Pop–Up Headlights…The Invention That Graced Sports Cars of Years Gone By

A Blink and They’re Gone  –

201711 LM Pop UpPop up, retractable and hidden headlights were an awesome feature of many sports cars of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  Fond memories of the Chevy Corvette usually include a mental image of those distinctive pop up headlights.   Sports cars of the time were frequently adorned with pop up, retractable, hidden or rotating headlights. Like the headlights of today, they gave the car a human like quality with wide and beautiful eyes.  Sadly, the last year that pop up headlights appeared was 2004, with the Lotus Esprit and Chevy C5 Corvette both graciously adorned with this wonderful design feature.

For a while, it seemed that not only sports cars like the Corvette, Lotus Esprit, Lotus Elan, Lamborghini Countach, De Tomaso Pantera, Ferrari 308 and 328, Fiat X 1/9, Mazda RX-7,  Porsche 914, 924, 928, 944, Saab Sonett III and so many others had pop up headlights, but even some Buicks, Chryslers, Hondas, and Toyotas had them.  And then, one day, it was lights out, and the pop up headlight found its place in automotive history.

The First Car to Have Retractable Headlamps and the Patent Behind Them

201711 LM Fig 1The Cord 810 was the first car to feature hidden headlights, and in fact the original patent depicts a Cord 810 in all its lavish glory.  The light assemblies in the Cord 810 would retract and deploy with two hand cranks, each crank serving one of the two headlights. The Cord was a luxury automobile built by the Auburn Automobile Company.  The Cord 810 was produced in 1936, and featured the patented “Headlight Structure” described in United States Patent 2,084,120 to Harold T. Ames, filed July 19, 1934 and issued June 15, 1937.   H.T. Ames was president of Duesenberg Motors at the time, and hired designer Gordon Buehrig to come up with the now iconic Cord 810 and 812.  Apparently the boss got involved with Buehrig’s design work and became an inventor – and the rest is history.

TRIVIA QUESTION- Which automobile featured retractable headlights that rotated side to side (longitudinally along the length of the car) instead of the usual front to back (parallel with the front axle)?

Variations on the Theme

There were many variations on the basic pop up headlight that was a trap door of sorts with a small matching body panel on one side and a headlight on another side. Some of these assemblies were rectangular, and some were triangular.  Actuation was often through manual linkages that were driven by hand along with electrical, pneumatic, and hydraulic versions.  While most simply flipped up so that the body panel was still exposed at an angle, others, like the later Corvette, flipped 270 degrees.  The Porsche 928 featured headlights without a covered body panel, with the headlight glass facing upward when not in use, and sporting a frog eye arrangement when deployed.    And while they didn’t really pop up, in the 60’s many American cars came with headlight covers that would pop open eyelid like.  The 1965 Buick Riviera, the 1966 Olds Toronado, 1967 Cadillac Eldorado, even the Ford Thunderbird and Pontiac Grand Prix had them for a while. The ’67 Camaro and Cougar had them, as did the ’66 Dodge Charger.  The entire grill in the 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado rotated up to allow the headlights to function.   The 1974 Alfa Romeo Montreal even had louvered headlight covers that rotated up and out of the way. The possibilities for hidden and pop up headlights seemed limitless.

The Real Reason for Pop Up Headlights

Were pop up or hidden headlights so much more aerodynamic that they resulted in greater speed and less fuel consumption?  Did the retractable feature keep the headlights clean and free from bugs when not in use (uh… aren’t bugs attracted to light at night??)?   Did they bring the headlights up higher than they would be with a fixed installation?  Were they superior to fixed headlights in illumination of the roadway?  What made these things so popular and drove car manufacturers to create hundreds of variations on the basic invention?  Perhaps, just perhaps, it was marketing.  Pretty cars sell1, and pop up headlights are just plain gorgeous, even (or especially) when they are hidden with nothing but the closed body panel in view.  The round or square sealed beam headlights of the day were not very attractive, and were simply stuck to the front of a car like a couple of goldfish bowls. Pop up headlights took the sealed beam headlight and made it attractive. They made a sports car sleek and smooth during the day, and eager and willing at night.  A perfect combination of style with a little bit of function.

Will They Return?

Probably not, but you never know with items of fashion.  As computer aided design matured in the development of automobiles, it allowed designers to shape headlights as an aesthetic feature of the car, molding clear acrylic lenses to conform to the styling lines of the car, turning the headlight into a fashion statement that arrives unexpectedly in one’s rear view mirror.  And with the development of advanced lighting technologies, first halogen and then LED and various gas discharge and adaptive lamps, the requirements for the fixed sealed beam headlamp went away, freeing up designers to integrate lighting into the overall body design, opening up nearly limitless design options for headlights.

And, as the pop up headlight proliferated in the 70’s and 80’s, so too did their reliability problems. Manufacturers cut corners to save money, and released designs with problematic reliability, creating the “winking” car look, or worse yet, the closed headlight look at night.  So when integrated and contoured headlight design became feasible, manufacturers began to abandon the pop up headlight.

Additionally, European design laws have been requiring cars to be more deformable in the event of a pedestrian collision.  Pop up headlights do not comply with these newer rules, and with most automobile manufacturers concerned with the global market, and with many sports car companies being located in Europe, pop up headlights don’t seem to be coming back any time soon, at least not in the “trap door” form that was popular a few years ago.  Perhaps a modern variation on the pop up headlight will come along to accompany a tiny and super bright white LED bulb. The possibility is still there, as long as it sells. If it can be controlled by your smart phone, it probably will.

GRAPHIC  CREDIT:  “1974 Saab Sonett Pop Up Headlight”. Copyright 2017.  Robert Gunderman.

1 Lee Iacoca  and others

2 Trivia Answer:  The Opel GT.   Check out YouTube and search for Opel GT headlights and pick your favorite car fanatic home brewed video to see these interesting lights in action.

Authors Robert D. Gunderman P.E. (Patent Technologies, LLC and John M. Hammond P.E. (Patent Innovations, LLC are both registered patent agents and licensed professional engineers.  Copyright 2017 Robert Gunderman, Jr. and John Hammond.

Note:  This short article is intended only to provide cursory background information, and is not intended to be legal advice.  No client relationship with the authors is in any way established by this article.

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