By on January 11, 2015


My friend Adam is a great guy. He is a first generation American, Air Force Officer and genuinely pleasant person. Like anyone else, he has his preferences and dogmas. He believes television peaked with “The Rockford Files” and owns the complete series on DVD. He also believes any car worth owning was built before 1973. As such, he owns a stunning all-original 1963 Pontiac Gran Prix and this beautiful 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass Convertible.

It’s not all original, it has had a respray. The previous owner was attempting to clone a 442 when Adam got it. Adam slowly returned it to the way it looked when it left the factory. It’s driven just shy of daily, so the top, carpet and upholstery have been replaced because they just wore out. He usually has a qualified local mechanic wherever he lives but on occasion will attempt small repairs himself; such as a “straightforward” headlight replacement on Big Blue.

1-the problem

This picture shows the simple problem; one of the high beams is not working. It must be burned out, right? The problem was noticed when he got out of the car one night leaving his lights on (If that confuses you, know that old cars don’t have dingers, or auto settings. They will simply drain your battery while you are at work).

With the lights on, there was a tiny little glow from the questionable hi-beam filament. So he turned on the hi beams via the floor switch…

Remember these?

Remember these?

  …and was rewarded with the above Popeye scenario. It was not a huge problem, he doesn’t do much open country road driving in the Miami metro. But it still needed to be addressed. Since it’s an easy enough fix and it had been over 12 years since he last replaced a glass headlight, he thought;

It might even be kinda fun in a nostalgic way, and couldn‘t be that expensive.

3-hi-beam indicator, on

2-hi-beam indicator, off

For some background, these pictures show how hi-beams were activated on a car before it was on the turn signal stalk and the hi beam indicator before the introduction of the blue light icon.

Adam continues;

5-new light

Glass headlights are still packaged exactly the way I remember them. They are, however a bit more expensive. I remember shelves full of them being available in the auto section of all the big department stores for about $4.95 or so. This one cost me $11 and I had to go to a dedicated auto parts store.

6-decorative stainless bezel 8-empty headlight bucket

These pictures show the 1st step of a what is actually a very straightforward process. First remove the decorative trim piece to reveal access to the mounting ring with its screws. The next shows what the area in question looks like after the pieces are removed. The retainer ring is stainless steel with three tabs that fits around/over the outer lip of the bulb and screws to the bucket.

10-retainer ring1

The bulb just plugs into the wiring harness like an electrical plug on household appliance. Certainly not rocket science. As the holy book of Haynes often sayteh, installation is simply a reverse of removal.

9-closeup of plug

But before everything is screwed back in/on, it’s usually smart to make sure it all works like it is designed to. So Adam turned on the headlights and again stepped on the hi beam switch…


Nothing except that little glow in the filament just like the one in the bulb he removed.

We have all been there. Adam then muttered several choice words and searched under the hood, behind the headlights. After removing the battery that resides snugly in-between the back of the headlights and the front of the wheel, he found a wire not connected to anything originating from the headlight harness.

16-resulting solution

To avoid more choice words and the throwing of tools, the time had come to RTFM.

12-when in doubt 13-there it is 14-there it is closeup

These are excepts from his re-poped GM assembly manual and the page that shows exactly what the issue was The key is being used as a pointer for illustrative purposes.

15-the real problem

This is the old ground tab, NOT connected to the ground wire, after it had been taken off its mounting place on the core support. A replacement ground tab that he had in the box-o‘-bolts-&-such was put on the wire and screwed into place.

 Once that little detour into automotive electrical was completed, he took the OLD hi-beam, plugged it in and stepped on the switch…

The result;


 Adam then fired up the Cutlass, and returned the new headlight for a full refund.



No, this is not breaking news or even a review. But dear reader, we are drawn to the various facets of this hobby for any number of reasons. But if we can’t learn from our passions and apply these lessons in our daily lives, then we may be missing the point of a hobby. There are a few lessons we can all be reminded of here. With every new year comes the promise and hope of renewal and growth. But as we grow, we must keep our roots grounded…as well as our wiring.

