Upgrading your lighting system

So, you say your headlights aren't bright enough, and you want to do something about it? The very first thing you should do is aim them. It's amazing how much better even old tungsten sealed beams are when they're pointed where they're supposed to be! Best of all, it's free.

The next thing to do is check the electrical connections. Most importantly, make sure you have a good ground coming off each headlamp. The Lucas bullet connectors are usually pretty good, but the wire going into them isn't strain relieved and some strands may have broken over time. Check for corrosion on the spade lug connectors; if you have any doubts, replace them. Use a good crimping tool and solder - most "automotive" crimping tools won't make a gas-tight seal, and if gas can get in, moisture can get in, which leads to corrosion. Throw away the plastic collar on the connector (if you buy that kind) and make your own strain relief with multiple layers of heat shrink. This is another area where the economies of the automotive industry did not have long lifetimes in mind, and we can learn from the technology used by aircraft engineers.

OK, that's not bright enough? Time to start spending some money. They cheapest upgrade you can do is to replace your headlamps with new versions of what's in there. If you're in the US, that means buying new sealed beams with tungsten filaments - something like US$5/side. If you're anywhere else, replace the bulb unit - it can't cost much. (But keep reading before you head out to the store!)

Just for grins, check the aim again after you've made the swap. (Have you detected a theme here?) The theory is that you don't alter the alignment when changing bulbs, but manufacturing tolerances are not that tight.

The reason this can make a difference is that tungsten filaments get dimmer over time - while the lamp is on, a microscopic amount of the filament gets boiled off and deposited on the glass. This forms a barrier to the light, so the light gets dimmer!

But if you're going to go to the effort of taking your headlamp apart, I suggest that you at least spend a bit more and move to slightly newer technology: buy a halogen sealed beam (in the US), or put in a halogen capsule that's rated at approximately the same wattage as your stock capsule (that probably means 60/55 watts instead of 45/40).

In a quartz halogen light, the bulb globe is made of quartz (to withstand the higher temperature). The bulb itself is filled with one of the halogen gasses (iodine or bromine), which acts to redeposit the tungsten particles emitted from the filament at incandescence back onto it instead of on the inside of the globe, which causes the characteristic glass blackening - one of the reasons, along with corrosion resistance, that we in the US got saddled with sealed beams in the 1930s.

This gets you an improvement in light output with relatively low expense. You also won't toast your wiring.

If you're running "classic" separate bulb units (like the Lucas PL700 "tripods" or Le Mans, or Marchal Equilux), you'll need to get a special bulb - you can't just go out and buy an H4 bulb and plug it in. PL700s take what's known as a P45 or type A base. Halogen capsules on a P45 base are commonly available (see vendors, below, or the Monster Vendors list). The LeMans lamps are on a P36 base - also adaptable, but more rare these days; they need a different bulb and a special adaptor to fit the modern three prong lighting plug.

If you have British PreFocus headlamps, you are finally in luck. I've never run a car with BPF, so I have never tried to upgrade the lamps; but I've been contacted by a vendor in Australia who makes the lamps you need. In particular, they have the lamps for the original P700 tripod lamps. (Again, see the vendors list below or the Monster list.)

Speaking of wiring, you may be able to get an improvement in light output by upgrading your wiring harness and continuing to use the stock headlamps. Most British cars run the headlamp circuit unfused, and use fairly thin leads in the wiring harness to the switch, if not out to the headlamps.

Now, if you want to go to the expense of getting better lamps than your car left the factory left with, it will take some work - read on.

Get a better headlight

Please note - I'm writing about 7" round headlights because they are what I know - all my cars are fitted with them. The same theories apply to smaller round or rectangular, but I have never dealt with them so I can't make specific recommendations. Call David at OJ Rallye and discuss your needs - he'll set you up right.

