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