Monday Funnies: Headlamp Hassles

Over seventeen years’ time, a lot of technical innovation and technological progress can happen. Can, that is, but not necessarily will, and when something comes kicking stalled evolution in the pants, it can be difficult to adapt for those accustomed to the way things were. That’s what happened in 1957-’58.

The four-headlamp system was okeh by every state for ’58, but that didn’t mean everything was ducky. There was disruption and upset in the service sector, as illustrated by these four comic panels from that time, shared with me by a veteran headlamp optical engineer. I reckon he’s North America’s top rock star in that arena, and he’s been at it for decades—started out in the sealed-beam era, and now he’s making LEDs walk, talk, dance, and sing (and light your way along at night).

All 1940- to 1956-model vehicles on American roads had two 7-inch round sealed-beam headlamps, one on each side. They evolved every now and then—the filaments were upgraded in wattage and output a couple of times, an anti-backdazzle filament shield was added, the reflector and lens optics were improved, and aiming pads were added—but they were still 7-inch round sealed beams, one per side.

And then, Suddenly It’s 1960 1957: some cars come with a new system of four 5¾” lamps, two per side, in states that allow it. National vehicle technical regulations were still about a decade in the future; lamps had to be type-approved by every state, and some states weren’t yet onside. Others were, but hadn’t amended their laws in time for the ’57s.

For these to make any sense, you have to understand the very different laws, customs, and culture of the foreign country they’re from; i.e., the past: in most states each vehicle had to pass an annual roadworthiness inspection by state policemen or other inspectors probably wearing neckties. The inspection included checking the headlights for type approval and proper installation and operation and colour and aim (donno ’bout you, but I could sure as hell wish this were still the norm!). As this 1967 article describes, faulty lights were a frequent find.

An element of the inspection that had been routine and uniform for all cars, no longer was. It wasn’t just double the number of lamps; there was other stuff to mind, too: the upper or outboard lamps produced the lower beam, while the lower or inboard lamps produced the upper beam. Fine, but now comes a car with the lamps arranged slantwise: the inboard lamps are also the upper lamps; the outboard lamps are also the lower lamps. Uhhh…

I’d like to imagine the cartoons that might’ve resulted if headlamp format had been de-standardised back then!

Because I’m unable to resist, I’ll throw in one more headlamp-related cartoon clip which—I’m warning you—even its creator Tex Avery (of “Droopy” fame) evidently considered a real stinker. Make sure the sound’s turned up.