Curbside History: The All-Too-Brief History of Diagonally Canted Headlights

1961 DeSoto

Like a meteor crashing through the sky, diagonally canted quad headlights were a styling trend that shone brightly and then burned out quickly. Let’s take a look at this short-lived fad.

In the US in the 1950s, automotive lighting was governed by a patchwork of state regulations and industry standards. Starting in 1957, most (but not all) states permitted the use of separate low and high beam bulbs. However, because they were not universally permitted, very few 1957 cars were offered with quad headlights. Of the few 1957 cars that were offered for sale with quad headlamps (such as the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, 1957 Nash Ambassador, and 1957 Mercury) many had alternate single headlight front-ends to sell in states that prohibited quad headlamps.

This changed in 1958, with quad headlamps becoming legal in all 48 states. Most manufacturers switched over to the new look almost immediately (Think back to how square headlights popped up almost overnight on every car when they first became legal in 1975).

So the question with quad headlights became how to arrange them. Most manufacturers went with a side-by-side arrangement for their low and high-beam bulbs, although a few, like the aforementioned Nash, went with a vertically stacked arrangement (a look that Pontiac would popularize in the mid-60s).

1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III

And then there was Lincoln. In 1958, they were the first (and only) manufacturer to nix both the side-by-side and stacked headlight arrangement and instead lined up their headlights diagonally. I’m not really sure what the thought process was behind the canted headlights, but when you look at it in the context of the overall car, I think it is pretty obvious: Lincoln was trying to make a statement here.

Lincoln, a perennial #2 in the luxury car race (behind Cadillac), upon seeing the success that Cadillac was having with their ever more flamboyant designs, said to Cadillac, “Hold my beer.” Everything about the 1958 Lincoln was designed to scream “Hey, look at me!” from the reverse-canted “Breezeway” rear window on the Continental to the expansive 131” wheelbase to the large scallops on the front and rear fenders. Honestly, I’m surprised they didn’t try adding a third axle or a second floor. Canted headlights were just the icing on the crazy cake.

1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV

For 1959, perhaps realizing that they had gone a little overboard, Lincoln tried toning down the look just a little, integrating the canted headlights into the grille (eliminating the separate pods), and smoothing out the front and rear fenders a bit.

1959 Buick Electra 225

1959 was also the year that Buick decided to stick their toe in the canted headlight waters. This would mark Buick’s (and GM’s, for that matter) only foray into canted headlights. A one-year-only entry, Buick returned to side-by-side headlights in 1960.

By 1961, even Lincoln had switched over to the side-by-side headlight arrangement, leaving the canted headlights for dead, or so it seemed. This is where Chrysler picks up the look, and the Mopar folks went in on canted headlights in a big way in 1961. You’ve already seen the 1961 DeSoto, in the hero image at the top of this article. Above is the 1961 Chrysler. Even the turn signals are canted!

Even Plymouth got canted headlights in 1961, albeit at a much smaller angle than the Chrysler and DeSoto. Only Dodge and Imperial were spared the canted headlights, although Imperial got its own very unique freestanding headlight treatment for 1961.

1962 Dodge

Not to be outdone, Dodge got its own take on canted headlights in 1962, angled in the opposite direction than all the previous examples.

1963 Dodge Polara 500

By 1963, DeSoto was gone, and Chrysler and Plymouth had gone back to side-by-side headlights. This left Dodge as the lone domestic holdout for canted headlights. They went to a slightly more conventional layout for 1963 (if such a thing can be said about diagonally canted headlights).

By 1964, no American automaker was still using diagonally canted headlights. This would be the end of the story, except for the fact that the look was to enjoy a brief resurgence in Great Britain and Europe around this time. Ferrari briefly employed the look on their 330 GT 2+2 models in 1963 and 1964.

Bentley employed the look on their S3 Continental from 1963 until 1966.

The Jensen C-V8, produced from 1962 to 1966, also featured canted headlights.

And finally, the Triumph Vitesse employed diagonal quad headlights during its entire run from 1962 to 1971, making it one of the few cars to carry this look all the way into the 1970s.

But fear not, diagonophiles. You may not even realize it, but virtually all cars now feature some form of diagonal lighting.  Thanks to advances in composite headlamps, computer-designed reflectors, and LED lighting (not to mention aerodynamic demands), cars can now feature pretty much every lighting shape and arrangement you can imagine.

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