Hidden Headlights

Automotive Mileposts
1968 Chevrolet Caprice concealed headlights

1968 Chevrolet Caprice with optional concealed headlights
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A necessary safety feature could be hidden by day, and exposed by night...and the process of doing so became a show stopper!

1965 Buick Riviera

Concealed headlights have appeared on many automotive makes and models over the years (see partial list, at right). Often found on luxury models or muscle cars, concealed headlights can be a design element as well as a functional consideration, depending on the car. Before the mid-sixties, hidden headlights were rarely seen, and were a novelty that appeared on just a few cars. But beginning with the 1965 Buick Riviera, they became a popular feature for the rest of the decade, although their moment at the top would be brief. In fact, the very car that was responsible for their popularity can also be credited in part for their demise.

There were several popular ways to incorporate this feature, and most were determined by styling considerations. Covers over the lights that matched the surrounding panels be they grille work or a painted nose cone of some type could be made to flip up, rotate up or down, or slide sideways while the headlamps themselves remained stationary. Or the assemblies the headlamps were mounted to could rotate to expose or conceal the beams. This was normally accomplished with vacuum or electrical power, and sometimes multiple motors were used as well.

These systems were relatively trouble free, however when a widespread malfunction occurred, it didn't take long for it to be noticed by the Department of Transportation, since automobile lighting systems were considered a safety issue. Usually, the cover or assembly would fail to move and expose the lights when the headlights were turned on, which made the car unsafe to drive at night. Often, all that was needed was a gentle push on the moving part to free it up, but sometimes a loose or kinked vacuum line was to blame, or a loose electrical connection or bad relay was the culprit. At any rate, before long concealed headlights on automobiles had caught the attention of the Federal Government, and it wasn't long before regulations were being enacted to protect the public.

One of the concerns that caught attention was the manner in which the 1966 Buick Riviera headlights rotated into position. On this particular model, the headlight assembly in its entirety rotated to expose the beams. When off, the headlights would point straight up, facing the underside of the closed hood. A matching grille panel on the rotating assembly aligned with the stationary grille which provided the hidden effect. The issue was what happened when the lights were turned on. Once turned on, the sealed beams themselves lit up immediately, and the assembly began to rotate to expose the lights. For a brief second, while rotating, the lights could blind oncoming drivers as they rotated down into position.

Image: 1969 Ford Thunderbird concealed headlamp

To be fair, the 1966 Riviera wasn't the only car with this design. All Rivieras from 1966-1969 used this design, as did the 1968-1969 Oldsmobile Toronados. Other manufacturers were getting complaints about their designs as well, especially from consumers. For instance, in 1969 Ford added springs to the hidden headlight feature on all of its cars so equipped. These springs were designed to open the covers if a problem developed with the vacuum system, which meant lots of new Fords were sitting around with half-open headlight covers if they hadn't been started in a few days.

For the 1969 model year, a fail-safe design was required that opened the covers automatically in the event of a vacuum system failure, and beginning in 1970, a requirement was in place that specified the covers took no more than 3 seconds to open. Actually, the 3-second limit was slated for 1969, but the car companies said they needed another year to develop the mechanism that would allow that. It is reported that the fail-safe design was proposed after some early 1967 Cougar models developed a problem that would cause the headlights to disappear at night. The problem was promptly corrected, but Washington received enough complaints about the concealed headlamp design that they felt legislation was required.

As luck would have it, the public wasn't as enamored with hidden headlights as they had been, due in part to problems with them, so quite a few cars dropped them for 1970. The cars that continued with them had new standards to meet, such as the amount of time it took for the cover to move out of the way and expose the headlights would be limited to a maximum of 4 seconds. This meant that fancy rotating assemblies would now (in most cases) be history. And more systems would be operated electrically, as it was faster for an electric motor to accomplish this task than it was for a vacuum motor, although some makes such as Lincoln (1970-1984), Mercury (1970-1978 Marquis), and Ford (1975-1978 LTD Landau), continued with vacuum motors assisted by powerful springs to snap the covers open quickly when the headlights were turned on.

In the case of Lincoln, the springs became an issue. Due to the design, vacuum was required to maintain the covers in the closed position, and since the springs were constantly attempting to open the covers, the leak down rate for the vacuum system could happen rather quickly. This meant new Lincolns sitting on dealer lots with the headlight covers partially or fully open. This required Lincoln dealers to start their in-stock units frequently enough to keep the vacuum reservoirs replenished, as the appearance of cars for sale with open covers wasn't a good selling feature.

Another issue involving the springs was fuel economy. Internal documents at Ford indicated that fuel economy would suffer to some extent, as the engine was constantly fighting the springs by applying vacuum to keep the covers down. This was most evident on the 1969 Ford Thunderbird and 1969-1971 Continental Mark III, which used one vacuum motor for each headlight cover. Later cars would use just one motor to reduce engine load, and minimize the possibility of vacuum leaks and the amount of vacuum required during engine shut down to maintain the covers in the closed position.

Still, it wasn't unusual to see Ford products of this era with their covers slowly creeping open if the car hadn't been driven recently. And as they aged, this leak down rate could happen fairly quickly, sometimes within a matter of hours, which was an issue for dealers attempting to sell used cars with hidden headlights. Admittedly, there was a malfunction somewhere causing this, but the fact is that the electric motors used by other manufacturers seemed to perform better over a longer period of time, without the need for repairs when they were only a few years old.

