By on April 11, 2017

2000 Dodge Durango, Image: FCA

Sajeev writes:

I created Piston Slap as a way to bring the diverse knowledge base of your favorite car forum to the autoblogosphere with easy to digest weekly posts. The only problem is when a mistake gets published, the thread never comes back to page one with its correction.

I screwed up, so here I’ll do my best to fix it: I was mistaken about aftermarket DOT/SAE approved lights being just as good or better than original-equipment factory parts. Some of the aftermarket parts are promoted as being “CAPA certified” (Certified Automotive Parts Association), but as we shall see, that doesn’t mean what it sounds like, and it doesn’t help with our reader’s query that started the conversation in the first place. As seen elsewhere, parts not up to spec can have tragic consequences with little recourse for victims.

So let’s hear it from The Man himself, Mr. Daniel Stern, who writes:

If at all possible, replacement headlamps really need to be genuine, original-equipment items — the automaker’s own brand or that of the original supplier to the automaker. All of the aftermarket off-brand items (TYC, Depo, Anzo, DJAuto, Eagle Eye, Helix, Sonar, etc) are junk, whether they’re OE-lookalikes or restyled with clear lenses, projectors, halos, etc. The low price is attractive, but their quality, performance, and durability are all substantially and often dangerously inferior to the genuine lamps.

There is little or no real optical engineering behind any of the aftermarket lamps — they are headlamp-shaped toys made from physical copies of the originals, which is not even close to adequate. One might as well try to cast new working contact lenses from a mould of your originals and expect to be able to see when you put ’em in your eyes. Even basic, low-tech headlamps are more akin to optical instruments than to the lamp on your bedside table.

The level of shape accuracy required to accurately focus a headlight beam can only be achieved with precise optical engineering from scratch, using correct materials with tightly controlled manufacturing and quality control. All of those things are missing from the knockoffs, which don’t even begin to get in the ballpark. Light distribution is not what it should be, and often the DOT certification marks are fraudulent.

“Perfect OE fit and performance” is often promised in the ads for the copycat lamps, and more recently they’ve been babbling about “CAPA certified” and “NSF certified” lamps, both of which are meaningless but sound impressive. (They’ve also been charging extra money for these bogus certs, and that’s not the only pricing game they’ve been caught playing.)

The thing about “OE fit and performance” is a big belly-laff; take a look at this large test by the US Department of Transportation of original equipment vs. TYC and Depo versions of simple, American-vehicle headlamps: damn things don’t even fit the car correctly, let alone come close to performing the way they’re supposed to. What is this CAPA? It’s the Certified Automotive Parts Association, an aftermarket-crash-parts lobbyist group that works hard to make sure your insurance company can stick you with inferior parts when they repair your car after a crash.

So exactly what is being “certified” then? CAPA’s criteria for lamp certification, called CAPA 301 QSM Section 12, concentrates heavily on the appearance of the lamp: it has to look substantially the same as the original lamp (minus trademarks belonging to the automaker, of course, because we’re talking about unauthorized parts here). CAPA’s criteria do not require that aftermarket lamps operate the same as the original lamp they’re replacing in terms of performance, durability, weather resistance, vibration resistance, or anything else. The only performance requirement is that the lamps must comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 (the US federal regulation for car lights) — which is not much of a requirement at all, given that a $4 sealed beam and the multi-thousand-dollar full-LED headlamp on a Cadillac Escalade Platinum both meet FMVSS 108. Wanna see what this kind of aftermarket “compliance” looks like in the real world? Take a look at Ryan Ridgley’s comparison of genuine and knockoff Volvo 240 headlamps.

Fine, so “CAPA certification” is a smokeshow, but doesn’t saying the lights are “DOT/SAE approved” count for anything? No. It sounds official but also means nothing; there is no such thing as “DOT approval” or “SAE approval.” SAE is not a regulatory body; their technical standards don’t have any force of law except to the degree that the U.S. government adopts them. FMVSS 108 contains bits and parts, often modified, from current and obsolete versions of various SAE standards, but that’s as far as SAE involvement goes. Neither DOT nor SAE approves vehicles or equipment.

