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Comparisons are often made between the headlights of a car and our eyes. As facial expression has everything to do with people’s eyes, it’s only natural that we often feel that a car’s “face” is largely defined by its headlights. Throughout automotive history there have been multiple designers who have managed to grasp this concept, stylise it and in doing so create real icons.

I’ve also heard people claim that the secret to good car design lies purely in the lights – both front and rear, but especially the headlights. This however, is a statement with which I just can not agree. Just look at all those bland modern day cars we’re exposed to every day. I for one struggle to tell them apart, with cars from Kia, Ford, Skoda, Peugeot, BMW all the rest looking largely identical. Terribly high waistlines creating miniscule window areas giving the cars an obtrusive and tank-like demeanour, and not least huge spans of bodywork so vast that designers attempt in vain to hide them somewhat with obscure and non-coherent contours, streaks, edges, angles and concave deformations. Then they finish it all off with some funky headlight design, apparently believing that they’ve just saved the day, and all is again rosy and sweet in the world of car design. Well, it’s not.

The essence of good car design must lie in the bodywork. I only have to point at the all-time-favourite of our very own Søren Navntoft – the Maserati A6G 2000 Zagato. Look at the headlights. They’re really fairly ordinary, aren’t they? Sure, they’re nicely rounded and coherent, but certainly not a stand-out feature of the overall design. Yet, I and many others will still agree that this Maserati is no doubt one of the most stunning automotive designs ever. So car design simply can’t rely solely on interesting headlights. Yet, if a car designer can combine a beautifully sculpted body with a pretty or intriguing “face” by use of stylised headlights, then he might very well have nailed it.

But looking at those stylised headlights, here are some of my own personal favourites:

1958 Austin-Healey Sprite (Frogeye):
You can hardly talk about significant headlight designs without immediately thinking about the cute little Sprite, which was affectionately nick-named after just that – it’s headlight design. Is it elegant or pretty? No. But that’s hardly the point. It invariably makes you smile.

1936 Cord 810 / 812:
Concealed headlights (or pop-up headlights as they are often referred to today) are simply cool by default. They are also often associated with the seventies and eighties. Imagine then just how ground-breaking it would have been back in the mid-thirties, when the Cord 810 became the first car to ever feature this design by using modified landing lights from a Stinson aircraft. And not just did those headlights look fabulous in their own right, but they were also such an integral part of the sleek and aerodynamic design of the whole car. An icon if ever there was one.

1970 Citroën SM:
I suppose I should really include the Citroën DS in this list for its revolutionary directional headlights. Turn the steering wheel and the headlights swivel with it in order to shine the light in the direction which you intend to travel. Ingenious! However, I’ll let the SM represent Citroën instead, as its headlights also have this feature, and are furthermore packaged in a delicious rounded plexiglass nose cone protecting both a vast array of lights and the numberplate in between. So stylish.

1971 Alpine A310:
Another Frenchman with six individual headlights hidden behind plexiglass? Yes, and I make no excuses for having both the SM and the early 4-cylinder A310 on this list. For starters, I have a thing about plexiglass covered headlights – be that series 1 E-types, early Plexi Daytonas, or 240Z’s with the optional covers fitted over their headlights. It never fails to look amazing, and to me both the SM and the first incarnation of the A310 top that list. Granted, the A310 doesn’t have the fancy swivelling headlights, but arguably the design on the Alpine is even cooler. I love the way the six individual headlights continue all the way in to the center of the car. It’s pure spaceship.

1966 Pontiac GTO:
Stacked headlights just look so purposeful and no one does them better than the Yanks. There are multiple great examples of this, but for me, the prize must go to the third year Pontiac GTO. They kept it simple, giving the big Muscle Car real presence, but in such an effortless manner. This one means business.

1963 Bentley Continental S3 / Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III Mulliner Park Ward (Chinese Eye):
While most double headlights are arranged horizontally and some like the above Pontiac ventured into stacked headlights, not many dared attempt slanted headlights. Granted, it’s treading a fine balance and not all got it right. They overdid it somewhat on both the American 1958 third-generation Lincoln Continental and also on the 1962 Jensen CV8, both ending up with a rather gawky facial expression. They were very subtle on the 1964 Gordon-Keeble GK1 which looked excellent. But Mulliner Park Ward pushed that angle just a tad further and ended up with a daring, controversial and provocative design which I feel compelled to love. Whether fhc or dhc body, they are usually referred to as a Chinese Eye.

