September 1, 1941 – DeSoto introduces automatic hidden headlights

Since the inception of the automobile, engineers have been working to improve it, though they should have stopped after the Curved Dash. While some ideas floundered (automatic seat belts? Yuck), others we’re right on point and set the bar for years to come. One such innovation appeared on this day in 1941 when DeSoto launched its 1942 lineup featuring hidden headlights. While Cord can lay claim to being the first American car to use such a feature when it unveiled the 810 in November 1935, they were a bit cranky to use, literally. Each Cord headlight opened via a separate hand-crank, one on each side of the dashboard. DeSoto’s electrically operated pop-up headlights marked the first time an American automaker offered this automatic feature to the mass market. Named “Air Foil” lights, DeSoto marketed them as “Out of sight, except at night.”

A headlight design similar to that of the 1942 DeSotos first appeared on two Chrysler show cars from 1941, the Newport and the Thunderbolt. Unfortunately, World War II cut DeSoto’s run of its new feature short. When the assembly line transitioned to wartime efforts, only about 24,000 DeSotos had been built and hidden headlights disappeared (pun!) from DeSotos for good.

Above: 1937 Cord 812 with hidden headlights operated via handcrank. By Stephen Foskett CC BY-SA 3.0. Top: 1942 DeSoto Six Series. By Steve Brown, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The auto industry did not forget about the idea. Hidden headlights started popping up (pun, again!) on cars all over the world in the next few decades. Some of the vehicles to use the feature included the 1963-2004 Chevrolet Corvette, first generation Chevrolet Camaro, 1975-1984 Ferrari 308 GTB, 1984-1999 Toyota MR2 and this author’s favorite, the 1968-1973 Opel GT, which rolled open sideways via a manual lever.

Hidden Headlights Today

Hidden headlights are now stuck permanently closed due to US law, citing safety concerns. Instead, many automakers have opted for streamlined headlights to replicate the aerodynamics offered by hiding the bulbs. The 2004 Lotus Esprit and Corvette were the last cars to feature hidden headlights.

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