Light work

Can’t see where you’re go­ing? We tackle restor­ing the faded plas­tic head­light lenses which are be­com­ing a com­mon prob­lem on mod­ern clas­sics.

Classics Monthly - - Headlight Refurb - WORDS AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY PAUL WAGER

Al though I’ve al­ways loved old cars, I’m gen­er­ally all in favour of new tech­nol­ogy: in my mod­ern ev­ery­day car, I’m happy know­ing there are a dozen airbags pro­tect­ing my fam­ily, while the hands-free phone, ABS brakes and dig­i­tal ra­dio all make for a gen­er­ally pleas­ant trip.

Just some­times though, you won­der why a par­tic­u­lar idea ever made it to pro­duc­tion at all and whether it is in fact gen­uine progress or a case of rein­vent­ing the wheel. A prime ex­am­ple must be the ad­vent of the plas­tic car head­light lens. No, it won’t shat­ter when hit by a stone but nei­ther is it bul­let­proof ei­ther and while it might be lighter than a glass equiv­a­lent is there re­ally any­thing in it?

The an­swer quite pos­si­bly is that it’s cheaper to mould a plas­tic lens to the com­plex shape re­quired to suit a par­tic­u­lar front-end style than it is to tool up for a glass unit and that’s the rea­son why plas­tic lenses started to be­come com­mon in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Mod­ern plas­tics tech­nol­ogy is clever stuff and when new you some­times had to tap the light with a fin­ger to de­ter­mine whether it was glass or plas­tic, but throw in the ef­fects of sev­eral years’ worth of road dirt and UV light and sud­denly it’s all too ob­vi­ous.

One prob­lem which af­flicted the ear­li­est plas­tic head­light de­signs was a gen­eral yel­low­ing of the sur­face which tended to colour the light out­put even if it didn’t re­strict the light it­self too much. Im­proved plas­tics gen­er­ally had this sorted by the mid ’90s but the prob­lem of road dirt scour­ing the lenses re­mained and is still a prob­lem.

Many cars we now re­gard as mod­ern clas­sics sport plas­tic head­lights or at least plas­tic in­di­ca­tors or side­lights and the list in­cludes the early Mon­deo, most VAG cars in­clud­ing the Audi TT and late ’90s Jaguars to men­tion just a few.

Many of these are now suf­fer­ing badly to the point where ex­ces­sively cloudy lenses will po­ten­tially be an MoT fail­ure point. It’s not just older cars ei­ther: just look at the lights on the next MkV Golf you see and it’s quite likely to be go­ing the same way.

For a mod­ern car it’s sim­ple enough to buy a pair of used lights when the prob­lem be­comes too bad, but on older cars where parts sup­ply is an is­sue it’s not al­ways that easy. There is how­ever an easy way out and you’ll prob­a­bly have seen head­light re­fur­bish­ing kits for sale. With a bit of skill and pa­tience though, it’s easy to do the job your­self with ma­te­rial you’ve al­ready got in the garage.

Es­sen­tially the trick is to flat the sur­face of the light with abra­sive pa­per and then pol­ish it back to a gloss, much like you’d do with paint­work. The trick is not to be too heavy­handed with the pol­ish­ing which will heat up the plas­tic lens too much. Here’s how we got on with the lights on our own Jaguar.

2 Our Mk1 Mon­deo uses glass lenses for the main lights but the in­di­ca­tors are clear plas­tic and be­com­ing dull. They’re just as much of a safety fea­ture as the head­lights and re­spond just as well to pol­ish­ing. That con­den­sa­tion isn’t help­ing ei­ther...

1 Not only are these lights tiny but they’re no­tice­ably pit­ted and dull af­ter 123,000 miles and 16 years. The light out­put is truly ter­ri­ble, de­spite bet­ter bulbs.

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