two line workers and two teal vehicles

Exterior Lighting History

From automatic dimming to halogen headlamps, Ford has been on the forefront when it comes to vehicle exterior lighting.

Early 1900s: Exterior Lighting Becomes a Necessity

Drivers began attaching headlamps to their automobiles in the 1900s to better navigate while driving at night. Prior to the automobile, lamps were placed on carriages to enable it to be seen at night. The driver relied on the horse to find its way on dark roads. With the introduction of the horseless carriage, it became necessary for the driver to be able to navigate the dark roads on their own.

Ford recognized the need for night navigation and as early as 1909, when gas headlamps became standard on the open car Model T. By 1915, electric headlamps were being offered on the Model T. 1920s saw the use of two filaments becoming popular providing the ability for upper and lower beams. Dimmer pedals became a major advance in safety when they began appearing on vehicles in 1923. The continuous advancement of technology for vehicle exterior lighting has improved both safety and design.


Headlamp shell manufacturing in 1934

1950s: Sealed Beam Becomes Standard and Ford Introduces Automatic Dimming Headlamps

Post-World War II was witness to an increase in the number of vehicles on American roads and highways. With this increase, new challenges to driving at night became apparent. The high beam lights commonly used on empty country roads were not practical for city driving. The increased use of low beam lights provided an opportunity to improve safety. New sealed beam headlamps increased the distance of lighting on the roadway in front of a vehicle and were introduced in 1955 as the new standard for all motor vehicle manufactures in the U.S. and Canada by the Automobile Manufacturers Association.

With the new standards for sealed beam headlamps in effect, Ford introduced a new electric headlamp dimmer with sensitivity control that permitted adjustments to meet the varying driving conditions on 1955 model year vehicles offered in the Lincoln and Mercury lines. The electronic dimmer automatically lowered the beam thrown by a car’s headlamps when within 1,000 feet of an oncoming vehicle, making night time driving safe for both the driver and oncoming vehicle. This new safety innovation was completely automatic and did not interfere with the control of headlights by the driver.


1955 Ford Thunderbird headlamp detail

1960s: Ford Thunderbird Features Sequential Turn Signal

The introduction of the 1965 Thunderbird brought with it the reveal of the innovative sequential turn signals. This new system separated the rear turn lights with multiple bulbs that flashed from the inner side of the red lens to the outer edge. This new technology would later be installed on other 1960s vehicles including the Mercury Cougar and the 1968 Shelby GT Mustang. The sequential turn signals wouldn’t become factory standard on the icon Mustang until 2010. In 1969, the Thunderbird provided another rear lighting option, high-level brake lights. This option was 72 square inches of brake lights mounted to the interior “C-pillars” on the rear window of the vehicle. These high-level brake lights were useful for nighttime freeway driving as well as for towing small trailers providing better placement to be seen.


1965 Thunderbird sequential taillights

1970s: Lincoln Versailles Becomes a First in Halogen Lamps in the U.S.

In 1978, Ford announced that it had developed a new system of halogen sealed beam headlamps that would be offered for the first time in the U.S. on the luxury 1979 Lincoln Versailles. According to a press release, the “halogen headlights give off a much whiter light than conventional tungsten lamps. Also, less electrical energy is required to illuminate the same distance as tungsten lamps.” The new halogen lamps provided more advantages than just whiter light and less energy. The lights also allowed for the use of smaller alternators and batteries, resulting in a savings both in weight and cost as well as in fuel economy.


1980s: Ford Wins Plastics Design Award for Halogen and Improves Fuel Economy

Ford received the 1980 Plastics Design Award from the General Electric Company for a new, all-plastic halogen headlamp that was lighter and stronger than the conventional glass counterpart. According to a press release from 1980, Ford was “the first automobile manufacturer to use headlamps manufactured almost totally in a plastic material.” The use of plastic saved an average of three pounds on a vehicles weight and improved fuel economy. The plastic lens also proved to be much stronger in impact tests, providing improved safety benefits.

The introduction of fuel economy regulations in the late 1970s and early 1980s resulted in many automotive improvements. In 1984 Lincoln introduced the new aero-styled Mark VII, the vehicle was almost six inches shorter in wheelbase and 400lbs lighter than the Mark VI. This new aerodynamic appearance included flush mounted halogen aero headlamps, providing a new stylish appearance as well as better overall fuel economy.


1990s: Lincoln Introduces High-Tech Headlamps with World’s First Complex Reflector Technology

The 1995 Lincoln Continental featured high-tech headlamps containing complex reflector technology, cornering lamps, and 12 feature memory profile that included an auto lamp delay feature. The cornering lamps activated with turn signals to increase visibility when completing a turn at night and provided better safety. The product brochure for the vehicle stated that the “new units provide consistent high-performance light output.” The complex reflector headlamps were at the forefront of technology in terms of advanced materials and design.


2000s: The Move to Light-Emitting Diodes (LED)

In March 2014, it was announced that the all new 2015 model year F-150 would be the first light duty truck to offer tougher, brighter, more efficient LED headlamps. These segment-first LED headlamps would last five times longer than traditional bulbs and use 63 percent less energy. LED has become the fastest growing segment in lighting technology, and the use of LED headlamps has become more widespread in the automotive industry. Exterior lighting on vehicles has come miles from the original gas light lamps of the early 1900s to the advanced technology of adaptive lighting of today.