It had occurred to me last week, while writing my recent essay on the very last Pontiac Firebird, that this model seemed to be one of last, few cars that still featured pop-up headlights into the new Millennium. Its basic design had made its debut about ten years before (in the fall of ’92), and there wasn’t going to be a substantial redesign of an impractical car that was selling in numbers in the low-five-figures. Still, looking at the crop of other sports or sporty cars of that time (Toyota Celica, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Honda Prelude, Nissan 350Z, etc.), many of which had previously sported pop-ups, they no longer did so when the “odometer” flipped to the year 2000.
I understand that when in the upright position, these things do not help aerodynamics. They are also prone to getting stuck under winter’s ice and snow, and the mechanicals behind them can fail. I still love them. Very few styling features of performance-leaning cars of the 1970s through the ’90s scream “sports car” to me more than pop-up headlights.
One of my life’s goals at one point had been to own a car with pop-ups, and my dream came true when I traded my ’88 Mustang LX for a lightly used ’94 Ford Probe as a college graduation present from my parents. I remember sitting in that Probe, in the broad Florida daylight, with the windows down and the key in the ignition, flipping those headlight doors open and shut for about a minute. I must have had the biggest Cheshire Cat grin on my face the whole time, so I’m sure I looked weird, but I didn’t care.
Why? Because with my new-to-me car having these pop-up headlights, I felt like I finally had a legitimate sports car. Did my Probe have the 164-hp, 2.5L V6? Nope. Was it fast? No, though it did have reasonable acceleration with the air conditioner switched off, and with its five-speed manual transmission, it was genuinely fun to drive. So where was the fun, you ask? As soon as the sun would start to set, I got to rotate that column-mounted stalk and watch those babies spring to life, illuminating the path in front of me. Whirrr… To life’s simple pleasures.
I can’t be the only one who thinks that the second-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata and the sixth-generation Corvette lost something in the looks department when their pop-up headlights morphed into exposed, clear, composite units. Thankfully, the Mazda RX-7 stuck with pop-ups all the way through its end after 2002. I find its successor, the RX-8, to be a great-looking car, but its face is not nearly as attractive as that of the last RX-7, and the lack of pop-ups is part of what contributes to this.
Even the Buick Reatta, confused in its life’s mission though it was, had a very clean, pretty, simple visage, aided by its pop-ups. And would the wedge-shaped Triumph TR-7 and TR-8 have looked better with exposed headlamps? I think not. There is one exception to my fawning over this once-trendy design feature: the North American, third-generation Honda Accord four-door sedan. I had just started middle school around the time that these Accords were new, and I remember thinking there was something “anatomically incorrect” about a four-door sedan featuring pop-up headlights. I liked the looks of the rest of the car, and it took me a while to get used to its front end, but I eventually came around.
Pop-up headlights at rest have always reminded me of eyes being closed… and ready to spring open and into action! When I think about it, there would be few things more terrifying to me than walking at night toward a row of parked cars when everything is completely silent, when all of a sudden, some pop-ups spring open and cast a high beam right at me. I could blame this partially on having watched too many car-based horror movies (“Christine”, “The Car”, etc.), but there seems to be something inherently predatory-looking about a car with its pop-ups exposed and shining brightly.
Hall & Oates remains one of my favorite musical acts of the ’80s (perhaps of all time? this is no hyperbole), and they got plenty of rotation at Casa De Dennis when I was growing up, thanks mostly to my older brother. One never knows when and where the inspiration for my next essay for Curbside Classic will strike, but I’ll just say that I’m glad that “Private Eyes” popped onto shuffle right about the time I was finishing up my morning chores in advance of this past, extended July 4th weekend. Hopefully, my fellow Statesiders (and Curbsiders) all had a safe and festive holiday. I’ll break with my usual writing tradition and end this piece with a question: What are some of your favorite years, makes and models of cars featuring pop-up headlights?
All pictures taken by the author in and around Chicago.