Eyes Wide Shut

A brief, incomplete and highly subjective history of pop-up and hidden headlamps.

Where it all started: 1936 Cord 810. Image: classicandsportscar.com

Ever since the Cord 810 caused a sensation at the New York Motor Show in November 1935 with its staggeringly sleek and futuristic looks, pop-up headlamps have been subliminally associated with high performance, aerodynamic efficiency(1) and technical sophistication. It matters not that many of the cars on which they subsequently featured, for example the 1985 Honda Accord and 1989 Mazda 323F, were otherwise pretty humdrum devices.

Returning to the Cord, its pop-up headlamps were modified landing lights taken from a Stinson light airplane. They had to be individually hand-cranked up or down using levers under the dashboard, which rather undermined the veneer of sophistication they lent the car. When retracted, they combined with the absence of a traditional upright grille to give the 810 a unique look. In dark colours, its appearance was rather menacing, and may well have provided the inspiration for the first Batmobile, which appeared in DC’s Batman comic in 1941.

General Motors’ 1938 Buick Y-Job, claimed to be the world’s first concept car, featured powered headlamps that didn’t pop up, but moved forward when the shutters that normally covered them were retracted. Such concealed headlamps, hidden behind retracting or rotating panels, had little or no meaningful aerodynamic benefit, but would go on to feature in many more US concept and production cars, notably the sublime 1965 Buick Riviera and 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado.

The first car to feature (vacuum) powered pop-up headlamps was the 1962 Lotus Elan, Colin Chapman’s miniature masterpiece. A year later, the second-generation Chevrolet Corvette C2 would follow suit and be the first car to feature dual pop-up headlamps.

Add lightness…or not. Images: classiccarsforsale.co.uk and classicdriver.com

One practical and regulatory hurdle pop-up headlamps overcame was the minimum height requirements for the light above the road surface. If headlamps are positioned too low, then it is difficult to make them dip effectively so as not to dazzle oncoming drivers while still maintaining adequate forward illumination. Hence, pop-up headlamps became commonplace on low-slung sports and supercars from the late 1960s onwards.

The 1966 Lamborghini Miura would introduce another variation on the theme, headlamps that were not concealed, but were reclined to near horizontal in the front wings until they were required, when they would rotate forwards to the required position. A decade later, Porsche would feature the same style of headlamp on its ground-breaking 928 model. When raised, the 928’s headlamps would reveal their smoothly conical housings, which looked attractive and aerodynamic. Not all manufacturers were as scrupulous as Porsche about the appearance of the headlamps in their raised position, however.

Eyes up! Images: waltgracevintage.com and carcales.com.au

In 1975, Triumph adopted pop-up headlamps for its new wedge-shaped TR7 sports car. At first glance, one might expect the flaps covering the headlamps simply to hinge at their trailing edge, but Triumph went for a different arrangement. The lamps were mounted in a box-like enclosure that elevated itself almost vertically and looked decidedly odd in the raised position.

Purist vs Pragmatist. Images: autoevolution.com and classiccargarage.com

One of the weirder applications of pop-up headlamps (of a sort) was on the 1976 Lancia Scorpion, the US market version of the Montecarlo. At that time, US regulations dictated that standardised sealed-beam headlamps had to be used(2). Four 5 ¾” circular units would have fitted neatly in place of the customised originals, but the nose of the car was too low for these to comply with minimum headlamp height regulations.

The rather makeshift solution was to install two 7” circular units in pods that, when not in use, were angled sharply downwards towards the road so that the tops of the pods sat flush with the car’s rubberised nose cone. When the lights were switched on, these pods rotated so that the headlamps rose up to face forwards. Effective, but not pretty: when the lights were off, they gave the car a rather morose and downcast appearance.

Cheer up, for goodness sake! Image: jalopnik.com

Aston Martin incorporated twin rectangular pop-up headlamps on its 1976 Lagonda saloon, designed by William Towns. They were replaced in 1987 by three fixed rectangular lamps positioned either side of the grille, a change that was not at all detrimental to the car’s appearance. Towns designed a different variation on the hidden headlamp theme for his 1980 Aston Martin Bulldog supercar, a drop-down panel that revealed five(!) rectangular headlights mounted centrally in the bonnet ahead of the front bulkhead. Only one prototype Bulldog was ever made, sadly.

