by Bob Blake

As winter daylight shortens, good automobile lighting becomes a necessity. The “see and be seen” philosophy is even more important this time of year with the streets jammed with cars and distracted pedestrians. Frequent rain, fog and snow hamper visibility even further.

Before automobiles had batteries, lanterns fueled by acetylene gas or oil provided the light. Acetylene lamps were popular because the flame was somewhat resistant to wind and rain. While the next generation of cars had batteries, they were weak and depleted quickly. 

Headlights did not become standard equipment until 1908. A few years later, the Cadillac division of General Motors combined their electric starter with a lighting system. The filament incandescent bulb and reflector was common for decades. During the 1930s, the “sealed beam” technology made a vast improvement. Instead of an individual bulb, these units had a filament inside a sealed glass chamber. The round, seven-inch shape was standard for many years. 

Manufacturers added a little flair in the late 1950s when they modified the shapes and dimensions of the headlights. The Lincoln had a distinctive “stacked” shape, but most remained horizontal. The four light configurations often required a wider fender. 

The halogen headlight, introduced by the Italians in 1962, was a real breakthrough. These lamps and their pristine reflectors offered superior visibility as well as longer life. The chemistry of the filament and the surrounding gas prevented darkening. A word of caution! These unique lamps operate at a much higher temperature and can cause second and third degree burns. They should not be handled with bare hands even when cold as the glass collects impurities from the skin and the bulb may explode!

Night visibility vastly improved in the 1990s with the advent of the high intensity discharge headlights, commonly referred to as “HID lights” or xenon headlights. An electric arc between two electrodes, reminiscent of the old movie theatre projectors, creates the light. Drivers favor them for their brightness and length of life.

Light emitting diodes, commonly called LEDs, are the next generation of illumination. They operate at a low voltage, have a long lifespan and are fairly maintenance free. Many new cars routinely use them. Due to their lack of intensity, they require good reflectors in multiple stacks or arrays. They are excellent for rear and marker lights. Since the sockets are the same as regular bulbs, they are good replacements for standard bulbs. 

Worldwide research has concluded daytime running lights decrease collisions significantly. Many newer cars have some type of low intensity front lights for day and night use. These are mandatory in Canada and some European countries. 

While lights now have much longer longevity, it is still a wise idea to do a “walk around” once every two weeks and check all the lights and turn signals. Don’t forget the often overlooked tag light! Regulations require it works. Don’t give the police a simple reason to stop you!