There is no reason to tolerate 1930's headlights in the 21st century, be it on a fine vintage car or your modern sedan. Installed responsibly, today's quartz halogen lights provide efficient lighting to the dirver and are inoffensive to opposing traffic. The DOT has finally (and quietly) dropped the 1930s requirement for a sealed reflector. Few communities bothered to enforce these old laws, and most of the lights aren't even that expensive. (Today, H4 lamps fail to meet the letter of the law because their beam pattern doesn't typically meet the US standard, and because they don't have aiming bumps.) So better lighting is no longer automatically illegal in the US. However, some states (California is one) still require that replacement headlamps be sealed beam if the originals were. I don't believe that there is any reason not to have these superior and safer lights.

Usually the term "quartz halogen" is used broadly to refer to any light system using a QH bulb, because lens, reflector and shielding all work hand in hand with the improved bulbs. There are several things that distinguish the top-of-the line QH lighting systems from the rest of the products that carry that moniker. Lenses, for instance, are lead crystal, the clearest glass man can make. Reflectors in the quality lights are precisely shaped stainless steel with highly polished, aluminized coating (even more reflective than chrome), not "silvered" plastic. Bulb location, shielding and lens fluting are all closely controlled dimensionally to give sharp upper cutoff for better vision in weather conditions and to keep from blinding oncoming traffic.

QH headlights are usually built to European (E-code) specs, which feature a distinct horizontal cutoff low beam that gives an amazing amount of light without blinding an approaching driver. High beam range is generally twice that supplied by US Federal sealed beam.

The best, bar none, 7" round headlights in the world right now are the Marchal H4 "flat face" lamps. Unfortunately, they are no longer manufactured, and are getting rare and expensive (the only source I know is charging more than $200 each).

What makes these lamps so very good is that they have a razor sharp low-beam cutoff; unless the fog is very thick, you don't need any auxiliary lamps (assuming that you've aimed the headlights correctly, of course).

After that, I would choose a Cibie Z beam, and then a Cibie "E Code". These also have a great low-beam cutoff. Z beams used to be available in the US for about $90/pair, but the supplier I knew has been unable to get them. Current production Cibie E code lamps can be had from a couple of suppliers. Ebay is a good source of used lamps, but caveat emptor.

Either of these lamps should get you through the worst weather without the need for an auxiliary lamp - provided you drive slowly enough for the conditions. The low-beam cutoff is critical to not letting the light reflect back into your eyes.

Unfortunately, Valeo, which is now the parent company of both Marchal and Cibie, does not seem to care much about the US market any more, nor much about the lighting aftermarket in general. So these lights are getting hard to find. The Marchal brand has largely disappeared from the world market, not just the US. Pity.

Hella has a good reputation and a large market presence. Unfortunately, I don't have any direct experience with them. They are not the first name that comes up with rallyists get together and talk lighting.

There are cheaper lamps. I don't have any experience with them. I look at lighting the way I look at brakes: it's not worth skimping a few dollars.

Any 7" H4 will be an improvement over the stock sealed beams. Even the sealed halogens (Sylvania makes them, among others) will be an improvement, but they suffer from many of the same problems that tungsten sealed beams do - in particular, they typically have a very poor reflector design.

J.C. Whitney sells several different kinds of H4 lamps. The most expensive is about $30 for the pair, and looks in the drawing as if it is a clone of the Marchal flat face. For grins, I ordered a set. They are Zelmots, made in Poland and do indeed have a flat face and very clear glass. But they are only barely superior to the sealed halogens. The low beam cutoff is very sharp, but the overall light level is insufficient. Don't waste your money.

Again, whatever lamp you choose, AIM IT PROPERLY!

Now, back the H4 lamps. Upgrade the stock 60/55 bulb - for courteous street driving, I recommend a 100/55. If you're careful about aiming, trust your wiring and don't think you'll attract the attention of cops, go for the 100/80 or 130/90 or higher ... but don't come back to me when your stock wiring melts. Even if you install relays, the wiring out to the headlamps in our cars is woefully small. I ran 100/80s for a while and the resistance out to the buckets was high enough that they weren't appreciably brighter than the 60/55s. (Note that most European countries have declared lamps brighter than 60/55 illegal. If people would learn to aim their lamps properly, we wouldn't have such ridiculous laws on the books.)

