Home » The Porsche 914’s Pop-Up Headlights Had A Grisly Secret

The Porsche 914’s Pop-Up Headlights Had A Grisly Secret

Porsche914 Finger

In our modern, aero-obsessed era, pop-up headlights are pretty much extinct, since most car designers and engineers now frown on the idea of deploying a pair of aero speed brakes every time it gets dark out. But back in the 1970s and 1980s, these were pretty much a requirement for any sports car that wanted to convey the right amount of drama, because that’s what pop-up lights are all about. So when Porsche was developing its new low-end sports car in the late 1960s, the Porsche 914, it decided that the car should have pop-up headlights; but, Porsche being Porsche, these pop-up lights were maybe a little over-engineered, leading to a side-effect and for which Porsche then had to solve. I’ll explain.

First, it’s worth noting that the 914 was the first German car to have power-operated pop-up headlights. Sure, the Opel GT had pop-up (well, really roll over) but those were operated with your own bugling, glistening muscles, via a hand crank. Porsche wasn’t going to make you have to manually crank your lights open, like some sort of filthy animal, so it opted for a pair of electric motors to do the job.


These motors even had a little plastic knob on the end so in case they failed you could still open them manually, as a last resort, and only if nobody was watching. The other notable thing about these motors is that they’re arguably overpowered for their job, which is a direct result of Porsche’s engineers going sort of nuts in testing, demanding that the motors be able to break through a significantly thick layer of ice.

From Richard Langworth’s 1983 book, Porsche: A Tradition of Greatness:

Because of the car’s lowness, Gugelot resorted to pop-up headlamps to meet federal minimum-height requirements. The latter were, by the way, a typical piece of Porsche-werk, with every possible contingency considered. Each unit was raised by an individual electric motor; each also had a manual control in the event of electrical failure.

Both methods were engineered so that they could easily break the thickest coating of ice the engineers could encourage in cold-weather tests.

It’s pretty cool that the headlight motors were strong enough to force themselves through a sheet of ice around a quarter-inch thick, and I’m sure it would have made a dramatic scene when leaving the ski slopes, lights popping up noisily, sending shards and fragments of glistening ice dancing and flying everywhere – very cool. But there was an unintended side effect: The motors were more than capable of chopping off an errant finger, like a mule snapping a hefty carrot in half.

Luckily, Porsche’s engineers, possibly via direction from the marketing department that concluded that finger retention was important to their target buyers, found a solution. Again from Porsche: A Tradition of Greatness:

To prevent a headlamp’s catching an unwary finger on the way down, a safety panel was provided that would give way before one’s digit did. It was the only correct engineering approach to a device that was becoming widespread – and fashionable- throughout the industry at the time.

Yes, there’s a safety, break-away panel under the headlights. It’s this panel right here:


So, yes, the headlight motors on a 914 are certainly capable of taking your fingers off, but they won’t thanks to the design of that bit of sheetmetal under there. Knowing how much 914s can be affected by rust, it’s also possible that even if the panel wasn’t there, you might just need a tetanus shot as your fingers got forced through rusty metal. Still, why take the chance? Keep your fingers out of there.


(thanks, Hans!)

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53 Responses

  1. Meanwhile Chevy solved this problem on the C3 Corvette my making the vacuum actuation too weak to chop a finger. And since the system didn’t need complicated breakaway panels they were free to add a little bit of extra complexity in the form of 3 vacuum relays, 2 bi-directional vacuum actuators, an electromechanical valve/switch, a manual override valve, a solenoid (because _4_ vacuum relays would be CRAZY TOWN!), 6 miles of hose (three different diameters) and a welded-shut section of frame rail that acts as a vacuum reservoir.

    1. Zee tomato slice eez so thin you can’t even see it, can you? Nein!

      Only four easy payments of $19.99, plus separate shipping and handling.