Christian “Mental” Ward has owned over 70 cars and destroyed most of them. He is a graduate of Panoz Racing School, loves cartoons and once exceeded the speed of sound. Married to the most patient woman in the world; he has three dogs, a Philosophy degree and makes Derek wonder if English is actually his first language.

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56 Comments on “Adam’s En”light”ening Experience...”

  • avatar

    Nice article. Reminds me of working on my ’92 Miata, except I likely have more sources to turn to, since the internet is full of Miata tutorials. I didn’t know about the floor switches. My oldest car was from 1988. Love these Cutlasses. I think I’d prefer a classic car with a re-spray vs original paint, I wouldn’t feel guilty when I inevitably scratch or fade the paint.

  • avatar

    That’s a nice Cutlass. I knew a fellow that had a “real” 442 of the same vintage – I tried to buy it from him at one point; no dice.

    Yeah, degraded ground wires present with weird symptoms, as those electrons will find their way back to GND – even if they have to go “backwards” through other stuff.

    VVVV Edit: Me and my Dad (RIP) used to watch The Rockford Files together – I remember that he shook his head in disbelief when I bought a $699 VCR and several $29.99 VHS tapes so I could record “Battlestar Galactica” while I was at work.

  • avatar

    My Army truck had the exact same problem (which I didn’t know was a thing at the time). I can’t tell you how many new headlights and hours in the maintenance bay it took for them to figure out the issue.

  • avatar

    ” He believes television peaked with “The Rockford Files” and owns the complete series on DVD. He also believes any car worth owning was built before 1973.”

    Because I owned a 1969 Riviera in this exact color blue with all the similar GM bits and pieces so familiar to me on this day when GM made the best cars in the world I’ve allowed myself to bask in this Luddite fantasy where nothing came after for just one second…

    Ah, Three Dog Night in the 8-Track (Mama Told Me Not To Come)and a new episode of the Rockford Files on tonight

    Thanks, that was fun

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I am very familiar with older GM cars having grown up with a 62 Chevy II, 64 Impala wagon (desert sand) and a 72 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. Also owning a 73 Chevelle and a 77 Monte Carlo. I do think there is a soul to the earlier GM cars but today’s cars and trucks are better. I always liked James Gardner as Maverick and as Rockford. Gardner was a very likable actor and a true professional.

    This is a beautiful car, thanks for the pictures. This car brings back a lot of memories of my high school years where there were many beauties like this.

    • 0 avatar

      My Mom had a Matador Red 1971 “S” Coupe with the 2-bbl Rocket 350, “Rallye” wheels, black vinyl interior with matching vinyl roof, remote driver mirror, deluxe AM radio with four speakers, A/C, electric rear-window defogger.

      Parents had it for twelve years — needed two resprays and rust-remediations, and it leaked oil like a sieve.

      How I wish I could afford a decent-condition one just like it for summer use! Sadly, the prices are stratospheric for barn-find-condition “A”-bodies from this timeframe, and only go up with conditions! A genuine 442, GS or GTO from this period is going to approach six figures WITHOUT being listed in the DuPont Registry.

      As for the hi-beam indicator, I could SWEAR that car’s was blue! Was 1971 when they changed those?

  • avatar

    I owned a 1970 Charger once and remember not having any idea what that little pushbutton switch down by the brake pedal was when I first saw it. And when I found out what it was, thinking what a stupid place it was to put a high-beam switch.

    But I’d say your friend was wrong, and that the turn of the century was the cutoff, not 1973. It was the 90s that were a sort of Golden Age for cars, in that you had reliable electronics that made cars true daily drivers.

    They’d start reliably on winter mornings, you didn’t have to gap points or choke carburetors and you could put 150,000 miles on them without a problem. Cars no longer disintegrated from rust within 5-10 years, and I could go on, but I’m sure everyone here can name why a car from 1992 was better than one from 1972.