Upgrading your wiring harness

If you make any of these upgrades, add relays, and fuses. The stock harness in most of our cars runs all the headlight current through that teeny-tiny headlamp switch, which often comes from the factory with 18 gauge leads! If the contacts don't burn, and the wires don't melt, you'll be getting a lot of voltage drop. Not to mention that the headlamp circuit is typically unfused - a ground fault/short here will cause serious harness damage. (If your switch isn't the weak point, someplace else will be - our Morris Minor has a great harness all the way out to the fenders, but the subharness that goes through the fenders to the lamp is made up of 18 gauge wire...)

One reader has suggested that fusible links, or circuit breakers, be used instead of fuses; and even better, one per side of the car. The thinking is that automotive fuses tend to be quick acting, and an intermittent short caused by loose wiring and bumpy road would leave you, suddenly, without headlights at high speed. To be honest, I'm not going to argue hard against this, though I have yet to see a production automobile wired thus. I *have* seen a number of cars with individual fuses for high separate from low beams. My experience with the Lucas 17/35 A fuses is that they do not blow easily, only when there is a hard short. But I will not advise against the extra protection, if you feel so inclined. I continue to use fuses.

Another reader suggests that most American cars do not use fuses in the headlight circuit; rather they have a thermal circuit breaker built into the light switch. That may be the optimum solution, since if the short clears, the circuit breaker will close and bring back the lights. I don't have a lot of experience with these units, but they are available as a plug-in replacement for glass fuses.

At the very least, you want a relay and fuse on the high beam circuit. My favorite (and easiest!) way to do this is to buy a fused Marchal 514 relay. They're bulletproof, and can easily be spliced into the high beam circuit (but they're hard to find, expensive and use a weird fuse - read on for other options). Find some source of unswitched 12V (brown wire, you want a heavy one). Find the blue/white wire leaving the dip switch (usually there's a connector that connects the switch, the lead out to the lamps, and the indicator - this is a good spot). Connect the brown wire to the source terminal on the relay. Connect the U/W wire coming from the switch to the coil. Connect the U/W wire going to the headlamps to the load. Make a good coil ground. Voila! You now have brighter high beams, even if you didn't change the lamps. (If you're particularly anal, wire the new harness with appropriate colors - I would use blue/slate for the lead that splices from relay to the headlamp wire). Use heavy wire for the load connections - 14 gauge.

If you think about it for a little while, you can make up a neat two- or three-wire harness and mount the relay where it's out of the way but accessible (so you can change the fuse if it blows). In the GT6+, I mounted it on the firewall with all the other relays; there's a good source of hot at the overdrive relay, and it was easy to pass the two-wire harness through one of the existing grommets.

Now, if you're having fun, you can rig a parallel relay for the low beams. If you're going to do this, then consider not using two Marchal relays, but two unfused relays, sharing a single source, which you fuse. Or better, two fuses in a Lucas two-place fuse box. Lucas make a very nice metal relay with a separable plastic base (it's called a 28RA) - you can snap the bases together to make up a multi-unit block, and there is available a fuse holder that snaps to the end (holds a modern blade-style fuse). These are all available from British Wiring.

Hella also make a very nice 30A plastic cube relay that can be used with or without a socket. These have a diode across the points to prevent arcing and increase the relay life. But they're not British or old :-)

Sometimes this isn't good enough, because the harness out to the lamps is not up to the task. One fellow with a TR3 reports that when running 100W bulbs but stock wiring, connectors and switch, he measured only eight volts at the lamps! In this situation, you want to mount the relays out at the lamp end of the harness; there's usually a spot near the grille where one wire becomes two, and this is the place to splice in to minimize that sort of voltage drop.

There's a company called Painless Wiring that builds a headlamp relay kit that is supposed to be dead easy to install. You unfasten one of the connections at the back of a headlight and plug that connector into one in the kit. You then connect female connectors to the back of each headlight taping off the original one that is now redundant. You fasten two relays and a fuse holder and connect a ground and a hot wire and that's it. For someone who just wants the end result without a lot of fuss, this might be the way to go.

