In Cars: 1886-1930, the first book in the encyclopedic three-volume Cars of the Century collection, G.N. Georgano, automotive historian (and former schoolmaster and from 1976-81 the head librarian at the National Motor Museum of Britain), writes, “The only form of lighting available on the earliest cars was the candle lamp, inherited from the horse-drawn carriage.
“It was barely adequate to render the car or carriage visible by others,” he continues, adding in wonderful understatement, “but was quite useless as illumination to show the driver where he was going.”
By 1900, Georgano notes, acetylene headlamps were available. The gas to be burned to produce illumination to light the way was produced by dripping water onto calcium carbide, sometimes within the lamps, which by necessity became quite large, or, preferably, within a device mounted on one of the car’s running boards.
Though homes began to benefit from electric lights in the 1880s, they proved difficult to use on carriage or car, in part because of the problem of generating sufficient electricity and in part because early light bulbs couldn’t tolerate the vibrations of rough road surfaces.
General Motors engineer Charles Kettering’s invention of the self-starter (based on the electric motor he had used to power office adding machines in his previous job) has been well documented. But Georgano notes that not only did Cadillac replace the crank with self-starting technology for the 1912 model year, it coupled that innovation with electrical lighting systems for its cars.
Not only do headlamps light the way for a driver to travel at night, they serve as the eyes of what designers call the “face” of car.
In this latest edition of “Eye candy,” we take a close look at the eyes of some classic cars.