Going to Towns with geometry. Images: telegraph.co.uk and techzle.com

Even normally sensible Volvo was seduced by the appeal of pop-up headlamps and specified these for its 1986 480ES, a part-coupé, part-estate model that was also Volvo’s first foray into front-wheel-drive. The 480ES was not the first Swedish car to feature pop-up headlamps, however. That honour goes to the 1970 Saab Sonett III coupé.

Such was the fashion for pop-up headlamps in the early to mid-1980s that they appeared on all manner of cars, such as the distinctly unsporting Honda and Mazda models mentioned in the opening paragraph, and numerous others I cannot be bothered to recall.

Mad! Cizeta V16. Image: carthrottle.com

One particularly clever and possibly unique variation on the hidden headlamp theme was featured on the Panther Solo 2, unveiled in prototype form in late 1987. Here the headlamp cowls rotated on a longitudinal axis to conceal or reveal the headlamps. Unfortunately, the difficulties involved in engineering these cowls (and many other aspects of the Solo 2’s complex design) to operate reliably and consistently were beyond Panther’s capabilities, so the car never saw series production.

When Mazda decided to build the first-generation MX-5, a car very much in the spirit of the Lotus Elan, it was essential that it featured pop-up headlamps like the Elan. Being a Mazda (and, emphatically, not a Lotus) the MX-5’s pop-up headlamps worked faultlessly, unlike many more exotic cars that could often be seen in a Cyclops-like state, with their headlamps in opposing positions.

Contrary to what some believe, pop-up headlamps have never been explicitly outlawed by regulations. However, increasingly onerous pedestrian impact protection legislation has made it more difficult and expensive to engineer such light units so that they do not present an additional hazard when in the upright position in an accident.

Consequently, car designers in the late 1980’s began moving away from them. They were facilitated in doing so by a 1983 change in US regulations that allowed the use of customised model-specific headlamp units(3) rather than the standardised circular or rectangular sealed-beam items previously stipulated. Consequently, the second-generation Mazda MX-5 featured rather nondescript ovoid fixed headlamps in place of the pop-up originals, somewhat to the detriment of its formerly highly attractive appearance(4).

Losing a little in translation. Images: autocar.co.uk and stonecoldclassics.com

The final variation on the pop-up headlamp theme featured on the 1991 Cizeta V16 hypercar. This incorporated two pairs of pop-up rectangular headlamps, stacked vertically behind each other on the bonnet. Who cared that the car had a 6.0-litre V16 engine when you had four pop-up headlamps to play with!

In every revolution, there are casualties and, in the move away from pop-up headlamps, two of the more notable victims were the Ferrari Testarossa and Honda NSX, both of which received really ham-fisted facelifts in 1994 and 2002 respectively. The substitution of fixed headlamps in place of their previous pop-up units comprehensively ruined their appearance(5). By 2005 it was pretty much all over for the pop-up headlamp. Production of the Lotus Esprit, Europe’s last car to feature them, had ended in 2004 and the C6 Chevrolet Corvette abandoned a 43-year tradition by switching to fixed projector-style headlamps(6) beneath a polycarbonate fairing.

What were they thinking? Images: topgear.com

The appeal of pop-up headlamps is easy to explain. Humans naturally tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, and headlamps are a car’s eyes. Enabling these eyes to open and shut, or even blink, merely heightens that sensation. I mourn the demise of such headlamps and, given the current fashion for SUVs with their cliff-like front ends, I cannot see them coming back into fashion anytime soon, which is rather a shame.

Author’s note: As stated in the tagline, this is a brief, incomplete and highly subjective history, so apologies if I’ve overlooked a pop-up favourite of yours. If so, please feel free to add it in the comments section below.

(1) When closed, of course.

(2) So that replacement units could readily be bought at every gas station and easily fitted without the use of tools.

(3) The increasing use of tough polycarbonate instead of glass for headlamp lenses meant that cracked or broken headlamps became a rarity, so easy access to replacements was no longer deemed necessary.

(4) In fairness, the loss of the original’s taut horizontal feature line (and delightful chrome door handles) in favour of a then more fashionable ‘organic’ shape was as much to blame as the headlamps for the new model’s comparatively rather flaccid appearance.

(5) Although, in the case of the Testarossa, at least as much damage was done to the appearance of the final F512 M version by a new integrated front bumper and valance, which contained a hopelessly incongruous ovoid grille.

(6) These were rather small and, while not as ruinous to its appearance as similar changes to the Testarossa and NSX, they were no improvement, giving the C6 a rather piggy-eyed appearance. The 2014 C7 Corvette was much better resolved in this regard.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

33 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Shut”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. What a lovely theme you picked this morning.