The “DOT” marking on a headlamp does not mean the DOT or anyone else in any official capacity has scrutinized or tested the headlamp and judged it good. That’s not how it works in North America. Instead, we have a system called “self-certification.” The maker or importer of a vehicle or item of regulated vehicle equipment (such as a headlamp) proclaims an item meets all applicable standards. That’s it. The “DOT” mark on the lens just means the maker or importer says, “I promise it’s OK.” If reams of complaints, a pile of twisted metal, or maimed bodies accumulate to point in the direction of maybe a noncompliant headlamp, then the DOT might open an investigation. If they find the headlamps are noncompliant, they can try and force the maker or importer to recall them. But take a look at what happened to that importer-distributor of Chinese tires some years ago: they sold a mountain of fraudulently DOT-marked tires, a bunch of crashes happened, people died, DOT eventually levied fines and ordered a recall, the Chinese tire company weaselled out of any responsibility, and the American importer-distributor went bankrupt. So sorry, won’t be able to pay those fines or recall those tires, we’re bankrupt.

Back to headlamps: on an older-model vehicle for which genuine lamps cannot be bought any more, one has no choice but to hold the nose and try to buy the least-worst aftermarket lamps. It’s a crapshoot, and you’re not going to get a lamp as good as the originals, but this is one of the unfortunate consequences of the end of the sealed-beam era when all cars used standard-size headlamps: eventually all the original headlamps for a given model are used up, no more are available, and “better than nothing” is the best you can do. In that case, you pretty much have to pick by track record; Dorman has a pretty good reputation for standing behind its stuff. But if you can get original lamps, that’s definitely best; even for vehicles that have relatively low-performing original headlamps, the genuine lamp is almost always substantially better than the knockoff stuff.

As for the reader with the Durango, he should skip the Anzo trinkets and get a new pair of genuine Chrysler Mopar headlamps; that’s this one and this one.

Lamp aim is by far the main thing that determines how well we can (or can’t) see at night with any given set of lamps, so they’ll need to see to it that the lamps are aimed carefully and correctly, preferably with an optical aiming machine per the instructions here. Our reader’s lamps are the “mechanical aim” type.

As Sajeev mentioned, each headlamp takes a 9007 bulb. The best 9007 bulbs presently on the market are the GE Nighthawk Xenon (“Xenon” is probably the most-abused word in the vehicle lighting world) or the Philips Xtreme Vision. Skip the “extra white” bulbs (Silver Star, PIAA, and dozens of other brands); they’re a scam. And halogen lamps need to use halogen bulbs or they don’t work right; “HID kits” and “LED conversions” are unsafe, ineffective, and (therefore) illegal.

Even with new, legitimate headlamps and the best bulbs, it’s still gonna be hard to see well at night until they fix the severely underspecified headlamp wiring that starves whatever bulb is at the end of the wires. That can be done on a DIY basis or with a ready-built harness. It can also be done with a cheapy $40 “universal” harness consisting of thin wires and unreliable no-name relays. But if that’s the choice, it’s better to live with the limitations of the stock wiring — inadequate but basically safe — rather than running the real risk of sudden light failure when the cheesy harness gives it up the ghost in the night.

[Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]

PDF: CAPA Quality Standards Manual

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 

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73 Comments on “Piston Slap: A Stern Talkin’ To About OEM Headlamps?...”

  • avatar

    Augh- I hate the cheap knock-off stuff when it ends up spraying light all over the place, including into oncoming drivers’ eyes. I get tired of being blinded by these, ahem, fellow motorists. Lots of people, who have “modified” their vehicles in such a foolish way, have suffered “revenge high beams” at my hand.

    I think a big part of the problem is that very few drivers turn down their instrument lights and leave them at full bright. This limits how well your eyes can adjust to night and darkness outside, which makes it “seem” like their car has weak headlights. Hint: your instrument lights don’t need to be bright enough for you to read a roadmap, they need to be just barely bright enough for you to comfortably read the gauges.

  • avatar

    Just another reason why it was a mistake to go away from the standard round headlamps. I can get perfect replacement headlamps for any car before about 1980; after that, styling took over and now we are faced with $300+ replacements (if your car isn’t so old you can’t get them) for an item that used to cost $15 or $20.

    Not to mention that they are blinding and that the new “cutoff” concept means that small undulations in the road, or big bumps, cause you to get flashed all the time as the “cutoff” moves up and down.