  2. First of all, let me preface this with the fact that the 914 is one of my favourite cars of all time (fight me). I had a family friend who had one he bought new and it was one of the first cars I ever drove. I learned about cars helping him work on his. He was meticulous in keeping it running, but alas he had no super powers over corrosion.

    That said. 914s we definitely not over engineered. At least not in the ways we normally associate. They were definitely well engineered to a price. That’s not a bad thing, just not over engineered like we think of.

    1. Dad has a real deal, factory ’71 914-6, no corrosion under the battery death-hole.
      Its been waiting a restoration for a couple years, I need to get on that with him.

    2. I myself also am an afficionado of the 914. I’ve yet to find an unmolested one in good enough shape to molest myself. Maybe I’ll get an old one that’s been through the wringer, and engineer some stuff. Definitely worth the effort, if you have the time.

    3. When my close friend was just 15 we’d take his dad’s 914 out for kicks. Bombing around with the top down was a blast and hardly seemed illegal as it felt like riding around in a go kart.

    4. I had a yellow 74 with 2.0. The first one I ever saw was in Europe in 1971 in Porsche Orange. Love at first sight. Low center of gravity, no ‘my engine is in the back so take that turn at 50 mph and crash’ warnings needed. I loved that car, but Midwest rust led to selling it. For what it is worth, the Del Sol I have is wicked in the turns fun, also Honda not Porsche reliability.

    5. The tire pressure meme is not a joke with this car. I had a 914 do a 540 in front of me for no obvious reason on the 405 in Orange County in the Seventies.

      Well, two beer cans were thrown out at the side of the road after he turned around to pull over since he managed to hit a station wagon in the lane next to him while doing this.

  3. As someone who has caught their hand in the pop-up headlights of his 1990 Miata, I can attest that it is not pleasant.

    Another nice design element of the 914 are the soft corners of the pop-up. A Miata has sharp 90 degree corners on the headlights and you can hurt yourself leaning over the engine bay at night.

    1. Also, any maintenance procedure which involves leaning over the engine bay ends with tweaking the headlight housings back into alignment from when you inevitably breathed on them and vent them down a little. Every time, even though I know not to rest my hands there.

  4. Modern windows have current sensing to make them go back down if they’re going to crush something. I assume nowadays you’d have a processor that, especially for closing, would cut power if it felt too much resistance. On the way up I could see going full power but down shouldn’t need as much. But back then that circuitry control would have been harder to do.

    1. And honestly, a breakaway panel seems like a more reliable safety feature than a sensor. I know my garage door has gotten confused once or twice and squished something it shouldn’t have. Never anything important, thankfully.

  5. I had a frankenstein 914 that I built from two wrecked cars and yeah the headlights had some amazingly beefy motors. I remember the satisfying “chonk” of them popping open.

  6. No, it has to do with the German (and to the extend, ECE) regulations that no sharp objects can stick out in the area where the pedestrians would be likely to encounter in a collision. That’s one reason why the hood ornaments have spring load that allows them to be flattened and returned to the original position. Same with the radio antennas and wing mirrors being “banned” from the front. Germans even insisted on putting the “protection cover” insert in front of yellow Lamborghini Muira’s ribbed louvres as shown in the recent barn find in Germany.

    If you look at the export version of the second generation Ford Probe, you can see the same panel insert. The US version has one-piece cover with “spike” corner while the export version has two pieces: one affixed to the body, and other to the headlamp housing with smoother and form-fitting corners.

    Since you take eternally, infuriatingly, inexplicably FOREVER to approve the comments with links, I will post the links in the separate comment below.

    1. And yet still probably faster than The Former Website at getting comments approved. ;p (Been commenting over there for a while and STILL in the greys, sadly.)

      1. My burner acct there got cut off and I started a new one. After a few days of gray only I just stopped trying. It was a stupid system I didn’t understand the first time I went through it. I didn’t see any benefit to pushing through round 2.

