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About a month ago I published an article here on ViaRETRO about stylised headlights, and how they – if executed with a degree of designer talent – can become the facial expression of your car. Judging by our reader’s responses there was clearly scope for a part 2 on this theme…

Needless to say, there are plenty headlight designs which are dull, boring and nondescript. There are also those which are just plain wrong! But when done right, it makes the “face” of a car interesting. It grabs your attention and lures you in. Either because it lends the car an elegant, an evil, a sporty, an imposing, a mystical or perhaps a cute expression. In the first article on this topic I came up with ten suggestions which I felt achieved this. If you missed it, you can read – or just reread – that article here: Stylised Headlights: The Face of Your Car

Subsequently there was plenty of input from our readers, so here are a few more iconic headlight designs which really shouldn’t be bereft of the honour of being on this exclusive list:

1978 Porsche 928:
First of all a confession. In that first article, I did the Porsche 928 a terrible injustice by using it as the main picture for the article, and then not including it on the list. Not fair! The reason it should of course be on the list, is not just because it has pop-up headlights (which we all know are the epitome of cool), but more so because these particular pop-ups leave the actual glass still exposed even when the headlights are retracted giving the 928 quite a unique look. Furthermore, due to its shapely rear portion of the headlight housing, it’s also one of the few pop-up headlights which still look really well designed when in use.

1965 Buick Riviera:
The one car which was mentioned the most within the replies of the first article was the ’65 Buick Riviera. And with good reason too! How I managed to discard it is beyond me, as it’s not just an incredibly elegant and light (especially the cars vast size taken into account) design in general, but it also sports a set of thoroughly delicious headlights. When not in use, they are of course concealed as became so popular in the US towards the end of the sixties. But not just was the Riviera among of the first to start this trend, but witnessing the clamshell opening covers in action would have been pure sci-fi back in the day, and is to this day enough to stop any car enthusiast in his tracks. Many different variations of this theme were to follow from Chevy, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford and others, but none managed to better it.

1967 Toyota 2000GT:
Pop-up headlights are undeniably cool. Headlights covered behind a separate glass cover are potentially even cooler. So is it possible to beat either? Of course it is: Just combine the two! While that may seem very obvious, I can personally only think of one car which has ever been given that facial treatment from the factory. The ultimate icon of all Japanese sports cars: The Toyota 2000GT. The whole car is frankly a stunning execution of sensual, flowing curves each complimenting the next, but that face really does set it apart. So different and so effectful.

1968 Dodge Charger:
Within the replies of the first article, both the ’69 Chevrolet Camaro and the 1969 Dodge Charger (of “Bullitt” fame) were mentioned. There’s no disputing that they both have decidedly menacing facial expressions thanks to their very stylised concealed headlights and not least the cool manner in which these respectively sliding or revolving doors function. But with the ’65 Buick Riviera and the ’48 Tucker already being a given for this list, I didn’t want to include both the Camaro and the Charger, as it would all become a bit too Yank biased, and there were so many other cars that deserved mentioning too. In the end, I chose the Dodge as I personally feel it just manages to outdo the Camaro. That wide and deeply inset grill seems to just go on and on and on, as it expands out into those clever revolving headlight doors. How Steve McQueen managed to keep his cool with that intimidating face in his rearview mirror is beyond me!

1939 Opel Kapitan:
A late-thirties Opel is perhaps not the first thing which springs to mind when the subject is stylised headlights. However, this particular Opel has always stood out for me, and not because of its design in general, but purely because of those headlights. Having headlights flush and incorporated into the front wings was still very rare in the late thirties, but there were of course others. What makes the Opel Kapitän unique is that subtle vertical crease down the middle of the glass which extends into the surrounding wing. It’s such a small detail which could easily go unnoticed, but it’s so captivating once you spot it.

1967 Simca 1200S Coupé:
The basic design elements used to create the face of this cheeky little French coupé are not really hugely different from what we’ve seen several times both before and since on other cars. Yet the use of subtle little details somehow manages to add up to more than the sum of its parts. The inset headlights have been used to great effect on numerous other sports cars, but placing that small rectangular grill on the inside of the headlight cut-out is certainly different. Furthermore, positioning the auxiliary headlights within the low and protruding main grill gives the tiny GT great presence. A perfect example of how it’s totally unnecessary to go over the top in order to create something really special.