    I know everyone loves to hate regulations, but this is a case where the DOT ought to step back in and impose some control.

    • 0 avatar

      Sealed-beams have two disadvantages.

      1) They’re about as bright as a glow-worm. If you never go over 55 at night, that’s OK, but at my normal cruising speed of 100 I need a quarter mile of visibility with the high-beams and an eighth of a mile with the lows. That’s possible with a well-aimed halogen light with a sharp cutoff or any of the advanced-tech systems, but a pair of fuzzy little flashlights were unsuitable in 1940 for 1940 conditions.

      2) On any car with a low hoodline and rounded or pointy front end, round or square headlamps require pop-up lamps, which are difficult to get past pedestrian protection laws.

      • 0 avatar

        “at my normal cruising speed of 100”

        You stud!

        Do you even know how awesome you are?

      • 0 avatar

        It’s not so much the sealed beam part; it’s the standard size (7″ or 5-3/4″ round, or 5×7″ or 4×6″ rectangular) that matters. You could swap out the sealed beams for quality aftermarket stuff like the 7″ Cibie’ Z-Beam (I used to have a set of those). And Cibie’ even figured out a way around sealing and water intrusion problems, by introducing the “Bobi” lamps. These were essentially a sealed beam, but with a recess or capsule in the back, where the bulb would fit.

        • 0 avatar

          I had a set of BOBIs in the 1980s (single rectangular); it was a clever way to make a DOT-compliant sealed beam with a replaceable halogen bulb (unlike standard rest-of-world ECE headlights, these had a glass cover surrounding the bulb, so the reflector was never exposed to moisture or dirt even when replacing bulbs). But it seemed too much beam quality was sacrificed to make them US legal, as their light pattern was never as bright or even as the ECE Hella headlamps I had on another car (though that car had the advantage of separate high and low beams allowing for reflectors and glass optimized for each one). The Bobi lamps also had a big “C” logo in the middle, shouting out to the world that I had expensive headlamps on my car that could be easily removed without raising the hood, though I doubt many people had any idea of its significance.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t see why we couldn’t have a couple standardized sizes of decent-performing round headlights( ala the previous-gen Sonic) for lower-end cars, it would cut costs and give us better lighting performance. Let the high-end market run custom lights if they want to look pretty. “Works good and cheap” is good enough for me.

  • avatar

    Having restored a dozen cars over the years,I’ve found that GOOD used OEM parts is the only way to go. Doesn’t matter if it a fender or headlamps.They fit right and can last for the duration of ownership.

  • avatar

    Very informative. Daniel Stern (not the actor) sure does know a lot about automotive lighting. Nice to see him chime in on this subject.

  • avatar

    Sounds like aother case study of the Chinese enterprise model.

    “fussy nossa melikans! who they think they are?!”

  • avatar

    as correct as Mr. Stern is, it’s too bad that that the crowd of clueless 18-year-old “LOL chicks dig my OMG BLU HIDs” won’t listen. They steadfastly cling to the belief that their irritating glare generators aren’t helping them to “see better” just because road signs are dazzling now.

    cripes, I’ve seen purple and even *green* headlamps on cars. these people need to be beaten savagely. unfortunately there’s little enforcement of the law, since waiveable “fix it” tickets aren’t a good revenue generator for cities.

  • avatar

    ” Dorman has a pretty good reputation for standing behind its stuff.”

    The first time I’ve really heard this. Dorman is generally regarded by most mechanics as utter trash when it comes to anything suspension/bushing/plastic/under-hood related.

  • avatar

    I hate, hate the headlights on my ’09 Clubman. They don’t use direct light from the bulb, but instead work by reflection.

    I got to borrow my dad’s 1999 Olds Aurora for a few weeks (while the Mini was in the shop) and the headlights on that old thing had a much better range and spread.

  • avatar

    That link to the Volvo 240 light comparison looks like a comparison between a pair of aftermarket brands (DJ vs. Cibie.) (And the “better” brand certainly wasn’t OEM, as it didn’t even mount without modifications.)

    • 0 avatar

      I recall a friend’s 240 as the only car I’d ever seen which did a good job with the crappy dual filament 9004 bulb, which was an update of the ancient standard of the sealed beam. Luckily, this is fading from use. The volvo had a very, very deep reflector housing which is why this may have worked.

