Thursday, January 19, 2006

T#13: Illumination

The winter months. What do they mean for an automotive enthusiast such as myself?

The roads are slippier, yes. The car is dirty, also yes. Gritters will inevitably pebbledash your paint at some point. But more urgently, they make the days shorter, the nights longer, and the skies darker.

Which means that people will have their lights turned on more often.

Actually, no – I’m not about to launch into some diatribe about drivers failing to dip their mainbeam, or those idiots that leave their foglights on for no apparent reason. I’m not even particularly bothered about the xenons that dazzle you regardless of their relative elevation. I’m far more interested in the lights themselves… Come on then, which manufacturer’s got the best looking illumination on this fair island?

The technology is such now that designers can do terrific things with the light clusters that form the signature of cars moving in the dark. That’s not to say older models aren’t interesting – I love the segmented taillights on Lotus Cortinas – but modern materials mean more fun. More expensive maybe, but definitely more fooling about, too.

Some of my fellow AJs groan at the thought of active lighting systems. I don’t mean ones that switch themselves on automatically (that’s just lazy, though arguably a safety feature for the otherwise terminally forgetful), or swivel to help you see round corners. When LED headlights arrive, as they surely will given the amount of concept cars that make use of them, these powerful “bulbs” take up so little space that conceivably manufacturers could install several and allow you to alter light patterns at the flick of a switch. The cruise scene, which already inserts strobes and other devices – including TVs – into the orifices once solely the reserve of humble filament, is presumably salivating already. Personally I’m also excited at idea of being able to change the appearance of my vehicle by selecting which lights I turn on. But maybe that’s my closet blasterism coming out again, as the others seem to think that’d be sad.

Cruisers have an obvious appreciation of the importance of lighting in relation to vehicle appearance. Probably this is predicated by the fact that they mostly come out at night, but changing the lamp installations is one of the easiest modifications to make; from there it’s only a small step to neons, and LEDs in the valve covers and washer jets. Trace the trend back, and if you like you can blame the Escort Cosworth – a plan which I’m sure will appeal to some people. The twin-headlamp conversions carried by the rally cars smeared quickly onto more ordinary ‘Scorts, transferred to Mk3 Golf GTis seeking the soul of their forebears, and then it was off.

I’m not about to argue this is always successful – some of the replacement clusters are ill-judged to say the least. But a few work really well, like Quadconversions’ ‘Afterburner’ LED taillights, which look fantastic on Peugeot 306s, and the kits that saved the front of the bug-eyed 2001 Impreza. The trouble with the cruise scene, though, is that no matter how good something looks too many people with the same mod and it just ends up boring – so more extreme variations emerge. This has happened to the Lexus-style clear rear lenses; looked good the first time you saw them, now they’re tacky and dull.

Enough of the aftermarket, what about the stock stuff?

This is not going to be an exhaustive list. In fact…

…I’m sorry, there’s not much I can do about this: BMW wins hands down, no argument, throw the money on the table.

I mean, sure, the back end of the Citroen C5 estate may look like a couple of glowing devil’s horns, and the series one Jaguar S-Types did have LED rears like rocket boosters; but Maserati simply blew it when ditched the boomerangs (thanks, the American market; and notice how whenever you see one in a film it’s an early one with those rear crescents in place), and the Bentley Continental GT has these weird elliptical outlines that look like one egg balancing badly on another. Nissan’s Skylines may have a Ferrari-aping double-circle going on at the back – that’s iconic now but not individual enough. Switching to the nose, you can always tell when it’s a Mercedes behind you, but that doesn’t make those cool. BMW lights come with their own refrigerator. It’s just a fact.

Look at the rears. They’re all LEDs, so just hang the expense and get on with it. Take the last of the previous model 3-series, set up in a pattern that always makes me think of the Ministry of Sound logo – I don’t even like dance music but this still somehow looks good. The new 5-series looks like it’s toting a pair of fiery tomahawks. And the skinny slits on the back of the current generation 7, dissected by a diagonal of darkness – a snake staring back at you. I love that car: all gangly and bulbous, yet sophisticated, sharp, and with an indefatigable air of absolute mystery (ok, so with the iDrive… Nobody’s perfect).

I will concede that BM don’t always get it right. The lights on the back of the X3 look like fractured mirrors the day after a bar fight, and the Compact…well, even the engineers admit they got those Lexus rip-offs wrong. Let’s just pretend the Compact doesn’t exist actually, as the strange bonnet cut outs over the front lamps are a little, er, acquired, as well.

But otherwise, it’s the headlights that deliver BMW’s killing blow. They’ve diminished the effect slightly with the most recent models, but no other manufacturer comes close to the Frigidaire-rivalling chilledness of the “angel eyes” up front. (I prefer to think of them as the instrument of the Mysterons myself, menacing in the darkness.) Beyond the looks the neatest thing about it is that no other manufacturer can counterfeit them, as the inspiration would be so blatant even non-car people would notice. A totally unique identity, all beautiful and aggressive at once – whether you see this as good or bad, people move over faster when they see those in the mirror. Even the modders don’t seem to have dented their appeal, despite some really nasty looking copies being out there.

The ultimate lighting machine? The Z4 even has ivy-cool side repeaters, for heaven’s sake.


Quadconversions can be reached here.

The picture is from Colin's Journal, I believe it was taken by Colin himself.


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