The pop-up headlight began with a Cord. The 1936 Cord 810, to be precise: the first car to feature a pair of pop-up headlights. It’s widely accepted that pop-up headlights are the coolest feature ever to grace a car, so as these lights fantastic celebrate their 80th anniversary, we select one car per manufacturer, to showcase these wonderful creations.
The pop-up headlight reached the peak of its powers in the 1970s, when American safety regs led to car designers exploring ways to ‘hide’ the headlights. The result was cars like the AC 3000ME: probably best AC you’ve never heard of. It was powered by a Ford Essex V6 and some were produced in Scotland.
Alfa Romeo Montreal
OK, we’re cheating here, but we’ll use any excuse to feature the Alfa Romeo Montreal. The headlights don’t move, but the way in which the slatted grille drops and disappears beneath the lights is a thing of beauty.
The Alpine A610 of 1991 was one of the last new cars to adopt the pop-up headlight. With the lights in their closed position, it’s as though the 160mph supercar-tamer is at rest.
Aston Martin Lagonda
The ultimate wedge – both for its wonderful styling and the amount of cash you’d need to keep one on the road. The Aston Martin Lagonda had an unfortunate reputation for electrical gremlins: not something you want with a pair of pop-up headlights at the front.
Flick through the back catalogue of legendary car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro and you’ll discover a rich supply of pop-up headlight joy. The BMW M1 is a perfect example of why we miss pop-up headlights. LED daytime running lights have got nothing on these.
Safety is all well and good, but when it’s the lead driver for the development of a sports car, alarm bells start to ring. The Bricklin SV-1 (Safety Vehicle One) was a Canadian-designed and built car featuring powered ‘gullwing’ doors and pop-up headlights.
If you’re after a four-door saloon with pop-up headlights, you’re not exactly spoilt for choice. The second generation Buick Skyhawk is an exception to the rule, being available as a two-door coupe, three-door hatchback and four-door saloon/estate.
Pop-up headlights made their debut on the Corvette with the launch of the second generation model, and remained a part of the design until the demise of the fifth generation car in 2004. Along with the Lotus Esprit, the Corvette was a last beacon of light for the pop-up.
Not all cars featured pop-up headlights, with some favouring the ‘hidden’ approach. The third generation Chrysler LeBaron was more aerodynamic than its predecessor, thanks, in part, to the closed headlights.
This is where it all began. The Cord 810 was the first front-wheel drive car built in America and the godfather of the pop-up headlight. If you drive a first generation Mazda MX-5, you should raise your lights as a salute to this American beauty.
De Tomaso Pantera
We could have chosen the Mangusta, but instead we focus on its replacement: the Pantera. This was De Tomaso’s most successful car, with 7,000 units sold in 20 years.
With its headlights closed, the Dodge Daytona looks a little sleepy. With the headlights raised, it looks a little weird. Best leave them closed.
We could have chosen any number of Ferrari models. Including the 456 (the last Ferrari to feature pop-up headlights) and the Daytona (for the way the headlights are just visible when the flaps are closed). But we’ve opted for the F40. Why? Because F40, that’s why.
The Fiat X1/9 is the closest you’ll get to a pint-sized Ferrari. As cars with pop-up headlights get older, problems start to appear, which is why some cars appear to be ‘winking’ – one ‘eye’ open, the other one shut
You want a cheap car with pop-up headlights – this is probably your best bet. The American-built Ford Probe shared much with the Mazda MX-6, a car without pop-up headlights. For this reason alone, the Probe is cooler. Even with that name.
Despite sounding more like something you’d hear at the Met Office, the Geo Storm was a compact sports car, built by Isuzu and sold in North America. Its styling was controversial, but we can forgive it its sins, because pop-up headlights.
The G32 might sound like a gathering of world leaders, but it’s actually the name of the best fibreglass sports car to be built in Scunthorpe. It borrowed heavily from the Ford parts bin, with early cars powered by the 1.6-litre engine from the Escort XR3i.
Wait, what? We’ve chosen to ignore the iconic NSX in favour of a Prelude? Well, yes, because we have to applaud Honda for embracing the pop-up headlight in the 1980s. This is the Mk2 Prelude, although the Accord and Integra of the same era didn’t look too dissimilar.
Look. At. That. The Iso Grifo II is one of the most menacing looking machines on the planet, and it’s all because of those semi-exposed headlights.
More semi-exposed joy here, with the Isuzu Piazza. It’s a little like a beautiful lady exposing a single shoulder. A bit.