      • 0 avatar

        Cibie weren’t really aftermarket, they were just different market.

        9004 was a pretty lousy “standard,” more like a step backwards and a notch for smaller government.

        • 0 avatar

          Well, they were both OEM and aftermarket – they supplied composite lamps for European automakers (like the lamps used on the Jaguar XJS), and they also made replacement round and rectangular headlamps to replace sealed beams, as well as rectangular and round driving and fog lights (even rear fog and backup light kits). I have a pristine set of Cibie’ 175 driving lights (big rectangular lights) in my garage; they might find a home on one of my vehicles again someday.

  • avatar

    Depo makes good stuff. Again I have done quite a few OEM projector retrofits…. but their headlights for my 350Z were just as good as any OEM projector I’ve worked with. Plus headlight design has come a long way in the last 20 years. A very long way. There’s definitely some crap out there but I wouldn’t write off the whole aftermarket.

    Throwing an HID kit in a reflector based headlight is bad business though no matter how you slice it.

  • avatar

    Could this be yet another case for mandatory vehicle inspections? Between the fart can exhaust on rice burners, loud Harley’s, bald tires on lifted behemoths, coal rollers and those sick light splattering blue HID etc… with all the junk off the road, what would over bloated bureaucrats do without all that extra license plate revenue from the millions of beaters on the road?

    • 0 avatar

      I’d prefer to leave that up to police officers to enforce those sorts of violations. Now some sort of base-level inspection of tires, brakes, soundness of suspension (critically worn/loose ball joints/tie rods, rotted off spring shackles), that I can get behind. Some shops back home in NY were definitely sometimes taking advantage of things (some VERY shady stuff infact), so I’m glad to have left that behind. But now I get to see some scary-bad tires, critically worn brakes, and scary wobbly cars going 70 down the highway here in Indiana. I would NOT go after emissions related things, but just the base level things that could make the car unsafe on the road in terms of control.

  • avatar

    The only good thing about the classic DOT lights is that they were a standard size so you could very easily replace them with way better E codes using H4 bulbs and with actual beam control, not vague patterns. BTW, the orig DOT lights were designed for a world without reflective road signs and 40 mph travel speeds.

    The newer lights are all over the place, but I’ve yet to see replacements better than OE. Add a set of driving lights on a seperate switch and relay, don’t put chinese HID in your stock lights, please.

  • avatar

    Some of the worst “factory” headlights ever were the LED’s that GM tried out on the unsuspecting public in the 1500 GMC/Chevy trucks around 2013. I had a 2015 2500 model which got the “upgrade”. One light was so far off axis it required replacement of the entire headlight assembly due to the bulb configuration in the housing. It was no fluke either. Refer to GM PIT5374a.
    The lights were still terrible even after the “repair”. It was as Ralph Nader said “Unsafe At Any Speed”. As GM was less than cordial about the problem I dumped the truck and bought a Toyota. Fantastic headlights. No issues.

    FWIW; In my travels I met a guy who worked for GM. He was aware they were getting complaints but it wasn’t his department so not much more was gleaned from our conversations. I felt a little vindicated as it wasn’t my imagination.

  • avatar

    Why don’t all OEM lights pass the IIHS rating? Very few do.

    And many replacement headlamps are better than a fogged over OEM that are on many older cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah the fogged over issue. When I did auto appraising the amount of light from a new pair of half decent aftermarket headlights was so much better then the fogged over ones. Even if It wasn’t OEM it usually put the car in a better place. That said some of the aftermarket units were crap, The better body shops knew which ones to use.

      Also on a side not some of the times when you order OEM parts for an older vehicle you will end up with reboxed aftermarket parts, seems more likely with the big 3 then the others in my experience.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    After my accident a year and a half ago, my insurance company authorized a used reconditioned headlight. I have zero problems with salvage parts being used since they are OEM – not that I have a huge problem with aftermarket parts depending on where they go. The body shop used a new Depo light instead. I didn’t realize it until I was washing my car a couple months later, which disappointed me. For the time it was on there, before I ordered a used OEM light and recon-ed it myself, it seemed to work pretty well. But it had a VERY defined light throw, as in I could clearly see the light horizon in the distance. It was much more pronounced that the OEM and more than any car I’ve ever owned. Ultimately I didn’t want to take the chance of having the lens degrade and I also took the opportunity to properly recon my other original light.