Auxiliary lamps

Now we can go on to auxiliary lamps: there are two basic kinds, with variations on each.

Fog lamps have a short but wide beam with a very sharp cutoff to reduce light reflection off the fog into the driver's eyes; they're used to illuminate the road immediately in front of you without reflecting back off the fog or rain and blinding you. They should be mounted as low as possible, ideally below the bumper. They're also useful as cornering lights for racing because of their broad lateral pattern.

Driving lamps have a narrow but long beam, to light up the road beyond where your main beams reach ... several thousand feet ahead of the car. They have a broad beam that lets you see around curves far ahead. You want these when you're headed down your favorite straightaway at night at an illegal speed. They are best mounted above the bumper. Spot or pencil beams are an extreme variant of driving lamps, and do just what they sound like they do. They provide a tunnel of light over a mile ahead, but give no lateral vision. These are of little use alone (use them in conjunction with driving lamps) and area a waste of time unless you intend to drive over 100 mph. The old rallyist term of "follow the bouncing ball" of light is an earned reputation. Primary use is racing, high speed rallyes, and off road. But then they would prove just the thing if you live 50 miles down a straight lonely road in Nevada!

All these lamps should be individually switched, but everything except fogs must be interlinked to the high beam dip switch so you can cut them all with one motion when meeting another car. (This is the law in most European countries - it may well be the law in some States. It's also a good idea.) See this tech note for detailed tips about wiring things this way.

Fog lights, aimed correctly, will help your vision and not harm your fellow motorist's vision at all. Wire fog lamps so you can turn them on with just the parking lamps, in case the weather is so bad that your well-aimed low beams still make the fog too bright to see what's going on. None should be used in heavy traffic situations.

Note that you don't have to fit these in pairs. A rallying acquaintance yearns for the days of running his Volvo 122 with one each of the Marchal 902 fog and driving lamps (switched individually, of course).

Use relays and fuses. If you're clever and careful, you can put it all together without cutting the original harness. My TR4A has a set of four 28RA relays and a Lucas two-fuse box in the driver's footwell: the low and high beams are on individual relay circuits, the driving lamps on another, and the fourth relay is a changeover - I can select just the high beams, just the driving lamps, or both together, when the dipswitch is in the "main" position. It took a weekend to figure out exactly how to splice into the original harness, but the result looks as if the factory intended it that way.

More Power!

Now that you've added all those lumens, you might need to add some more amps. The stock Lucas generator is good for about 22 amps, if it's in perfect condition. The venerable Lucas ACR series of alternators might be good for 28 amps. Those are barely enough to run the stock electrics without draining the battery (especially in bad weather, when you are also running the wipers and the heater blower), much less extra wattage bulbs or auxiliary lamps.

To do a quick calculation, add up the wattage of all the lamps you're running (don't forget side lights, indicators and tail lights!), divide by 13.8, which will give you the amperage draw for your lights. Add maybe 5 amps for ignition, an amp or two for an electric fuel pump. If that's more than your generator/alternator is rated, you might consider an upgrade. The job isn't hard to do; if you've an older car and want to stay all Lucas, you can substitute a Lucas alternator for your original generator.

For example, my TR4A is currently running 55W high beams, 55W driving lamps, and about 30W of running lights. I've got a Bendix electric fuel pump which draws about 3 amps at full chat, and a Crane HI-6 electronic ignition that's good for another 5 amps. That's about 140W of lamps, call it 11 amps to be generous, or an overall draw of 19 or 20 amps while running down the road in good weather. Turning on the heater fan or the wipers, or going to 100W high beams, means that I'm drawing down the battery, since I still have a 22 amp generator in place. So I'm due for an upgrade sometime soon - I'll probably make the jump to a Bosch or GM unit that gets me 55 amps of output.

