Jim Smart
December 3, 2003

Mustang & Fords is going to do something we've never done before:dedicate an entire article to light bulbs, and other sources ofartificial light. Lighting has come a long way since our vintage Fordswere rolling off the assembly line 30-50 years ago. Headlightsespecially have improved dramatically because they light the road aheadso much better today than they did in 1963. This, all by itself, is apositive safety advance for older Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns.

Vintage Ford aftermarket companies are concerned about your safety, andwant you to have lighting that's cool and technologically advanced. Wewant you to know all about that coolness and how to make your Fordsafer. So, we'll begin at the grille and work our way back. By the timewe reach the back bumper, we're convinced you will approach this wholelighting issue with an informed mind, ready to make an educated decisionabout your Ford's lighting.


Headlights are the most important lighting element your Ford has. Theylight the road ahead and determine your Ford's personality. How wellthey light the road is critical to your safety, and the safety ofothers.

Headlights also determine a vintage Ford's personality. The grille iswhat people see first when you arrive. When they look in the rearviewmirror, it's the only thing they see besides your smiling face throughthe windshield. A vintage Ford's grille is like a human face. It tellsus at a glance what the ride is all about. For example, originalsealed-beam headlamps speak of a conservative approach, of nostalgia. Onthe other hand, composite headlights make an older Ford look high-tech.They bring a 20th century ride into the 21st century. European cars, forexample, have always used composite headlamps in great numbers, datingback to when all you could use in the United States was a DOT-certifiedsealed-beam lamp. Today's aftermarket offers us all kinds of compositeheadlamps for older Fords that are street-legal. Visit your internetsearch engine and examine your options. Key in "Automotive Lighting" andgo wild.

When we think of a sealed-beam headlight, we think of the fragile glassenvelopes that were installed in our Fords from the factory. Thoseglaring beams had personality. They were certainly American, but theydidn't do much for lighting the road ahead. They were a soft, off-whitebrown tone in low beam. And touching the high-beam switch didn't give usthe greater levels of light we needed.

A sealed-beam headlamp's construction and function are easy tounderstand. Like the light bulb in your desk lamp, and not muchdifferent from Thomas Edison's first working light bulb of more than 100years ago, a sealed-beam headlamp sports a filament, or filaments, in avacuum envelope void of air. In this vacuum, there is no oxygen tosupport consumption of the filament, which allows the filament to glowbrightly when electricity passes through.

With a single headlamp system, we have a lamp with two filaments: onefor low beam and one for high beam. The low-beam filament is shieldedwith a metal shield, which allows the light to reflect off the silverdish through the glass to the road ahead. The high-beam filament isn'tshielded, which allows light to pass directly to the road ahead, plusadditional multiplied reflection off the silver dish. Twin-setheadlamps, such as those we see on the '69 Mustang, nearly all of theGalaxies and big Mercurys, Fairlanes, Comets, and Cyclones, work usingone headlamp for low beam and another for high beam. The low-beamheadlamp has the shielded filament, just like we see in the low-beamside of a single lamp. The high-beam headlamp has an unshieldedfilament, which comes on when the high-beam switch is depressed.

Because a conventional sealed-beam headlamp is a true vacuum envelope,it works fine as long as that vacuum is maintained. A stray stone or acollision may break the glass, which destroys the vacuum, allowingoxygen in to consume the filament. Poof!

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Late in the '60s, lamp manufacturers began marketing halogen sealed-beamheadlamps. Aside from the obvious difference being greater light,halogen headlamps are also not vacuum envelopes. We can break the glassand still have a working headlamp. The halogen lamp is a lamp within alamp--a small lamp about the size we see in a movie projector or anightlight. Inside the small lamp are two filaments: one for low beamand one for high beam. The low-beam filament is shielded, with its lightreflected off the silver dish. The high-beam filament isn't shielded,allowing its light to pass through the glass, plus the added lightmultiplication that comes from the silver dish.

More recently, lamp manufacturers have developed the xenon headlight ina sealed-beam design. This means it will fit your vintage Ford. Thexenon headlamp is called a "Litronic" lamp (combining light andelectronics). Inside the sealed-beam glass envelope is a gas-dischargelamp the same size as the halogen lamp previously mentioned. Thegas-discharge lamp offers a wider field of vision without adverselyaffecting the vision of oncoming motorists. We're talking a brilliantlevel of light 2.5 times greater than halogen headlamps. Unlike thehalogen lamp, most xenon lamps have an electromechanical shield thatshields the light in low-beam mode, and unshields the light in high-beammode. This isn't completely true with all xenon headlamps--not all havethe electromechanical shield. Some, like the Wagner BriteLite Xenonlamp, have rather conventional low- and high-beam filaments.

One lamp we haven't addressed is the composite headlight. It isdifferent from the sealed-beam in that the filament is inside aremovable lamp installed in the headlight body. The aftermarket industrymanufactures a variety of composite-style headlamps designed to fitsingle- and twin-set headlamp systems in vintage Fords.