    The absolute worst headlights I have experienced were on my ’97 Audi A6. It had projectors and in any conditions other than dry and clear, they were absolutely useless. If the road was wet it was almost indistinguishable between having them turned on and off. I recall driving home one night in a snow storm confident in the AWD traction but still going incredibly slow because I couldn’t see more than about 15′ in front of the car. It was so bad I contemplated “downgrading” to the previous generation lights.

  • avatar

    Just mount driving-lights and adjust to blind all on coming traffic. Way simpler.

    But nothing beats the looks of original lights, polished crystal clear. Most aftermarket lights look “trailer park”.

  • avatar

    As someone who have been blinded twice in two days by a moron in Jeep blasting their LED aftermarket headlights, there should absolutely be a law against it. I’m not talking about a lightbar; it’s against the law to use them on the road. I’m talking about someone fitting LED aftermarket headlights into their old archaic POS and blasting them into everyone’s eyes.

    • 0 avatar

      Refer to my original comment about revenge high beaming. After years of trying to be nice with a quick, “friendly” blink, I have given up.

    • 0 avatar

      Glaring Lights – Improper high beams are a two point offense…..I have seen it written….I’ve wanted to find the cop and give him a case of beer in thanks.

    • 0 avatar

      it *is* against the law. but (IIRC) in most cases an “improper/defective equipment” citation can be rescinded if you show them you’ve corrected it within a certain number of days. So there’s little or no incentive to enforce it.

    • 0 avatar

      I have Hella 500 lights on my little AWD grocery getter but only tied into the high beams. On low beams they are off. On High beam they can be on or off.

      Has worked well for us for ~20 years.

      I agree – hating on the 4WD crowd that roams around town with all their off-road lighting on and the cops don’t care. Of coure if you’re 2 mph over, they’ll get ya’.

  • avatar

    Good timing as I have not ordered anything yet, I am the original poster.

    I had written to Daniel Stern Lighting on the issue a few months ago but had never heard back. Good to see his write up here. One thing I would disagree with is the replacement light performs as well or better than the OEM, then again it could be OEM since it is the same from 1998 to 2003 and they could have slightly changed the look.

    So, it looks like a drivers side lens and two new bulbs with the relay kit will be what I need.

  • avatar

    Oh, hey Daniel! You helped me out about 20 years ago, when I added Saab repeater lamps to my ’95 F-150.

  • avatar

    Recently I had the hail damage from last year repaired on my Tacoma (all PDR work), and the right headlight was damaged. The insurance company wanted to spec a CAPA part, but, I was able to buy the OEM Toyota part for just $10 more ($250 vs. $240) by buying from a local Toyota dealer that sells parts over the Internet. I gave the part to the PDR guy and he installed it.

  • avatar

    A note of Caution:
    Just because you buy an “OEM” part do not assume that it is good.
    Here is what can happen; Parts are designed/engineered, proto-typed, tested, and then manufactured. There are inspections that take place in the manufacturing/distribution chain. Sometimes these inspections will find a problem with a production run of a part. Sometimes the parts get into use and a problem is discovered.
    The remainder of the production run is usually supposed to be destroyed/trashed/scrapped if it cannot be repaired economically. Sometimes those parts find their way out the back door somewhere and into the aftermarket, where you can buy “OEM” parts at a much lower price than the ‘official’ channels.
    Often not all the parts in a production run will fail to function, just a higher percentage than is acceptable to the manufacturer since they will face warranty/liability claims.
    I have seen this with everything from engine crankcases to electrical components and some of this stuff is sold at ‘official/authorized’ dealerships. Those selling the parts may not know that there is a high failure rate.
    When I was in the auto business and working at a dealer service dept, the parts manager had a kickback deal with an aftermarket parts distributor. So we often got junk parts to install on customers cars while the customers paid ‘suggested list price’ for the stuff.
    Caveat Emptor.

