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Lighting the night: high power headlamps for muscle cars

classic Mopar headlightsQuick, which automaker invented sealed beam head lamps, then promptly gave away the design to the lamp manufacturers? Who was first with quartz-halogen lighting? Projector lamps? Right, the former Chrysler Corporation.

Unfortunately, starting in the mid-early ’90s, Chrysler also produced some of the worst headlights ever seen (or not seen!) But we digress.

Sealed beams, with their hermetically sealed glass housings, aluminum-particle reflector, and plain tungsten filaments, were pretty much unchanged from their introduction in 1940 right through the end of the muscle car era in the early ’70s. During this entire span, the only significant change was the introduction of the smaller, 5-3/4” “quad” lamps in 1957-58. Rectangular sealed beams were added in the mid ’70s.


Federal specifications to the contrary, some of us who regularly drove at better-than-legal speeds, needed better-than-legal-headlamps. Back in ’67, we installed European quartz-iodine setups with replaceable H4 high/low and H1 high beam bulbs. They were better, but not perfect. Sometimes the unsealed reflectors rusted, reducing light output drastically. The European asymmetrical low-beam pattern had a sharp cutoff at the top, and was wider and more even on the road. The cutoff took some getting used to, especially on bumpy or undulating roads. But get out on a high-speed 2-lane, hit the brights, and drop the hammer. One taste of that and you could never go back. Some of us (guess who?) even went so far as to install an aircraft landing lamp in place of a high beam on quad-lamp cars.

It was in that same time period, the late '60s, that Ma Mopar introduced her waycool Super-Lite 85 watt "mid beam" driving lamp option. The mid beam was designed to be brighter and longer-reaching than traditional low beams, without nailing oncoming traffic with blinding glare or blinding you with excessive backscatter.

This quartz-halogen projection system was designed to fill a need that cries out even more today: With traffic levels as they are, the average motorist uses low beams over 90% of the time. And, probably, 50% of that time those beams are being overdriven.

Drive any suburban freeway, and you'll get the picture: You need the high beams at 75 MPH, but there's too much oncoming traffic, and/or too narrow a center median. So, you drive along at a speed where it'll take you 250+ feet to stop, but you can see only 150 feet. Dangerous.

special headlampsWestinghouse devised a mid-beam unit based on the standard 5-3/4” round sealed beam size around 1973 and was awaiting government approval. Unfortunately, this never came, mostly because nobody could devise a reliable, simple to comprehend system for quickly switching among the three beams. More on that in a moment.

What's the best solution now? The fix is a modernized version of those Euro lights. But which ones? To narrow the choice, we consulted with noted automotive lighting expert, and lifelong Mopar afficionado, Daniel Stern.

We'd run a set of Dan Stern's Cibie H4 units on the Green Brick, and were duly impressed. They were so good that they allowed us to dispense with the bumper-mounted add-on extra driving lights we needed previously.

On the Bold Beeper, we had, about a decade ago, installed some elCheapo H4 (Euro-style, Asian-made) outer hi/lo lamps. We coupled this with a standard halogen sealed hi-beam on the passenger's side, and kept our secret weapon for the left side hi-beam: A number 4537 aircraft landing lamp! This 100-watt pencil beam was exactly what the doctor ordered for high-speed interstate or straight 2-lanes. But, it didn't take long for those Asian H4s to corrode and dim out, and the beam pattern was never very good anyway, so we took the easy way out and replaced 'em with parts-store halogen sealed beams, which were also a disappointment.

sealed beams

headlightsSo it was clearly (actually, dimly) time for a rethink and upgrade. But upgrade to what? Stern had a few ideas. First, he gave us a shocking bit of news: we weren't crazy, those parts-store halogens are actually inferior to the stock, 1969, plain incandescent stockers when they were new. This is because, for fuel economy, when the halogens (the outers in a standard round 4-lamp setup) came out in 1980, the wattage of the low beam was reduced from 55 to 35 watts. So, even with the greater power-to-light efficiency of halogen technology, there was still noticeably less light on the road. The only real advantage, then, to the “improved” halogens was somewhat whiter light. What a ripoff.

Stern then went into a long technical dissertation about why, generally, any hi-lo lamp is a compromise, especially ones with smallish reflectors as found in all 4-lamp Mopars. In his view, you're better off with a properly designed pair of low-beam-only lamps on the outers, and a pair of killer high-beam-only lamps on the inners. And that's what he sent us, in the form of a cool Cibie CSR setup made by Valeo.