    • 0 avatar

      My ’71 Plymouth Scamp saw your floor mounted dimmer switch and raised you a foot operated plunger for washing the windshield.

      • 0 avatar

        my 78 monarch saw your foot operated plunger and raised you a floor operated manual choke

        • 0 avatar

          Late as always, but I looked at a 91 F-150 that still had the bright button on the floor. I don’t know that there is anything else that persisted into the 90s with those things and I was sure surprised when I saw it. Was supposed to trade some kid my Maxima for that truck (brown on tan, loved it) with 80k miles, but he totally flaked out. What a shame…

        • 0 avatar

          I had a 72 Dodge Polara Custom that had electric blowers on the rear deck as rear defrosters and factory cruise control (+ or – 5 MPH). They actually worked too. Unfortunately the 400 CI under the hood got a whopping 8 MPG.

  • avatar

    One of the things I love about my Wranglers is the fact that they take simple 7″ round headlamps. Unlike cars with aerodynamic headlights, if you are not happy with the performance, you have some inexpensive options to improve performance with a simple glass lamp setup. With the Stratus I used to daily drive, there were no options to improve performance as brighter bulbs could not overcome lousy optics.

    If I were your friend, since he daily drives this car I would have installed a relay harness that sends battery voltage directly to the lamps and takes the load off of the switch. Now would have been the time to do it in light of the broken wire and rusty grounds. The next step to truly improve lighting performance would have been some Cibie lamp housings and better bulbs.

    If this were just a show car or occasional cruiser, I probably wouldn’t bother with the lamp upgrade, but since you said he drives it on a regular basis the lamp upgrade is a worthwhile improvement.

    • 0 avatar

      One of the few thingszthe Wrangler has going for it (and I have one picked out for my midlife crisis car) is the timeless styling.

      They never look obsolete, because you just happen to like that era of Jeep!

      • 0 avatar

        If only they could make them a little smaller again (TJ size is perfect). Attempts to branch out do not work well for jeep. See original cherokee vs new cherokee. Patriot, compass. They tried too hard to make the liberty look like a jeep yet appeal to the masses and it lost its soul. I prefer my jeeps with solid axles, and either a removable top or a clean cut box on wheels

        • 0 avatar

          “See original cherokee vs new cherokee.”

          The new Cherokee is, latest numbers I can find, the *best selling Jeep*.

          “Not work out well” must mean “not popular with Wrangler Enthusiasts”?

          • 0 avatar

            This. These people have the most difficult time reconciling the fact that what they like might not be what sells in all segments.

            They should be happy they still have the option to buy exactly what they demand in the Wrangler rather than insist that every Jeep be a brutal solid axle steering wheel paint shaker.

  • avatar

    Thank you for the nostalgia overload!

    Times were simpler then, the “progress” since 1973 is staggering. Who wants to deal with ambient light sensors? Light control modules? Body control modules? Bus communication networks?

    This reminds me, I want to daily drive a Grand National (w/ snow tires). <3

  • avatar

    Almost EVERY car that I owned in the 70’s needed exhaust work, tune-ups, tin-worm repair, shocks (and so on), and none were over 10 years old.

    Ahh, the “good old days”.

    • 0 avatar

      Power windows, power door locks, power seats, brakes and steering. 4-speaker stereo w/8-Track player. A pre-pollution 430 cu in, 360 horsepower 475 lb·ft of torque V8 engine that got 10mpg, but $5 filled the tank, AIR CONDITIONING. Up until this point in time it didn’t get any better then this

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle


      Don’t forget to add paint to that list. It used to be a common thing to have cars repainted because the factory paint was worn-out. Not from rust or dents or scratches, just from being exposed to air, daylight and occasional precipitation.
      I remember washing my dad’s Chevy in the 70’s and having the wash water come out blue!

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, no clearcoat at the time – so after a hard day of using a “cleaner/wax”, you had a box of rags the same color as your car.

