Today, they’re a historical curiosity, a love-’em-or-hate-’em affectation from a long time ago. But it wasn’t that long ago that pop-up headlights were just about everywhere. Not every car had them, but virtually every major automaker offered at least one sleek model with hideaways. From Corvettes to Corollas, a low front end and disappearing lights reigned supreme for nearly a generation, conveying performance, technology, and modernity, just like automatic seat belts and cassette decks did. And then they were all gone.
Changing tastes and strict European pedestrian crash safety standards effectively killed the pop-ups, and they disappeared in 2004 with the C5 Corvette and Lotus Esprit V8 as the last cars to wear them. With global safety standards getting stricter, it isn’t likely they’re ever going to make a comeback.
But the hideaway headlight had a surprisingly healthy 68-year run. And in that time, everything from econoboxes to supercars received the treatment. There are a number of legends — Lamborghini Countach and Diablo, Chevy C4 and C5 Corvette, BMW M1, and Acura NSX among them — that didn’t make the list, mostly because they’re already so well-known. We wanted to find 10 cars that would give a good cross-section of the rise and fall (no pun intended) of the pop-up headlight.
1. 1936-1937 Cord 810/812
Here it is, the grandaddy of them all. Genesis. The Cord 810/812 was one of the most advanced cars of its day, and a product of the legendary Auburn Automobile company. Designed by Gordon Buherig (who penned the Auburn 851 Speedster) and Alex Tremulis (who would go on to design the Tucker 48), the 810/812 wasn’t just the first car to have pop-up headlights, it was also the second production car in the world (behind the Citroën Traction Avant) to have a front-wheel drive layout, on top of also offering a supercharged V8 and semi-automatic transmission.
But Auburn went bust in late 1936, unsold Cords were sold off as ’37 models, and Independent automakers Grahm-Paige and Hupmobile bought the tooling and built their own versions of the car in ’40 and ’41. Alas, their cars had fixed headlights.
2. 1962-1973 Lotus Elan
The first sign of a pop-up headlight revival came in the 1960s, with hideaway lamps becoming a popular feature on cars like the Mercury Cougar, Dodge Charger, and Buick Riviera. But the modern pop-up made an appearance as early as 1962 on the Lotus Elan, one of the most refined and best handling cars of the era. While its almost universally considered to be one of the best driver’s cars of the ’60s and ’70s, its biggest legacy is likely the car it inspired a generation later…
3. 1990-1997 Mazda Miata
According to legend, Mazda had its engineers each spend time with a vintage Lotus Elan to figure out exactly what made it so appealing, then disassemble and reassemble it to figure out what Mazda needed to put into its roadster.
Long story short, Mazda got everything that was great about the Elan, and put it into a package that was more reliable, more robust, and has gone on to become a legend in its own right. Now in its fourth-generation, the Miata hasn’t had Lotus-style pop-ups in nearly 20 years. But to some fans, they’ll always be associated with the car.
4. 1978-1995 Porsche 928
Believe it or not, by the ’70s, Porsche was sick of the 911 and searching for a replacement. That car was supposed to be the 928, a water-cooled, front-engined, V8-powered, ultra-modern grand tourer. But while it was sold alongside the 911 for 17 years, it never proved popular enough to overtake it. Vintage 928s are still plentiful though, and deliver a classic Porsche driving experience while being far more affordable than any 911 of the era. Plus, its headlight pods rise up and out of the fenders, giving it one of the most distinctive looks of any sports car ever built.
5. 1976-1990 Aston Martin Lagonda
Aston Martin shocked the automotive world with the Lagonda, an iconoclastic, tech-laden Rolls-Royce competitor that seemed to come from the future. The massive sedan had all-digital instrumentation, touch-sensitive controls, and a host of computers to manage the engine and emissions in 1976, but quality control was atrocious, and Aston Martin was too small and broke to ever completely work out the kinks. Still, it likely had the largest pop-up headlights ever offered. Unfortunately, they disappeared from the model after 1987.
6. 1978-1985 Mazda RX-7
The RX-7 had pop-ups for its entire lifespan, but they were never more pronounced than on the first-generation cars. In the mid-’70s, the U.S. DOT mandated headlights must be 24 inches off the ground, posing a problem for cars with impossibly low front ends — and the RX-7 had one of the lowest front ends of any car of the era, making pop-ups a necessity. Along with its radical rotary engine, the RX-7 was one of the most distinctive sports cars of its time — we couldn’t imagine it without its trademark hideaways.
7. 1984-1991 Ferrari Testarossa
Part of the appeal of pop-up headlights was that they conveyed speed, and no car sold that idea better than the Ferrari Testarossa, the car that launched a million imitators. When it was introduced in 1984, the aggressively aerodynamic car was so popular that customers were paying upwards of $100,000 above the sticker price to get their hands on one. After spending spurned for decades as an excessive artifact of the ’80s, the Testarossa is back in a big way, doubling in value in the past year alone.
8. 1985-1990 Toyota MR2
Speaking of Ferrari imitators, the two biggest offenders of the ’80s were the Pontiac Fiero and Toyota MR2. You could buy an aftermarket Testarossa bodykit for your mid-engined Fiero of course, but GM had neutered the car for fear it would compete with the Firebird and Camaro, and it suffered from atrocious build quality. On the other hand, Toyota cobbled together a legitimate mid-engined sports car from Corolla parts, offered it with a turbo, and made it good enough to go toe-to-toe with a Ferrari 308 in Automobile’s inaugural issue. The first-generation MR2 is a true exotic for the masses, pop-up headlights and all.
9. 1985-1989 Honda Accord
By the mid-’80s, pop-up headlights had reached peak popularity, though they largely stayed in the realm of sporty cars. While everything from low-end sporty cars like the Toyota Corolla GT-S and Nissan Pulsar to legitimate contenders like the Chevy Corvette and Porsche 944 had hideaways, Honda brought pop-ups to the midsize sedan segment with its fiercely modern third-generation Accord.
With its sleek lines and aggressively raked hood line, the Accord had graduated from just another boxy Japanese sedan to a sleek, sporty, and legitimate alternative to the old-fashioned, chrome-laden cars coming from Detroit.
10. 1991-1995 Cizeta-Moroder V16T
If the ’80s and early ’90s were the high-water mark for the pop-up headlight, then the V16T was the king. Based on the original design for the Lamborghini Diablo, the V16T had an outrageous V16 mounted amidships and four individual pop-ups up front. Including driving lights and parking lamps, you’d be looking at no fewer than 10 headlights should an ultra-rare (just 20 made) Cizeta pop up in your rearview mirror.