A Look Into The Headlights (and Sidelights)

Not literally! Okay, it’s just a title pun. The primary function of headlights when they decided to put them on cars, was to allow you to operate your vehicle at night, however they’ve become almost as well known for their unintended side effect—they make you more visible.

Headlights typically have two light levels, bright and dim. Because it’s difficult to see on rural roads without streetlights overhead, your car should come equipped with “brights.” Because driving in crowded roads with “brights” on can make it difficult for other drivers to see, you’ll spend most of your time driving with your “dims” on. For many years, the dimmer switch (controller) was available on the floor, though now it’s more commonly found on the steering column.

Signalling with Headlights

Headlights may be used to warn other road users of upcoming hazards including speed traps. Some manuals even describe the headlamps as an “optical horn” which seems a novel way of putting it but there you go.

So, lights on a car have become primarily used for signalling.

  • It can let you know of another car’s presence especially in the fog or on a dark night
  • That you are aware of another car’s action
  • That a car is indicating right of way
  • That a car has a certain problem, though it might be clear exactly what the problem is
  • To say thank you
  • Or most often to let you know your brights are on and they can’t see

Do you have a right to use the headlight to signal people? Opinions vary. For example, we mentioned warning other drivers of a speed trap, it’s not legal in some states. Some states say this is covered by the First Amendment or freedom to speech. This is evidently open to some interpretation.

Hidden Headlights

Hidden headlights are also known as pop-up headlights or flip-eye headlamps. Whenever they aren’t in use they are hidden, though the hiding place used varies. Some are mounted in a housing, while others retract into the hood or the fender. Sometimes they may be concealed behind a grille panel feature. The Buick Rivera introduced this feature to the public.

Mazda Pop-up Headlights

The first pop-up headlight to be “seen” was created by General Motors in 1939.

But the feature came and went as a “fashion statement”-possibly it’ll come back in the future. It’s biggest point of popularity was during the 1960s. This was the point where the lights couldn’t be aerodynamically designed. Although the Lotus Espirit and CS Spirit both date from 2004 it’s the last time these types of headlights were on a mass-produced vehicle. For some reason it became dated.

Unique Headlights

Tucker Torpedo

Mazda Furari created headlights which resemble a smile of blue neon.

Directional lighting of a sort was available for one year (1935) on a car called the Tatra, which simply allowed the driver to flip a switch and electromagnetically shift a reflector to illuminate the curb side only.

The Cizeta V16T has two pairs of pop-up headlights.

The Opel GT rolls over from the side rather than popping up. The 1948 Tucker Torpedo has a middle light which must have been slightly off-putting.

Types of Headlights

LED Headlights

Most headlights are halogen, LED, Xenon/HID, and Laser.

Good old halogen have been around since 1962 (the H1) and has been vastly improved since by tungsten filaments and pressurized iodine or bromine gas to increase illumination and lifespan. Not only did these improvements make the bulbs not burn themselves out so quickly, they also made them tougher. On the bright side (pun intended) they’re cost effective, but on the downside they’re only so bright. (Halogen cast a slight yellow tint that never gets as white as daylight). Also, they don’t last too long and some models are difficult to replace.

Laser headlamps have the best illumination but also cost the most to repair, which seems to happen to anyone who owns them as they need to be repaired after the slightest bit of damage.

Xenon Headlight

The DAF LED headlamp uses (as the name suggests) a low beam of LEDs. This means that the heat isn’t focused on one place. It also lasts a long time and is able to cope with a strong amount of vibration through use. LEDs can be fit in tight spaces, and they are energy efficient.

High end vehicles often come equipped with Xenon/HID headlamps because the mix of Xenon and Argon gasses create a very bright light at a long range. The downside is that they take a few seconds to reach their full brightness and they can be too bright. If you don’t enjoy having oncoming traffic flash their brights at you, it’s probably not worth getting a conversion kit to install this type of light. It’s also a very focused light so you see well what these lights hit and see very little of what they don’t hit, which impedes parking or lane changes. One final positive is that these lights can last for years without being changed.

From headlights to sidelights.

Although they are contained in the same unit as headlights, sidelights are used for slightly different purposes. The front ones give off a white light and the corresponding tail-lights give off a red light which will also light up your registration plate.

The sidelights are dimmer than the other lights on the car. They’re not there to keep the way ahead lit but instead to ensure you are visible and that other road users are able to pass you.

You shouldn’t use your headlights if parked as they affect other road users too much.

So that’s the end of a short look at headlights and sidelights, hopefully it was illuminating.

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