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Styling Pitfalls: Vertical Headlights

November 21, 2011 by Matt

1984 84 Dodge Caravan Minivan Red

These never turn out well. As the adage goes, those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it, and many stylists must be poor students of their automotive forbears, since the darn things keep cropping up on new cars.

Infiniti G35 Coupe Silver Gray Grey

Whether they’re individual sealed-beam units or bulb-based arrangements, the effect is the same. A contrast between the horizontal orientation of the grille and car in general (mosts cars look wider than they are tall) and the up-down positioning of the headlights is established.

1968 Cadillac De Ville Black

It sets up a tension between the two axes, and I haven’t seen a car yet that has successfully pulled it off.

97-01 Honda Prelude Silver

Even the 5th-generation Honda Prelude, a fantastic car in every other way, falls on its face (pun intended) with the headlight arrangement. Why, Honda?

Pontiac GTO Black

If I’m honest, there is one car that has done vertical headlights correctly, and it’s the one shown above: The original ’64-’67 Pontiac GTO. Part of it was that the grille seemed to actually acknowledge the headlight positioning; contrast that with the out-of-context infighting between the two elements on the cars pictured elsewhere in this post. The other major reason it worked for the GTO was the car’s remarkable understatement (a key to its broader appeal). The rest of the car’s lines weren’t fussy, but simple, and made the headlight treatment seem purposeful instead of gratuitous. Designers tempted to resurrect vertical headlights, if they read their history, should take a page from Pontiac’s mid-’60s playbook.

Filed under: Aesthetics


  1. Shawn says:

    I agree it doesn’t look too hot in most cases, but what about some of the classic Mercedes models? I think it adds to the look of power of the 600 Grosser in particular.

    • Matt says:

      Good catch. Yes, the vertical arrangement does agree with the 600’s lines better than most. The whole car is so “intentionally upright” that the headlight treatment is a natural fit.

      For what it’s worth, the W113 SL-class received vertical headlights too, and while they look decent, they definitely don’t have the charm of the earlier or later generations’ headlights.

  2. Mohammad says:

    no man…
    the G35???????

    damn, u just cant talk about that car like that, if vertical headlights are not good then they become good for the sake of that car and btw the benz SLS has the same headlights… is it a styling pitfall as well?!

  3. SL says:

    I disagree. The 1968 Cadillac is the best looking of the rest, including the GTO. I don’t think they look any more or less out of place on the Caddy than the GTO. Only reason they might look “better” on the GTO is because that car was so common and so sought after as all muscle cars are, that it feels more familiar.

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