Automotive History: Hidden Headlights (Part 2) – …Now You Don’t

(first posted 10/26/2011)    Now that I have your attention, here is the 1991 Cizeta V16T, a supercar built briefly by a group of ex-Lamborghini employees, sporting its stacked dual headlights that pop up separately. This did not start a trend. Welcome back to the wonderful weird world of hidden headlights.

In Part 1, we observed their classic-era emergence and disappearance, and followed their reappearance on certain important sports cars, the new personal luxury cars, and finally the big three full-size cars, from 1962 through 1970. Here in Part 2, we’ll see the role of hidden headlights in malaise-era Broughamification, real sports cars, and the front-drive GT coupes of the eighties and nineties. Finally we’ll see them vanish just as quickly as they appeared, and we’ll muse about what hidden headlights tell us about the face of a car, and how we relate to these metal and plastic creatures.

Surprisingly, the full-width grille with headlights hidden, so widely seen by 1970, did not last at all. It was the ultimate end-point of the once universal sixties rectangular grille with lights. The 1973 Dodge Monaco and Chrysler Imperial (shown here, CC here) were the last.

After one theme plays out, sometimes an earlier theme comes back around in a new form. The 1969 Lincoln Mark III appeared with a tall neo-classic grille flanked by hidden headlight body panels. This look was widely adopted across Detroit for luxury and faux-luxury cars for the next twenty malaise-filled years.

Here we see a few of the many examples: the 1975 Mercury Marquis (upper left, with especially baroque headlight panels), ’76 Dodge Royal Monaco (lower left, CC here), ’78 Lincoln Mark V (lower right), and finally the last of its kind, the 1991 Chysler New Yorker that inspired this piece (top right, CC here). Lincoln Marks III through VI carried this style with hidden lights for fifteen years, right thru 1983. In ’84 the Mark VII was the first American car with the composite shape-fitting headlights that put an end to sealed beams and the desire to hide them.

Chrysler created the Dodge Magnum in 1978 to keep NASCAR champ Richard Petty racing Mopars. Its headlights were not-so-hidden behind retractable clear covers. This seemingly pointless exercise allowed a smooth surface on the NASCAR racer, without violating the US prohibition on fixed headlight covers that spoiled the E-Type Jag. Here they are in operation, at about 0:50 in this video.  (Thanks to slow_joe_crow for the tip.)

As Detroit was hiding headlights purely for styling, sports cars everywhere hid their lights for more objective reasons, mainly to cheat the wind. Here is the 1968 Opel GT our CC cohort longrooffan recently captured. This pocket Corvette was sold through Buick dealers over here, and it was a dandy little car. A big level on the center console mechanically rotated both lights sideways, the same direction. Kathunk!

Sleek sports cars like the Lotus and Corvette hid their lights in pop-ups for style as well as aerodynamics. After all, you don’t see headlights on pure racing cars, unless they’re endurance racers, so without headlights a street car can look like it just came off the track. There was another compelling reason for pop-up headlights: height. The 1974 MG-B Mark III’s height was raised one inch to meet the new 24 inch headlight height spec. Pop-ups on a low front end can raise the lights up to legal height, so this became the preferred solution. Here we see (clockwise from upper left) the 1979-85 1st generation Mazda RX-7 (CC here3rd-gen popping here), 1975-81 Triumph TR-7, 1976-88 Porsche 924, and 1975-85 Ferrari 308 GTB.

I have to include my favorite set of pop-up headlights, the 1990-97 Mazda MX-5 Miata (my ’93 shown here).  Each light has an electric motor, and some owners got a little creative with the wiring.

Front-drive GT coupes emerged in the eighties, most of which followed the same hidden headlight look as sports cars.  Here we see an ’88 Honda Prelude, which used pop-ups from 1983-91 (upper left), an ’86 Toyota Celica (like mine), which hid its lights from 1984-92, the 1990-91 Mitsubishi Eclipse (also badge-engineered as Plymouth Laser and Eagle Talon), and an ’88 Ford Probe, which stayed with pop-ups its whole ’88-’97 run. This class of car has nearly vanished (why?), with only the Eclipse still sold in America.

