Popup headlights; The best piece of flawed automotive engineering

Popup headlights the best piece of flawed automotive engineering

Pop-up headlights

I was sitting here debating what to write about for Kappa’s latest blog and kept coming back to the car scene of the ’90s. However, because of my age, my view would be one of history not one of nostalgia. So instead, I’ve decided that I would write about one of the coolest inventions of all time (which so happens to make all 90s cars look awesome) … Pop-up headlights!

These little beauties are exactly what you’d think… Headlights that pop-up. These headlights can also be called hidden headlights or hideaway headlights, but these names just aren’t as jazzy.

How popup headlights work

Popup headlights are hidden headlights, that popup from a click of a button or a flick of a switch. They are hidden while the car is turned off, and popup when the required action is completed. Popup headlights are often powered by motors (Commonly just the same motors as the windscreen wipers). However, some older cars use a hand-cranked mechanism to release the headlights. This can be seen in the patent for the first pop-up headlights which was filed way back in 1937.

First and last production cars with pop-up headlights

The first production car is often credited to the mythical Alfa Romeo 8C 2900A which was produced in 1936, closely followed by the lesser-known Cord 810/812 in 1937. These early adopters of the pop-up headlights used a manual crank, with the first electronic motor coming soon after in a concept car shown in 1938. However, the first production car with electronic pop-up headlights wouldn’t come until 1942 with Chrysler’s DeSoto.

Throughout the years the popularity fluctuatedwith some decades loving the idea and some decades hating the idea. The biggest spike in popularity came in the late 70s, early 80s. This was the same time when importing cars from different countries (and continents) became more feasible. The popularity originated mainly in America where because of there stricter car laws, pop-up headlights were less feasible.

The final production cars to feature these awesome pieces of automotive history were the Lotus Esprit and the C5 Corvette which both ended production in 2004. While new concept cars are being released with pop-up headlights it’s very unlikely, we will see any mainstream manufacturers release cars with pop-up headlights.

Why popup headlights disappeared

As stated above, the last pop-up headlights on a production car were 2004. This is due to several different factors. The main factor is simply that technology has become better. We now have more efficient high beam LED headlamps and Xenon headlamps, as well as the size required for these new headlamps, are far smaller than the pop-up variants.

Another reason pop-up headlights are unlikely to make a come back is because of the flawed design with the pop-up headlights themselves. When the headlights are on, the lights are up, this causes excess aerodynamic drag which results in less performance. Another downside to pop-up headlights is simply that the mechanism is too bulky, and heavy. With modern sports cars relying so much on weight-saving materials and techniques such as aluminium and carbon fibre, it would be a waste of weight to add the heavy mechanisms required for pop-up headlights.


The conclusion is that pop-up headlights were the best piece of flawed automotive engineering. They look magnificent, but that’s about it. However, it’s the looks that popularised them and it’s the looks that keep them popular even after they are no longer in production. It’s unlikely we will see a new mainstream car with pop-up headlights… But that’s okay because it was another piece of automotive history that we look back upon and think ‘They weren’t actually as good as we remember them were they’. Kind of like 80s disco, or so I’ve been told.

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