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HEADLIGHTS 101 | HISTORY AND RESTORATION

For an overwhelming majority of us, our headlights serve merely as a two-dimensional purpose, which is to improve our field of vision and to project a concentrated form of light onto anything that might be deemed a threat to our driving experience. If you step back and look at your vehicle holistically, your headlights are in many ways the focal point to the front end and can either look aesthetically appealing or downright appalling. Of course, the end result is entirely dependent on how you care for them over time. Bearing that in mind, this article is compartmentalized into two categories, with one covering a brief history of these critical components and the other serving as a comprehensive guide to restoration.


HISTORY


As an antecedent, horseless carriages of the early to mid 19th century relied heavily on candlelit lanterns to guide passengers through nightfall. Naturally, this method of illumination wasn't as successful being that roads and terrain were unpredictable, which then led from a basic candle to the graduation of oil-based lanterns.


With that era coming to a dramatic close, it was time for the world to shift its focus into other forms of light production. The origin of the first headlight design surfaced in the late 1880's with a single canister of pressurized gas known as acetylene. (H2N2), which would then flow through metal or copper tubing into either a glass or brass chamber.


When popped open from the front, each chamber would contain a small orifice by which the gas could flow, which would then become ignited with a simple match, subsequently producing a flame. Although the flame was weak and imperceptible, it was still large enough to project a small beam of light. A video below provides a demonstration of how these lanterns operate on a 1914 Chevrolet Royal Mail Roaster.



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DEMONSTRATION ON THE OPERATION OF ACETYLENE HEADLIGHTS ON A 1914 CHEVROLET ROYAL MAIL ROADSTER


While the schematics of this technology varied slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer (because not many were available to choose from), it's also worth noting that the kerosene lamps shown above were simply a means to embellish the front-end, thus serving only of secondary importance. While acetylene was the clear winner with regard to light projection, it was also resistant to wind and rain. Within the same time period, and with the help of Thomas Edison, the industry gave birth to the first electric headlamp in 1898 by the Columbia Motor Car Company based in Detroit, Michigan.




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1920 COLUMBIA 6 (6-CYLINDER MODEL ENGINE)



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1919 COLUMBIA MOTORS COMPANY FULL-PAGE ADVERTISEMENT MADE FOR THE SATURDAY EVENING POST


With the electric headlamp coming into the forefront of the automobile industry, it surely didn't come without its own obstacles. Much like the genesis of any new invention, filaments were weak, which in turn caused premature failure when exposed to the elements and the unstable vibration during operation. In fact, the first filaments produced were referred to as Tungsten filaments, which are still used in today's conventional incandescent bulbs. Although, much of the world is shifting in the way of LED's and energy-efficient lighting.


However, with the ineffective design and the incongruous ratio between the heavy power supplied against the small output of light generated, manufacturers found them to be cost prohibitive, which also left consumers fumed when it came time for them to be replaced. Within this same era, headlights were offered as an optional upgrade, and in many ways these upgrades were only accessible to the social elite.


While the race for dominance in the world of automotive innovation continued, a small handful of companies in the United States pushed forward with their conceptualized framework of an efficient headlight design including Cadillac, Ford, and the Guide Lamp Company. From 1910-1920, all automotive brands continued experimenting with casing after casing, to ensure that optimal light output could be reached. Well into the next decade, engineers representing companies in both the United States and abroad advanced their technologies by introducing user-friendly configurations inside the cabin, and around 1920 control board switches were ubiquitous across the board. European brands such as Daimler AG, Rolls Royce, Audi Automobilwerke, and other top-tier luxury brands took the lead in the integration of sophisticated lighting controls including low and high-beam projection, dimming features, and anti-glare capabilities. While Europe continued to forge ahead as the undisputed leader in sophisticated automobile technology, the United States observed from afar and concentrated its efforts in producing vehicles for the masses rather than subsidizing other secondary technologies. As the Ford Model T spent its time in the limelight, it subsequently left the rest of the world in a frenzy and resulted in European luxury brands to establish themselves as a higher pedigree of quality versus quantity.



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1925 FORD MODEL T TOURING


As the 1930's and 1940's came around, headlights of any description were standard throughout the globe. While a small departure and perhaps periphery to the world of headlamps, Buick had made its contribution to the world of lighting by developing the first fully-operational turning signal via a lever in 1939. However, original credit to the invention goes to Percy Douglas-Hamilton in 1909.



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VINTAGE 1951 VW BEETLE USING SEMAPHORES (TRAFFICATORS) TO INDICATE A TURNING SIGNAL


As technological advancements continued, so did reflector designs and stronger filaments to increase projection and ease of maintenance for all drivers. With the world ushering-in the sealed-beam headlight in 1939, stronger forms of glass were used, which not only shielded the outer casing from unwanted contamination, but like anything else, it had its disadvantages. First and foremost, sealed-beam headlights were comprised of one piece, which meant that you couldn't simply change the bulb. Secondly, with the housing being made of 100% glass, it was susceptible to shattering if not handled properly. Nonetheless, this was the preferred method of headlight innovation, especially since the world was recovering from WWII and other ongoing conflicts overseas.



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ILLUSTRATION OF A 1938 CHEVROLET COUPE WITH 7-INCH SEALED BEAM HEADLIGHT


By the early 1950's, newer innovations made their way center stage including power steering, power brakes, fully-integrated tail lights, and the introduction of the first halogen headlight. Not only were halogen headlights resistant to high temperatures, but the lifespan of each bulb greatly surpassed that of its predecessor. Due to popular demand in the Western hemisphere, headlights were now considered an automated feature in most vehicles, and from this point forward engineers could hone their skills.


The development of low-beam and high-beam designs continued, and while halogens were somewhat of a new idea, not to mention being exclusive to only luxury brands at the time, the extreme dichotomy of rural versus urban living made the American driving experience more relevant than ever. In response to this explosion in American socioeconomic expansion, halogen bulbs were no longer out of reach for anyone on the road.


While there weren't many notable changes in the way of headlight design or light output, the 1970's gave way to federal regulation, and as such, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) took over with regard to what was compulsory. Thankfully, the HID or (High Intensity Discharge Lamps) muscled their way into the market, and it was during this time that light output exponentially increased and the driving experience went from bright to brighter. The fundamental difference between the long-standing halogen and the HID is that the while both emitted a great deal of heat, HID light would generate 30-40% more light onto the road ahead, not only to enhance the driving experience but was also 20-30% more efficient with regard to its lifespan. Make no mistake, each category still generated a great deal of heat to operate, but HID's were twice as bright and delivered just as much, if not more efficiency.