Modern Lighting for Not-so-Modern Cars

Jul 30, 2010

Today’s custom lighting isn’t just about being able to see the road, it’s also about how your customers are being seen. They expect the lights that you put on their car to keep them safe and look great doing it.

Since the earliest days of brass lamps, carbide generators and Prest-O-Lite cylinders, automotive lighting has been just as much about how a car looks as how well the driver sees. Pioneering motorists chose their lighting systems mainly for economical performance, but even by the late 1920s some intrepid individuals were trading downrange illumination for the aerodynamic illusion of Woodlite Parabolics.

Safety First

Arguably Woodlites (and some later hot rod lighting rigs) swapped style for safety, a deal no modern motorist can afford.

“Traffic can be a dangerous place for a hand-built hot rod, especially with so few modern drivers paying attention to the task at hand (i.e. driving),” said Greg Karpe of Dakota Digital Inc. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “Drivers today are accustomed to huge taillights filled with ultra-bright LEDs, while the [classic] cars we love were designed with small lights often equipped with a single incandescent bulb. To reduce the risk that your pride-and-joy ends up in the E.R., we’ve developed a full line of LED taillight kits that fit into OEM housings and use the original lenses.”

Karpe added that each kit also comes with its own voltage regulator, so it will maintain the same level of illumination at anywhere from 8-“18 volts.

“You can idle in traffic with your electric cooling fans, air conditioning and/or stereo on, and know your taillights will be bright enough to be seen,” he added.

For a more-subtle variation on an original style, It’s a Snap Wire and Cable of Bunnell, Florida, sells vintage-looking 7-inch headlights that feature modern H-4 halogen bulbs and built-in LED parking lights and turn signals.

“They have a crystal reflective backing to project a straighter beam of light,” said Richard Souza. “You can install clear turn signal lenses for a more original look.”

Another option is to shave and fill the original park-and-turns completely for an even more custom look. Modern imports have the park-and-turns integrated into the main headlight clusters, which should make the same arrangement a bit of a surprise on a 1955 Chevy.

Correctly Clear

That’s largely why, since 1985, most modern cars have featured composite headlights, with more and more lighting functions clustered behind aerodynamically shaped polycarbonate lenses. The first of these cars will be recognized as antiques by the AACA this year, but already many of the newer models (such as late-1980s Monte Carlos, for example) have attracted the attention of rodders and restorers.

But composite headlights have already shown a vulnerability all their own.

“If it’s not properly maintained and protected by waxing, the UV thermo-set coating on the lens fails from both exposure to ambient light from outside of the unit and the light that the unit actually produces, in addition to harsh chemicals and road conditions” said Bob Bergman of Meguiar’s Inc. in Irvine, California.

When this happens, headlights can end up looking cloudy, almost as if they’ve been sand-blasted.

Meguiar’s and several other companies manufacture kits and tools that can restore these lenses to like-new appearance. For example, Mothers‘ new PowerBall 4Lights Headlight Restoration Kit includes the Mothers PowerPlastics polish, a drill-mount polishing tool and some more specialized pads for tackling unusually heavy-duty damage, all in one package.

“The PowerBall 4Lights kit restores crystal clarity,” said Jim Dvorak of Mothers in Huntington Beach, California. “[It leaves] behind a protective, oxidation-inhibiting polymer layer to guard against UV damage and future degradation.”

Meguiar’s G1900K Headlight Restoration Kit will produce similar results, according to Bergman. The company also offers the more comprehensive MHSRKIT, a complete package of tools, pads and different sanding grits.

However, most kits will only improve the appearance of the headlight temporarily.

“Once the clearcoat has failed, the lens will yellow again in as little as 40-“60 days,” said Bergman.

To do the job right, you have to remove the damaged UV coating.

“Then [the kit] is designed to give you back your true site lines and clarity, improving both vehicle appearance and safety,” Bergman said.

The kit comes packaged with or without power tools to drive the various pads and buffers. Bergman noted that the MHSRKIT could also be used to restore the specialized lenses that were used on some pre-1940 American cars, and on some of the exotic imports of the 1950s and 1960s.

Interior Effects

Thanks to innovations from aftermarket manufacturers, now you can give your customers the comfort of new-car-style lighting inside their car, as well as out.

“We’re always looking for ways to use technology to help you enjoy your hot rod a little more,” said Karpe of Dakota Digital. “The cars most people drive today as their daily commuters-even base models-are packed with features their older hot rods can’t touch. Among the things that people seem to miss in their specialty vehicles are automatic headlights, retained accessory power when the ignition is off and a dome light that stays on for a bit once the doors are closed.

“Recognizing these needs, we developed the PAC-1300, an automatic headlight control with retained accessory power and dome light control,” continued Karpe. “It will automatically turn on the vehicle’s headlights when conditions require and then turn them off when ambient light again allows safe driving without them.”

The headlights and dome light remain on for a user-selectable period after the vehicle is exited-and then will fade to off as in a modern car.

“Taking another page from current OEM features, PAC-1300 will allow accessories to be used for up to 20 minutes with the key off, or until the door is opened,” Karpe said.

Dark Spots

The lighting experts shared some tips on installing lighting and associated electrical equipment.

“Check all your grounds,” said Karpe. “The majority of our tech calls relating to trouble with a product are traced back to grounding issues or other wiring issues. Take your time, read the instructions and don’t be afraid to call our tech line if you have a question.”

Daryl Brockman of Optima Batteries in Milwaukee agreed that improper grounding is often the cause of electrical problems.

“We see folks who build very nice cars,” he said. “They powdercoat the frame so the bottom of the car is as beautiful as the top of the car. One of the most-common problems we see is inadequate grounding, especially if they relocate the battery. We recommend that you run a cable not just from the battery to the frame, but all the way back to the engine block.”

As with any part of a car that’s being restored, safety should be your primary concern; however, there’s no doubt that aesthetics play a large part in the products that are chosen to go into it. Luckily, there are aftermarket lighting products that can satisfy both these demands.