How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Every day, someone, somewhere gets thrown in jail for hauling bales of uncut cocaine around in their trunk. Why? More often than not it's because they had a tail light out or something dumb like that and the cops pulled them over. Don't let it happen to you!

That's not to say that you'll be hauling illegal drugs around in your car. Hopefully not, but getting popped for a dead headlamp can get you tickets for other things you didn't know about — maybe you forgot to print out your insurance card, or there's a crack in your windshield, or you have an out of state license because you're lazy and haven't gotten the one you're supposed to have in your wallet. Whatever, the point is, fix your damn lights! Here's how.

Even though changing lightbulbs is usually relatively easy, it's an often overlooked facet of automotive maintenance (I know there are many of you out there who are saying "Why the hell is this on Jalopnik?!" but you should be patient and give this one to your less mechanically inclined and/or confused and/or lazy brethren so that they don't get caught with the lights out). But keep in mind that burnt out lights are the most visible sign that all is not as it should be in your automotive universe, and smokey is likely to take notice and figure that you're the type who likes to give the state extra revenue.

As you already know, changing lightbulbs in a car is nothing like doing the old laundry room ceiling bulb swap that's the subject of so many lame jokes. Automotive light fixtures are like puzzles, and as such, come in varying degrees of difficulty where solving them is concerned.

Click through the gallery to see how it's done on several of the most common styles. I'll admit that I've never so much as touched an exotic car, but if you have one, you can probably get your personal mechanic to fix your lights while you're writing a list of groceries for your maid to pick up. This is how the unwashed masses go about these things.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

The designers of new cars have succeeded in creating sleek lighting assemblies that put everything into a single package. On this 2012 Nissan Versa, headlamps and corner markers are integrated. That means your search for illumination begins behind the scenes.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Under the hood, you'll find everything you're looking for: a series of twist-on, twist-off bulb holders stuck in at various angles. On this car, they're easy to reach, but in some of the tighter packed engine bays, it can be difficult to fit your hands inside. Be creative. Sometimes gentle application (remember, the parts are plastic and you don't want to break them) of needle nosed or angled pliers can help with the twisting if you can't get good leverage with your fingers.

Once you get the plastic connector the wires are attached to out, the bulb usually twists out easily. When you put the new bulb in its holder, make sure it won't come out again once you've put everything back together. Don't pinch the lightbulbs too tight when you're twisting them into place (they can break if you squeeze too hard), but usually, a little push toward the bottom of the bulb holder and a twist will get it in there. Tug it a little when you're done to check that it's secure.

The same goes when you twist the holder back into the housing. You don't want it to be loose, or it could fall out, letting moisture in and keeping the light inside the engine compartment where you don't need it.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

The back lights on newer cars are usually pretty simple. There's either a little access hole in the cargo area trim panel/carpet, or you can pull the carpet back and remove the housing with two or three bolts. The bulbs are held into place with the same twist-on, twist-off holder. When you have the housing off, it's a good chance to check for leaks from cracks or dried out seals or whatever.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Even though it's nice for an economy car, the Versa is missing a few little luxuries; such as an access hole for rear lightbulbs, which I was sure it would have. No worry. You look for the annoying little plastic clips that you can pry out to pull the carpet back (I used a key to pop them out, but you want to be careful with these miserable little curs, as breaking them means having to schlep to the dealership for new ones), then unbolt the light fixture from the body with a wrench or socket. Voila!

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Many older, but not that old cars have glass headlamp fixtures with a twist on ring around a bulb that presses into the back of the housing. They're ubiquitous and easy to change, as long as the car's designers left enough space in there for your hand.

