I think it’s safe to say that BMW, perhaps even more than most carmakers, is very committed to certain visual elements that make up the company’s distinctive front end, the face of the car. The kidney grilles are, of course, the best-known and most distinctive element, but another key component of the face is BMW’s use of quad headlamps, a pair on each side, something the company has been using (off and on) since the early 1970s, at least. But what if I were to tell you that on many BMWs, there’s a dirty secret about those quad lamps? Would you be able to handle it? I hope so. I really do.
If I were to ask you to count the number of headlamps you see on each car up there, the modern BMW X5 and that classic BMW CS, I suspect you might give me an answer similar to this gentleman here:
Four lights. There are four lights, we can see them right there.
But can we, really? Let me show you something:
That’s from a technical guide to a 2017 BMW X3. See what looks like the inner headlamp? Don’t be fooled—it’s not a headlamp at all. It’s just a mostly-cylindrical extrusion of plastic that houses the ring of one of those LED DRLs. BMW just wants you to think it’s another headlamp.
I should mention that this line of thought was sparked by this tweet:
...and that led down a rabbit hole of fake BMW headlights, the results of which you’re stuck in right now.
And it’s not just this one model. I’m by no means the first one to realize this; owners have been realizing this illuminatory deception as far back as 2007 for cars like the BMW Z4, and the shock of the truth has been hitting BMW owners over and over again as they realize that on many of the headlight options and configurations, the inner lamps are dummies.
Our own writer Andy Kalmowitz saw it on his Z4:
It took him a while to deal with the shock and betrayal, but I think he’s okay now. As much as one can be, at least.
I reached out to BMW for an answer, and, to their credit, they responded:
The only BMW that comes to mind off the top of my head is the E70/E71 (X5/X6) which had true dummy inner headlights. This was a design decision as well as a way to have “corner lights” for states that had a height limit.
The 4 headlight design is a traditional BMW design cue and as such some vehicle might have limited functionality of the inner “headlight” e.g. only a corona ring. Rest assured though all BMW lighting equipment complies with FMVSS 108.
Of course, I never doubted that BMW’s lights were compliant with FMVSS 108, also known as Standard No. 108; Lamps, reflective devices, and associated equipment in the Code of Federal Regulations.
In fact, overall, I think BMW is doing some excellent lighting work, and they’ve incorporated a lot of advanced features into their lighting systems, including dynamic cornering lights. They also have a truly impressive array of lighting options for their various cars, some of which do have functional inner headlamps.
But not all. And, it’s my responsibility to call out carmakers when they do strange things like building fake headlights into a lamp unit so that a certain distinctive visual identity is maintained.
Look, aesthetics and identity are a big deal! I get it! I’d rather cars not have parts on them that are designed to look like functional things but aren’t actually functional, just as a matter of principle.
And, BMW isn’t alone here. I don’t even think they’re the first to commit headlight fakery. I used to have a ‘99 Volkswagen Golf that had a fake headlight lens inside the lamp unit that was just a chrome-colored plastic dome:
There was really no reason for that, since it’s not like VW was trying to keep some sort of classic Golf headlight signature there — they were just filling space, filling it with lies.
Sometimes, I think this practice is okay, especially when the light is replaced with something else functional and not intended to deceive, like how the Challenger replaces its inner headlamps with air intakes, something that goes back as far as Ford’s 1964 Thunderbolt drag-racing car:
That’s not intending to deceive; that’s just repurposing.
Our own David Tracy claims that Jeep (big surprise, right?) was the first to try this, with the front end design of the original Jeep Wagoneer:
David’s argument is that these round inner fake vents are actually supposed to feel like fake headlights, though I don’t think the design is deliberately headlampy enough to make this argument.
The shape and position are certainly headlamp-like, but the stamped metal, solid bits screwed onto those circular recesses are very vent-like, or maybe horn grille-like. And they’re fake for that, too, so if, and that’s a big if, they’re intended to read as headlamps and/or fake vents or horn grilles, they’re potentially three ambiguous fake things, all at once.
Life is complicated enough as it is. Truth is still important, and feels more and more elusive every day. We don’t need the warm, comforting glow of our nation’s headlamps to lie to us as well.