Only one American car kept its hidden headlights long enough to make it a brand signature, the Pontiac Firebird. (Besides Corvette, which is a class by itself.) For twenty years, from 1982 to the end in 2002, Pontiac used pop-ups to give its muscle car a clearly different look than its Camaro sibling.


In its final years the Firebird evolved into a heavily sculpted “custom” shape, with air-breathing nostrils between some big wide shades, like this one I saw at the coast this weekend. This look always reminded me of the Joe Camel cigarette character that was seen everywhere at the time.

What happened to hidden headlights? Why didn’t lights go into hiding everywhere? Real world experience wasn’t always so good in winter, when covers froze shut. Covered headlights usually didn’t get washed, if they did then the covers stayed dirty. As mechanisms failed, owners would just leave them open all the time, usually not a good look. Someone hit by a car with pop-ups open could get eviscerated, so global safety standards eventually put a stop to that. Ultimately headlights evolved into a form that is featured, not hidden.

The tyranny of big round standard headlights (in the US anyway) ended in 1974, when the feds permitted rectangular sealed beams, less than 4 inches high as duals, to help aerodynamics for fuel economy. This new look got popular fast and dominated by 1980. Then Ford got permission to put aerodynamic composite headlights that matched the fender’s shape in the 1984 Lincoln Mark VII (CC here). By the 1990s, clusters of small round halogen lamps in styled reflective settings under aerodynamic clear covers started to appear, and now of course they’re everywhere, no need for pictures. Headlights are highly styled automotive “jewelry”, not hidden any more.

The first were the last. As Lotus in 1962 and Corvette in 1963 opened the hidden headlight era, they stayed in it continuously, and closed it together in 2004, with the final Lotus Esprit and the last C5 Corvette. No headlights have been hidden in any production cars since then.

The 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite is “Bugeyed” because its headlights were never hidden. Originally designed with pop-ups, A-H cut cost to the bone, even a trunk lid was left out. Too bad, it would have been the first postwar pop-up, years ahead of the Lotus.

But what an endearing face it has instead! Would we be as fond of this car without the bug eyes? Once a rider became one with a horse, now of course it’s the car we choose. It becomes the face we present to the outside world, functional or fantasy, a statement of class, aspiration, even values. The driver of this Sprite becomes a light-hearted athlete,  modest, lean and fast, and most of all fun-loving.

Faces are everywhere. We’re all highly developed pattern recognizers, and we see faces in all sorts of things without even knowing it. Naturally, spotting a face quickly and reading its intent is good for survival in the wild. But making a face is not the engineer’s objective in designing a car. Two headlights, up high and far apart, light the road best. An opening for air below. Centered in between, once a logo-bearing radiator cap, now just the logo. All very functional, and just like a face. Two eyes, up high and far apart, see the world best. An opening for air below….functional. Cars and faces, coincidence of function? Or the masks we choose to wear outside? Or both.

If headlights are eyes, why hide them? In a fast car, for aerodynamics, and to bring the lights up high when needed. Maybe also to suggest power or exclusivity. People hide their eyes too, some more often than necessary.

Why does this man wear sunglasses? He’s ready for action, and without seeing his eyes, you can’t tell what he’ll do next. This GTO says, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Why does this woman wear sunglasses? Mystery, and a statement of class. Her eyes will never meet yours, you’re not a part of her world. This Lincoln Mark III stays above it all on the road.

Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge is so high-tech, he’s moved beyond eyes. He can see colors you never knew existed. This Dodge Charger will launch you into outer space and take you to alien worlds. Maybe a little too alien to live with every day here on Earth.

The Cadillac Ciel concept car has gotten great attention at this year’s shows. Its LED headlights are hidden, can you tell where? Light-emitting diodes have grown powerful and affordable enough to be commonly used in taillights, and LED headlights have started to appear. As with taillights, arrays of small LEDs with integrated lenses can be placed freely on any surface. In the Ciel they’re lined up along the fender ridges. Sometimes the best way to hide something is to put it in plain sight.

Hidden Headlights: Part 1