What Happened to Pop-Ups?

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Before there were pop-up ads, there were pop-up headlights. When they weren’t on, you couldn’t see them – because when they were off, they retracted or rolled over so that all you saw was a cover. This gave the car’s nose a sleek look as well as something to look at when you turned the headlights on.

Not just that they were on, either. They gave you something to watch, too.

Pop-ups were very popular once and even defined the look of certain cars, such as Corvettes – which featured them for decades.

So why aren’t they popular anymore?

It’s not the right question. Or rather, the answer – which is that they were made de facto illegal, via government regulations. Specifically, those requiring Daytime Running Lamps. More accurately, always-on lights. Which defeats the purpose of pop-ups, both functionally as well as aesthetically. If the lights are always on, then the headlights are always popped-up. If they are always on (and up) what would be the point of their being able to pop-down? Sure, the car would still look smooth – when parked. But it would be less aerodynamic when moving, because the headlights would be popped-up and breaking up the slipstream.

But the more fatal problem was the additional cost of the pop-ups, which was harder to justify when they were almost always popped-up, courtesy of always-on headlight requirements. Fixed headlights don’t have moving parts (usually; some newer designs have lenses that turn with the steering) and are more aerodynamically advantageous because they don’t pop-up.

And that’s why you don’t see pop-up headlights anymore.

How about some other things you don’t see anymore?

Mast antennas, for instance. Both fixed – and powered. They have become a very rare sight, if you see them at all. Usually, they can be seen poking up from the fenders of cars made before the early 2000s. Why don’t you see them poking through the fenders of new cars, anymore?

You can’t blame the government for this one. Instead, blame technology. Assuming you want to blame something.

New cars had mast antennas when all they had were radios. The mast antenna picked up FM and AM signals – and that’s all there was to pick up. New cars pick up additional signals – and send them, too. They have satellite radio. And satellite-based GPS mapping. They also, many of them, have the ability to send (and receive) data, which is picked up by a new type of shark fin antenna. These latter have a definite aesthetic advantage over the old-school mast antenna in that they are less visually observable, being lower-profile and body colored and mounted on the vehicle’s roof rather than a fender. And you’ll never have to worry about someone (or a car wash) bending it – or breaking it.

On the other hand, you may worry about all that data being sent back-and-forth, which you never had to worry about with the old mast antennas.

How about vinyl (also called landau) roofs?

They were once considered very classy – before they came to be considered very cheesy. Originally, they were meant to recall the look of a high-end horse-drawn coach, which was something only the rich could afford. Similarly, at first, landau roofs were installed on high-end cars, most famously big Cadillacs and Lincolns. But – for just the same reason that, today, even some entry level cars have heated seats and digital-display gauges – high-end features are often used to make cars not as high-end look more high-end. The problem with the landau look was that it looked . . . cheesy on lower-end cars.

Also, old.

As in old people – who, at the height of landau roof popularity – very frequently drove big Cadillacs and Lincolns fitted with them. Because, for the most part, only older people could afford such cars. But younger people began to not want such cars. Or rather, cars with such roofs. And that’s why you don’t see many landau-roofed cars anymore, except parked outside of retirement communities.

Speaking of big cars . . .

Those are a rare sight nowadays as well. By the standards of 1970, even the biggest new cars – models like the current Mercedes S-Class, for instance – would be considered mid-sized. And their trunks would be considered laughable.

This is something you can blame the government for. Specifically, government regulations (again) which have had the de facto effect of outlawing big cars without actually outlawing them. The difficulty lies in making them – and making them compliant with the regs. Specifically, federal fuel efficiency regs, which have prompted a downsizing of cars generally, so as to make them smaller (and so, lighter) and thus, more “efficient.” The passenger cabin may still be sizable, but the trunk typically gets bobbed – making it small and the car less imposing as well as useful.

What good is a big car with a small trunk, after all? It can carry five, but not their things. And that’s why you see so many big trucks and SUVs these days, rather than downsized cars.

. . .

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  1. Eric – DRL’s really aren’t a mandate. Many, if not all cars feature them, but they never really became mandated in North America. So in theory, I guess a mfg child bring back flip down headlights .

  2. I miss the late ’60s Mercury Cougar. While not exactly pop-ups, they were hidden until needed. These cars are having a resurgence in popularity lately as the last car show I went to earlier this year had several restored examples. But the doors did fail often.

