by John Thompson


Automotive lighting has gone through a series of changes over the past 100+ years, and in the last 5-10 years, it has practically gone through a revolution in styles and options from the mundane for everyday life to making your ride worthy of an epic Hollywood sci-fi flick.



The lighting system on a motor vehicle consists of a variety of lights and signaling devices mounted or integrated in various sections of the vehicle, front, sides, rear, and on some vehicles, the top.


In the late 1800s to the early 1900s, lighting started with the same lighting systems as had been used on carriages and buggies for the previous couple of hundred years. This consisted of a candle or a fuel-oil lamp hanging from a pole at one or both corners of the “horseless carriage.” These did not really assist the coachman or driver see in the night, but it did allow the vehicle to be seen by others as you motored your way towards them.

Headlamps on the Stanley Steamer Model F Touring (pic found on


The color of light emitted by vehicle systems has been standardized by longstanding conventions first codified in the 1949 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, and later specified in 1968 by the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic. With some regional exceptions, these conventions determined that front facing lights must be white or selective yellow in color, rear facing lamps must emit a red light, and lamps mounted on the sides or used for turn signals must be amber. Except for emergency vehicles, other colors were not permitted.


Headlamps have gone from candles and oil-filled lamps, to the first dynamos for electric lighting being introduced in 1908, and becoming commonplace on new cars in the 1920s. Tail lamps and brake lights were introduced in 1915, and by 1919 “dip” headlamps (single lamps with both a low and high beam function) had become available. The sealed beam headlamp came out in 1936 and by 1940 had become standardized as the only acceptable type of headlamp for the United States.


At the close of World War II in 1945, automotive manufacturers began to incorporate the lighting systems into the body styling of new cars and trucks.



 Headlamps on a 1947 Chevrolet pickup truck.


Starting in the 1960s, halogen lighting systems began to be developed in Europe and crossed the pond to the U.S., although they did not become popular here until the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s. As the 1990s began, high-intensity discharge (HID) began to come out through the aftermarket suppliers, and are now seen on many new vehicles. Also starting in the early 1990s, light-emitting diode (LED) tail lamps began to be installed on mass-produced vehicles. LED headlamps started making an appearance on both new vehicles and as aftermarket replacements in the beginning years of the 21st Century. Back-up lamps started being introduced on new vehicles in the 1960s as well, and can now be found in “regular” electrical lamps to halogen to LED systems. The new HID headlamps are available in multiple colors (and even color-shifting models).

HID headlamps and Plasma fog lights on a late-model Camaro SS.


As the changes above were introduced and became practical and popular, major changes began occurring on the roadways of the United States as people began modifying their rides not just for performance as had been done for decades, but for appearance as well, especially in the night time.


These lighting systems have run the gamut from extra side markers to bright-white auxiliary lamps to yellowish fog lamps to tubes of neon gas lighting up the underside of a vehicle to today’s high tech HID and LED lighting systems that are water and weather resistant for underneath your car, to temperature resistant lights for inside the engine bay and the trunk, to ambient lighting mounted in the cabin in the doors, under the dash or seats, and even in your cup holder (because one must be able to locate that soda or coffee in the dark as no spillage must ever be allowed to happen!).


You can today also get projector lamps to install in the doors, under the hood or trunk lid, or under the rear bumper. These lamps are capable of projecting an image onto the ground, the trunk floor, or onto the hood (or the engine itself). The possibilities for these projections are as individual as each car owner is. You can get auto logos, sports teams logos, movie and cartoon characters, and so much more. Basically, if you can think of an item, there is a company out there making these projectors that can custom design your idea for you, and at a fairly low price.

Sample images available for door projector lamps.


Some of SPAWN’s HID and LED lighting, including on the hood liner.


As a result of all these changes in lighting technology, car owners have been able to display incredible amounts of ingenuity and style in displaying their vehicles. This has resulted in various municipalities across the United States and Europe making new laws and ordinances. In some places, you can display your lighting setup only if you are in a parade or sitting at a car show, in others, you can show off your style to its fullest extent, and in others, you can only partially utilize some of your lighting on a regular basis. Always make sure of your local laws so that instead of paying off fines you are able to make that next lighting modification.