
Someone wants it, and good original dashes
are getting harder and harder to find. Find a junk one. They’re not hard
to come across, and if the padding is shot they sell cheap.
Now, are you planning on installing the same year
dash or a different year? Do you want plain metal or would you like a
padded header rail? These are the kinds of things that make a relatively
simple project get real complicated real fast.
If the flat-dash candidate is a '68-'71 Abingdon Pillow
type, the conversion is relatively simple. If it’s a '72-'76 type it’s
considerably more complex; and if it’s a '77-on dash only the brave or
foolish should even attempt the conversion.
Before getting started, you’ll need to assess your
skills. You’ll need some basic bondo skills, painting skills, and you
may need to be able to fiberglass, depending on exactly what you’re
trying to do. Also note that there are tons of detail differences between
the different years and styles. If you are switching the year, get a dash
as complete as possible. Turn signals, heater knobs, lighting and tons of
other small things changed over the years, and you’ll need the correct
(the easy ones!)
Remove dash. If you don’t know how, you’re not
ready for this project.
Remove padding from dash. Ideally, you want to remove
the padding as cleanly as possible, as it may be of use to you later.
I’ve had good luck removing the black vinyl cover first, then using an
x-acto knife or other tools to get the foam off. You’ll notice there’s
several different densities of foam. The lightest stuff on top of the dash
will be your friend if you plan on making a header rail. Take care of it
and save it.
With the foam stripped off, you’ll see the cleanup
to be done. There will be remaining foam to take off. You may have rust
damage to be repaired. There may also extra holes in the dash to be filled
and some dashes have seam in the middle to be filled. Use bondo, glazing
putty or fiberglass as needed to smooth the dash, then sand it and prep
for paint. This is where your bodywork skills come into play. If this
stuff is new to you, read up on John Weimer’s bodywork 101 (http://theautoist.com/body_repairs.htm).
Once the dash is all smoothed and ready, paint it and
The ’72-’76 dashes have two big advantages over
the pillow dashes – face level vents and a glove box. These two
advantages make the conversion to a flat dash much
more complex, though.
Generally speaking, the process is the same. The
problem is that there’s quite a bit of extra dense padding and steel
superstructure supporting the vents and glove box. The vent structure is
padding. It can be cut out and the vent bezel can be modified to fit the
new, flat space. The glove box has a steel structure jutting out toward the
passenger. For a flat steel dash you’ll need to grind out the spot welds
and level them, then either have an open glove box or custom make a new glove box
door. The old one won’t work. It follows the contours of the padding.
For '68-'71 owners thinking of upgrading to the '72-'76
dash, note that the '72-'76 dash has more lighting, different turn signal
bezels, different heater knobs, and the pillow-dash cars have no provision
for face-level vents. All of these things will need to be addressed one
way or another.
Just don’t do it.
In addition to all of the '72-'76
problems, the '77-on dashes are missing a big chunk of steel below the
glove box that would have to be reformed from fiberglass or steel to get a
smooth line to the bottom edge of the dash. It’s a lot of work, and just
really not worth it, as the '77-on dash is already pretty good from both
ergonomic and aesthetic standpoints. It can be done, but it’s a LOT of
And don’t even think about putting an earlier dash
in a '77-on car or vice versa unless you have a 100 percent complete dash.
Everything – absolutely everything -- is different. Even the threaded
shafts holding the gauges in are different, having metric threads instead
of standard. Even with a complete dash, the wiring is substantially
different, and the conversion is just probably best left alone.
So by now you’re probably noticing the big problem
with flat-dash conversions: the row of flat bolt tops across the top edge
of the dash give it a distinctly unfinished flavor. A padded header rail
would go a long way toward making the dash look more complete. While not
easy, you can create your own.
Start with the foam you saved when you stripped the
dash. You want the relatively lightweight stuff. This is urethane foam,
which has two properties that work nicely for you – it’s surprisingly
shapeable using a sharp knife or sandpaper, and fiberglass doesn’t
You’ll need to shape that foam into the shape you
want your rail to be. “Great Stuff”, which is just urethane foam in a
can, can be a big help here, too, especially if you want to modify the
shape of the rail in some way, like adding a shroud over the gauges.
Remember though, the simpler the rail, the easier it will be to finish.
A layer of fiberglass or two will help strengthen and
smooth the rail. Make sure you know what you’re doing when you mess with
fiberglass. Read and heed the warnings, as fiberglass is nasty, nasty
stuff. In particular, if you have to sand the stuff make sure you’re
wrapped up like an Eskimo mummy. Microscopic shards of glass embedded in
your skin are no fun.
Most important of all, the rail must be smooth. Any
imperfections whatsoever will show through in the finished piece. Smooth
the foam, fiberglass, smooth that out, and you should be set. Use John’s
bodywork tips again, and don’t hurry it. Once the rail is the shape you
want and smoothed out, cover it in a thin layer of light-density foam or
felt and cover it in vinyl. Stretch the vinyl TIGHT, (you don’t want
wrinkles) and leave the top edge loose.
Use 3M (gorilla snot) glue to glue the rail to
already-painted dash, then wrap the top edge of the vinyl around to the
back of the dash, pull tight again, and glue there (just like the factory
did). This way, the bolts help hold it all in place, nice and snug.
Alternately, you could work out a method of embedding
bolts in the foam/fiberglass composite, drilling through
the dash, and
bolting the header rail on.
you do anything
If you’ve got a good dash, don’t do any of this.
If you’re unsure of yourself, don’t do it.
Even if you are going to do
it, you may want to farm some parts out. Just to give one example, getting
a good smooth covering on the header rail is hard. Handing it off to an
upholstery shop could be a smart move.
Think about what exactly you’re trying to achieve,
and how exactly you want to do it. Just stripping a pillow dash is easy,
assuming the dash itself isn’t rusted. Any further modifications or
swaps get exponentially harder.
But if you think it through, take your time and put
in a little work, you can leave the pillow dash for good.