Your headlights are on
February 11, 2008 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Why was the U.S. so late in dropping incandescent sealed beam headlights on cars in favor of composite headlights (which feature separate bulb and lens).

This always bothered me because in the 70s and 80s European market cars looked so much cooler/more modern than U.S. cars. When those cars were imported here, they had to revert to sealed beams until late 1980s...turning this into this.
posted by punkfloyd to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
One reason was that the DOT/NHTSA was reluctant to approve composites until it was convinced that they could be properly aimed.
posted by TedW at 8:26 AM on February 11, 2008

Great question. I've always been interested in learning more about this change. This was a statutory issue, and the best answer I can gave you is that the wheels of legislative change take a long time to turn. For information on the process, take a look at this wikipedia entry:

Automakers faced an inherent conflict between NHTSA's stringent headlight legislation, which froze U.S. headlight technology in 1940, and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, which effectively mandated that automakers develop ways to improve the ability of the car to cleave the air. As a result, in the early 1980s, automakers lobbied for a modification of the mandate for fixed shape sealed-beam headlamps.

NHTSA adopted Ford's proposal for low-cost aerodynamic headlamps with polycarbonate lenses and transverse-filament bulbs.

posted by thejoshu at 8:27 AM on February 11, 2008

To add a little: this was discussed frequently in car magazines of the era, usually as an example of US bureaucratic bungling. If you can find some back issues you may find something about it.
posted by TedW at 8:31 AM on February 11, 2008

turning this into this.

Rover SD1, oh boy. Such a fine concept and so very poorly executed. My dad had a couple of them. I have never seen the US import version with those awful headlights - I wonder if North American sales reached 4 digits.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 8:45 AM on February 11, 2008

On what TedW said: ISTR a lengthy article in Car and Driver back in the day suggesting one bureaucratic impediment was the NHTSA's advisory board for headlight standards was largely composed of headlamp manufacturers.
posted by Opposite George at 8:55 AM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: @ Dan Brilliant: I think they were sold in the U.S in 1980 only. They might have sold 1,000.

@ thejoshu: The role of Ford here makes sense as the switch seemed to coincide with the introduction of the Taurus around 1986.
posted by punkfloyd at 8:55 AM on February 11, 2008

A lot of product laws in this country are not related to the merits of the products themselves. When I was a kid it was illegal to sell Coors Beer in Oregon.

Well, actually, it was illegal to sell beer which was not pasteurized, but Coors was the only one. Coors used a cold filtration process which achieved the same end, so there was no difference in product safety. BUT... Coors was non-union, and it was union money that convinced the legislature to make that law, as a way of applying pressure to the company to accept unions (mainly the Teamsters IIRC).

When I was a kid, it was against the law for restaurants to serve margarine. They had to serve butter. Not that there was any good reason for that, but the dairy industry did a lot of lobbying.

Rent Seeking has a long and inglorious history in this country, as does protectionism. In this case, the problem was that the companies that made sealed-beam headlights were different than those that made quartz halogen headlights, and they were using their lobbying money to keep halogen headlights from becoming the norm -- because they were better, and it was obvious that if they were legalized then the sealed beam headlight would go the way of the Dodo.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:50 AM on February 11, 2008

The sealed-beam law came about at first because headlight reflectors of the day would oxidize, reducing the light output - and the DOT (IIRC) deciced that a better way existed (a positive environmental seal to prevent the oxidization in the first place). Reflector technology improved but it took the Cibie BOBI lights - which had a sealed reflector -and- a QH bulb - to convince the DOT that a few alternatives were reasonable. IIRC the BOBI lights were available in the rectangular form factor too.

QH bulbs require an environment that isn't a good vacuum and is hot, in order to keep the halogen cycle going. That's fundamentally incompatible with a sealed beam. Improvements in reflector technology and the benefits of QH were together too much of a benefit and once it was obvious, the NHTSA reluctantly gave ground.
posted by jet_silver at 12:33 PM on February 11, 2008

« Older What can I do to support my wife through...   |   Best music editing program for Windows? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.