        • 0 avatar

          OMG.. ever used rubbing compound on a ’50s car? With the chemistry, friction and heat generated you ended up scads of beautiful glossy, hard-shell rags.

          Could probably have used them to shingle a roof once they dried out.

          • 0 avatar

            So literally, old paint just came off of old cars at a constant rate, til it was time to put more on?

          • 0 avatar

            They used a single stage paint instead of a basecoat/clearcoat process that we see now. When you buff your modern car, you’re buffing only the clearcoat (unless you burn through it). On the much older cars, the top of the finish had color in it as it was all a single stage. It would fade, crack and generally didn’t age as well.

          • 0 avatar

            Back then, how many layers of paint were applied? And the final layer had paint + shine?

            Also, who was the first to develop and apply clearcoat? Had to be in the early 80s I’m thinking.

            I’m apparently very interested in paint. This has piqued my attention very quickly.

  • avatar


  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Cars and trucks are much better today but they do not have the soul, and that is what I think is the point. Cars are more like appliances in that they are more boring but more reliable. Even many of the more popular colors of today’s vehicles are more appliance like–white, black, and silver. Most consumers view a vehicle for its reliability, economy, features and comfort. From the standpoint of style I would agree that pre 1973 was more of a heyday, but for the standpoint of reliability and durability then today would be the heyday.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    What a nice car! Takes dedication to use that as a DD. I love the old iron, especially when they have been retrofitted with modern electronics and running gear. I am not a purist of any sort, I just like the sheet metal from way back when compared to today’s offerings.

  • avatar

    Wow, what a nice car! Seeing a machine like that makes me smile!

    The car is woefully obsolete. Even disregarding crash protection and pollution standards, my 269HP minivan can probably take it on the twisties and give it a run for its money on the quarter mile.

    But who cares! I respect the craftsmanship and dedication it takes to maintain a machine that has seen so many years. Being a rebel in an era of rapidly advancing throwaway technology is kinda cool. :-)

  • avatar

    My dad owned a ’69 brown 442 convertible from ’72-’80, when I was in elementary and middle school. Objectively, cars today are better in almost every metric. But there was a certain appeal to that car that I haven’t found in today’s cars. Call it character, personality. fun factor, pride of ownership, or whatever, we certainly enjoyed going for drives and roadtrips in it. And yes, it could be a real PITA with constant maintenance, exhaust work, leaking convertible top, poor mileage, and reluctance to start with the carb and breaker points.

    Still, I miss that car.

    • 0 avatar

      I can’t imagine anyone wanting “points” back. CDI was just coming into being when I got into cycles.

      If you wanted a real bitch, there were dual point ignitions back in the day, usually on performance cars.

      The CDI was a true godsend to those of us who actually had to deal with points, adjust dwell, etc.

      I’m pretty sure that it is the one mod that most guys who drive a vintage car make..even if the orig distributor is on a shelf in the garage.

      • 0 avatar

        I should clarify – I miss that car but not the points. Our ’76 Olds Vista Cruiser had HEI which, other than replacing the rotor and distributor cap once in 10 years, was trouble free. Many older GM cars have been converted to HEI – the ’75 to ’78 High Energy Ignitions are especially popular if you can find them.

        • 0 avatar

          All pre-12 volt cars should be converted to 12 volt and all cars with points converted to point-less distributors.

          Sorry, purists, but I’d like to have a car with a more reliable electrical system that doesn’t require a special old-timey battery I have to get from a catalog.

  • avatar

    This was an era when gm had separate engines for all their divisions.They would share transmissions and many chassy parts.Later ,they were all the same and GM pretended that one was better than the other. That was the beginning of their demise from the top.The Olds rocket engines had their own recognizable exhaust note but were not a marvel of engineering and were great for torque at low rpm.

