Let there be light
Classic lighting upgrades have come a long way in recent years and now there’s no excuse not to see where you’re going.
One of the easiest ways to improve the performance of your classic at night is to fit better lighting: after all, that 200bhp engine build isn’t much help if you can’t see where you’re going and many classics do leave a lot to be desired in the lighting stakes.
This can be down to several factors: in many ’50s cars you might be running a six-volt system which leaves you on the back foot even when it’s all working as it should. Throw in the often ageing and corroded wiring system of a 60-year-old car and the voltage drop can be proportionally massive – especially on a rear-engined car like the VW Beetle where the length of wiring from the dynamo at the rear to the lights at the front can see that six volts down to a pitiful four or five at the bulb.
Things are better with a conventional 12-volt set-up but the original design can still restrict any upgrades you might make. A surprising number of cars even well into the ’80s passed the entire current for the headlights through the switch itself, which will quickly burn out its contacts if uprated bulbs are fitted. And of course if the car still runs a dynamo rather than an alternator then it won’t be able to sustain the current demand of brighter modern bulbs, especially at lower engine speeds.
The simplest upgrade then is to add a relay system in order to take the high current for the lighting directly to the lamp, using the original switch to pass only the low-current feed to trigger the relays. A set of heavy-duty relays (typically using four – one for each low and high beam) can then be wired directly to the battery with heavy-duty cable and you’re then in a position to run brighter bulbs without overloading the factory wiring.
Assuming your lamp units can take a halogen bulb, then it’s possible to run bulbs as bright as 130w/90 in a twin-filament set-up, but the heat they generate means they won’t last long. A more conservative upgrade is to 80w or 100w for the main beam, which is easier to do in systems with four lamps.
This can also work wonders with a six-volt system too and a feeble original 35w six-volt bulb can be uprated to a 45/40w item from specialist suppliers.
The big upgrade back in the day used to be halogen bulbs, which were as much of a jump over tungsten bulbs as modern ‘Xenon’ HID lights are over the halogens.
For many British classics the switch to halogen bulbs didn’t take place until the late ’70s and unfortunately, it’s not as simple as fitting new bulbs to your existing lamps: they just won’t fit.
Taking the MGB as an example, Moss can supply a conversion kit for the pre-’75 cars at £40 using Wipac lamps or £96 using Lucas units. Both take the standard H4 bulb and if you’re really cracking on in those night stages then Moss can also supply 100/80w bulbs in place of the standard 60/55.
Similar kits are offered for many other cars of the era which originally used the same headlights, including the TRs and other MGs
Until very recently, the ultimate upgrade for older cars used to be the HID ‘xenon’ lighting kits. As sold with new cars, these gas discharge lights use a completely different headlight housing, but the aftermarket rapidly caught up and now it’s possible to buy a complete kit with plug-andplay wiring and bulbs designed to fit the standard holders.
There is one note of caution though: Construction and Use regulations require new cars with HID lamps to be fitted with an automatic headlamp levelling system to avoid dazzling oncoming drivers and obviously this can’t be done with conversion kits. The law is a grey area on the subject but it’s certainly important to have the beams adjusted correctly to avoid being pulled over.
More recently though, LED bulbs have been developed to the point where they’re a viable alternative to the HID conversions and can also be used in other locations on the car, too.
We met up with Gil Keane at the 4Sight Lighting Company (www. bettercarlighting.co.uk) recently and discovered just how well LED lighting technology lends itself to older cars. The great advantage with LEDs is that all the energy supplied to the unit is converted into photons of light, wasting no energy to heat up a filament. This also means that as well as being more energy-efficient, they don’t generate the heat of a traditional bulb, which makes it possible to run brighter stop, tail and indicator lights where the design of many older lights would mean brighter traditional bulbs would simply overheat and fail – or melt the lens and reflector.
A case in point is 4Sight’s a neat solution for the rear end of the Jaguar XK120, which flashes orange as an indicator and glows red for the tail light, then brighter red for a brake light. It all fits inside the standard housing, can be removed if required and takes a fraction of the current of the rather dim original bulbs.
A similar approach is adopted for an elegant solution allowing classic Mustangs to meet European approval, with three LED strips mounted on a matching backplate complete with waterproof seal which mates perfectly to the original lens. The units glow red, bright red and flashing orange with an option to have a neat directional strobing effect for the turn signals.
For cars with trafficators, 4Sight can supply a neat LED unit to replace the original festoon bulb which as well as being brighter than the original also leaves some juice spare to lift the arm up properly.
It’s all a far cry from the rows of big rally lamps bolted to a wobbly badge bar in front of the grille and shows just how well modern technology can be adapted to subtly improve the classic experience.
Upgrading the bulbs in headlights and driving lamps can overload the switch on some older cars, so it’s recommended to wire relays into the circuit so the switch only handles the low current to fire the relays.
LED technology allows a single lamp to flash amber for indicators or shine a steady red for side and brake lights.
Uprated bulbs (above right) work well but HID upgrades (above left) are the ultimate. LEDs are the future (below).
Upgrading bulbs to more efficient ones shouldn’t require the original light fittings to be altered or changed.