    • Plym, that brings back memories of when I was a kid. A friend’s parents had a brand-new Mercury full-size wagon (Marquis?)- They were the kind of people who drove Mercurys because “They were just step below a Lincoln” (And mentioned that fact a lot!).

      The darn thing before it was a year old always had one headlight cover up and one down…or both halfway up….they never seemed to work right. IIRC they eventually just made it so that the covers were in the open position 100% of the time, because they got tired of always having them fixed, only to have them fail again a week or two later.

      Not Mercury’s finest moments, c. 73- That wagon seemed old very fast. (Although my best friend’s older teenage brother at the time had a c.68 Cougar….those headlight covers seemed to work fine. I always remember that car…dark green with a black vinyl top (And I’m not even a Cougar fan).

  3. Had a 68 Chrysler 300 with hidden headlights. They did not pop up but two little doors raised up. The doors were part of the grill. I always liked that feature.

  4. I hate day time running lamps. Your headlights burn out faster for example. Then people forget to turn their lights on at night so they are running around without tail-lights. Plus, day time lamps were supposed to be for motorcycles, so they could stand out a bit from the traffic.

    Another thing you don’t see much anymore are cornering lights. My dads 2005 Ford Freestar minivan has them. He likes them alot, and dislikes that they are rare now. He told me a story once when his headlights (not that van) failed leaving him in the dark on an interstate bridge (Wolf lake on the Chicago-Hammond border). He ended up turning his cornering lights on which gave him just enough light to find a place to pull off the road.

  5. Ya know? The title picture made me realize that I had NEVER seen a Superbird/Daytona with it’s headlights in the ‘up’ position ever before! It never even had occurred to me that they had pop-up headlights!

  6. 1980 Porsche 924 turbo and 1988 Porsche 924S Le Mans….the pop up headlights work fine still.. better Porsche engineering and they were expensive cars (in today’s money about $80,000)

  7. Man, I miss antennas! I don’t use mobile devices and I miss the radio. VW radios are worse than useless, white noise is not relaxing at all. The Excursion has a great radio and sports a Mickey Mouse Pirate antenna ball purchased when Pirates of the Caribbean were popular. Our local Ford dealer rescued the radio when a short developed. He found a NOS radio/dvd unit from who knows where and installed it when ours quit.
    As for pop-ups, they are fine, I guess. The 89 Conquest had a popeye problem for a while. On good days its a sleeper, but with a popeye problem, its a joke. Kids enjoy the cassette deck, though. They like the classics served neat and they like singing along. Pressing your back against the seat, listening to turbo whine with your kids singing your favorite songs from when you were young and everyones happy is, as the kids say, the bomb diggety.

  8. I had heard a long while ago that popups were killed by the European governments. I was into my Miata and the community at the time and a discussion came up about why the 2nd gens lost the popups. Something about causing extra damage to pedestrians when they were hit by vehicles with them.

    Further it was also added that the Miata wasn’t really supposed to have popups but that some bigwig demanded it during the initial design.

    I do believe that if the Miata had never had the popup headlights, it would not have been a car (pair of cars) featured in the movie Cars. That movie came out in 2006, pretty much 10 years after the 2nd gen was released, and while the 3rd gens had already started selling. But you couldn’t have had the “we’re your biggest fans” and flash the “headlights” to their idol without the popups.

  9. One of my most memorable vehicles was my ’71 Opel GT. The headlights didn’t pop up but rotated 180 degrees, via a handle and a set of cables. It was reliable, not having to require a motor. It was a cool feature on a very cool and fun car

  10. I think I’ve seen more non working pop up lights than working ones.

    My mast antenna keeps me out of car washes and gets hit by wayward branches on mountain roads, but I still have it.

    Have to disagree on the vinyl. Always hated that look.

  11. My ’87 Subaru XT had a button on the dash that would pop up the headlights without turning them on for cleaning. Not sure why other than someone in Ebisu was thinking that day. Or they needed an extra button to keep everything symmetrical.

  12. I had a 944 and prelude with pop ups. I always felt that the lines were ruined when up. Of course the 944’s broke and had to stay up all the time. Parts were harder to find in 1988 and not easily afforded when partying the paycheck away in a way that would concern any parent.