    • 0 avatar

      The Olds rocket engines had a feature which slowly rotated the exhaust valves to keep them from burning out in the same spot. Out of our previous Oldsmobiles, our ’69 442 (400 cid), ’72 98 Regency (455 cid), ’76 Vista Cruiser (350 cid), and ’78 Cutlass (260 cid), all had that unique exhaust note. The 442 especially sounded nice with true duals and no cross-over pipe. The exhaust note was lopey, as in potato, potato, potato… Once catalytic converters came out in ’75, the exhaust note was more muted, but still unmistakably Oldsmobile.

  • avatar

    I’ve been told by an executive of a company that supplies many of the wiring harnesses used in the industry that the wiring of your car, particularly the connectors, is the least reliable part of the car. The Cutlass’ ground connection failed at the connector.

    Grounds are very important. So are specialist automotive electrical shops. I had a Mitsubishi built Plymouth Champ (great, cheap little car with the Twin Stick low and high range) that had a weird drivability issue that I couldn’t resolve. A shop that specialized in electrical problems found a bad ground to the engine.

    Also, when you replace your battery, check for corrosion on the other end of the negative cable, where the battery is actually grounded.

    • 0 avatar

      Wolfsburg Rabbits of the 70’s would suffer front wheel bearing failure due to the ground strap from the battery to the body rotting out – the wheel bearings became the “ground return” and the electrical flow would arc and etch the bearing surfaces.

  • avatar

    I remember new GTOs and 442s when in college. I still have my “Sears Finest” timing light with chrome finish. Plugs never came pregapped in those days. Does anyone recall the “dwell meter”? I put my first CDI add on in 1976 and presto, no more plug fouling due to low speed, heavy traffic driving. In the 1970s you either wrenched or were broke. We ALWAYS bought the shop manual with a new car. Seeing partially assembled carburetors on a kitchen table was not a remarkable sight at all, since 30K bertween rebuilds was common. My BIL owned two Midas Muffler shops and earned a good living in the 70s. Unleaded gas and the first ecconomic downturn in the early 80s wiped that out.
    No, I don’t miss the cars of the 60s and 70s. Styling was great, but I prefer a warm butt and 100% start up to the old days.

  • avatar

    She don’t love me, she loves my automobile.

  • avatar
    johnny ringo

    What an interesting post…I’m conflicted about cars from the sixties; certainly they had more charisma than todays automobiles which all have a generic look to them, but the quality is certainly vastly better than in the 60’s. I had several vehicles from that era and they constantly needed something repaired. Getting 100,000 miles from an automobile of this era was virtually unheard of, today it’s taken for granted. Still, it would be nice to have some of that appeal in today’s cars.

    • 0 avatar

      When they turned 50K miles we took a picture of the dash, then traded it in

    • 0 avatar

      My late father to the very end would give away his cars to family members when they turned 70,000 miles; to his old school way of thinking; they were no longer reliabile after that. I remember his surpise at finding my first car, a 1974 Plymouth Fury II; in excellent condition (it was used as a company car to daily drive from Lafayette, LA to New Orleans) with about 90,000 miles on it; I drove it into the 1980s with 120,000 miles on it before a mechanic caught it on fire. It so sold Dad on Chryslers that he bought nothing but Chryslers well into the 1980s; though I think that what he was seeing was the benefits of electronic ignition and better fuel systems rather than better cars.

      Familiarity breeds comtempt. All of these fusalage styled cars of the late 1960s – early 1980s looked the same until I saw an Audi 5000s for the first time. That was something revolutionary; now after three decades of aero cars these are a breathe of fresh air and all the aero cars look the same; though like others said I would not want to go back to 60s and 70s engineering and reliability. Or even styling; the chrome trim and fit and finish of many of these cars looked pretty rough compared to today’s cars.

  • avatar

    I didn’t grow up driving these cars, but I appreciate them for what they are. I wasn’t driving in 1973 and wasn’t even driving until the late 80’s. This is just a few memories of those cars from my family members driving them. I don’t mean to make fun, just my observations.

    1) I thought the horizontal speedos were the silliest thing I have ever seen and headlights never seemed very bright.

