A car's eyes are the window to its soul.
If a car has a face, then the headlights are the eyes and the window to its soul. We can debate all day if cars have a soul or not, but they definitely have character. The pop-up headlights of the first generation Mazda Miata are cute and playful, whereas the headlights on a late 1990s Chrysler K car are the eyes of something dead inside. More recently, the headlights on a modern Dodge Challenger are the eyes of an angry mare, whereas the eyes of the modern MX-5 are sleek and purposeful to go with its sharp new image.
Over the years and generations, carmakers have experimented with headlight design with results varying from stunning beauty, effortless looking style and making as much sense as someone randomly forcing a jigsaw together. These are the most unusual headlights through the decades that stand out most to us.
The Furai is a fully functional concept race car based on a Le Mans Prototype chassis and built by Mazda in 2007 . Mazda has always understood that the front of their cars is a face, and designed their headlights to be expressive. In this case, the angry slanted headlights flow into the demonic smile of a race car that knows it’s going to destroy the track.
Pop up headlights are cool, so more pop up headlights must be cooler, right? The V16T is the only car the Cizeta-Moroder company made and as the name suggests, is powered by a V16 engine. Curiously, it was developed by a group of ex-Lamborghini employees and launched in 1991. If you have the money and ask nicely they'll build a V16T for you today.
At first glance, the Opel GT headlights look like a set of large but normal pop-ups. However, rather than just popping up from the front, Opel went with a weird design to have them roll over from the side. No matter how many times you see it happen, the effect is always disconcerting.
The Tucker Torpedo was an ambitious project that was full of innovation but failed very quickly after it’s launch in 1948, and with much speculation that the automotive Big Three assisted in its downfall. The Tucker's legacy is huge, and evidence of its extravagance are right on the front of the car in the form of three headlights, with the central one actually moving with the wheels to help see through turns.
The British sports car company TVR has a reputation for building wild sports cars, and there has been a few different variations in the Tuscan’s headlights that let you know you’re looking at something different. Our favorite is the vertical arrangement of 3 main lights on each side of the hood that give the TVR the look of a brutally muscular predator.
The quirky two-door four-seater Montreal snuck underneath the radar as Alfa Romeo wasn’t big news outside of Italy at the time. The Montreal could be accused of being a little overdesigned aesthetically, but it was a great car and the most beautiful design touch is the four headlights tucked underneath slatted louvers.
The Buick Riviera’s trademark was its vertically stacked headlights that are revealed when the metal clamshell covers open up and slide under and over and into the fenders. The effect is very slick and cool. It looks like two eyes opening to stare at the world.
When it comes to drama, Bugatti always manages to take things up a notch. The Galibier’s LED headlights are an intricate design that gets as close to the eye metaphor as possible. At night the headlights seem to stare at you in cold, menacing, calculation. If there was an example of headlights as art, this is it.
The Nissan Juke is widely despised for its looks, and part of that is in how the headlights are set with the grill shaped over them, while the sidelights are mounted high with the hood. The effect causes the Juke’s face to make no sense - in the same way that a photo of someone having two extra eyes above their eyebrows would be upsetting.
Alfa Romeo's Brera headlight arrangement is both unusual and, unlike the Juke’s, makes sense. The arrangement of the three lights each side lined up horizontally keeps the space they need narrow and adds to the sleek lines of the whole car. If those headlights are eyes, they are narrowed and concentrating on the task in hand. The Alfa Romeo SZ did the same thing earlier with square lights, but with the slant on the Brera's "eyebrows" we think the round ones are more effective.
Before pop-up headlights were effectively outlawed by safety legislation, Porsche took an unusual but very simple approach. Rather than sliding the lenses out of sight, it laid the front of the lights back and flush against the body so they pointed at the sky. Then, at the flip of a switch, the light pods would flip forward to point at the road.
LED headlights have really changed the game over the past 10 years. Carmakers have embraced the technology having realized how much they can emphasize the car's looks. Volvo's rebirth has coincided with the next generation of headlights, and their "Thor's Hammer" headlights on the S90 and XC90 are a prime example of what can be done.
It doesn't get more iconic than the first generations of the Dodge Charger, and the hideaway headlights were a trademark. Way cooler than pop-up headlights, the Charger's lighting was hidden behind a garage door style assembly that retracted when the sun went down and the driver switched on the lights.