The Tri-Bar headlight from Mustangs Plus, for example, is a compositeheadlamp because the bulb installs inside a Lexan plastic headlampassembly. The headlamp assembly and the lamp inside are two separateassemblies, hence the term "composite."

About Bulbs

Headlamps are only the beginning of your lighting needs. They help yousee where you're going. But we want other motorists to see ourtaillights, especially when braking. And we want to be able to see ourinstruments no matter how dark the night outside. When we are enteringand leaving our Fords, we need courtesy lights that enable us to do itwithout tripping over the garden hose or family dog. Underhood and trunklighting are also important for convenience and safe operation. Goodlighting is always important, regardless of the mission.

The way Detroit lights instruments has improved a lot since 1965. Sitbehind the wheel of a new '03 Mustang and turn on the headlights.Instruments are much easier to see in today's automobiles. Flip on a '65Mustang's headlights and look at the instruments. The lighting is poor,with instruments that aren't easy to read. What's more, it didn't getmuch better in the years that followed. This is because we lightinstruments differently today. Instruments are lighted from behind thegauge faces, allowing light to pass through the numbers and characters,with illuminated needles that are easier to see.

Back in the '60s, instruments were indirectly lighted from behind,reflecting those awfully dim, two-candlepower bulbs housed in clear blueplastic off a flat white surface onto the instrument faces. They're hardto see, even with the best eyesight. Instrument needles long ago weremade of metal, painted fluorescent orange to improve visibility. In duecourse, instrument needles were made of plastic. Many became white incolor. Later, clear fluorescent orange needles lighted from behind. Ittook many years to get there.

As much as we would like to say there are solutions for dim instrumentlighting from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, there aren't. The only lampstill available for older Ford and Mercury instrument panels is the GE1895 lamp originally used from the factory. It is a two-candlepower lampthat was never bright enough to begin with. But you can replace thefrosty, milky blue plastic bulb covers Ford originally used withimproved versions from Scott Drake Enterprises, available from NationalParts Depot. What's more, Scott Drake makes them in a variety of colorsfor a dramatic effect we intend to use later in Project KISS. You canuse a combination of colors, or you can stick with one. Opt for theoriginal factory blue, or get wild with red or yellow.

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Taillight Tale

Taillight technology has improved as much as the headlamps at the otherend of your Ford. Of course, the ever-reliable 1157 and 1157A lampsreign supreme when it comes to use around the world. The 1157 is thetwin-filament bulb we've been installing in our tail and parking lampsfor more than 50 years. We call this a twin-filament bulb because, likea single-set headlamp, there are two filaments inside. One filament isfor the parking/driving lights; the other, which is considerablybrighter, is for turn signals and brake lights. Because it is thebrighter filament, it gets our attention quickly. We use the 1157 lampin our taillights. The 1157A is an amber bulb used in clear-lens parkinglamps in front. If our Ford or Mercury uses an amber lens, we use an1157 clear lamp.

Despite the steady, reliable use of the 1157 and 1157A lamps for half acentury, we've come to learn they're not bright enough in someapplications. In some instances, our vintage Fords suffer from milky,bleached taillight lenses. This reduces the amount of light someonefollowing us sees. In normal driving, with the headlamps or parkinglamps lighted, our taillights are often barely visible. This can behazardous.

National Parts Depot has a solution for dim taillights and parkinglights. The H1157 halogen park/taillight bulb greatly increases theamount of light visible from your tail and parking lights. We testedthese small halogen lamps on the Mustangs Etc. '65 test mule, and wereimpressed with the result.

Another type of tail/parking lamp isn't really a lamp at all: It'scalled an LED, or Light Emitting Diode. If you're paying attention towhat's on the road out there, you see LED taillights all the time onnewer cars equipped from the factory. LED lights are used more and morein traffic signals today. They're easily identified by their bright,instant on/off behavior. Light bulbs fade on and off due to theirglowing, white-hot filaments. Diodes appear and vanish instantly.

The nice thing about LEDs is reliability. They virtually never burn out,which means they can last forever in your vintage Ford. We tested one type of LED taillight available from Mustangs Etc. It twists into your tail/parking lamp socket, just like an 1157, 1157A, or H1157 bulb. The LED lamp is also available in a variety of colors such as red, yellow,white, and blue. Because taillights are there primarily for your safety and the safety of others, we suggest the use of warning colors, such as red or white, behind those red lenses. Motor vehicle laws in all 50states mandate the use of red taillights. Use a color other than red and you can expect a visit from the police during your next commute or cruise. Again, red is required for your safety.

California Mustang has another type of LED taillight replacement forclassic Mustangs. Consisting of two 20-LED panels that install in side the taillight housing, these LED taill amps light up brighter than original equipment. They install in a matter of minutes. Lenses and bezels are not included and must be ordered separately.

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How Bright The Night?

We're going to show you how far automotive lighting has come in 40 or 50years. We visited Mustangs Etc. in Van Nuys, California, and hustled a'65 Mustang hardtop for our lighting test. Garrett Marks of MustangsEtc. came to our rescue with not only the vehicle, but a variety oflamps to try out just for fun.

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