Drop-in LED headlights are better, but still not good enough
I’ve dedicated more time to the notion of LED light upgrades than I’d like to admit. But there’s a good reason for the effort, as classic cars have several reasons for ditching incandescent bulbs in favor of modern technology. LEDs run at a cooler temperature, which is great for protecting vintage wiring buried behind dashboards or avoiding cooking inside a parking light assembly. They are crisper and brighter, which makes vintage gauge clusters look even more impressive at night. They use a fraction of a traditional bulb’s wattage, and the look can be very close to factory. You need not get a modern look, as LEDs are available in “warm white” tones that do a fair job of replicating an incandescent bulb’s yellow-ish tone.
Even my friends come and visit for LED upgrades, since I buy the stuff in bulk, install in my driveway, and get paid back in meals/praise for my noble ways. These lights are simply fantastic and shockingly affordable, provided they need not flash or shoot a beam down the road.
Not everything can be done on the cheap. All LEDs are not created equal, and every location sports unique challenges for the upgrader. Headlights and turn signals require specific engineering that provides cannon fodder for disturbingly heated online debates. So let’s narrow our focus to drop-in LED headlight bulbs, and the galaxy of garbage dumped on the market in the past decade.
These LED bulbs fit in both plastic headlight assemblies and glass housings with the Euro-style (H4) replaceable bulb. If you’ve ever experienced Hella ECE lights (readily available online), you know the H4’s superiority compared to its American counterpart. Too bad superiority doesn’t equate to legality. This is a good time to clearly state this article’s salient points:
- Most drop-in LED headlights are illegal everywhere
- Some combinations of H4 bulbs and ECE housings are legal in Europe and less of a red flag for American law enforcement
- Some of the above are also legal in Canada
- Drop-in LED lights are getting better; it’s only a matter of time before they become legal in North America
I am not here to make any recommendations for your vehicle. Instead I offer a look back at the history of drop-in LED headlights, and show the problems you might encounter with the latest crop of lights. With that, here’s an experiment I’ve been performing with my 1995 Lincoln Mark VIII LSC.
This car was the second vehicle in America with HID bulbs, and replacement parts for this dead technology are both non-existent from the factory (or Sylvania) and lack longevity via aftermarket HID alternatives. I really, really want a modern LED solution that will be somewhat close to the original HID. (It doesn’t hurt that, unlike modern vehicles with illegal LEDs, the headlights are so small that it’s rather hard for them to blind others.)
I am not near my goal yet, but the technology is getting closer and closer. That’s because replacement LED bulbs are getting progressively better as the years go by.
We can’t understand our present reality without glancing at where we started. Some of the first LED bulbs were just corn cob lights glued to a headlight base, sold in our unregulated marketplace for anyone to install on their ride. Make no mistake, the corn cobs are great for interior, license plate, underhood, cargo, or side marker lights. But corn cobs never work for a headlight, neither do the 360-degree lights (above, left) nor the ones with contact lenses (above, right).
Then we have latest design, replicating the position of a traditional halogen “filament” bulb with various levels of success. This concept is crucial: All headlight bodies are designed around the bulb’s filament light output, so LEDs must match the original’s source code. Get the geometry right, and it’s just two LED chips (front and back), an appropriately sized circuit board, and the requisite cooling and wiring to ensure a reasonably durable product. The example pictured above is similar to the units in my Mark VIII, proving it’s somewhat possible to make a cheap LED bulb replicate the 9005-series, single-filament design implemented in my big Lincoln.
Use the bulb above as your high beam and the odds are in your favor in terms of safety (i.e. you won’t use it around other motorists anyway). Using something like this as your low beam? That’s a riskier proposition, something I’m still too leery to try.
But what about a cheap, dual-filament bulb? That’s where things get really dicey. Compare the cheap bulb I bought (left, under $25 with taxes and shipping) to the Philips Ultinon Pro6000 H4-LED (right, $150), which recently became road-legal in Germany. They both have LED chips where the filament lives but the Philips’ chip is crafted/shrouded appropriately to ensure it spits light into a headlight housing à la halogen filaments. The craftsmanship in its circuit board and cooling fins are likely why this passed German certification standards. Clearly my purchase will give me buyer’s remorse, but let’s see just how regrettable it shall become.
Whenever you see photos like this without data from a lux meter in a more clinical setting, please immediately discount the author’s analysis, as cameras do more to distort the representation of actual light output more than social media distorts … well, just about anything.
Since I am not interested in providing a positively skewed review of these bulbs, we can draw valid conclusions without getting all scientific-like. My 2011 Ranger’s low beam was clearly throwing out more light with the new LED bulb (left), but the pattern lacks the original’s strong cut off. The latter ensures oncoming traffic isn’t blinded, so we can safely say this cheap LED light is already making the wrong moves.
Put both LEDs in and it looks less incorrect, don’cha think? I will admit this amount of light is both acceptable and welcome in rural areas where oncoming traffic (and law enforcement) will be more tolerant of such a performance. The aforementioned $25-ish asking price could be great insurance when driving down a lonely dirt road in the dead of night! Except no, because it gets worse …
Going for a brief jaunt in my neighborhood, the low beams (top) replicated the factory light output reasonably well, aside from the troubling lack of an upper boundary cut-off. The extra light thrown at the center/sides was welcome, but there’s no way I’d use these outside of my controlled environment. But what really chaps my hide are the high beams (below), as they have a better cut off for low-beam use. Great, except high beams are supposed to throw more light down the road!
I was tempted to switch pins on the wiring harness to make high into low and low into high. But since I am not an influencer here to sell whatever I’m currently discussing, this is where I motored back to my driveway, reverted back to halogens, re-boxed the LEDs, and began the return process with the seller.
As JFK once said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” I am thrilled that I engaged in this experiment, as one day I will find a replacement, drop-in LED headlight bulb that will make my efforts worthwhile. That day hasn’t come for me, but I certainly look forward to making that change one day!