Modern cars are amazing in so many ways, including the brilliant external lighting. Projector-style headlights send a focused beam precisely where you need to see and some systems even react to and follow the direction as you make turns. Of course some classic cars of the ’20s and ’30s had similar turning headlights and the famed Tucker used the center beam to follow the steering wheel, but, alas, the turning lights were simply not very bright. After driving a modern car (I consider anything built in this century to be modern) and jumping into your vintage car you may find it difficult to see at night.
The lack of night vision in a vintage car is a result of several things: much less candlepower from the actual light; a broader, less focused beam; and then there is the whole problem of old cars and even older eyeballs. There are brighter bulbs and lighting options today for vintage cars so going to either halogen or LED lights is a big improvement. While these lights will still cast a broader beam, focusing the lights on the road will go a long way to improved night vision. As for the vintage eyeballs, well, sorry, we can’t help with that.
While on a recent evening cruise in my faithful 1957 Ford Ranch Wagon it was apparent the headlights were just not getting the job done. When I converted the headlights to 1953 F-100 headlight rings (many moons ago) I updated to halogen headlights that were sourced through Summit Racing, but to see well I had to use the high beams. It was obvious the headlights were out of adjustment and it was time to go home and focus on lighting.
As it turns out aiming headlights is a fairly straightforward procedure. It involves lining your car up perfectly square to a wall with the car 20-25 feet from said wall. The car must be on a level floor. Next, you locate both the horizontal and the vertical center of the headlight and aim the low beam headlight 2 inches below the horizontal headlight center and slightly inboard of the vertical mark. Simple enough, but the level floor or parking lot is difficult to find. Our own shop floor allowed us to park the car 20 feet from the wall, but the concrete was poured with a 2-degree slope toward the door. Since we backed the car into the garage we were basically backing up hill.
One method to establish the centers is simply roll the car very close to the wall and turn on the headlights. When lights are very close to a wall they produce a round “hot spot” of light. You can then mark the vertical center of each light and use a measurement to mark the horizontal center and then back the car away from the wall and make adjustments. However this does not compensate the incline of the floor.
We came up with a way to do the adjustment using a laser level and a laser measuring device, all pretty high-tech stuff by my standards. These tools are available at your local home improvement store. First we rolled the car back 20 feet and used the laser measuring device to locate the face of the headlights exactly parallel to the wall. In our case we placed the measuring device on top of the fenders using the headlight bezel as a locator. When we had 20 feet 1 inch exactly on each side we knew we were square to the wall. We laid down two tapelines on the floor, once again using the laser measuring device for accurate placement.
Next we measured the center of the headlight from the ground to establish our horizontal centerline. Our laser level is a self-leveling unit so we mounted it to a small ladder at exactly our headlight center measurement (in our case 24-1/2 inches). We taped a piece of cardboard over the center of the light and shot our laser beam on the cardboard to double-check our proper horizontal height.
Next we turned the laser around and aimed it toward the wall to arrive at the proper horizontal height for the headlights. Once again special care was taken to ensure the laser was square to the wall. Since this is a self-leveling laser it compensates for the uphill slope of our shop floor, ensuring the headlight beam will be aimed at the proper height. We used 3/4-inch masking tape to mark the horizontal line on the wall. We then measured down and ran another horizontal tapeline 2 inches below the centerline.
With the centerline of the car perfectly located it was a simple matter of measuring the distance from the center of the car to the center of the headlight. This measurement was then transposed to the wall and a vertical piece of tape marked the vertical center of each headlight.
We could have used the self-leveling laser, but felt the old-school tape measure was quicker. However, we could have centered the laser on each headlight and then rotated the laser to point it toward the wall to shoot our vertical headlight location. You must carefully measure from the car to be certain the laser is perfectly square to the wall (and by association perfectly parallel to the face of the headlight). Since our laser level shoots both a horizontal and vertical line at the same time we taped the vertical line on the wall, providing us with a perfect crosshair target for our headlights. Again, we found the tape measure to be quicker, but not near as much fun as playing with lasers.
If you don’t trust your work you can roll the car down very close to the wall to check for “hot spot” alignment. Our crosshairs were perfect. The car was then rolled straight back to the 20-foot marks on the floor. A quick check with the laser measuring device indicated we were still perfectly square to the wall, so now it was a simple matter of aiming the lights.
With our shop lights turned off and the headlights turned on it became apparent why we were having difficulty seeing at night. The driver side light was not too bad, pointed a bit high and wide, while the passenger side headlight was aimed ridiculously low and too far toward the center of the car.
