Illuminating the way through the night in our motorized tin boxes has always been a challenge in terms of design and safety, but thanks to a few bright minds (pun intended) headlamps slowly overtook the dark. Mind you, it took time – and though innovative, a lot of the proposed ideas for artificial lights didn’t really work. But hey, we can’t say they didn’t try – and thanks to their persistence, we have the headlight as we know it today.
A look at lighting through the years
1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham
1973 Citroën SM
Jeep YJ Wrangler
1986 Mercury Sable
BMW Corona Rings
Audi LED Lights
BMW Pedestrian Lights
- 1960 Continental
- Acetylene Headlamps
- 1912 Cadillac
- 1924 Hispano-Suiza
- 1914 Pierce-Arrow
- 1936 Cord
- 1938 Hupmobile
- 1939 Plymouth
- 1948 Tucker
- 1954 Corvette
- 1957 Cadillac...
- 1961 DeSoto
- 1961 Imperial
- 1973 Citroën SM
- Jeep YJ Wrangler
- 1986 Mercury Sable
- BMW Corona Rings
- Audi LED Lights
- Nissan Juke
- BMW Pedestrian...
A headlight’s main functions are obvious: to illuminate the road for the driver, and to warn others that there’s a vehicle ahead. But they can also be part of a car’s unique design, telling the world exactly what type of vehicle they’re on. We’ve collected headlights that define their vehicles, set new trends, point the way to where technology is going … or in some cases, are just plain weird.
The earliest vehicles were horses, but since they don’t come with batteries, riders and wagon drivers used lanterns after dark. The earliest cars did, too, with many powered by oil, kerosene, or acetylene. These “carbide” acetylene lamps were fed from tanks, usually mounted on the car’s running board, containing calcium carbide rocks. When the lamps were needed, water was dripped onto the rocks to produce the gas, which was then ignited inside the headlamp.
Electric cars were the first to use battery-operated lights, possibly in the late 1800s, but they were fragile and their filaments often broke when the car went over bumps. Corning Glass was among the first to make headlights with a lens that directed the bulb’s light down and ahead to illuminate the road. In 1912, Cadillac was the first car to use a fully-integrated generator-battery electric system, which included the ignition, headlights and taillights, and the company’s new engine self-starter.
As headlights progressed, every company was trying to make lights that were brighter than before. William G. Wood thought he had the secret, and his 1928 design used a narrow, horizontal lens. The Woodlite, as he called it, had a silver-plated liner inside that was supposed to bounce the bulb’s light to make it brighter.
It didn’t, and the Woodlite actually did a pretty poor job of illuminating the road, but the lamps looked so great that people wanted them anyway. They were primarily sold as aftermarket accessories, although they were standard equipment on a few high-end models, including the front-wheel-drive Ruxton, built in New York (that’s a 1930 version above), and the 1930 Jordan Speedway. They were primarily added to high-end models such as Cords, Duesenbergs and DuPonts, and they’re a rare and expensive find for collectors today.
Early headlights were separate units, and they had to be mounted to the car … but exactly how to do that could be an issue. Some of the solutions included mounting them on stanchions bolted to the fenders, attaching them to the sides of the hood, or as on this Barcelona-built Hispano-Suiza, on light bars. Most bar-mounted headlights were fixed in place, but on a few high-end models, they swivelled when the wheels were turned – an early version of today’s “active” headlights.
Built in Buffalo, New York, the Pierce-Arrow was a luxury brand considered a step up from Cadillac or Lincoln. The brand’s unmistakable styling cue was its headlight design: for 1914, the company offered headlights that were molded into the fenders. The patented lights improved illumination because they were “placed considerably further apart and at a higher elevation,” according to their designer. Conventional headlights on brackets were available as an option until 1933 – Pierce-Arrow built cars until 1938 – but the vast majority of buyers chose the fender-mounted version.
Hideaway headlights became popular in the 1980s (at a time when North American quality and underhood electric motors really weren’t made for each other), but they weren’t a new idea. The first for a U.S. production model was on the Indiana-built 1936 Cord. Unlike with more modern pop-up lights, the driver had to manually crank them open from inside the car. The front-wheel-drive Cord was expensive and difficult to build, and the model only lasted two years. Mainstream companies Hupmobile and Graham took the Cord dies and built their own ill-fated versions, but with regular headlights.
Although it initially built more conventional models, Detroit-based Hupmobile introduced its appropriately-named Aerodynamic models in 1934. The design was by Raymond Loewy, better known for his work with Studebaker. Tested in a wind tunnel, the Aerodynamic tucked its headlights into handsome fairings on the side of the hood to cut down on resistance.
(Sharp-eyed readers may note the 1939 license tag, although the car was presented as a 1938 model. Hupmobile was in a downward financial spiral at the end of the 1930s, with production starting and stopping several times, and it’s not always clear what was built when.)