Again, there’s some cheating going on here, because the lights on the Jaguar XJ220 are fixed. Instead, it’s the cover that moves, dropping to expose the lights behind.
Do not adjust your set, this is indeed a Lotus Elan. Or rather, it’s a Kia Elan, as the Korean firm purchased the rights to the Lotus when production ended in 1995.
Think of the Lamborghini Miura’s headlights and thoughts turn to the ‘eyelashes’ found on the original cars. But the headlights rose a little, as seen here.
It’s a little known fact that the Lancia Stratos wouldn’t have won three World Rally Championships without the help of pop-up headlights. Probably.
Another cheat here, as the headlights on the Lister Storm are similar to the Jaguar XJ220 featured earlier.
The Lotus Esprit was famously driven by James Bond in the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me. Insert a Bond-like quip about Barbara Bach and a sudden pop-up.
Another example of Giorgetto Giugiaro employing a pair of pop-up headlights to good advantage. The Bora was Maserati’s first mid-engined car and a beautiful one at that.
The Matra Bagheera featured three-abreast seating and pop-up headlights. Pinch us, we must be dreaming.
Resisting the temptation to feature a Mazda MX-5 in yet another feature, we’ve decided to focus on the RX-7. All three generations featured pop-up headlights, two of which can be seen here.
The Mercedes-Benz back catalogue is strangely devoid of pop-up joy, but the experimental C111 vehicle is an exception. Even in black and white, this thing is a sight to behold.
The Mitsubishi Starion looks great with its lights closed, but it’s even better with them popped-up. A hairy-chested Japanese sports car for the 1980s.
Early Oldsmobile Toronados were dripping in American glamour: some featuring ‘hideaway’ lights, others pop-up.
Search online for Opel GT headlights and prepare to be amazed. These lights were manually operated by way of a lever on the centre console.
Less ‘pop-up’ and more ‘rotating’, the Panther Solo did things differently. The headlights rotated, like a pair of wing-mounted gatling guns.
The Plymouth Superbird was a highly modified version of the Road Runner, featuring, amongst many other things, a pair of pop-up headlights.
By now, you should be convinced that pop-up headlights are the coolest things ever to grace a car. Sadly, the cost of developing a pair to meet strict pedestrian safety tests means we’re unlikely to see them again.
Are we allowed to say the Porsche 928 looks a little frog-like with the headlights turned on? Well it does.
Reliant Scimitar SS1
The Reliant Scimitar SS1: the sports car with pop-up headlights, famously not owned by Princess Anne.
Saab Sonett III
One of the great things about the Saab Sonett is that each generation was so of its era. The Sonett I was distinctly 50s, the Sonett II was of the 60s and the Sonett III was 100% 70s, right down to the pop-up headlights.
The coolest Japanese coupe of the 1980s? It’s in with a shout, thanks mainly to its otherworldly styling, space-age dashboard and pop-up headlights. We have a feeling this farmer is suggesting this isn’t the Brat pick-up he ordered.
The most beautiful Japanese car ever built just happened to feature a pair of pop-up headlights. More proof that pop-up headlights make everything better.
Ah, this might provide evidence to the contrary, but we’ll run with it. If nothing else, the Triumph TR7 is as 1970s as you can get.
The Tasmin was a highly successful car for TVR and we suspect this is because it wore a pair of pop-ups.
The best looking Vauxhall never built? The smoothed-out front end and pop-up headlights give it the look of a Corvette. Hardly surprising, given the GM connections.
It’s not the most subtle of supercars, but the Vector M12 of the late 90s was certainly striking. Underneath the skin was a Lamborghini Diablo and the car was good for a top speed of 189mph.
One of the last torchbearers for the pop-up headlight was the Venturi Atlantique, a French, mid-engined sports car. The original Atlantique was powered by a 2.8-litre turbocharged V6 engine, with later cars offered with a 3.0-litre V6.
The pretty Samantha was based on the contemporary Fiat 124 and 125 models, and built by Carrozzeria Vignale. Approximately 100 were produced and only a handful survive.
The 480 was Volvo’s first front-wheel drive car and the only time the Swedish carmaker has built a car with pop-up headlights. Shame.
Oh, go on then, one more for luck. We could have chosen the Ferrari Daytona or 288 GTO for the final car. Possibly the Lamborghini Countach. Instead, we opted for the Honda NSX, not least for the way in which the lights open just a little, helping to maintain the vehicle’s aerodynamics. Nice.
All images courtesy of manufacturers, unless stated.