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How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Under the hood on this old Buick, you can see a black plastic ring just forward of that blue clip. Twist it in the direction that loosens it. It should come off in 1/4 to 1/2 turn. Just slide it back over the wires.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

The bulb is held in place with a little rubber seal, so all you have to do is wiggle it gently back and forth as you pull it away from the back of the housing. It should pop right out. If it doesn't, give it some gentle pressure with a pair of pliers and wiggle it with those.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

See that redish seal? Sometimes they're black, but that doesn't matter. Just make sure the one from the old lightbulb isn't stuck in the housing, otherwise the new bulb won't fit.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

On older cars, side marker lamps can be a bit of a puzzle to figure out. But if you look for the likely spots where they attach, you can win this struggle handily. If the bulb isn't readily accessible from inside the engine compartment, you'll probably have to take the fixture out. Some have mounting screws that are accessible from the outside — you'll see them — and others, like this crappy old Buick's, are a bit more tricky.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

I didn't know what I was doing with this car, but I figured it out by following the lines of the fixture's mounting bracket to where it connected to something attached to the radiator support. Once that one was loose, it was easy to see where the second and third screws were located.

Every car is different, but you can use the power of deduction to locate mounting screws and lightbulb access. You got this, Sherlock!

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Now that the fixture is off, you can see the standard twist-on, twist-off bulb holders hiding behind it.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

So twist those suckers off and replace the bulbs. With the fixture off, you might as well replace all the bulbs, and this is a good time to check the contacts inside those bulb holders for corrosion. If they're corroded, you can scrape them with a pocket knife blade until you see clean metal for a better contact with the bulb's connectors.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Older style headlamps are almost all a sealed beam type of bulb (round on American cars pre-dating the mid-70s). These can be more difficult to change, but they look cooler (in my opinion) than today's goofy plastic space pod fixtures.

First, you usually have to remove some sort of metal or plastic trim from around the lights to get at the metal bezel that holds the huge bulb in. These are often found around the edges, but again, some models require deductive reasoning. As my grandfather always used to tell me as a child, if it doesn't move, don't force it! You'll only break it.

You may need (as with this mid-80s GM truck) a special tool to get the trim off. This one needed an obnoxious torx bit to get it off, but since I was at a junkyard and didn't care about the stupid plastic 80s trim, I just ripped it off like the savage I wish I was.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

The bezel holds the sealed beam bulb in place. They're usually flimsy, but getting them off in one piece is important. Do yourself a favor and get some PB Blaster (or equivalent penetrating oil) and blast those screws before you try to turn them.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Getting the bezel off is the tricky part. The bezel, and the flange it's screwed into, is made of thin metal. They are held together with tiny screws that rust easily, so in addition to soaking them with penetrating oil, you may even need to give them a few taps with an impact screwdriver to get the screws to turn without stripping the heads. Don't hit them too hard though, or you'll bend the shit out of the bezel mounting flanges, which is no bueno.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Now that you've unscrewed the flange, set it to the side and pull the bulb away from its housing.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Sometimes the connector on the back of the bulb can be a little sticky, so you may have to insert a small screwdriver between the bulb and the connector and pry gently to get it off. Don't pull at the wires, as this will only damage the connector and make your lights go on and off when you don't want them to (if you're dealing with this type of light, this is an older vehicle, so wires can be stiff and brittle and need to be handled with care).

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

Tail lights and side marker lamps on older vehicles are often held on with screws that can be taken out from outside the vehicle. On this '71 Volkswagen Beetle, all you have to do is remove three screws. The lens lifts out of the way and the bulbs twist out of their housings underneath. If the bulbs are stuck in their sockets and break when you try to twist them, don't worry. You can grasp the edge of a broken bulb's brass base with a pair of needle nosed pliers to gently twist them out.

Side markers and turn signals are often the same way: unscrew and remove the lens, and the bulb will be underneath.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston

How To Keep Your Car's Lights Shining So You Don't Get A TicketS

There you have it, you're done! Have a beer, and while you're in the mood for dicking around with light fixtures, fix any holes you might have in the lenses with appropriately-colored tape. Your goal here is for your lights to be inconspicuous, so that you can slide right past Johnny Law's cold gaze without his batting an eye.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston