Look At These Mind-Scrambling Examples Of Sealed-Beam Headlight Holdouts

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Familiarity is a strange thing. When I was a kid growing up firmly in the era of only four headlight options for all cars – single or dual round sealed beams, or single or dual rectangular sealed beams – I longed for the freedom enjoyed in Europe and the rest of the world where headlights could take on special shapes thanks to tailored-to-specific car model plastic or even custom glass. When this headlight freedom finally arrived in America in 1984 with the Lincoln Mk VII I was ecstatic, and have enjoyed this bold era of wild headlamp experimentation. And yet, at the same time, I now find myself weirdly nostalgic for those old, crappy glass lights, which I think is why I find examples of the very last examples of sealed-beams so exciting. So let’s check these out!

These examples were sent to us by an Autopian named Oliver, who first clued us in to an interesting example, not really a recent holdout, but more of a little-known variation from the early 1990s. Behold:

 

Yes, that’s a second-gen Dodge Caravan minivan there, but with a strange-looking black plastic front face that incorporates rectangular sealed-beam headlights. You can see the normal 1991 Caravan up there in the corner to compare what the normal face looked like, with its shaped, composite headlights.

That black face must have been some incredibly rare fleet-vehicle special, only used in, I assume, places where I’m not, because I’ve never seen this remarkable thing. I was wondering if it was just some sort of odd, penny-pinching styling exercise that never made it into production, but our man Oliver provided an official parts list and diagram that seems to show that yes, these were real, somewhere:

This example is fascinating because of its incredible rarity, and the fact that it appeared in the early era of composite headlamp adoption, and appears to be a prudent hedging of bets on Chrysler’s part, and a reminder that those fancy-ass new shaped headlights are much more expensive than off-the-Walmart-shelf sealed beams.

That cost issue is the entire reason why sealed beams have lingered on as much as they have, and that’s why the only recent examples have been fleet vehicles. The 2017 Chevy Express (up above there, watching you) was the absolute last holdout for sealed beams in America, and I feel like that workhorse van has gotten plenty of attention as such.

What hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention is the other example Oliver showed me: a mid-2000s Chevy Colorado truck with sealed-beam rectangular headlights. Just look at this thing:

Holy crap. This one is incredible because this first generation of Chevy Colorado (2004-2012) was designed to use composite headlights very specifically, like pretty much everything from this era. Here’s what it normally looks like:

As you can see, those composite headlights are a key anchor in that front end design. When they’re replaced with rectangular $8 sealed beams you get to see the fascinating hoops some junior designer had to jump through to make this somehow work.

Some even went even more fleet-chic and didn’t bother painting the front end plastic:

From an anthropomorphization standpoint, its interesting to note that the indicator/parking lamp/DRL units above the headlights seem to read more as the eyes, at least to me. I can force myself to shift to the lower lamps as eyes and the indicators as eyebrows, but it takes some effort.

I’d also like to point out that it’s not just Oliver and me who find this sealed-beam Colorado fascinating; the Internet’s Mr.Regular seems to be equally flabbergasted as well:

See? It’s got to be important, because we now have three people on record as being interested. What more do you want?

Really, I kind of love the look of the Colorado with sealed beams, and each of these examples is a great way to highlight what the sealed beam does really well: be cheap.

Well, being cheap, and not clouding up into a miserable milky haze like so many aging composite headlights do. Those are important things in the right contexts, and even if they were derided as boring and a styling nightmare, I’m always excited to see modern-era designs made to work with these old cheap glass globes and prisms.

If anyone knows of other 2000s-era sealed beam vehicles (not like big trucks or fire engines and stuff–those we know hold on to them) I’d love to see them!

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57 Responses

  1. The running theme here is that utility vehicles are what kept sealed beams the longest, but what about passenger cars? The Geo Metro kept sealed beams until 1997 on the base models only. Higher trims got composite lights, and when the Geo brand was discontinued and the car got rebadged as a Chevy for 1998 the sealed beams were dropped.

