Automotive History: Hidden Headlights (Part 1) – Now You See Them….

(first posted 10/21/2011)

All cars have headlights. They’re a basic part of our image of a car, the eyes on its face. At night they need to be up high and far apart to light the road for the driver, and light the car for everyone else. But during the daytime, they’re just blocking the airflow and taking up space. Style the front end however you like, but you must include those lights. What if they were hidden, and only came out at night? Designers answered this question in an amazing number of ways over seven decades. But now hidden headlights are gone, never to return.

Gordon Buehrig and his team of stylists designed the first hidden headlights in 1935, for the radical front-drive Cord Model 810. Modified Stinson landing lights disappeared into the fenders with dashboard hand cranks. Without a pair of big lamps taking up the space between radiator and fenders, the grille could extend around the sides of the Cord’s “coffin nose”. Just clean shapes of nose and fenders, a sleeker look than anything ever seen on the street. It was the hit of the New York Auto Show (movie here, lights at 0:35).

Then Harley Earl hid the lights in his 1938 Buick “Y-Job”, Detroit’s first concept car. Finally, for its brief pre-war run, the ’42 DeSoto featured new “Airfoil” lights. “Out of Sight Except at Night!” First hidden headlights in a mass-market car.

Close inspection of a video shows the headlights remained fixed, with rotating covers. Certainly easier to keep the lights aligned when they don’t move. Headlight covers have practically no effect on the airflow, they’re mechanical devices with no functional effect, just appearance. Strange isn’t it? Imagine if ’59 cars had power fins.

After the war the ’46 DeSoto had the same front end, but with conventional sealed beams where the lights were hiding before the war. Why did Chrysler drop them? They could have been DeSoto’s style trademark. Imagine a Forward Look DeSoto front end with nothing but chrome grille from hood to bumper.

The ’42 DeSoto marks the end of the “classic era” of hidden headlights. For all the wild excess of gizmos and gadgets in fifties American cars, every single one exposed its lights. Going to duals was the big story in late-fifties headlights. No hidden headlights popped up in any 1950’s production car, anywhere in the world, so far as I can find.

Then came the British Invasion of style and sports cars. In 1962 Lotus hid its lights to cheat the wind and preserve the racing lines of its fenders. Like the Cord, these are pop-ups. Perfect match of form and function. When Emma Peel brought her Elan to American TV screens, it made a big impression (not just on teenage guys like me).

Larry Shinoda’s sensational Sting Ray Corvette followed in ’63. Its headlights rotate up. With that, headlights started going into hiding all over the place, especially at style-leader GM.

For 1965, Bill Mitchell moved his Riviera’s dual headlights out of the main grille, to vertical stacks behind its LaSalle-inspired fender grilles, which opened with amazing eyelid action. Siblings Olds Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado followed in ’66 and ’67, joined by the Pontiac Grand Prix and Ford Thunderbird. Hidden headlights defined the new class of personal luxury cars.  In the ’68 Toronado the whole grille rotated up!

Muscle cars put their shades on too: Dodge Charger in ’66, Chevy Camaro and Mercury Cougar in ’67 and that rubber-nosed ’68 GTO we saw last month. Charger lights rotated up from below, Cougar had covers going up, and Camaro used a clever sideways sliding panel.

These years also saw the launch of the Brougham epoch. Ordinary “full-size” cars inevitably adopted the mark of personal luxury and performance: hidden headlights. The sixties-standard fender-to-fender rectangular grille with dual headlights at each end made LTD-eification easy. Just design a full-width grille, cut some flaps to hide the headlights, and you’ve got the Eldorado look.

Check out these ’68 Fords, the name-debased Galaxie 500, and its broughamification, the LTD. Ford used vacuum-operated flat covers, going up. If there was a ’68 Ford model kit, I’ll bet it had two grilles to choose from, just like on the assembly line.

It’s said on the web that certain early FoMoCo headlights had a persistent problem with the vacuum system. The issue is that headlights must come on quickly when needed, and opening the covers with engine vacuum was too slow. So Ford engineered an opposite solution (the technical term is ‘kludge’). A vacuum reservoir held the covers closed, against a spring that quickly opened them on command. While parked, the stored vacuum held the covers closed. Until it started to leak. Then the covers would slowly start opening partway, giving the car that special ‘half-asleep’ look. On used car lots, they had to be started every night to recharge the vacuum and hold the covers closed all day. Reliable electric drives eventually replaced all this.

By the end of the sixties, the fuselage Plymouth Gran Fury / Sport Suburban and Chevy Caprice / Impala SS (with optional vacuum-operated rising covers) joined the Ford LTD / XL with full-width grilles, first seen in that ’65 Riviera. At Chevy, Ford and Plymouth, hidden headlights marked the top-of-the-line big cars, at least briefly.

This brings us up to 1970, the high water mark for hidden headlights in American cars. Where did the changing tides of style, taste, regulations and technology take them? What do hidden headlights say about how cars look to us humans? Keep watching for part two, real soon now.