1964 Lamborghini 350 GT:
It almost defies belief that a car as beautiful and shapely as the 350 GT could possibly be any manufacturers very first attempt at producing an automobile. Yet that’s exactly what it was. Of course they did receive a helping hand by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan. And then there’s that face. It’s bold to say the least. A little bit like the Frogeye which was featured in the first article, only the Lamborghini doesn’t do cute – instead it takes the same design cues and makes them stylish, evocative and daring. An icon if ever there was one.

1948 Tucker 48:
The rare and rather bizarre Tucker 48 was mentioned in the replies of the first article too. It’s hardly a traditionally pretty design, and the face is certainly different as well with that centrally placed cyclops eye (technically it’s of course not a cyclops at all, as the Tucker has three eyes!). But I can see why it was mentioned, because whether it’s beautiful or not, the use of stylised headlights has certainly been put to use here in order to make the Tucker 48 stand out in the crowd. Sadly though, with a production of only 51 cars, you’re unlikely to meet one in person.

1968 Citroen DS:
In the first article I chose the Citroën SM to represent those funky directional headlights from the highly avant-garde French marque. Needless to say, that ruled out including the DS on the same list, even though it was the model which introduced the technology two years before the SM saw the light of day. With this second list, we can do the DS justice and give it due mention. While the DS debuted in 1955, we’re of course talking about the facelifted DS of 1968. It is in equal measures the aesthetics of the headlight design and the technology within which help the DS easily qualify for this list. In the replies of the first article, I also learnt that both the DS and the SM both used proper glass to cover the headlights rather than plexiglass.


1966 Prince Clipper:
Perhaps somewhat controversially, I included a utilitarian Japanese pickup on the first list in the form of the utterly cute 1969 Mazda Porter Cab. Before the outcry gathers momentum, please revisit the first article, take another look at the picture, and then tell me it wasn’t justified… In fact, I’m intent on doing it again, so let me introduce you to the 1966 Prince Clipper. As opposed to the Mazda Porter, the Prince is not a kei pickup, but rather a full-size pickup. As such, it’s probably appropriate that they didn’t go for the cute little puppy look on this one. However, it’s no less unique and eye-catching. Granted, it’s perhaps not so much the headlights alone which create this face, as double headlights placed within oval surrounds has been seen before. But it’s how they work in conjunction with the two similarly shaped and sized oval grills with offset stars within that really gives this pickup an air of style and sophistication.

What say you dear reader? Having now featured twenty outstanding headlight design, do we need a part 3 as well?



14 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt
    Very true – moving into youngtimers, BMW’s sleek 8-series was among the last cars to use pop-up headlights and did so with style. The latest headlight technology at the time allowed BMW to rethink pop-ups, so those on the 8-series don’t move up and into the airstream near as much as on other pop-up designs. Very cool indeed…
  2. Claus Ebberfeld
    Until your list includes the Mercury Cougar “razor” there will always be something missing, Anders.

    Regarding the Toyota: While I agree it is a great classic car in every possible way, I think its face is the worst aspect of its design. Regarding the “flowing curves each complimenting the next” I’d say that exactly those giant driving lights sat in the midst of the bumper line disprove that thesis. Sure it gives it a face – just not a pretty one!