  2. I’m probably wrong about this, but take a look at the next-gen (2023?) Ford Ranger.

    I generally don’t like the styling of the ranger in higher trims, but the lower trims (XL?),
    the next gen truck looks good, and it looks like it might have sealed beams?

    https://fordauthority.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Next-Generation-2022-Ford-Ranger-International-Market-Australian-Model-Exterior-001-Left-to-Right-XLT-Sport-WildTrak-XLS-XL-1024×575.jpg

  3. Not sure when/if the E-Series discontinued the sealed beams, but it was definitely a holdout into the 2010s.

    Count me as fan of the Colorado’s sealed beams. Kinda makes me wonder what the Maverick XL would look like.

    1. I only recognized this now that you point it out, but it was almost certainly a fleet option, because I know the ’97 I had had bulbs you could replace without replacing the entire assembly. The front grilles look the same from ’92 to 2007. I wouldn’t know if they still accepted sealed-beam ones after that.

      1. They continued the option on the redesigned front end. I can find pictures as late as 2015 of Ford E-Series with sealed beams. The cutaway and chassis cabs are still in production, but the enclosed van and passenger wagon are no longer made.

    2. The E-series as a van, died in 2014.

      A few other 2000’s vintage vehicles with sealed beams in their poverty specs:
      Chevrolet Astro (produced through 2008)
      Ford F-250/F-350/F-450…. through MY2010 in XL trim.

  4. My wife’s 2004 Jeep Wrangler TJ has 7″ round sealed beam headlights, and the TJ existed with those headlights up until 2006.

    I switched them to Hella H4 conversion headlights and they put out much more light, definitely worth the upgrade and they don’t look tacky like some of the fancier LED lights.

    1. Did the same to my 2007 Ford E350 SD cutaway. Interesting tidbit I bought it used in 2017 with just 1,800 miles on it. Still had the original rubber tires with the nipples still remaining. Of course 1st thing I did was replace those dry rotted tires with new rubber.

      1. I chose an H4 conversion on my ’74 C10. I don’t like the “robotic” look, I want some semblance of originality still there.

        (I also kept the original grille and amber turn signal/parking lenses, but painted the bumper.)

  5. I think we will see a market for these when current cars reach beater status.

    The headlights on some Volvos are like $2000 each! That’s fine for a brand-new car in a wreck, but when its 13 years old, ain’t nobody paying that. Boom! Sealed beam conversion.

    1. I am dreading that with my car. It has Xeon headlights and the cost for a 12 year old car is steep.

      I had to replace on of the headlight units (no lights, seal was toast). That alone was over 700 from a boneyard. IF I had to the lights, double or more.

      1. Also, they most definitely fog/cloud up, they’re just so easy to replace, it’s not a big deal.

        I love seeing classic cars or trucks all redone and painted and nice wheels and redone interior…with one of their sealed beam headlights black with water droplets on the inside. Makes it look like a clunker. Seriously? How can you not see that (owner)? He detracts from all the other work you’ve done (or paid to have done), and it’s probably the cheapest thing you could’ve done to improve the appearance!

  6. The sealed-beam Colorados were fairly common in the black-grilled full fleet/”Prices Starting At” spec but only that way; I suspect your recent pic with the body-color grille was personalized by a subsequent owner.

    I saw the sealed-beam Dodge minivan – probably that exact pic but in black-and-white – in one of those annual new-car buyers’ guides (Consumer Guide or a knockoff) in the very first year of the second gen minivans but never since. I suspect that it was pulled from production at the 11th hour even though a parts list had been sent to dealers. It would be for cargo vans only (the ’87-90 version was also used for export) and a lot of extra cost and complication on the line for a model that was a rounding error in total minivan sales.

    1. This article is about the vehicles that have different sets of headlamps: composite and sealed beam, which is more of a rare thing lately. This Lotus doesn’t count since it’s fitted with one type of headlamps regardless.

  7. The interplay between standardization and bespoke design is very interesting to me.

    Sealed beams vs. bespoke lighting is the same argument as USB-C vs. proprietary charging cables. But you can find all four permutations of people who support/oppose both of those things. It makes no sense!

  8. Yesterday on the highway I was thinking about this very thing as I looked at a newer Boxster or Cayman in my rear-view – the setup with the 4 led dots arranged in a square in each light-hole. My thought was “gee, that’s snazzy.”

    But really it looks weird. I feel like the whole hole should contain light. It got me onto thinking how I’d like to see a modern LED headlight that replicated the look of a sealed beam. Quick google search turns up a lot of heinous garbage, like a sealed beam shaped silver thing with a bunch of LED dots in it. Philips has some that look like they could be OEM quality – I’d have to see them lit up at night.

  9. That Colorado is amazing and, in a twist of fate, very contemporary! Slim upper lights and square low-beams in a separate housing? Welcome to the Hyundai Palisade, Nissan Juke, Nissan Pathfinder, Kia Soul, new BMW i7 and X7… it’s the trendiest new look!

  10. That Dodge Caravan panel van looks awesome. The sealed beam fascia just looks better. Unpainted plastic always improves the look of a car in my book.

    I’m from Europe and I’ve always envied sealed beams. I know, grass is always greener, but it just seems smarter and much more consumer-friendly than bespoke headlights that will cost hundreds or euros.

  11. The Estate of Lee Iacocca and all of us at Stellantis sincerely apologize for the “blackface” Dodge Caravan and would like to acknowledge the hurt and confusion it has created for van buyers and car historians everywhere. In the context of the early 1980s, we felt it made sense to offer multiple versions of the same vehicle. However, with the benefit of nearly four decades of hindsight, we recognize and apologize for the decision. We wholeheartedly reject any and all use of multiple models for a single year, including but not limited to vehicles with trimlines like “Classic” to obscure the fact that the vehicle has not actually been updated.

  12. Not that you need anyone to tell you this, but the 2006 Wrangler still had both sealed beams and the phenomenal and iconic box tail lights, which you did a great video for on othercarsite.com

  13. You know what, I think your govt was onto something when it mandated sealed beans for everyone.
    Before: fugly lights that cost 8 bucks a pop.
    Now: Intricate, sometimes beautiful, most often ugly, and always looking angry. Also, sometimes $2,000 to replace, for something that lives ON THE CORNER of the car.
    Maybe the less commie solution would be a government program that offer tax cuts for cars that use standardised parts, like sealed beans, DIN “infotainment” and even the proposed “standard in-line four 2.0l turbo”. That would drive prices down, promote third party add-ons, and leave room for the fancy “angry cat fish” line of cars manufacturers love so much.

  14. I’ve been thinking about what, if anything, to do with the Miata’s sealed beam headlights. They illuminate OK, but they could be a lot better. However, I feel like pretty much all the LED replacement options I’ve seen are just wildly out of character for the car—and I’m trying to keep to an OEM or OEM+ look.

    You can get Hella drop-ins that take more modern halogen bulbs and look basically like the originals, but I kinda doubt they would actually work much better. I’ve thought about getting the Hellas and then putting in some of those Sylvania Zevo LED replacements, but that seems kind of hacky.

    What I’d really like would be an LED headlight with a 7″ round form-factor, an old-school look, and ideally a somewhat warm color temperature. Anyone ever seen something like that?

  15. I swear there was a late-stage Oldsmobile that used sealed beams well after they had died elsewhere, but I can’t find it. I distinctly remember seeing them in the early Aughts and thinking how odd the square headlights looked fitted into an all-plastic front end.

    1. I think you’re thinking of the mid 90s Cutlass Supreme coupes, which had GM’s “mini-quads”. Pontiac Grand Prix had them as well. 1992-97 I believe.

  16. Not exactly but still kinda b/c relevant b/c today’s shitbox showdown, I think the Camaro had quad rectangular sealed-beams until the end of the ’90s, right?

    The new 2000s front end was what killed the otherwise good looks of the 4th gen.

    1. 1998 was the year that ditched the terrible sealed beams as the facelift model. Also highly disagree that ‘93-‘97 Camaros looked better. The facelift looks 5,000,000,000x better.

      Also ‘98 was the first year of the LS1 block (aluminum) in Z28’s/SS’s all prior Z28’s were LT1s (Iron). There was also a HP/Trq bump but I don’t recall the numbers maybe 25.

    2. Yes, and they were a fucking bitch. Because they were very non-standard, offset, and deeply recessed. A normal sealed beam is basically a square. The F-bodies used a 5.4″ x 2.2″, but not an H4 connector. Nope. GM in their infinite fucking wisdom, used a custom 2-pin weather tight connector found on exactly nothing outside of GM. In a form factor never found outside of GM.
      Nevermind that the insane recess meant the headlights were decoration only to begin with. They were completely and utterly useless.
      I’m genuinely glad you can’t even buy high beams for them any more. Nobody’s making them.

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