    2) My uncle always had big american cars of the 60’s and 70’s. I remember he was always working on them and always fixing something.

    3) I always remembered that floaty feeling. It wasn’t until my cousin took me for a ride in his early 1970s corvette that I realized cars weren’t supposed to have excessive body roll and vertical motion.

    4) My dad had a couple station wagons in the early 70’s. I realized then how much I didn’t want to own a station wagon.

    5) I remember seat belts being just for show.

    6) I remember cushy bench seats that wouldn’t hold you anywhere

  • avatar

    One thing that I wish we could go back to are sealed GLASS headlight units. I hate yellowed plastic headlight covers with a passion. Even using the cleaning kit on them doesn’t work for too long before they yellow again, and if they break, they are ridiculously expensive to replace, nissan being one of the worst.

    • 0 avatar

      Next time you polish up your plastic headlight covers to a beautiful shine mask them off and spray a couple of coats of automotive clearcoat on them. Make sure the clearcoat has UV inhibitors in it and they will stay nice for a long time instead of quickly returning to that crappy yellow fogged look.

      I did mine twice and had the same thing happen. Next time I was having some minor bodywork done and the bodyshop recommended the clearcoat spray. Nearly three years later and they still look great.

  • avatar

    Almost anytime you are behind a car and see a turn signal dim but not engaged, dim lamps operating when they should, etc is is almost a ground problem.

    That convertible is gorgeous. Love that it get used, too!

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    99.9% of all trailer lighting problems are due to a bad ground. Nice Cutlass! I’d love to have a G body Hurst Olds with the lightening shifters.

  • avatar

    Nice old car ! .

    Agreed , 90 + 5 of all electrical issues as due to poor grounds .

    GM cheaped out (no, really they did) on the wiring , you can see how the headlights are not bright white and the afore mentioned add on head light relay will cure that in a jiffy .

    NAPA’s excellent quality ECHLIN line used to sell these , well worth the $30 +/- .

    Nothing like good , WHITE headlights , I run the Hella non D.O.T. compliant bulb – in 7″ headlights in my old ’59 Metro and it’s weeny 19 ampere (might be a 22 ampere one by now) generator has NO PROBLEM keeping them dead white even @ idle .

    Also agreed , dumping the breaker points ignition is smart ~ I use the Pertronix Ignitor system in most of my oldies , it’s 100 % trouble free and it drives the otherwise stock ignition system to maximum output at all times , this allows you to open the spark plug gaps up to .040″ ~ some times more (but never less) so *instant* starting on carburated engines is assured cold or blistering hot as well as more power , better fuel economy and so on ~ one of the very few win-wins there are out there .


    • 0 avatar

      +1 on Pertronix. Cheap, reliable and easy to install on just about any common points distributor. The other cost effective reliable option would be a GM HEI distributor, but I think they’re ugly.

  • avatar

    Nice. This generation of Cutty is “the” convertible in my mind.

  • avatar

    $11 doesn’t sound too bad for a headlamp which is real glass, and is the lens as well. I’m surprised he was able to find one for such an old car so easily.

    I mean how much is an HID lamp, separate than the outer lens (at hundreds of dollars to replace).

  • avatar

    The giveaway clue to this problem was the dim glow of the high beam filament. Something was grounding through the filament because the real ground connection was no longer connected.

  • avatar

    My FIRST Car was a 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme coupe in Sherwood Green (code 48) with green interior and white vinyl top. Cost me $725 and I kept it from 1978 to 1987 when I sold it to my mechanic (who still works on my twelve cars today!). It had the bucket seats, console shifter, and SSI wheels. It overheated on the way to Anaheim Yellow Cab (where my father worked on the radios) where “Lyle”, the taxi technician, told me I should have bought any Dodge with a Slant-Six. I told him “no way, I’m a GM man” and have been since then! I had the engine rebuilt by Roger’s Automotive in Orange, California and added an intake manifold from a 1972 Oldsmobile 98 with another 455.
    My license plate read “70 OLDS”…

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