“One year only” is always a double-edged sword. It makes for a cool car, but it can also be a nightmare for restorers chasing a limited number of parts. 1938 Plymouth: round headlights. 1939: square ones. 1940: back to round ones, and there it stayed. Put one of these square lenses out on your table at an automotive swap meet, and you’re guaranteed a quick sale.
The Tucker was an innovative model that never got off the ground, with 51 cars built before the company folded. Preston Tucker originally wanted the fenders to turn with the wheels, but he settled for a central “Cyclops” headlight that did. The design was illegal in several states, since the law only allowed for two headlights. Tucker planned to include a cover for the middle light on cars sold in these states.
Initially, Corvette’s designers wanted deep-set headlights with glass over top, but such covers weren’t legal. The production cars, introduced for 1953, used metal mesh stone guards, similar to those used on race cars – and which looked better than glass anyway. The ‘Vette went to standard flush-mounted headlights in 1956.
Headlight laws were still a pain for automakers, which had been lobbying since 1956 to get the standards upgraded from two lights only. In 1957, a few models came out with quad lights, including the ultra-luxurious Eldorado Brougham (regular Cadillac models still used one light on each side). Some manufacturers offered two headlight treatments, selling quads in states that allowed them, and substituting a single-light panel for others. The law was changed for 1958, and almost all cars had duals that year. The outer lamps were low/high lights. If you hit the high beams, the outer lamps became brighter, and the inner lights came on.
Of course, just because you could use four headlights, it didn’t necessarily mean you were going to use them wisely. Two manufacturers tried “canted” headlights. Lincoln stacked its headlights one atop the other for 1957, and then sloped them on an angle for 1958. It returned to normal side-by-side lights for 1961, the same year the Chrysler Corporation thought it was a good idea, burdening its DeSoto and Chrysler models with them. Perhaps that’s why the 1961 Dodge, with its normal headlights, outsold a combined DeSoto and Chrysler by almost three to one.
Chrysler was also playing with headlights at its luxury Imperial division. Having added four headlights in 1957, Chrysler turned them into freestanding units mounted on pods for 1961. As if washing and drying a car wasn’t tough enough, try reaching in behind those lamps … the taillights were also contained in their own little pods, tucked under the tailfins that first year, and mounted on top of them for 1962. The pod headlamps were gone on the 1964 models.
Citroën always had cool headlights, but the performance SM model pushed that even further. There were six headlights, protected by a cover, and the inboard lights turned with the wheels. Well, they did in Europe and Canada, anyway. Citroën also ran afoul of U.S. headlight laws, and so cars sold there had two fixed round headlamps, protected by deep chrome-rimmed dividers that formed a “grille” on either side of the license plate. The lamp cover was also illegal, and so U.S. cars only had a cover over the plate. Needless to say, Canadian-spec cars are popular today with American collectors.
Round-versus-square became an issue for Jeep when it introduced the YJ Wrangler for 1987, replacing the round-light CJ. It wasn’t always a popular decision. The Jeep traced its lineage right back to the stout little soldiers that helped win the war, and none of them had square lights! Several companies offered conversion kits, and some CJ owners glued on bumper stickers proudly proclaiming that “Real Jeeps have round headlights.” The square lamps lasted until the introduction of the replacement 1997 TJ, and the lights have been round ever since.
The new-for-1986 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable siblings sported solid faces, rather than open grilles. But while the Taurus had a metallic panel between its headlights, punctuated with the blue oval logo, the Sable had a clear plastic cover between its lamps. It was called a “light bar,” but it didn’t actually light up until 1989, when the low-wattage bulbs behind it acted as running lights.
It’s hard to mistake a BMW, and that’s the idea behind the trademarked “corona rings,” which use LED bulbs around the xenon headlamps. They double as daytime running lights when the headlights aren’t on. The rings, which were also called “angel eyes,” first appeared on the 5 Series in 2001, and then were added to the 7 Series.
Audi introduced the first production all-LED headlights on the R8 sports car. They use little energy to produce a lot of very white, very bright light, but they’re expensive, especially since their diodes need cooling fans. Audi also uses LED technology for its signature running lights, which outline the shape of the headlight, as shown here on the A7. Alas, the aftermarket picked up on it quickly, and it’s common to see similar LED designs stuck into clapped-out cars that aren’t worth as much as the light kits are.
Okay, so the Nissan Juke is an … umm … interesting design. So much so that, at first glance, it’s not always clear exactly which lights are which. Here’s the scoop: the lights atop the fender, which look like headlights, are actually the running lights and turn signals. The big round lights in the middle, which look like fog lights, are actually the headlights. The lights on the bottom … okay, so you probably figured out they were really the fog lights. But we’re guessing you weren’t sure about the other two.
As more safety technologies are introduced, automakers are looking at ways to integrate them with existing systems. BMW’s Night Vision camera can already detect pedestrians in front of the vehicle. Once it does, the new Dynamic Light Spot system will automatically beam a headlight on them, making them more visible to the driver. It’s a long way from dripping water on rocks to light your car, but it’s certainly not the last we’ll hear of headlight technology.