    Of course the Cord 820/812 had to be here. I was also happy to see the Panther Solo. I was always intrigued by its headlights. One car I miss here is the Opel GT. Lovely headlights, both concealed and with eyes wide open.

    I’ve heard it said that one thing some MX5 owners do is make one pop-up headlight open and close, so you can wink as you encounter another MX5. Lovely thought, but not sure if that is legal.

  2. Hi Daniel

    I think that on the Opel GT, the headlamps also rotated on the longitudinal axis.
    At least they did on my Solido 1/43 model of it 🙂

  3. The drop down headlights of the ‘67 Riviera aren’t bad either. The earlier Rivieras aren’t bad either.

  4. As Freerk says, great topic, Daniel! How curious that Mr. “Add lightness” would be the one to introduce some otherwise unnecessary electric motors to a sports car. Presumably the calculation was that the aerodynamic benefit would outweigh the weight gain! I often wonder did drivers of cars thus equipped experience increased buffeting at the front end when the lights were raised.
    I admit I can never contemplate popup headlamps without an eighties TV ad for Toyota coming into my head. A collection of the cars were lined up, singing their own praises, as it were, to a Gershwin tune. Cue the Celica, “I’ve got popups”, as the headlamps flashed… Indeed, who could ask for anything more?

  5. Hello Daniel
    Very interesting piece again. Pop-up lights certainly looked sleek when retracted but most of them looked rather awkward when popped-up.
    Nick

  6. Good morning all and thanks for your contributions and videos. I hadn’t realised that the Opel GT also flipped longitudinally, like the Solo’s. I’m unconvinced by the Montreal’s arrangement. The visor looks a bit clumsy when open.

    Regarding the 1981 Celica/Supra, it actually featured three different pop-up arrangements over its lifespan. Here’s the pre-facelift Celica, with its ‘reclining’ headlamps:

    The Supra, with conventional pop-up headlamps:

    And the facelifted Celica:

    1. It’s an alarming thought to see what were very familiar Toyotas (well, two familiar and the Supra less so) and realise that it must be at least a decade and worse maybe two since I’ve seen any of them on the road.

  7. I’ve always thought the Porsche 928 looks remarkably frog-like when its headlights are in the raised position.

    And yet the old Austin Healey ‘Frog-Eye’ Sprite looks like it ought to have pop-up lights, but actually doesn’t.

    1. Those Frog-eye lights – the were a late stage rethink as explained in Donald Healey’s 1989 biography:

      “Although everybody had a good laugh at the ‘Bug-eye’ when it first appeared (or the Frog –eye as it was called in Britain), it had not been Gerry (Coker)’s idea to put the headlamps where they were. We had panelled them flat into the bonnet, with a simple mechanical actuator to raise them; this was perfectly satisfactory, and would have added no more than £1 to the price of each car. However Sir Leonard (Lord) said he didn’t want the added complication and expense, and told us to fit ordinary lamps. We were left with the pressings, and had no choice but to fit the lamps on top.”

      That man Len Lord goes and spoils it all yet again…

    2. I always liked the headlights on the 928. Very pragmatic. On the one hand a good solution for the aerodynamics and on the other hand a practical solution to always have clean headlight lenses, because the headlights were also cleaned every time the car was cleaned.
      And even if you criticize the shape of the headlights when they are extended, when they are on use it is night and you don’t see the “disturbing shape” anyway.

      (Well, nowadays people also drive during the day in bright sunshine with the headlights on – supposedly because of safety – which I have never understood. But I also don’t understand a lot of newfangled posturing, because if it were about safety, there would be – first step – also the possibility when buying a car not to click on one of the twenty-five shades of black for the exterior color; thus, safety and beauty would be connected with one click. But what do I know…)

  8. Great potted history of pop up lights Daniel.

    The Elan’s lights were powered by engine vacuum, (the pop up part, not the illumination). As I recall the front crossmember of the chassis was the vacuum reservoir, rusty chassis = no headlamps.

    I will not be tempted to modify my MX5 to wink, although many have, a friendly wave will suffice. It still makes me smile when it gets dark and I engage the pop ups to pop up, simple things…..

    1. Good morning Neil. Chapman’s solution for the Elan’s vacuum reservoir sounds ingenious and very efficient, but probably too clever by half. I used to own an Mx-5 Mk1, my only car with pop-up headlamps, and I really enjoyed watching them operate -always perfectly, of course! Best of luck with your MX-5.