  13. I can answer with some engineering/manufacturing reasons.

    This is a connection I recently heard on the youtube channel technology connections. It makes a lot of sense. Pop up and hideaway headlamps were a work around for the sealed beam era. A way to style the car around the sealed beam headlamps buy hiding them away. Aero headlamps that became legal for MY 1985 or 6 did away with the need for hiding the headlamps. The headlamps were simply styled into the bodywork much more cheaply. DRLs are pretty easy to accomplish with pop ups. An auxiliary lamp styled into the bodywork would do for that purpose. It’s often done that way for DRL cars with exposed headlamps anyway.

    A more pressing issue for hideaway/popup headlamps today is pedestrian collision regs. Hideaways would still likely pass without much issue but pop ups would need an additional collapsing feature to prevent pedestrian injury.

    Landau vinyl roofs were used as a way to hide ugly C pillar body seams. Now some cars of course had them optional for purely style reasons but on a fair number where they were there standard they were hiding an ugly body seam preventing the need for a costly lead and finishing work. More costly than the average car because of some mid generation styling change or some such. For example a mid generation styling change where there was an ugly transition between the new 1/4 panels and the old roof line? Landau vinyl to the rescue.

    Antenna technology has simply advanced. The old style antennas are simply not needed any more. I am sure the original AM radio for my 1973 Ford could use the antenna of my 2012 Ford without issue. Likely an improvement. Knowing ford the plug is probably still the same.

  14. I’ll never get Landau tops, the epitome of faux. One decent thing with the move to LED is how compact they can package the headlights. Fun fact LC500 has (had?) the smallest headlights.

  15. Curious, what was the real reason they brought in DRL’s, why do we need them?

    My old Ram, I did color changing DRL’s, so when I didn’t want them, I just turned them off, period, and since there was no true white option, didn’t capture the factory color, so again, just the headlights on when it needed to be

  16. In the Before Time were sealed headlights that were inexpensive to replace, even the halogens were not outrageous cost wise. My ‘79 Gran Prix had the four light rectangles, glass that never frosted over or yellowed from UV. And, halogen high beams aimed separate from the low beams meant near daylight for country driving. That superior system saved me several times on the 36 mile drive to work, saw deer and the occasional elk very clearly!

    Daughters Acura has HID lights that now have faded to near useless, and a PITA to replace plus the $$$. Last Fall I spent several hours sanding and polishing the Acura plastic headlights to remove the frost and yellowing, another fail of moderninity.

    • Second that Sparkey, cleaning up my garage recently I found an old round sealed beam headlight with the price sticker still attached. $1,00 😆

  17. Had a 91 Honda Prelude and a 95 Firebird Formula with the popup lights. Just loved the aesthetic of it and they were real crowd pleasers. It was awesome from an aerodynamic standpoint as well. A world without popups just isn’t as fun, but I think part of it is the automakers’ ability to package light housings that are so aerodynamically slippery that they don’t need the added mechanical hassle of headlight motors. Both the ‘Lude and the Firebird had cranks if the motors failed.

  18. I never liked pop up headlights, for the simple reason that when one quits working, which all mechanical devices eventually do, It looks silly to have one up and one down. When they work, they look very nice though. My problem with landau roofs is similar. They don’t age well, at least on the lower end cars, and look ratty when they don’t. My 05 Accord has neither a mast, nor a fin. The antennae is in the windshield, I think. It does not send any thing, and I don’t listen to the radio or answer my cell when I’m driving anyway, so I don’t care.

    • ‘It looks silly to have one up and one down.’ — John Kable

      Exactly what happened on my first car, a 1968 GTO with vacuum-activated pop-up headlight covers. One leaked, producing that ‘one-eyed Jack’ crippled look.

      People forget how crappy the quality of Detroit iron was in that area, before Japanese competition forced them to shape up.

  19. Yep. I’m still driving cars with mast antennas, vinyl roofs and hide away headlights. Show your sense of individuality and get an antenna ball for it. As for rapidly disappearing trunks a while back I bought a 3650/ 4550 generator, the only place the box would fit was on the passenger seat and I had to hold it in place to keep it from hitting the shifter. Modern trunks suck!!! My old Vic on the other hand you could drop an old whiskey barrel into it (for planters) and still close the lid. Sad that they never offered a diesel version of it though.


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