Hooniverse Asks: Are Modern Headlights Too Damn Expensive?

As I noted in my introduction of our family’s new/old Audi, one of the first things I did upon taking ownership of the car was to polish up the covers on those handsome composite headlights. No such action was needed on our old Volvo. It still has crystal clear headlamps seeing as they’re made out of glass. The lights on the Audi however, which is one-year newer, looked like underwear you’ve finally given up on. A half an hour of elbow grease per side and they were good as new.
The thing of it is, that’s just a fact of life with the current crop of aerodynamic headlamps. And that’s just one aspect of them. If one of the bulbs burns out the replacements can be pricy, especially if there’s some fancy element in their name. Back in the day, before these lights were made common here in the U.S., you could pick up a sealed beam just about anywhere for anywhere from eight to twelve bucks. Now if you are unfortunate enough to have a lens broken by road debris or a spiteful ex then expect to shell out ten times that at the least.
That kind of sucks and maybe it’s gotten a little too out of hand. What do you think, are headlamps today too expensive and if so, what could be done to counter that?
Image: Hooniverse

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  1. Fred Talmadge Avatar
    Fred Talmadge

    In the future I wonder if headlights for a 2015 cars are even going to be available? Even the bulbs now have unique sockets. Maybe 3d printing will be the solution.

    1. kogashiwa Avatar

      Possibly molded headlight-shaped pieces that have a place for standard projector lights or similar.
      Some guys here in Canada have done DIY conversions for JDM cars that don’t have DOT lights available. For example this one is Integra headlights on an R33 Skyline.
      ( http://toptierimports.com/index.php?topic=4472.0 )

    2. JRise Avatar

      This may be a very good point, I have a 1999 Ford Cougar (Mercury to you across the pond), and it’s headlamps are difficult to replace. My Ford dealer told me they would be north of 350$ a piece, IF they could get them still..

  2. 0A5599 Avatar

    “Back in the day, before these lights were made common here in the U.S., you could pick up a sealed beam just about anywhere for anywhere from eight to twelve bucks. Now if you are unfortunate enough to have a lens broken by road debris or a spiteful ex then expect to shell out ten times that at the least.”
    No, they are still inexpensive.

    1. Batshitbox Avatar

      Not for a ’91 GMC C1500 single lamp sealed beam. $25 each! That’s a buck for every year the truck has been on the road! $2 if you’re like me and change both at once.

    2. dukeisduke Avatar

      I thought he was talking about a broken composite lamp being ten times as expensive.

      1. 0A5599 Avatar

        Those don’t fit my car.

  3. nanoop Avatar

    The low beams are overengineered, and hence, too expensive: who needs that much light 20m ahead?
    High beams may be worth it, but there is also the case of too much light too close, so the eye can’t see the illuminated distance.

    1. nanoop Avatar

      After reading some answers I realised that the baseline is the sealed beam… I have no experience with those, but already H4 allowed for broad design variations.
      Still ranting: Who needs IR first tripled then pumping a third crystal for fluorescence? I can appreciate the optical precision on industry scale, but those units must be not cheap. ..
      Btw: Maybe another question of the day: what are the coolest/most annoying DRL designs?

  4. Papa Van Twee Avatar
    Papa Van Twee

    I just bought a 2005 Kia Optima, and the headlight assembly is unusually complicated. You take off a cap, then unplug the wire from the bulb, then undo the clip that holds the bulb in. The clip is not the sturdiest of things, and the previous owner of my Optima probably didn’t realize there even were clips, and broke them off. The lights were very dim for me, and I had to rig it so the bulb would stay in (thank you, duct tape… it you can’t fix it, duct it!)

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Fixing it, Kia style! A friend of mine bought a Cee’d diesel wagon, and he is very happy that Kia has all their repair manuals online for free somewhere. I assume you’re aware of that?

      1. Papa Van Twee Avatar
        Papa Van Twee

        Unfortunately, they stopped doing that in 2014.

        1. Sjalabais Avatar

          That long ago? Feels like he just bought his car…but in any case, manuals for a 2005 model should be available anyhow then.

    2. cronn Avatar

      Sounds perfectly normal to me. And by perfectly normal, I mean any car with basic halogen headlights made over the last 30 years or so. At least on the European market.

    3. CraigSu Avatar

      The procedure you describe is exactly what I have to do on my ’99 Saab 9-3 except that most of it is done purely by feel.