  3. Tony Wawryk
    There’s an interesting – to me, at any rate – issue raised (sorry!) by these two articles, partly caused by their title – Stylised Headlights. With cars like the 928, the MB 280SE, and perhaps more than any other car mentioned in these pieces, the Toyota 2000GT, the headlights have been designed or styled to be a visible and prominent feature of the cars, and they’re on permanent display.
    On the other hand, cars like the Opel GT, Porsche 914, Lotus Elan and especially the Buick and Dodge Charger referenced above, have headlights that have in fact been designed to be hidden and not disrupt the flow of the car’s lines – just look at how smooth and unadorned – feature-LESS, if you will – the Charger is (and the better for it, to my eyes). The way the lights are exposed on each of these is ingenious to varying degrees, and in most cases the cars still look great with the lights exposed, but the primary design driver seems to be NOT to feature the headlights.
    Food for thought? Or am I talking bollocks (again)?
  4. Tony Wawryk
    Claus, I just saw your comment after I’d posted mine – I have to agree with you re the 2000GT, which looks much better with the pop-ups popped down…
  5. Anders Bilidt
    and @tony-wawryk
    Granted, I’ll be the first to admit that the Toyota 2000GT is no doubt a lot prettier with its pop-up lights retracted. But in all honesty, isn’t that the case for just about every single car ever designed with pop-up lights? I simply choose a picture with the pop-ups erected, as I was making the point about it having both pop-ups and glass-covered lights combined, and I felt that picture made the point. Nonetheless – just for the two of you – I have now added another picture of the 2000GT, this time with the pop-ups unpopped.
    Though Claus, I can’t possibly agree about the big driving lights disrupting the flowing lines. With the pop-ups down, those driving lights blend in perfectly and only add to its purposeful expression.

    I too love the early Cougar, but explain to me how it brings anything to the table which the Dodge Charger doesn’t do better?

    Food for thought indeed! You’re right – there seems to be two distinctly different approached to headlights. One is hiding them – making them feature-LESS as you say. And the other is by making them a stand-out part of the design. For me personally, both work – just in different ways. Take the Citroën SM and the 4-cylinder Alpine A310 featured in Part 1 and not least the Lamborghini 350GT and the Simca 1200S featured here in Part 2. To my eyes at least, they are every bit as stunning as is the Buick Riviera, Dodge Charger or Opel GT.

  6. Tony Wawryk
    @02anders – totally agree that many of the cars we’ve been discussing, with pop-up or integrated headlights, are equally stunning – I’ve always loved the Lamborghini (though I prefer it with the twin-headlight arrangement of the later 400 GT, which is basically the same car except with a larger engine).
    However, I’m not with you on the Toyota – even with the pop-ups down, the “face” is still unattractive. In profile, it’s gorgeous, but those huge driving lights spoil it for me, though not enough for me to say “no” to one, if I could afford it! I can’t help thinking though that the front would have looked better with lights that were smaller. It is undeniably distinctive, however, and perhaps the greatest classic out of Japan – incredibly rare and expensive. There’s a lovely red one on carandclassic, but of course, no price…
  7. Anders Bilidt
    It’s not just you we are targeting. ;-)
    Sadly we get a lot of spam on the site, and especially replies which include a link will more often than not need approving by one of us. I wish we didn’t have to do it, but such is the world in which we live…

    I must confess that I have a HUUUUUGE weak spot for the 2000GT. And they’re one of those designs that while beautiful on pics, just works a million times better when experienced in the flesh. All those curves and shapes just meld together and form something so sensual that words won’t suffice.
    About three years ago, I was even lucky enough to get a short ride in the passenger seat of a race spec 2000GT during a visit to Japan. Stunning experience which I shall never forget…

  8. Tony Wawryk
    aha, thanks for the explanation, Anders – I did think it might be the inclusion of a link. Will be more patient from now on (or just not include any links).

    Lucky you, to get a ride in a car of which only 351 were made and probably only a few survive!

  9. Claus Ebberfeld
    The best thing with riding in a 2000 GT is that you can’t see those driving lights!

    Ha, , just kidding. I agree so far that the huge faired driving lights add something. It’s only that the 2000 GT actually is a rather busy design with many other things going on that I think it would be better off without those lights.

    But then again, I suppose I could live with them if things got serious. I could park the car front against the wall and enjoy the truly great rear when approaching it…

  10. Anders Bilidt
    HeHeHe… Claus, I sense you’re not about to let me have my way on this one… :-)
    To me though – even including those big driving lights – the 2000GT is one of the prettiest, most elegant and complex sports car designs in history. Leagues ahead of other icons such as the E-type which looks decidedly clumsy and bloated when parked next to its Japanese competition…
  11. kim
    The central headlight of the Tucker was directional, few know that, but worked as on the DS
  12. Anders Bilidt

    We learn something new every day. And that’s what’s so great about the classic car community – there’s just soooo much knowledge to be found out there among the enthusiasts…

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