  • avatar

    I’m finding out about the joys of replacing old headlights in my 1996 Ford Mustang GT. The original headlight enclosures eventually, years ago, became yellowed and clouded. I scored a free set of OEM headlights in slightly better condition than mine so I polished those up and hit them with UV protectant clear coat and while a big improvement over yellow, cloudy lenses, even when they left the factory, they didn’t put out the amount of light or coverage the next generation or two of headlight technology did. The difference between 90’s headlights and modern headlights can be stunning – drove a rental Malibu (a Malibu! Rental!) and it put out a solid 180 degree wall of light from the height of the lamps down to the ground for as far as the eye could see. I mean, our other cars have always had better road illumination than the old Mustang but it was simply shocking how good those were.

    Now that second set is yellowed and cloudy again so I decided to buy new headlamps this time around. Fresh OEM sets are long gone and any original factory lenses are now almost 20 years old at best and suffering from the same effects of age. I decided to buy a set of reproduction Cobra style lamps because they’re supposed to be brighter than the V6/GT style (and they look pretty nice). They are brighter but the coverage pattern is weird – a series of overlapping chevrons of light that more-or-less add up to a sort of reasonable coverage and cutoff of light.

    I think at this point, the only way to get really satisfactory headlights is going to be retrofit some decent projectors. A project for another day.

    • 0 avatar

      The 9004 lamps had the strange problem that the inside of the lenses weren’t protected from UV, just the outside. So the lenses would turn yellow because of the UV light from the lamp itself. Oh, the 9004 spec was written by Ford for the early Taurus aero headlights. They wanted something more aerodynamic than sealed beams and pretty much DOT told them to submit a proposal…

  • avatar

    I have a 2004 Mercury Sable SW – the headlights are a little different from the Taurus. Both headlights have been replaced due to a 70mph encounter with a deer. They both quickly turned yellow – the originals were fine after 5 years. The bodyshop replaced both, and one turned yellow – could be the other one was an OEM junkyard special.

  • avatar

    I’m becoming more experienced in this lighting issue than I would like. My vehicles are steadily aging and needing replacement lights. I have grown tired of trying the various polishes and compounds to clear up the yellowed and eroded lenses.

    In the recent past I have replaced both headlight assemblies on my 07 Impala and both taillight assemblies on my 94 Silverado. The Impala got TYC units and the Silverado got Eagle Eye (Dorman?) So far I am satisfied with both purchases. I specified CAPA certified units and they fit well and are as bright or better than the factory units. All are OEM spec replacements.

    This week I finally made the decision to replace headlight units and parking light lenses on the Silverado. I ordered TYC units and will see how they look and fit.

  • avatar

    The headlights on a Chevy Caviler (don’t ask) my wife drove for 2 years were absolutely terrible. I replaced the bulbs which made a marginal improvement. The whole experience served to reinforce my belief that GM makes junk and simply does not care about the safety of their customers…I cannot imagine a compelling reason why I would ever buy another product from this company after this experience. The lights on our 2012 Golf with Tech package were fine…I tested them before buying.

  • avatar

    In a recent governmental study, and i can’t remember the study, only one vehicle had headlights that did a good job and it is the one all fanboys love to hate…the Honda Ridgeline….. Loved my ridge and miss it dearly. It filled the needs for any vehicle i needed …car, van, pickup, and was extremely reliable and performed flawlessly. my grandson has it now and he loves it. He is studying to me a mechanic and won a scholarship from Honda to go to college and end up working for them when he graduates making 70-80K. not bad for a teenager.

  • avatar

    Most of the horrible lighting you see though is when someone sticks in aftermarket HID lights and it doesn’t have a lens to properly focus it with the proper cut off height. So it scatters all over the place, blinding drivers.

    Someone sticking in aftermarket housing with traditional halogen type lights usually not as big a problem, I could see most of the time this being a cost effective way of replacing crusty lights. Probably still way better than the traditional sealed beam every vehicle had for decades.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t forget those cool dudes that put tinted lenses over the headlights and tail lights. I’ve almost run over a few of those jokers b/c their brake or turn lights can’t be seen.

  • avatar

    What nonsense.

    I’m prepared to accept that most aftermarket lights are pretty bad, particularly if your shopping criteria is “looks like a headlight” or the marketing material starts and ends with “HID”. As the article says, there’s no way to prove that third-party lights are tested to any particular standard, whereas you can be confident that OEM lights were, at the very least, made to meet a set of actual legal requirements. So maybe, MAYBE if we’re talking about late-model cars who need replacement lights for some reason, I’ll stick with OEM. The recent IIHS testing suggests that even this might not be totally ideal, mind you, but let’s gloss over that.

