Car Writers Were Big Mad About Rectangular Headlights

Illustration for article titled Car Writers Were Big Mad About Rectangular Headlights
Illustration: GM/Jason Torchinsky

Just in case you think that the era where you can read about car journalists like myself having, big, vulnerable, heaving feelings about things like turn signals and headlights is something new, I think I can show you this is not the case. No, car writerfolk have long given many heartfelt shits about things like this, and I can prove it with this late 1970s Autoweek article about rectangular headlamps. The writer is not into this “automotive styling fad.”

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Photo: Autoweek

The autojourno in question here was Bob Irvin, who was something of a legend of the business, so it’s not like this was coming from some nobody — people listened to Bob, and if he has something to say about these new be-cornerned headlights, then, dammit, listen.

I actually think Irvin’s point here is a valid one, because he’s calling out GM on their claim that the new headlights are a safety innovation because they’d allow for lower hood lines, and, as a result, better visibility.

Irvin isn’t convinced:

However, the way GM is using rectangular lights makes critics wonder if that “safety” claim was ever more than just a publicity ploy to win federal acceptance of rectangular lights.

He then goes on to note, quite accurately, that GM’s redesigns to include the square lamps did not include any significant lowering of hood lines at all.

For example, check out the 1975 round-light Chevy Monte Carlo compared to the ’76 rectangular light Monte Carlo:

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Photo: GM
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Man, GM wasn’t even pretending to give a shit about lower hood lines. Look at that ’76 Monte Carlo — they stacked the lights vertically, the exact opposite of what you’d do if you even gave one cheap plastic damn about low hood lines.

It’s pretty obvious GM just wanted rectangular lamps as a new styling element, and the safety thing was a half-assed justification to get the notoriously conservative Federal lighting regulators to agree to try something as radical as a non-round headlamp.

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Of course, GM wasn’t the first to try a rectangular headlight — back in 1961 both Ford of Germany’s Taunus and Citroën’s Ami 6 experimented with non-round headlights, Ford trying out some more ovoid shapes, and Citroën using almost-rectangular, maybe television tube-shaped lamps:

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Photo: Ford, Citroën
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In the U.S., though, the rectangular lamps were novel, and seem to have been designed by GM and built exclusively in-house for the first year or so (I’m guessing that means AC Delco) and had a “trial use” period that was to end in August of 1976, but it looks like by then all of the Big Three agreed to give the rectangular lights a go, and they got approved.

Interestingly, this article notes that the lights are significantly more expensive (that would change as manufacturing ramped up) and speculates that while they expect rectangular lamps to dominate the next few years,

...maybe in the 1980s they will discover round lamps again.

In reality, the ’80s proved to be the biggest era for rectangular lamps, with almost all mainstream cars switching over to them, and that continued until 1983, when Ford petitioned to have shaped plastic lamps with removable bulbs allowed in the rules, which were first used on the 1984 Lincoln Continental Mark VII.

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Photo: Ford

This was by far a bigger innovation than rectangular lights, and allowed for the myriad of custom headlamp designs seen today.

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But, back to Irvin’s article; I get that it’s over four decades too late to say this, but good on Irvin for calling out some very obvious bullshit from GM — even if that bullshit may have actually been needed to placate America’s strangely restrictive lighting rulemakers.

There’s nothing wrong with rectangular headlights — on the contrary, they were a styling innovation at the time and absolutely worth pursuing for that reason alone.

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Was anyone really buying the safety argument, though? I doubt it, but I guess it was enough to get the FMVSS 108 regulations amended, so maybe in the end it was worth it.

(Thanks, Josh!)

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

DISCUSSION

toobs-n-stuff
Toobs-n-stuff

you know how much cheaper it was to replace a busted headlight back in the good old sealed beam days?

fuck modern headlights.