We recently got an inside look at the latest in automotive lighting technology with a breakdown of modern HID headlights. That excited our curiosity and inspired us to look at the past, too. Drivers in the early twentieth century realized that lighting was necessary for two reasons: to be seen by other vehicles and to see the road ahead.
Those reasons haven’t changed, but the technology lighting the way certainly has. To discuss automotive lighting history, we spoke to Robert Farris of Speedwell Engineering, a restoration company with a knack for returning great automobiles of the past to their original glory.
“Early vehicles didn’t come standard with lights,” Farris said. “Owners would order them as options or buy them later as accessories. Now, if you buy a new Cadillac you can’t do much more than change the bulbs. The fixtures are integral to the car. But in early automobiles, owners used lighting to personalize their vehicles and to improve visibility.”
The very first vehicle lighting was adapted directly from horse-drawn carriages and served only to help automobiles be seen. Oil lamps were the fixtures of choice, mounted to vehicle bodies and providing only minimal light output. Despite weak performance, these lamps were elegantly designed to function at the speeds common in the day. Brass and glass enclosures reduced the effects of wind rushing against a vehicle traveling 30 or 40 mph.
Farris showed us one such lamp on a 1910 Oakland. This particular car includes the next development in automotive lighting, too; acetylene headlights that not only help vehicles to be seen but also light the way ahead. Acetylene lights came in two forms: powered by an acetylene generator or, with the Prest-O-Lite system, a cylinder filled with pressurized acetylene gas.
The acetylene generator works in a way similar to lights used by miners. Inside the generator, water slowly drips onto carbide crystals, producing acetylene gas. The gas travels in hoses to the lights and burns brightly in the headlight assembly. Just like in modern halogen headlights, a silvered mirror behind the source reflects light forward of the vehicle.
Prest-O-Lite systems work the same way, burning acetylene inside the headlight enclosure. The only difference is the source of the gas. Owners of vehicles with this simplified setup needed tanks refilled with pressurized acetylene instead of generating the gas on the fly.
“Acetylene lights are like an acetylene torch, and they actually burn pretty bright,” Farris explained.” I wouldn’t trust them at today’s speeds, but there weren’t too many nice roads back then, so speeds were generally much slower.”
Because taillights were intended only to make vehicles more visible and not to light the road, oil lamps were the solution before the advent of electric lights. One lamp reflected light rearward and also included a clear window to light a license plate.
Both oil and acetylene lamps required drivers to use a match to light the fixture. Some vehicles, though, were equipped with an autosparker, a remotely operated striker that allowed drivers to fire up lights from behind the wheel.
By 1912 or 1913, electric lights became the norm, although systems were still primitive and often supplied in the aftermarket. With a 6-volt electrical system and incandescent lights, Classic Era automobiles offered a much wider variety of lighting choices. Cars from the 1930s, for example, used a variety of beautifully crafted fixtures, from headlights and marker lights to Pilot-Rays, accessory driving lights that swiveled in unity with a vehicle’s steering wheel.
That technology is back in the modern era. Adaptive headlights on new vehicles also swivel to position light in the direction of travel on curvy roads. While technology has come a long way since drivers had to fire up headlights with a match, some of the features of early automotive lighting history are just as applicable to today’s cars and trucks as they were 100 years ago.
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Nick Palermo is a freelance automotive writer and NAPA Know How blogger. Since becoming an auto news and reviews contributor at AutoTrader.com in 2011, he has broadened his coverage of the automotive industry to include topics like new car technology, antiques and classics, DIY maintenance and repair, industry news and motorsports. A committed advocate for automotive media professionals, Nick is a member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association.