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.

Classics Monthly - - Classic Upgrades - WORDS PAUL WAGER

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.

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