1968 Opel GT 1900:
Having featured the Cord 810 above, I really wasn’t intending to include another pop-up headlamp design on the list. Once you do, where do you then stop? They’re all so cool! But the Opel GT stands out as it doesn’t pop-up – it rotates. So these headlights aren’t on the list for being concealed, but rather for the funky way in which they come back into sight. Pull a stubby little lever at the front of the center console, and both headlight pods rotate sideways around there axis. I could just stand there all day, watching in awe as these headlights dance their little dance.

1966 Lamborghini Miura:
Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know. I said no more pop-up headlights! But as with the Opel GT, the Lamborghini Miura isn’t actually on the list for it’s pop-up headlights, but rather for the delicate and oh-so-sexy little eyelashes placed both below and above the headlights. As such, I can never own the ultimate incarnation of the Miura – the SV – as it lost its lashes. It’ll have to be a P400 or P400S for me please. Amusingly, I personally hate it with a passion, when people place long protruding eyelashes around the headlights of their Beetle, Minor or 2CV. But that’s different. On the Miura, it’s style and elegance. This is SEX!


1970 Alfa-Romeo Montreal:
I’m not totally sure whether I’m simply adding the Montreal to this list because it’s the single most constant in my dream garage ever since my interest in classic cars flourished. Any excuse to publish a Montreal picture is a good one… But seriously, just look at those headlight! Half-covered and slotted. It manages to be both elegant, intriguing and ever so slightly evil, all at once. We all know that women like this are dangerous, but still we just can’t help ourselves from being drawn in. An air of mystique…

1969 Mazda Porter Cab:
Surely I’m not going to include any commercial vehicles on this list. After all, it’s all about design – about style. Not vans, pick-ups and practical workhorses. Well think again. This little Japanese Kei truck is perhaps the ultimate example of stylised headlights giving a vehicle a facial expression. Just look at it – such an endearing little puppy glancing up at you in search of approval, affection and love. I can’t believe anyone could possibly be so cold-hearted as to turn this cute little pup away…

Have I missed any important and significant headlight designs out? There are so many, so I’m sure I have.
Which is your favourite and why?  If enough of you contribute, it could even lead to a vers. 2.0 of this article…


17 Responses

  1. Sune

    I don’t know about the Alpine, but the Citroën SM and DS have headlights covered with real glass, not Plexiglass

  2. Ib Erik

    I totaly agree !

    In fact, if I were to hire a cardesigner, I would ask him to point out the best looking car in the world.

    If he does not point at the Maserati A6G 2000 Zagato, there is no need to continue talking.

    I dare say, that Ford and BMW share guilt in spoiling bodywork design.
    When you then ad those “Lexus-style” lights all around, front lights that represents 1/3 of the cars front end and rear lights that are just plain cheap-chrome-pvc-ugly, caused by som sort of Manga-fetish, then cars just got ugly.

    Looking forward to an article about rear lights :-)

  3. Jesper

    Pop-up headlights mentioned. What about “pop-down” headlights of the Buick Rivieras of the 60’es. And “pop-a-side” – or perhaps “pop-a-slide” headlights of some of the Chevrolet Camaros of the 60’es

  4. Anders Bilidt

    Sune, I just learnt a new anorak-fact today. Thank you! ;-)
    Proper glass certainly doesn’t make the DS and SM headlights less cool.

    Ib Erik, yes, Ford and BMW are probably largely to blame for the current design language found in the automotive world. Sadly, the majority of other manufacturers design teams seem to have joined them.
    Hmmm… a rear light follow up. Interesting thought. Which would you choose for such an article?

    Jesper, I did actually have the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro on my short list. Those vacuum-driven sliding doors are indeed pretty neat. To be honest, I forgot about the 1965 Buick Riviera – shame on me!! I think we’l need a part 2 for this article, just to put that right…

  5. Dave Leadbetter

    The vacuum rotating headlamps on the “Bullitt” Dodge Charger are pretty cool.

