We celebrate 68-years of pop-up headlight magnificence.
Along with huge multi-colored TURBO decals that adorned the sides of just about any car, pop-up headlights were the epitome of cool in the ‘80s. Adorning a variety of cars over the years, the very first car to have pop-ups was the 1936 Cord 810 while the last two were the 2004 Corvette C5 and Lotus Esprit. New headlight technologies and stricter pedestrian safety laws were to blame for their demise. For a while though pop-up headlights came in a range of flavors to brighten the automotive landscape.
The Cord 810 was an advanced car for its time with front-wheel-drive and many aerodynamic features such as recessed door hinges. Its upright grille earned it the nickname ‘coffin nose’, while the headlights were recessed into the front wheel arches and were activated by crank handles on the dashboard. In 1937 the car was rebranded as the 812 and a supercharger was introduced, pushing power up from 125 to 170 hp. Sadly, mechanical issues plagued the cars and production lasted for only a year. In the end only around 3,000 Cords ended up being sold but the age of the pop-up headlight had begun.
The Countach was a stunning wedge-shaped missile when it arrived in 1974, the rakish front end could be achieved thanks to a set of pop-up headlights. The shape became more aggressive over the years, growing arches and wings, but the headlight design remained constant throughout the long 16-year production run. The Diablo continued with the pop-up theme but finally relented with the 1999 SV which had faired in units. Lesser known Lamborghinis like the Urraco and Islero also had pop-ups, while the stunning Miura had exposed units that raised out of the hood as in a Porsche 928.
Wedgy sports cars were in strong supply in the ‘70s, the Bertone designed Stratos preceded the Countach by a year and it looked even more like a slice of cheese than its V12 cousin. The Stratos was designed to win races and it did that with great success. Powered by a (slightly) detuned Ferrari Dino 190-hp 2.4-liter V6, race prepared examples took the World Rally Championships three years running between 1974 and 1976. We would like to think that those hidden headlights contributed just a little bit to their immense speed, except of course when those massive Cibie lights were bolted to the front. Even without the aerodynamic advantage, they sure did look cool.
The Esprit was a real departure from the normal sports car formula, it followed founder Colin Chapman’s philosophy of ‘adding lightness’ and made do without a massive V8 or any superfluous weight-adding extras. The addition of a turbocharger gave it supercar scaring acceleration. The basic design was refined over five generations and 28-years culminating in, you guessed it, a V8-engined model. The lightweight design and pop-up headlights were a constant feature throughout.
BMW has not built many low-slung sports cars in its time, focus more on over-achieving sports sedans instead. Yet when it did give it a go the results have been rather impressive. The M1 was its first ever mid-engined supercar and remained so until the arrival of the hybrid i8. What the new car doesn’t offer though is the cool flush-mounted headlights that the M1 had. The 1989 8 Series was the second and last BMW to have pop-ups. It lasted until 1999 but this was the final year for this capable GT and its flappy front headlights.
Every single Ferrari that was in production in the ‘80s had pop-up headlights. Fantastic. The second-best looking set belonged to the Testarossa. A 4.9-liter flat-12 engine sat behind the driver and gave the car 180-mph performance. That top speed was perhaps a few mph slower with the headlights up. The basic design carried on as the 512TR which replaced it in 1991. When that car was facelifted and renamed the 512M in 1994, the pop-ups were replaced with far less visually appealing traditional units.
The F40 is our undisputed Ferrari pop-up headlight champion. Just look at that image. The angular and purposeful styling still looks stunning today and the mid-mounted 2.9-liter twin-turbo engine produced a massive 477 hp. A handful of race-prepared LM and Competizione models were also built, these models made do without the pop-up headlights but made up to 691-hp which went some way to quelling the disappointment.
The Acura/Honda NSX was the supercar that truly introduced everyday usability to the segment. Up until that point it was widely accepted that your temperamental and highly-strung Italian exotic would regularly throw a fit by the side of the road every so often. Gearboxes were stiff, visibility was non-existent and oil leaks were ‘characterful’. The NSX however matched a contemporary V8 Ferrari in acceleration and was just as reliable as any Japanese sedan. It stayed in production for a bit too long though (15-years) and the post-2002 models lost their distinctive pop-ups too.
The first-generation Corvettes are pure American icons, their lines are beautiful and good examples are fetching big prices these days. But it is the second-generation that first introduced pop-up headlights, a feature which would be an integral Corvette design feature right up until 2004 when they were finally forced to revert to a traditional setup. Each generation has its pros and cons but for us it is the futuristic angular front end of the second-generation cars that worked best with the pop-ups. Their cool looks and strong performance made them a favorite among astronauts of the period.
Porsche tends to be associated more with the round-headlight wearing 911 than any other model but it has experimented with pop-ups on more than one occasion. One of its weirdest creations was the slantnose 930S, essentially a flat-fronted 911. It was expensive and not very popular but the handful out there are highly sought after today. The 924, 944 968 and large 928 all had some variation of flappy headlights. Knowledgeable Porsche fans will note the omission of the 914 from our list, it too had pop-up headlights but even they could not do anything positive for its tragic looks and we have spared you from having to look at one by not including any images of it.