Theme: Headlamps – The View Ahead

We’re not still sticking lights on the front of our cars, are we? Time for some fresh thinking perhaps.

2010-RDX-Racedesign-Peugeot-207-Headlight-1024x768
Image: RDX-Racedesign

Modern life isn’t necessarily rubbish, but on balance, it is somewhat disappointing. Not just the gnawing pointlessness of so much of it, but the nagging sense that the brave new world we were promised back in the 70s has decisively failed to materialise. Because laying aside for a moment the jet-scooters, orgasmatrons and robotised dogs we were all expecting to enjoy, there remain aspects of the motor car which really should have met the rendezvous with the eternal.

Take headlamps for example. After more than a hundred years of almost constant automotive development, surely we could have come up with something better by now? Headlamps, despite the increasingly expensive and complex structures that now house them remain basically the same thing they’ve always been.

An incandescent bulb, nestled within a series of reflectors. Of course they’re now termed ‘jewellery’ and form an ever-expanding swathe of the nose section of a given car. They have become just another trinket in the designer’s toolbox of styling tricks, so when I’m told that Jaguar designers were inspired by the TIE Fighters from the Star Wars movies in the design of their latest XF’s headlights, I’m unsure whether to pat them on the shoulder or reach for the sick bag. Anyway, by now, surely headlamps should be tiny – or simply not there at all?

bugatti_royale_roadster_4Certainly, headlamps have been eschewed at various times in the past. Perhaps the best known and most flamboyant example being Armand Esder’s Bugatti Type 41 Royale – possibly the most profligate car ever. Despite being the size of a sizeable chateau, it was a strict two-seater and because the eccentric Dr Esders insisted upon driving only during the hours of daylight, it was never fitted with headlamps. Frankly to my eyes it looks slightly unfinished – (if rather wonderful) – but that is only because my visual education has narrowed me to the hegemony of headlamps. 

Perhaps salvation is finally within our grasp. Engineers at Daimler-Benz’s Untertürkheim skunkworks have apparently come up with something they delightfully refer to as ‘Improved Night’, which admittedly suggests something a little more racy than the prosaic aim of enhanced night vision. What exactly is ‘Improved Night’ anyway? It’s not as though they had found some ability to bend light itself – although being Daimler-Benz, I imagine they could if they really set their minds to it. 

Flippancy aside however, surely the provision of radar assisted guidance should ultimately negate the necessity for anything other than aviation-style running lights as a means of being seen in dimly lit areas. The guidance assistant will determine your path, the sat-nav your route, while sensors will scan the road for pedestrians, cyclists and small furry animals, leaving you more time to work on updating that social media profile.

signature_lumineuse_AVMeanwhile however, we appear to be  stuck with headlamps, at least until such time as we all have improved night assistants of our own – (inset your own amusing quip here…) I suggest a moratorium on excessively florid headlamp design – maybe even a tax on the most overwrought offenders.

Perhaps Citroen’s use of really thin slivers of lamp on their newest models will catch on sufficiently to start a trend, because quite frankly, if I’m to be denied a robot dog, this is the very least they could offer me. 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

4 thoughts on “Theme: Headlamps – The View Ahead”

  1. First, on your last point, I may have misunderstood, but I think the thin sliver on the recent C4 Picasso is a DRL and the chunkier assembly below is the headlamp. Sorry if you knew/ meant that. Second, if you are inferring that it is about time that something came along to make them redundant, I would like to suggest that the windscreen wiper is rendered obsolete first – Lord knows what havoc they make with aerodynamics. Third, I feel technology is such that we could be about to enter a golden era for headlamps – the slimmer the better in my book and LED provides that potential. Finally, I would like to propose those of the Coupe Fiat of the mid 90s as being fine examples and an early attempt to break from 2 to 3D headlamp design.

    What theme next month – hub caps?

  2. The way I understand the current theme in headlamp designs is this: over a three decade period designers had exhausted the variations possible in broadly rectangular forms: bigger and smaller radii, more or less trapezoidal, more or less vertical. They had also experimented with rectangular forms with bits added or taken away (e.g. a rectangle with a corner “removed” or a rectangle with a semi circle hanging off it). Secondarily, the fronts of cars have become less and less obviously planar as the transitions from top to sides and front became ever softer. The fronts of cars have more plan-form and the bonnets are fuller to allow for safer pedestrian-hitting. So, even if you have a rectangular shape it won´t project well onto such complex volumes. Bearing all this in mind as I am sure designers didn´t (they don´t think and they have no self-awareness tests have shown) the only option was to try shapes composed of compounded outlines. The current Peugeot 208 is a good example: you can pick two distinct forms out of the actual lamp´s “silhouette”. The Chevrolet Cruze and current Toyota Avensis try a different tack, having very pointy corners or deformations or accents not unlike serifs on letters. For maths-modelling reasons designers have tended to veer away from triangular forms ending in sharp points (Bezier surfaces are four-sided) but Chevrolet ignored this tradition. Five years ago the Toyota Avensis lamps would not have made it onto so much as a piece of sketch paper but, being desperate like a long term heroin user, they went in search of other, less desirable targets. In fact, most of these lamps are just there because the good shapes have been taken.

  3. bwah – (what names people have nowadays…), as to next month’s theme, I’m as much in the dark as you. All I know is that a week or so ago, our Editor, Mr. Kearne approached me, glass in hand, and muttered; “250 words on headlights, me laddie and lets keep the pretension to manageable levels, shall we?”. So with the breath of sherry lingering in the air, I set to – so if there are inconsistencies and anomalies within the text, I can only apologise.

    Other anachronisms that are overdue to be expunged from car exteriors – of which the windscreen wiper probably remains the prime exponent – I would argue that seat belts should have been taken to Shady Pines by now and as for steering wheels…?

    You point to the Coupe Fiat’s headlight covers and yes this may well have been a watermark in the evolution of stylised headlamp nacelles. Curious too that they should be from none other than the hand of Chris Bangle – there really appears to be no escaping the man, does there?

    My thanks also to Richard for a reasoned (and amusing) précis of contemporary headlight design. I chose the image of the 208 headlamp unit as it is to my eyes, particularly annoying, but I concede that the Avensis would have made for an equally good exponent of the current crop of over-styled mediocrity. Could the mad rush for manufacturers to establish their own ‘DRL signature’ become in fact a precursor to the headlamp’s ultimate demise?

    1. I guess I just got tired of the long-hand and “bwah” is somehow very today (well, it is as today as I get).

      Other headlamps I have admired include: the SM, the GS, the 8 series BMW, the previous gen 5 Series (E60? – yes the Dame Ednas), the new 2 Series Coupe, the RR Phantom and the FIAT Multipla (the most recent version). Thus far I find use of LEDs on the likes of Mercedes and SEATs (could that be the first time and last time these marques appear in the same sentence?) a tragic waste of opportunity – gaudy and bling, when there seems so much opportunity for minimalist elegance.

      I would add C6, but that would be dull of me, and upset our friend Mr Herriot.

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