Aiming your headlamps

If you haven't figured it out yet, I think that aiming is important. Your lights are dangerous and ineffective when improperly aimed. There are specialized machines that aim headlamps very accurately - but these tend to be in the hands of "official, certified" shops who will either call the light cops or charge you for aiming and even give you a certificate saying they're aimed, but not do anything. So it's best to just learn to aim them yourself.

The basic goal is to get the beams parallel to your direction of travel, low enough that they don't blind oncoming traffic, and the same height. You should see the low beam cutoff on the cars in front of you.

First, find a level stretch of driveway that is adjacent to a wall or garage door (to act as the aiming screen). Prepare the car in normal travel trim (i.e., luggage, fuel and passenger load simulated). Roll the car up to the wall. Mark the headlight centers both vertically and horizontally with a heavy felt tip on the screen. (You might want to use a large piece of cardboard and save it to be re-used on the same car; these days I tend to stick a couple of Post-Its on the wall and be done with it.) Mark the center of any auxiliary light as well. Now, roll the car straight back, 25 feet. Scribe a straight line between the headlight centers (line B). Measure down 3" and draw another horizontal line (D). Do the same for your auxiliary lights. One at a time, aim the lights as follows (turn off or cover the lights not being aimed):

Low Beams. The correct visual aim for low beams is with the top edge of the beam at horizontal D. The point at which the cutoff begins to rise to the right should be located straight ahead of the lamp at the intersection of D and C.

High Beams. The correct visual aim for high beams is with the center of the high intensity zone at horizontal, straight ahead of the lamp as indicated by circles C1 and C2. When aiming high beams on a four headlamp system, cover the adjacent headlights.

Auxiliary Lamps. To aim your lamps, turn the lamp to be aimed on and cover or turn off all other lamps. Loosen the nuts on the mounting bolts and move the lamps until the light falls into the place recommended by the aiming diagram.

For Fog Lamps: light should fall between lines B and D as indicated by shaded rectangles.

For Driving Lamps: light should fall straight ahead of the lamps at the intersection of lines B and C1 and C2 as indicated by circles.

Tighten the nuts on the mounting bolts securely when aiming is completed.

Care and feeding

QH lamps are fairly trouble free, producting uniform light until they fail. About the only thing to worry about is handling the bulbs. Since they run quite a bit hotter than conventional tungsten bulbs, it is important not to get skin oil on them - the high temperature react with the oil and cause the quartz glass to crack. When installing a new bulb, don't touch it with your skin - use a cloth or a paper tissue. If you can't avoid it or slip, wipe the bulb down with isopropyl alcohol to get all the oil off.

Future technologies

The future promises new and wondrous lighting technologies. One, projector bulbs, is on the road already. This is a variant of the kind of bulbs you find in a slide or movie projector: a very small QH light capsule with a small but precise reflector attached to it. PIAA pioneered this in their line of compact auxiliary lamps, and a number of OEM manufacturers have adopted it for their cars. Porsche and BMW have gone so far as to package small projector units in a traditional-looking round headlamp. It provides a very tightly controlled beam, without much upward splash. It can also be put into a small package, which is good for modern cars that are concerned with front end aerodynamics to meet CAFE standards.

The other, ion discharge, is starting to appear on the market. These are appearing as standard equipment on high-dollar cars such as Porsche, BMW and Lexus. The aftermarket is catching on: PIAA has been selling a complete driving light system including two lamps and a special ballast since 1996. The claim is that the light is much whiter than QH bulbs and very efficient - the ballast consumes only 35 watts! The problem is that you need to replace the entire lamp housing. Recently, Bellof HID has introduced a system that uses standard base configurations for the capsule, allowing an HID capsule to be installed in your existing lamp housing. See Bellof HID for details - but sit down before looking at the prices! If power consumption remains low, it may be possible to upgrade even our old British wiring to use this very new technology.

And manufacturers are still talking about light pipes - a system where there is a single, very bright source of lighting (probably something like the ion discharge unit) and a collection of fiber optics that directs the light to the right place in the car. But no one has road tested such a system yet, as far as I know.