    The question was initially asked about a 2000 model year car. That’s 17 years old, with a design introduced 1997, meaning the headlights were likely designed several years before that. And I’m supposed to believe that simply because no oversight group tests aftermarket headlights, they’re definitely worse than the design from 20+ years ago? Not to mention, his main supporting argument is a report from 2004! If all else was equal, there’s twice as much time for improvement from 2004 to 2017 as there was from 1997 to 2004, and it seems possible someone would have gotten it right in that time.

    But all else is absolutely NOT equal, although from the age of Mr. Stern’s website I suppose he might not appreciate some of the changes. At the end of 1995, when I’d imagine the Durango’s headlights were being designed, the single fastest computer in the entire world was an aerodynamic research computer called the Fujitsu NWT, able to process at 236 GFLOP/s – a bit behind the XBox 360, an outdated toy. Computers you’d expect to find at an automaker in 1995, especially in something as mundane as the headlight design group, would likely get walked by an Apple Watch. Today, a pretty ordinary office drone desktop computer, nowhere near top-of-the-line, can crunch numbers half as fast as that old Fujitsu, and a really top-flight one with GPU processing can do 50 times as much as the Fujitsu! Those implementations aren’t strictly comparable, but the take-away is that what we’re able to do with mundane computers has changed in a big way.

    Now, the upshot of that long-winded diversion into computers is this: Unless you’d like to argue that vehicle OEMs are the only industries capable of hiring optics engineers, the whole basis of the argument that “OEMs did careful engineering and the aftermarket can’t replicate it” is on shaky ground. ONE ENGINEER sitting in a dingy back office with a $1,000 computer can test more iterations and make more refinements than an entire design department in the 90s. This isn’t true for every product, of course; very complex assemblies, or mechanical components needing lifecycle testing probably aren’t the same. But for a simple headlight, it’s absolutely true. Heck, it’s not uncommon for hobbyists at home to design and build circuit boards of far greater refinement than the big companies were making in decades past.

    Car enthusiasts have no problem believing that a software tune or a bolt-on engine part is capable of improving both economy and performance, in exchange for cost or lifespan compromises the OEM didn’t want to make. Why not headlights?

    This isn’t entirely a theoretical rant, either. My wife has an old GM W-body, and I went through the headlight issue with it. I polished the crap out of the OEM lights until they gleamed like a new car lot. It made the beam brighter, but it was still a terrible little pencil beam with no kind of coverage. So I decided to try aftermarket lights, and I ended up going with the absolute cheapest ones on the market. They came in a pair, with bulbs, for roughly the cost of the bulbs in a store. And they weren’t a revelation, but they absolutely had a better cut-off and wider spread than the factory lights. I’m pondering a more expensive upgrade to a halogen projector retrofit – I have to imagine a lot of the optical design gets reused again and again and only the mounting and outer housing changes between cars, so they should be even more likely to produce good results.

    • 0 avatar

      My recently acquired 2002 Oldsmobile Intrigue GLS (W-body) had some terrible condition headlamps. The right one was destroyed by the collision that sent the car to Copart in the first place. I replaced both of them with a set from eBay (have to check on the manufacturer). They looked great and they did fit perfectly.
      Within one week the right side amber parking light element/socket melted into one piece. It took me two weeks to find a donor Intrigue at a local LKQ Pick A Part but I got two of the electrical sockets last Friday. I remember the same problem occurring with my 2000 Oldsmobile Silhouette tail lamps, and those were OEM-derived meltdowns and happened more than once. What causes this to happen?

      • 0 avatar

        I would guess the plastic was to spec, and the bulb sockets just got way hotter than they were supposed to. That generally happens because a connector or socket is old and either corroded, or the contact springs don’t have enough tension. On cheap or used parts, I don’t know how to prevent that other than a careful visual inspection and maybe some scotch brite.

  • avatar

    According to a discussion some years ago with Mr. Stern, even sealed beams ain’t what they used to be.

    Manufacturers crank them out using the same dies they used for years. According to Mr. Stern, the dies wore out 20+ years ago, but the market is so limited now, there’s no motivation to replace them.

