During the past couple of years, every time I’ve gone to engine introductions for Mercury, Yamaha, Volvo Penta and others, I’ve noticed the lack of traditional-looking gauges on boats. Many vessels that I drove had a mix of gauges and multifunction displays, or only digital screens.
I wondered if we were seeing the end of gauges. And I wasn’t the only one. “We were scared of it,” says Jason Blackburn, vice president of sales and marketing for Faria Beede Instruments in North Stonington, Conn. “Here come the MFDs. Our days are numbered.”
It turns out that there was nothing to be scared of. Did dashes change? Yes, but in most cases, gauges are still used in complementary applications on larger boats.
“I don’t think [MFDs] have affected our analog sales much,” says Phil Rothe, sales manager of Veethree Electronics in Bradenton, Fla. “The vast majority of customers we deal with still want analog gauges on their dashes.”
Veethree might not be a household name, but most in the industry are familiar with the company’s products. It bought the Teleflex line of marine instruments about 10 years ago and still provides analog-style gauges to manufacturers in the pontoon, aluminum and bass-boat markets. For example, Vexus, which builds aluminum bass boats, uses a fishfinder screen in the center of its dashes and installs Veethree instruments on each side. Veethree also produces private-label analog gauges for accessories company Sierra.
The loss of real estate to MFDs and fishfinders on dash panels has been a challenge for gauge manufacturers. Rothe says sales have tripled in the past four years for Veethree’s multifunction gauges. Among the most popular combination gauges are a tachometer with integrated fuel, or a speedometer with an integrated volt meter. Boat manufacturers typically keep the trim gauge separate in case they offer more than one brand of engine, so the trim gauge can be more easily matched to the engine.
Veethree recently came out with a multifunction round digital gauge called the R3. Bennington pontoons showed the instrument at its 2020 model year dealer meeting. The R3 fits in the same size cutout as a tachometer or speedometer, and skippers can swipe across screens to see engine rpm, boat speed, remaining fuel, oil pressure, water temperature and battery voltage. The LCD reportedly works in analog and digital applications. It’s expected to retail for about $400. A customer would need to buy the accompanying GPS antenna for the speedometer.
Faria Beede is seeing a reduction in the number of gauges sold but also an increase in total dollars, according to Blackburn. “You see a lot of boats with MFDs,” he says, “but a lot of customers still want pointers.”
One reason is that boat owners want to make sure analog gauges read the same as an MFD. “If you see what’s happened with the speedometer, no one buys a pitot tube,” Blackburn says of the device that mounts on the transom and connects to a traditional speedometer by a water hose. “They buy a more expensive speedometer that matches the MFD. Almost all of our gauges have analog inputs.”
Like Veethree, Faria Beede also has seen an increase in the use of multifunction gauges that contain as many as four functions. “Where an outboard guy would buy five or six gauges, he now buys two and shares signals with the MFD screen,” Blackburn says. In many cases, if the OEM supplying the gauges provides a transducer for an instrument, the need for one with the MFD is eliminated.
On the aftermarket side, Blackburn says his strongest sales are in box sets of gauges. He also says that when developing new products, sometimes his company has to step back and be realistic. “To put a $2 LED light in a $7 gauge, who’s going boating at night that often?” he asks.
Among the potential downsides to having only a multifunction display is that it could be obsolete in a couple of years. “It’s like my Christmas lights,” Blackburn says. “If one goes out, they all go out.”
For the past two decades, the gauge brand that was synonymous with the go-fast boat world was Livorsi Marine. The company makes controls and trim tabs, but it’s best known for its gauges, which have been standard in boats from Cigarette Racing Team, Fountain Powerboats, Nor-Tech, Marine Technologies Inc., Douglas Marine and others.
Like Faria Beede, Livorsi is reporting an increase in digital sales and a minor decrease in analog offerings, with a similar financial pattern. Analog numbers are down, but digital sales are up. Livorsi didn’t offer specific numbers.
“The good news is that many people are doing a blend of gauges and MFDs,” says Mike Livorsi, president of Livorsi Marine. “They still want to look at easy-to-read pointer positions for items like oil pressure, drive trim, rpm, etc., as boats get faster and faster. MFDs complement these gauges by providing sonar, radar and other navigation functions on the screen.”
He says customers know that digital products offer more information, and Livorsi’s offeringss are compatible with J1939, NMEA 2000 and Mercury SmartCraft.
The company is reporting strong sales from the aftermarket, especially in repowers and restorations. In the near term, Livorsi says there will always be a market for the “gauge look.” One new model from Iconic Marine Group, the Donzi Z38, will have traditional-looking gauges.
Livorsi might as well have been speaking for all gauge companies when he added, “We sold a lot of gauges over the past 30 years, and eventually they will have to be replaced.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.