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When people think of pop-up headlights, many minds go straight to the 1980s. The C4 Corvette, the Porsche 944, the Ferrari F40, and even many cheap and cheerful models had them. Hiding headlights was one of the style and safety hallmarks of the post-malaise period obsessed with making boxy cars more aerodynamic. But it also struck the hearts and minds of car enthusiasts a half-century before. So, what was the first car to feature them? Likely, you’ve never heard of it.

Auburn Automobile’s 1936 Cord 810

At the 1935 New York Auto Show, established but suffering brand Auburn Automotive turned up with new models from its Auburn, Duesenberg, and Cord marques. The three were typical expensive luxury cars with state-of-the-art engineering and aggressive styling for the time. After the 1929 stock market crash, however, Auburn’s upscale vehicles were too expensive for the masses. Yet, they continued on with their lavish motor cars, becoming more innovative to boost sales.

New for the 1936 model year was Auburn’s Cord 810. Staffed with a 125-horsepower 4.7-liter V8, the Cord 810 came in various customizable two and four-door models as hardtops and convertibles. The pop-up headlights on each front fender flanked two fog lights on the front bumper. Despite much of the car running on vacuum tubes, the headlights were operated by individual hand cranks on the dashboard. Not only was the Cord 810 the first car with pop-up headlights, but it was also the first American front-wheel drive car with independent front suspension, Jay Leno’s Garage says.

Unfortunately, the Cord 810 and its revolutionary pop-up headlights didn’t last long. In 1937, all three of Auburn’s marques halted production.

What are pop-up headlights for?

The 1936 Cord 810 was the first car to feature pop-up headlights
Cord 810 | Ken Ishii, Getty Images

Although pop-up headlights help lower a vehicle’s drag coefficient, their importance is centered around, in the beginning, style. Auburn built the Cord 810 in an era when massive stand-alone and unflattering headlights dominated front fascias. Auburn Automobile sought the design for a more streamlined look. Yet, in the succeeding decades, the move was to preserve a sleek front but also beat government regulations.

In the 2000s, European governments shifted their safety focus to pedestrians. Consequently, the fronts of vehicles had to be more deformable and safer for pedestrians in the event of a crash. Therefore, headlights hidden used to promote a low-profile hood were no longer championed. Even though foreign legislation doesn’t affect American vehicles, automakers work globally. To acquiesce, manufacturers worldwide said goodbye to pop-up headlights.

Are pop-up headlights banned today?

Pop-up headlights on a white car
Pop-up headlight | Zaim Anwar, Unsplash

In the U.S., National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Standard No. 108 was created in 2004. The federal law governs all rules surrounding headlights. Critically, the car safety regulations don’t ban the use of pop-up headlamps. However, there’s a not-so-easy-to-get-around restriction.

“Whenever any malfunction occurs in a component that controls or conducts power for the actuation of the concealment device, each closed headlamp concealment device shall be capable of being fully opened by a means not requiring the use of any tools. Thereafter, the headlamp concealment device must remain fully opened until intentionally closed,” it states.