  9. Daniel, mine work perfectly too, although a previous MX5 used to raise its lights when driving through large puddles.
    I owned a Porsche 924 a while back, the lights were linked together with a sturdy crossbar, no chance of any single eye action there.
    A friend had a Scimitar SS1, the wiring for the lights caused them to perform a small dance when turned on. One light was slower lifting than the other, when the quicker of the pair reached its fully open position the ‘not yet switched’ microswitch on the slower one told the quicker one that the lights were down resulting in the quicker one retracting before immediately opening again. Fluttering eyelids!

  10. When I was a kid, pop-up headlamps were my favourite thing ever. Thank you for this lovely reminder of such a simple pleasure.

    That Cord is a remarkable thing. I can imagine the reaction to it in the 30s might have been somewhat akin to seeing the DS for the first time in the 50s; as if the future had suddenly arrived in the present.

  11. The Bulldog reminded me of this earlier variation on the pop-up theme, the 1967 Delta 1 concept:

    The Bulldog turned the idea upside-down.

    The NSU 1000 TT-based Delta 1 was sponsored by Metzeler as a show car for the 1967 Frankfurt IAA, taking its name from the Delta Design partnership formed earlier that year. The collective comprised Michael Conrad and Henner Werner, both former members of Autonova with Pio Manzù, with Detlef Unger as the third member of the team.

    1. Hi Robertas. The Delta 1 is really rather pretty (with the headlights down) and ahead of its time, although impractical with no soft-top. The integrated front bumper reminds me of the later Porsche 928 and BMW 8 Series.

  12. The Delta’s proportions are somewhat let down by that windscreen, from a Glas GT convertible.

    The most advanced element of the design is not visible: a lightweight monocoque body structure using plastics in a sandwich construction with outer and inner skins and a rigid foam core between. The idea is based on Henner Werner’s thesis work while at the Hochschule für Gestaltung HfG in Ulm.

    The idea as demonstrated in the Delta 1 never took off, but a variation of the principle is now used for just about all car bumpers and ‘nosecones’.

  13. I don’t mind the TR7 solution – it suits the cars shape better than the rounded lights on the (rounded) 928. The Fiat X1/9, visually similar to the TR7, also featured pop-ups that were somewhat squared-off, although they pivoted into position.

    1. Hi Richard. Here’s the Fiat X1/9 With its headlights raised:

      I think it’s rather neater than the TR7 (but perhaps the Triumph’s pods are highly aerodynamic!)

    2. Interview with the owner, cued up to the topic-appropriate moment.

    3. Thanks Daniel, that’s neater than the TR7’s ‘reverse rake’ headlamps. I think both suit the respective cars better than more rounded forms.

    4. What a shame the Fury never made production. It really is rather nice, and a great update on the Spitfire.

  14. Wonderful article. This topic appeals to the small boy in my character that still finds machine guns hidden behind indicators and rotating number plates, cool.

    I think it’s been posted here before, but how about this little lot:

    And an honourable mention to a car from my fantasy garage, the ‘42 De Soto. That was the only year it had ‘Airfoil’ lights. De Soto were keen on what I consider to be attractive details in the right context, such as illuminated hood mascots, and as the link below shows, they didn’t spare the horses on interior detailing, either.

    https://www.hemmings.com/stories/article/airfoil-amazement-1942-de-soto-de-luxe-sedan

    1. Thanks for sharing the video, Charles.

      The De Soto looks amazing, and definitely deserves an honourable mention!

  15. While there are some cars that can make pop-up headlamps work such as the Lotus Elan and mk1 Mazda MX-5, actually prefer cars with fixed headlamps such as the mk2 Mazda MX-5 and the 26R (also known as “Chinese Eye” or “Comp Elan”) headlamp conversion of the original Lotus Elan.

    https://www.tonythompsonracing.co.uk/elan-26r/

  16. Great article DTW… none of my pop-up cars X1/9, 924. 944 and MR2 AW11 had any one-eye problems.

    Tuned versions of the MR2 and MX-5 often use pop-ups with two or more small diameter lights and can look quite mean if chosen carefully.
    Another fun pop-up fact: the Lancia Stratos uses the same lights as the X1/9 (door handles too)

    Cheers
    Andrew

    1. Hi Andrew. Here’s a (US) photo of a modified MX-5. It looks like the twin headlamps would benefit from some sort of enclosures under the lids:

      There are other conversions with single rectangular headlamps, which seems a bit pointless.

      I wasn’t aware of the X 1/9 and Stratos parts-sharing, so thanks for the information. 🙂

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