    I mourned the loss of pop up lamps on my late eighties Mazda 323F and Mk1 MX5. I always liked that my 323F was such an unassuming car in many ways but had cool headlamps, quite a good example of the headlamps being the absolutely defining styling feature of the car and maybe the only reason they are remembered today!

  6. Anders Bilidt

    Dave, I seem to recall the 323F with pop-ups being available in a fairly rapid 1.8 liter GTi version as well? They were pretty cool back in the day. Been a fair few years since I’ve seen one though…

  7. Tony Wawryk

    I only had one car with pop-up headlamps, which was also the only Japanese car I ever had (unless you count Rover versions of Hondas), and that was a 3rd Gen Honda Prelude, which back in the day (1990 I think) I thought looked really sharp. Drove OK, too, but was (cliche alert) completely characterless to drive.
    Another pop-up favourite of mine is the Porsche 914 – still fancy owning one one of these days…

  8. Dave Leadbetter

    Yes, the 323F was available in 1.8 GT form. Mine was only a 1600 but went well enough and was one of the few cars to survive my ownership and get sold on – quality tested! You’ll do well to find any variant now though.

    On the topic of unusual headlamp arrangements, how about the Tucker 48 with it’s three lamps; two outboard and a centre Cyclops which pivoted with the steering. A generally interesting car all round.

  9. Tony Wawryk

    Coming back to stacked headlamps, I’d be surprised if any manufacturer used them more widely than Mercedes across just about all their cars through the mid-Sixties, and for me this is the period when they built some of their most beautiful cars, particularly the coupes.

  10. Dave Leadbetter

    Good call Tony, I’m not sure if beautiful is the word but certainly a distinctive family look. Somebody once grafted a pair complete with a W114 style radiator grille onto the front of a Mini. I have photographic evidence in a book somewhere, with an emphasis on “somewhere”… It actually kind of worked, like a prototype A-Class thirty years early!

  11. Anders Bilidt

    Heine, you’re now the second person to mention the ’65 Buick Riviera. And yes, I agree with both you and Jesper, I should definitely write a continuation to this article, where the Riviera will be at the top of the list!

    Dave, the Tucker 48 is hardly a pretty car is it? But I’ll give you that it’s certainly interesting! It must have been rather alien to see one of those glide down the street in the late-40s…

    Tony, I’m not sure all of Mercedes’s stacked headlights were equally elegant. But there’s no arguing that they did lend them a distinct corporate identity. My favourite from that era is clearly the stunning W111 coupé, but I would have mine with the large rectangular Euro headlights, by which it isn’t really stacked headlights anymore.

  12. Christian V

    Great article!
    However I think, you’re failing to mention a few of the unique and aggressive looking “slanted quad”-classics like the ’59 Buick, ’61-’62 Chryslers, not to mention my personal favorite, the Kellison J-5.

  13. Tony Wawryk

    Dave, Anders, by “beautiful” I meant the cars themselves, not necessarily the headlights, which I agree were more imposing than beautiful. But the cars they adorned, especially the W111 SE Coupes, were and remain absolutely stunning, as you say, Anders. There’s a lovely black 1965 220SE up for action next weekend at Ascot – it’s the least desirable of the coupes, hence the cheapest, but still extremely stylish and elegant; with an estimate of between £27-33k, I’d be prepared to swap my tii for it…

    I’ve also learned quite a bit in both the article and comments about how innovative some of the US designs were – I knew about the Cord and it’s then revolutionary lights and overall aerodynamic design, which looks years more modern than it is, but had no idea about the clamshell lights on the Riviera – how cool are they, and on a car that is among the relatively few US models I like the look of, mostly because of it’s simple, clean and elegant lines. You’re right about the Dodge Charger’s rotating lights, too, Dave – super-cool.

  14. Niels v

    Its funny how the AH sprite, is always mentioned as “Bug eyed/Frogeye” the Triumph TR2 -3 has just as protruding, if not more, headlights.
    Possibly people doesn’t notice it as much since the noses is a bit retracted compared with the wings.


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