  7. Many other cars had manual headlight knobs. Heck, a manual override may have even been some type of requirement, but I’m honestly not sure on that point. From the 80s: Pontiac Fiero, C4 Corvettes, and Nissan 300ZX all had easy-peazy manual overrides for the popup mechanism. There may have been others.

    1. I don’t think the TR7 had manual override, and pretty sure first generation RX7 didn’t have them. I could be wrong, my brother had a TR7 so not real sure there. I had an RX7, pretty sure it didn’t have a manual override, but they always worked, so never really had to check into it.

    2. Ford’s headlight covers (over fixed headlights, so on Lincolns, LTDs and the like) were vacuum-operated but the vacuum held them closed against spring loading or sometimes gravity, so the failure mode would be covers open. In the ’80s big old Fords from the ’70s with winking headlight covers from a vacuum leak on one side was a common sight.

  8. I have a 914/6 and yes the headlight motors are the size of modern high torque geared starter motors. And if you twist the little knob past full up it closes a relay to close the headlight. Whether you are expecting it or not. It gives aiming the headlights that added frisson of unexpected chomping. The original owner of my car had the springs, shocks, and sway bars set up to a stiffness that required a rider on your dental insurance, and as a consequence every so often the car would jettison the “eyebrows” so I made a leash for them.

  9. I had a finger munched by a closing elevator door back in the 70s when I was six, so I wish that manufacturer had contracted Porsche to design it as well!

    1. I had the joy of getting my left ring and pinkie shut in the door of an 87 cutlass supreme, brown metallic on brown. Learned a lesson that day, don’t try to stop a door closing by sticking a hand in it.

      1. Learned that with an ’03 Chevy Tracker door myself at about 10-years-old. Was going to try to get my mom with a snowball and she closed the door. Me, having the infinite wisdom of a ten-year-old boy, decided the best course of action was to try to stop the door from shutting with my tiny muscles. My poor mom felt so awful that she didn’t know I tried to grab the door.

      2. I managed to close the rear door of a friend’s dad’s brand new Nissan Bluebird flush on my thumb at age 8. Central locking, too, so I had to holler for them to come back and unlock the car so I could open the door with my free hand. Thirty years later and I still have a heavy ridge right through the middle of the nail. Never trusted sedan rear doors since.

  10. When I purchased my ’92 F350 one of the front windows wouldn’t work properly.
    Using Prof Goggle to find the cause and solution, I found out that the front electric windows have three small pieces of plastic that will shear before taking a finger off. Nice safety feature. The back windows area manual. Hmm, I wonder how many vehicles have both?
    However, many of the sources for the cause provided a rather unsafe solution. The pocket the plastic fits into was just the right size to place a 1/4-20 nut into instead of the safe plastic.
    I searched around until I could find a source for the proper safe material for my truck.

    1. “Hmm, I wonder how many vehicles have both?”

      Off the top of my head, first-generation Neons with power windows and 2010s Foci both had power front windows and cranks in the back. I’m sure various European cars have pulled the same BS over the years.

      1. Yesss! My Neon had only manual windows available bit the next model year had electric in the front, manual in the back. Which was hilarious given that the car was so narrow opening the fronts were never an issue, but having to open the backs without causing an accident would have been nice.

        1. Thought the same thing when I borrowed a friends Neon – give me power rear and manual front if you are doing a hybrid. I have long enough arms passenger front while at a stop light but damn near dislocated my shoulder being too lazy to get out of the driver’s seat to lower the rear windows.

    2. There was a period when electric windows were moving from being a luxury option, to becoming a standard item. Which slowly trickled down from luxury brands to cheap cars.
      I think quite a few manufacturers in the middle of that process went with electrics only for the front. In the same way that a lot of luxury options are only available for the front occupants (eg heated seats).
      My 2001 Peugeot 206 had manual winders in the back, but electric windows up front. However, the switches for the front windows were in the centre of the car, just behind the handbrake. Which just shows how much of an afterthought they were.
      Or possibly it was just the inherent French-ness of the design shining through, there was a lot of…interesting…design decisions in that car.

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