    4. Fresh-Outta-Nissans Avatar

      On most Nissans, you have to remove the bumper!

  5. Tanshanomi Avatar

    No, because today’s headlights are substantially higher performance than old sealed beams. Those fancy polycarbonate covers may need to be refreshed from time to time, and cost a bunch to replace if they break, but they contribute to lighter weight and better aerodynamics.
    You get what you pay for. There was a reason why Americans used to gnash their teeth at not being able to have “European-style” lights.

    1. dukeisduke Avatar

      I used to use Cibie’ halogens (or quartz iodide, as they called them then). Or course every year when I went in for a state inspection, I had to put the sealed beams back in, and then swap again after inspection (because the halogens weren’t DOT-marked, and were approved “for motorcycle use only” or “for off-road use only” in the US).

      1. mseoul Avatar

        Same here. Pennsylvania. I used the same set of Ciebie in 3 successive cars. Finally put in my mother’s car. Even her friends would ask why the car’s lights were so bright (the cut off top on the beams was odd then too in the US).

    2. 0A5599 Avatar

      Better aerodynamics might be a reasonable selling point, but saving a half-pound per bulb on a 2-ton car sounds like the type of justification an overpaid light designer might plead to maintain job security. I know people who can reduce that much weight from their cars by vacuuming up the dropped French fries.

      1. Vairship Avatar

        Or reduce their own weight by that much by not buying the french fries in the first place.
        (I use the same argument when people tell me about their ultra expensive carbon fiber/titanium bicycles that save several pounds…)

  6. Alff Avatar

    Yes. The one I bought at Pick N’ Pull last Saturday cost $15. They used to charge half that.

    1. karonetwentyc Avatar

      This is why I have a thorough dislike of the LKQ Corporation. A decade or so, before they went on their junkyard-buying spree, parts prices at Pick-A-Part yards were generally reasonable and it was possible to at least talk to the manager if something seemed overpriced. But ever since LKQ took ownership of some key junkyard chains, prices went through the roof – in some cases, I’ve pulled used parts that they wanted more for than new ones were going for online.
      I used to go to the junkyard just to wander around and see if there was anything interesting I might walk out with. Now I no longer bother with them unless it’s out of absolute necessity or something truly obscure has turned up to make it worth my while. There are only so many times you can waste a full day pulling parts off of something only to tell the person at the checkout, “keep it” when you hear the ridiculously-inflated price.

  7. karonetwentyc Avatar

    «Les yeux! Les yeux!»
    What confuses me isn’t so much that modern headlamps cost more than sealed-beams (or halogen replacements) ever did; it’s that they cost as much as they do in quantity. To some extent I can understand this, given that individual headlamps are now more or less tailor-made for the car that they’re going on – but when tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of these things are being made, it seems to my mind that economies of scale should bring the unit cost down.
    Perhaps this is how it’s working, and I’m just not taking something into account that explains the pricing, but it just doesn’t make complete sense to me either.

  8. jeepjeff Avatar

    Hmm. The Jeep takes standard round sealed beams. Big Bike and Little Bike use cheap, standard halogen bulbs, and I replaced Big Bike’s front lens with a glass bucket lamp. So… I dunno. Still using the old, cheap stuff.

  9. smokyburnout Avatar

    My driver’s side headlight has some condensation behind the “glass” that I’ve been ignoring for years. Just checked and a used replacement on eBay starts at $130, so… yes

  10. CraigSu Avatar

    Your Volvo must be pre-1986. My ’91 240 has plastic lenses and unless I convert to E-code (about $275 for the full kit which includes necessary trim pieces) they will stay that way.

  11. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Used to be a headlight was $5-7. Now, the bulb is about $25. Ten times that for the head lamp, and no chance of interchangeability. New isn’t always better. Although new headlamps are a whole lot better.

  12. dr zero Avatar
    dr zero

    Just had to replace both main bulbs on my Focus, for AUD $18 each. So not too bad. The replacement itself wasn’t too bad, considering I had to remove the whole assembly to get to the bulb.

  13. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

    Cracked headlamps on my 2005 V8 Cadillac STS effectively totaled it when I hit a Trailblazer at about 7 MPH.
    They’re a bit over $1K each. Granted, they threw a killer HID beam, but still.
    The ’98 Jeep ZJ 5.9L which replaced it (at least temporarily), has 100% cloudy plastic lights. I want to put glass Euro-spec lights on it, but I’m laid off as of Tuesday, so that’ll have to wait.