... and be seen

Now that you can see what's in front of you, it's time to wonder if the people behind can see you! You can do many of the same things to check out your brake and tail lamps - clean up the wiring harness, polish the reflector (check to make sure it's metal first - more modern cars have plastic with a very thin metalization layer!), clean the lenses - but most of our cars have small bulbs and poorly designed reflectors, leaving them all but invisible from the rear. (I started worrying about this one night when I was driving behind my GT6+.)

QH technology comes to the rescue again, but with a catch. You can buy QH light capsules fitted to traditional bulb bases, but rated at higher wattages. They draw a bit more current, provide a lot more light, and put out a lot more heat . This latter is of concern to those of us whose cars have small taillights with plastic lenses, because these bulbs have been known to melt them. You can buy them from the usual suspects, but be careful; you might want to test them with a scrap lens first.

And if you've significantly increased your wattage with upgraded headlamps and QH taillamps, it's time to start wondering if your generator is up to the task of running all this stuff...

Lighting Vendors

I have dealt with the following vendors for lighting and have been quite happy with their service; I recommend them to your attention.

David Hueppchen
OJ Rallye
N 6808 Highway OJ
Plymouth, WI 53073
(920) 893-2531

For some time now, David has been the sole US importer of Marchal aftermarket headlamps. His rallye weapon of choice runs towards Volvos, but he knows lighting, both current and vintage. He's got flat face Marchal H4 lamps, and he knows what they're worth. But at least he has them! He also carries Cibie and other brands, as well as parts, spares, quality bulbs and accessories, and is fun to chat with on the phone. (And do call - even though he has an email address, he doesn't use it much.)

Gunther Hansele
aardvark international/Cibie USA/Talbot & Co.
(562) 699-8887

Cibie USA is the official USA distributor for Cibie Lighting Products. They have current E-code H4 lights in various shapes and sizes at a decent price, as well as the entire Cibie auxiliary lamp line.

Daniel Stern
Daniel Stern Lighting

Daniel has a direct line to someone at Valeo, and is importing current production Cibie lamps, including new 7" E-code H4 headlamps with European-style "city lights" (what the Brits would call sidelights) - small bulbs in the base of the round fixture. They are not cheap, but they are worth what they cost. It appears that he is carrying Hella and Osram now, too.

His Automotive Lighting FAQ is quite nice, and has a lot of information for those of you not lucky enough to own a classic British car.

Dave Bean Engineering, Inc.
636 E. St. Charles Street, Star Route 3
San Andreas, CA 95249-9564
(209) 754-5802

These folks cater to Lotus, Jensen and British specials that use the Ford "Kent" engine - but that means that they have Lucas supplies, and care about performance lighting. They have dwindling stocks of Marchal and Cibie gear, some of which is old stock and some of which is purchased from OJ Rallye and marked up. Mostly they push new Lucas lamps these days. They also have higher wattage bulbs.

Susquehanna MotorSports
Fleetwood, PA 19522
(610) 944-3233

One of the earliest commercial internet sites, formed in 1992. They specialize in all sorts of rally gear, and are Hella distributors.

Demon Tweeks
75 Ash Road South
Wrexham Industrial Estate
Wrexham LL13 9UG UK
+44 1978 664466
+44 1978 664467 fax

If you are willing to go through the trouble of importing them yourself, you can get the complete current Cibie line from Demon Tweeks at very competitive prices. Returns are expensive, so be certain that you know what you're ordering. Also note that they only import RHD headlamps - not usable in parts of the world where you drive on the right side of the road. (Auxiliary lamps aren't sided.)

Classic and Vintage Bulbs
82 Cumming Street
Blackwood, South Australia 5051
+61 (8) 827 84393 phone/fax

This company manufactures halogen retrofit bulbs for British Pre-focus lamps, as well as other "obsolete base styles". Check out their UK stockist's web page for more details.

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This page brought to you by Chris Kantarjiev of The Dimebank Garage. Copyright 1994-2005.

Last updated 28 Nov 2006 by cak

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