Today, it's rare to see cars on the road of any vintage with concealed headlights, and even more rare to find them in operable condition. Time takes its toll on all things mechanical, and when rotating parts get dirty or rusty, or vacuum seals dry up and crack, problems arise.

Hidden headlights have now gone the way of all the other things that used to make automobiles unique, including styling touches that made them stand out. Add them to the list with interiors offered in more than just black, gray, and beige; offering more than just 5 exterior paint colors (you used to be able to choose from 20...sometimes more!); and the ability to order options individually, instead of paying for a package with a bunch of stuff you really don't want.

All this comes at a time when the American automobile industry is reeling from lack of sales and huge losses. At the time of this writing, General Motors and Chrysler are talking about merging. GM has enough cash to last 12 months, and Ford has enough to make it 18.

Could it be the time has come for the American auto makers to stop trying to build foreign cars and give Americans what they want? Try something new...or rather, old...for a change. Give people what they want and they just might buy it!

Where did the headlights go?
Image: 1965 Buick Riviera
There's little doubt that concealing the headlights gave this 1965 Riviera an incredibly distinctive frontal appearance

(Psst...the headlights are hidden behind the shields tucked in under the visored front fenders. The shields split in half horizontally when the headlight switch is turned on, allowing the top half of the grille to retract upward, and the lower half to disappear below the headlights!


(Partial list)


Bottom Line: Direction of cover movement to expose lamps and other details

1936-1937 Cord 810 (S)
Assembly flips up from fender; manually crank operated from inside car (handle on each side of instrument panel, one for each cover)

1942 DeSoto (S)
Assembly rotates upward

1963-2004 Chevrolet Corvette (S)
Flips and rotates upward 1963-1967 and 1983-2004; assembly rises up 1968-1982

1965-1969 Buick Riviera (S)
Clamshell design in 1965, top raises and bottom lowers; assembly rotates downward 1966-1969

1966-1971 Dodge Charger (S—1966-1970; O—1971-1972)
Grille assembly rotates 180 degrees 1966-1967; covers rotate upwards 1968-1972

1966-1969 Oldsmobile Toronado (S)
Headlight assembly rises up 1966-1967; assembly rotates downward 1968-1969

1967-1968 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado (S)
Cover rotates downward; vacuum operated

1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaro (O)
Cover slides inboard behind grille; electrically operated 1967; vacuum operated 1968-1969

1967-1969 Ford Thunderbird (S)
Cover rotates upward; two vacuum motors; 1969-only spring loaded internally

1967-1970 Mercury Cougar (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1967-1968 Pontiac Grand Prix (S)
Cover rotates upward

1968-1969 Chevrolet Caprice (O)
Two piece cover - lower section raises up over lights and header section above is hinged at top and flips up under header panel 1967-1968; 1969 cover rotates upward

1968-1971 Chrysler 300 (S)
Cover rotates upward

1968-1970 Ford Galaxie 500 XL (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1968-1970 Ford LTD and Country Squire (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1968-1969 Pontiac GTO (S)
Cover rotates downward; vacuum operated

1969-1975 Chrysler Imperial (S)
Cover rotates upward; electrically-operated, spring assisted

1969-1971 Continental Mark III (S)
Cover rotates upward; two vacuum motors; spring loaded internally

1969-1978 Mercury Marquis and Colony Park (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1970 Ford Ranchero (GT only) (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1970 Ford Torino (Brougham only) (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1970-1979 Lincoln Continental (Sedan, Coupe, Town Car, and Town Coupe) (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1970 Mercury Montego MX Brougham, Cyclone, Cyclone GT, and Cyclone Spoiler (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1970-1971 Plymouth Fury (Sport and Gran Coupe; 1971 only Sport Suburban Wagon) (S)
Cover rotates upward; electrically-operated

1970 Plymouth Superbird (S)
Headlight assembly rises up; vacuum operated

1972-1976 Continental Mark IV (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1972-1973 Dodge Monaco (S)
Cover retracts downward

1972 Plymouth Fury III (O)

1974-1976 Bricklin SV-1 (S)
Assembly rises up; vacuum operated; two vacuum motors

1975-1978 Ford LTD Landau and Country Squire (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1976-1981 Chrysler New Yorker (S)

1976-1978 Dodge Royal Monaco (S)

1977-1979 Continental Mark V (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated

1977-1983 Ford Thunderbird (S)
Cover rotates upward; vacuum operated; single motor

1979-1981 Dodge St. Regis (clear covers) (S)

1978-1979 Dodge Magnum (clear covers) (S)

1981-1983 Chrysler Imperial (S)

1980-1984 Continental Mark VI (S)
Cover rotates upward; two vacuum motors; spring loaded

1986-1992 Oldsmobile Toronado (S)

1987-1992 Chrysler LeBaron (Coupe and Convertible) (S)

1988-1991 Buick Reatta (S)

1988-1993 Chrysler New Yorker (S)

1990-1993 Chrysler Fifth Avenue (S)

1990-1993 Chrysler Imperial (S)