Armed with a Phillips head screwdriver we removed our F-100 headlight rings and proceeded to adjust the headlights. With the headlights on you can see the adjuster move the beam until it is on target. We centered on the horizontal 2-inch line and kept the beams aimed slightly toward the center of our vertical tapeline. You may find a drop of oil on the adjuster screws will help the adjusters turn in more easily. You should also keep your battery charged during the process as burning headlights, taillights, and dash lights will quickly discharge a battery.
And just like that we had perfectly adjusted headlights. A testdrive that evening proved this simple task provided vastly improved night vision. Now, we may be accused of making this adjustment a bit of a project, but spending an hour or so measuring and shooting lasers provides an accurate adjustment and we’d rather do that than simply aim the car at a wall and “get the lights close.” We felt the extra hour or so was time well spent, and if you don’t have a self-leveling laser level and laser measuring device this is a wonderful excuse to go buy more tools, and every car guy loves buying tools.
We’ve all heard it before: focus, focus, focus. Well, if you want safe vision at night you will have to properly focus those headlights. Having a good aim is pretty simple.
While the old-school method involved tape measures and guessing at the center of the headlight, we recently added a self-leveling laser and a laser measuring device (aka digital tape measure) to our arsenal of tools.
The first step is to find a wall and a level floor. Then back the car 20 feet from the wall. The face of the headlights must be parallel to the wall. We leveled the laser measuring device by shimming the front of the tool before taking a measurement.
This measuring tool is extremely accurate. We used the fender seam as a mark and when both sides read 20 feet, 1-inch we knew the car was perfectly located. Using the same measuring tool we placed tapelines on the floor.
A piece of cardboard taped through the center of the headlight makes for an accurate, straight measurement from the floor. This is our horizontal level line; the laser line confirms things are on the level.
A couple of pieces of scrap metal serve as shims on our ladder to bring the level to the proper height. We marked a perfectly straight line on the tape holding the shims in place.
Next, we located the center of the car and then centered the self-leveling laser on the center of the car. This is the key measurement, so double-check to be certain you have it correct.
With the step on the ladder perfectly aligned with the wall, and the laser level perfectly centered on the car, we turned on the laser to see were the light beam would project. Again, the laser measuring device makes quick work of alignment.
Sure enough, we had nailed the center of the car and the light beam continued up through the center ridge on the hood so we were certain the light was perfectly aligned.
The self-leveling laser is now aimed at the wall. Our shop floor has a 2-degree angle, so the car was actually uphill from the wall. The self-leveling laser compensates for the incline by shooting a level beam from the center height of the headlight onto the wall.
We used a piece of masking tape to locate the centerline of the car; a sharpie was used to give us the precise centerline. A safety note here, while it is fine to look at the projected line with the naked eye, never look directly at the laser beam coming from the device.
We used another piece of tape to mark the horizontal line on the wall; we marked it on both sides of the center and used the top of the tape as the centerline. We then measured down 2 inches and applied a second piece of tape.
We could have found the center of each headlight with our laser level, then squared the ladder and level to the wall and projected a beam to find the vertical center of the headlight, but we felt there was an easier way.
Using an old-school tape measure we found the distance from the center of the car to the center of the headlight.
Using the same old tape measure we measured from our accurate center-of-the-car mark and marked the center of each headlight.
We used a level and a Sharpie to mark a vertical line on a piece of masking tape. This provided us with a crosshair target for our headlights.
Here is our final target; the 2-inch line is the proper height from 20 feet so we will aim the light at that mark and slightly inboard of the vertical line.
Here is the light pattern our headlights cast from 20 feet. No small wonder we had a hard time seeing at night. High and wide on the left and way low on the right.
During the adjustment period you will be using a lot of power, we kept our Optima battery charged with this smart charger.
Now it’s time for the actual adjustment. First we removed the headlight ring so we could access the adjuster screws.
All you need is a Phillips head screwdriver to adjust the vertical and horizontal aim of the headlights. If the adjuster screws are difficult to move, remove them and clean and oil the threads.
And here is our final low-beam adjustment cast on the wall from 20 feet. We now have proper lighting in front of our car, which will make driving at night a pleasure.
The high beams are just that: they jump up considerably higher than the low beams and will be used regularly on our dark country roads. Yes, we spent nearly a half a day with the adjustments, but a testdrive proved our lights were spot-on, making the small effort worthwhile.