He also sent us a few other interesting lamps to play with: The first is a Westinghouse 7701 mid beam, a tungsten sealed beam designed to do the same midbeam job as the old Dodge Super-Lite. The second (this is cool) is an ultra high efficiency "Halogen Infrared" spot-beam replacement for our old 4537 aircraft lamp: GE number H7680HIR.

This 80-watt beauty has about the same vertical beam spread as the 4537, and an even narrower horizontal spread: 6.5 vs. 11 degrees. This makes it startlingly bright, although, while the narrower beam spread throws a ton of light well down the road, it should be used in combination with a wider-spread high beam unit on the other side, to provide beam width and fill for the twisty roads. ’Course, if you live in Kansas ...

testing headlamps and headlight setups

Stern also sent us a parts package containing relays, fuse holders, sockets, plugs and other goodies, explaining that on most cars — even the newer cars — the headlamp wiring is spec'd by beancounters instead of engineers, and tends to starve the bulbs for power. We won't get into Stern's fancy math, but here's an example: Your headlamp circuit drops 0.8v. Less than one volt, looks small, right? Wrong! That “small” 0.8v drop costs you 20% of your light; a headlight bulb that's supposed to put out 1000 lumens only puts out 800. We used Stern's relays and other bits together with our own 12-gauge wire to create a new heavy-duty, high-current, low-loss circuit for our headlamps' go-juice (fed, and fused, directly from the alternator stud), and we took some measurements with a light meter positioned on a tripod one foot from the lamp. A regulated charger was hooked up to keep the battery voltage constant at 13.2v. With the stock headlamp circuit hooked up, the right low beam was seeing just 11. 7v. The left lamp was a little better off at 11.9v. (shorter wire). The light meter told us the right lamp (a halogen sealed beam) was putting out an even 2,000 foot-candles.

After we put in the relays and heavy-gauge wire, the right and left headlamps were both seeing 13.13v, and the light meter reading had jumped to 2,794. That's about 40% more light, and the appearance of the operating headlamp was noticeably whiter.

electrical parts

But “better” just doesn't get the job done for us here at E-booger Labs, so we put in Stern's Cibie CSR lights and looked at the light meter again: 7,340 foot-candles of bright white light; that's almost four times more light than we started with. Just for kicks, we hooked up the stock wiring to the new lamps, and the meter reading dropped to 5,750. The lesson is clear: If you want to see, you run good wires to good lights, but even the sealed beams work better when properly fed.

After carefully aiming the new lights (very important), we went for a nighttime shakedown. It was immediately clear that the light meter wasn't telling lies, and neither was Stern: These lights kick serious butt. They're easily as good as the lights on some of the current-model luxo cars we've tried. The low beams are super wide, even and long-reaching. The horizontal cutoff at the top left side of each beam keeps glare out of other drivers' eyes, while the angled upsweep at the top right throws light well down the road on the right to pick up cross streets, etc., as well as pedestrians and animals thinking about becoming speed bumps. That low-beam cutoff also keeps the light out of your own eyes if it's raining, foggy or snowing (backscatter). The high beams are high-intensity searchlights, putting tons of light well down the road for those late-night test runs to make sure the 3-digit numerals on your speedometer still work.

Stern has a bunch of trick lamps, bulbs, techniques and parts we didn't have time to test. Want your front side-marker lights to flash as turn signal repeaters? Want better hindsight when you're backing up? Want to know how to pick a good fog lamp from the pile of bad ones on the market? Want to have amber rear turn signals instead of red, without adding any new lamps? We had a tough time stumping him; the man knows more about car lighting than you knew there was to know (y'know?).

See Dan's website for all this cool info. One topic does deserve special mention: Those “extra white” (“silver star,” “cool blue,” etc.) bulbs and sealed beams that are all the rage these days? Don't use 'em! The light isn't brighter or better. In fact, it's dimmer. To make the light appear whiter, blue glass is used instead of the colorless clear kind. That blue glass transmits only about 78% of the light from the filament, which means you're 22% in the hole before the light even leaves the head lamp. It's not “whiter” light that helps you see at night, it’s more light, properly focused and directed by good optics.

MoLight or NoLight!

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