    So even a brand-new sealed beam light ain’t what it used to be.

  • avatar

    If I recall correctly, the California Highway Patrol recommended in the early 70’s that Cibie headlights be approved for use. The state legislature said no in order to protect General Electric. But you could buy them for ‘off-road’ use …….which I did.

    • 0 avatar

      A quirk in many state laws was that while it was illegal to sell a car (new or used) with non-DOT lamps, and illegal to sell them for on-road use in cars, it *was* legal for a car owner to buy them, install them, and use them on public roads. It was legal to sell them in the replacement market as long as it was labelled “for off-road use only” or for motorcycles. Back when American-market cars used one of four standard headlamp sizes, I took advantage of this to get good Cibie or Hella lights on my car. It’s a similar situation today with my Euro-market aspherical outside rear view mirrors – it’s illegal to sell a car with them, but not illegal for me to buy them from private importers and use them on my car until I sell it. And BTW, these *should* be legal here – they’re vastly safer than flat driver side and convex passenger side mirrors for eliminating blind spots. Aspherical mirrors bend outward only at the far edge.

      • 0 avatar

        Around here I’m just glad if there are working lights in each position on the car.

        We have a rural county next to us that is very poor and there have been some real rolling works of art drive into town from time to time, more so 20 years ago when I first moved here.

        Our police are understanding as long as they have up to date registration and we’ll assume they have insurance – and if they behave themselves.

  • avatar

    Selfish question: after being spoiled by terrific Audi B7 xenons, i recently switched to E90 halogens. They’re not terrible per se, and turning on fog lights helps a lot… when driving slow. But I just feel really unsafe to drive fast on country roads, because I literally cannot see whether a deer is standing on the road merely 50 meters away. The lenses are clear, not fogged in the least. I don’t want to be one of ‘those guys,’ but is there a simpler way – better bulb? – to improve visibility?

  • avatar

    You can thank the likes of State Farm, Allstate, Geico, Farmers, et al., for the proliferation of inferior aftermarket parts. They key on the fact that most claimants don’t even know they’re getting economy-grade replacement parts for their repairs.
    Ask a body shop tech if they like using knock-off parts and you’ll hear a near-unanimous “NO”! The industry complies with big insurance only because big insurance makes customer referrals and writes the checks.
    Then there’s safety. There is no testing and validation process that holds aftermarket parts to the same rigorous standards of the OEM. If big insurance says that there is no real difference, then let’s see the test results. Let’s see all of the laboratory research conducted by the IIHS. Oh,wait…there isn’t any?
    Keeping premiums down is something most of us can agree with, but I think most folks would be outraged it they knew more about how it’s being done.

  • avatar

    A bit late to this one, but it’s a subject near and dear to my heart – I’ve spent a ton of money over the years upgrading headlights to European spec on a variety of cars.

    In this case, I think Mr. Stern (who I greatly respect), paints with a slightly too broad brush. Particularly in the case of RWD Volvos, the OEM US-spec headlights are such utter abject garbage that there is just about nowhere to go but up. As the linked article shows (and I happen to know the author), the cheaper aftermarket, while not as good as *European spec* OEM, as MUCH better than the US OEM spec. The US headlights might as well be a pair of candles strapped to the bumper, and that is before they get cataracts. Carefully selected aftermarket lights can be a big improvement, for much less money than the European spec OEM lights. I’ve had both Depo and OEM European lights on a Volvo 940, there was basically nothing in it for beam pattern. There was a big difference in fit and finish, but they were good enough for the functionality and price. Compared to the US spec, the either is a revelation.

    I have no experience with aftermarket lights for anything but European spec parts, it may well be that anything that is trying to emulate the already garbage US Spec lights are utter trash. Anything aftermarket meant to be sold in Europe will at least have to be good enough to pass an annual European safety inspection, and they don’t joke around over there.

  • avatar

    A quick scan of the article and comments finds that no one has stated a major problem.
    The move by car makers to incorporate the front turn signal into the headlight housing is one of the worst changes since the first attempt at anti-skid brakes on semi-trucks.
    Whenever the headlights are on, the front turn signal becomes invisible.
    Of course many pay little or no attention to turn signals, brake lights, and general safe driving/depth perception anyway.

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