How it works
Pop up headlamps
‘The heyday of the hidden headlight was undoubtedly the 1980s-90s’
Pop-up or hidden headlights were at first a fashion item. Allegedly introduced to the world in 1936, on the Cord 810, early pop-ups were cumbersome, hand-cranked affairs, operated from within the car. It wasn’t until the swinging 1960s that, by then with automatic operation, they became a popular aerodynamic tool as well as a styling feature.
Hiding the headlights away below the bonnet line allowed car stylists to lower the frontal profile of vehicles, often helpful when working with aerodynamics, but also adding a natty ‘state of the art’ gizmo in an age when progress in all fields of human activity seemed hugely amplified.
American legislation of the time also helped hidden headlights gain popularity, as it rigidly dictated that lamps must be of set sizes, either round or rectangular and at a certain height, leaving car designers somewhat hamstrung.
The answer was to bury the lights out of sight by day and bring them out in the dark, when fewer folk would notice the consequent impact on styling and only the drivers of the vehicles would see there were now two annoying blind spots inconveniently perched up front.
Often, cars of the 1960s and ’70s used vacuum-operated bellows to raise and lower the lamp pods, sometimes with the failsafe of a vacuum reservoir keeping the headlights lowered, so that if this source was lost, the headlights would pop up, even if switched off.
As a consequence, headlamp switching could be a cumbersome combination of electrical and vacuum operation, but this at least led to a satisfactory reliability level.
Time progressed and small electric motors became more robust, as they needed to be, operating within the vibrating environs of a motor car. These then powered later pop-up headlights and offered connectivity with electronic control units.
The heyday of the hidden headlight was, arguably the 1980s-90s, with a plethora of low frontal profile car designs and a resurgence in the popularity of the two-seater sports car, led by the now evergreen Toyota MR2 and Mazda MX-5.
However, time and newer automotive legislation has not been kind to things that pop up from bonnet lines with the potential to cause injuries in a crash. Perhaps, somewhat unsurprisingly, the hidden headlight is all but a thing of the past. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out and say that there isn’t a current regular production car which features them. But they’re still out there upfront on our classics, providing a talking point for those unfamiliar with such exotic components.
Motor or vacuum failures can leave cars ‘winking’ at oncoming motorists and, in the latter case, provide plenty of headaches for those unfamiliar with the type.
Rubber hoses in particular are susceptible to hardening and cracking with age, leading to leaks, which in some severe cases may lead to running issues.