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How Did We See With Halogen Headlights?

As you may know, I recently bought a 1999 Mercedes-Benz G500 Cabriolet, which is an automobile that came from the factory with halogen headlights. This shouldn’t surprise you, of course — many vehicles from this era came from the factory with halogen headlights, and they were pretty normal at the time. The big question I have, though, is … how?!

It’s actually quite unbelievable, in my opinion, when you use halogen headlights today. Pretty much all of us have now been in a car with LED headlights, or at least high-intensity xenon headlights, and they’re an unbelievably massive step up above halogens. With that in mind, it’s incredibly hard to go back.

Indeed, when I first drove my G500 at night, I was absolutely shocked — and mortified — to discover the quality of the halogen lights. They’re unbelievably awful, and you can’t see a thing, and I truly can’t believe that we, as a society, once considered this the norm.

Instantly, I replaced the halogen headlights on my G500, and I got new LEDs that do a far better job illuminating the road and everything else. I made the same upgrade in my 1997 Land Rover Defender when I bought it about three years ago, and I’m absolutely thrilled that I did. You can actually see things at night.

The problem, however, is that it isn’t always so easy. The G500 and Defender both have 7-in round headlights, which was a headlight standard used on many cars — from the original Austin Mini to the AM General Hummer — for decades. Replacing the halogen headlights with LEDs in normal cars is more of a challenge since some custom work is involved, and it doesn’t always work out so well — meaning most older cars just simply don’t project enough light at night.

Of course, when they were new, we thought it was enough light — but I’m truly shocked at how dark it looks now, in 2019, when better headlights have become the norm. And truly, I can’t believe we ever lived — and drove at night — in the era of halogens.

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  1. I think there is a serious misconception about “halogen” headlights, a misconception the author of this article perpetuates. People mistake the term with another term—namely, “composite” headlights (sometimes in the past, colloquially referred to as “European” headlights, since European cars used them first). “Halogen” is a reference to the bulb core, not the design of the headlight. The filaments are encased in a vial of thin glass, which is then filled with a halogen gas (a “halogen” is an element which is one atomic number shy of being an inert gas). This gas heats up and glows when a hot-enough fire is applied, such as electric current. The gas serves a secondary purpose of suspending particles which burn off the filament and redeposits those particles onto the filament. The result is a brighter light than regular incandescent filaments, and a longer service life.

    The application of halogen technology was first done in the U.S. with sealed-beam bulbs in the ’70s; these bulbs are legitimate halogen headlights, which too many people do not realize. The composite craze started in the mid-’80s as part of the aerodynamics craze in car design, to reduce fuel consumption by reducing drag. The composite construction is NOT the criteria for “halogen” headlights, despite the fact that, after halogen technology proved itself to be superior to incandescent bulb technology, all bulb cores for composite lights were made as halogen cores (they could easily have been made as plain incandescents, but superior technology of halogens made that unnecessary).

    Personally, I find composite headlights to be more of a liability than an asset. If damaged by road debris or a collision, they cost hundreds of dollars more to replace than sealed-beam headlights would. Plus, with the employment of plastic instead of glass to better resist road-debris damage, the trade-off of the plastic fading with age and weathering and, as a consequence, dimming the lighting, makes the whole concept not all that great an idea. And there is something else: Bulb cores are very fragile. They must be handled with extreme caution when replacing them—you must NOT touch the glass vial, at all, when installing one. If you touch the glass vial while handling a bulb core, you have already set that bulb core up for premature failure; the oils from human skin will stick to the glass and cause it to rupture when power is applied, thus drastically shortening the life of the bulb between replacements. People do not know that. I’ve never known a composite headlight to last any longer than three years between replacements, just because of that. In contrast, my sealed-beam halogen bulbs last on average of ten years between replacements.

  2. I knew from your point of view, even before I saw your bio, that you are not even middle-aged yet. The deregulation of headlights over the last 35 years has been a disaster. I grew up with cars even before the Haolgens you refer to had been invented. You will find, in the coming years of your life, that your eyes will not be happy at night with the Xenon or LED headlights of oncomning cars. You will wince and turn away. You will lower your visor to block the offensive light, even at 9:00 at night. When I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s, Halogens seemed like an advancement in illumination. But only for me, on my side of the steering wheel. Likewise, I ran an Alfa Romeo Spider with straight pipes and dual Webers on the public streets, and to hell with the sensibilities of anyone else, as I darted in front of them at 80 mph on the Atlanta Interstate. No, if I could have 5 minutes with Trump or any other head honcho, I would have him re-impose headlight restrictions for the safety of drivers blinded by recklessly bright headlights.

  3. In Europe we can’t install LEDs if lamp is not approoved for that from the factory. If police will detect that you will get at least ticket for that if you will change it to halogen. It not you will loose car paper and you will have to go where you make car inspection. Reason ? You can blind someone 😀 this is freedom, yeea…

  4. I’ve never had issues with my halogens, plus you’re not a safety risk for other drivers by blinding them as they come towards you.

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Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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