Illuminating commentary

While denouncing the devolution of the iPod Nano, Tam comes up with a near-perfect automotive metaphor:

Younger readers might not realize this, but domestic American automobiles used to have a singular triumph of ergonomic engineering: The headlight switch. In pretty much every American car, by whatever maker, was a round knob on the dashboard just to the left of the steering wheel. Pulling it out one click turned on the parking lights and pulling it out all the way turned on the headlights. Rotating it clockwise brightened the instrument panel lights and turning it all the way clockwise turned on the overhead dome light. Genius. It could be operated totally by feel and it worked the same way in your car, your drunk friend’s car, or a rental car on a dark and rainy night far from home.

There’s a lot to be said for universality. Murilee Martin, seeking parts for a Dodge project van:

It appears that Chrysler used the same headlight switch for damn near every motor vehicle they built from the time of the Bay Of Pigs to the time of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

To perform those same functions on my car requires two different twisty things on a stalk (I have fog lights, which are worth even less than you think they are) plus a push-button a meter away.

The only real problem with the headlight knob, apart from the fact that it was a knob and therefore in the eyes of regulators a threat to anyone with a forehead, is that it did not incorporate the so-called “dimmer switch,” which despite its name is used to switch on the high beams. (Go driving around an hour and a half before sunrise and you will quickly discover that no one has a clue as to how to switch them off.) Had they found some way to work that into the basic switch — but no, let’s not go there. Let’s be grateful that a couple of generations were able to learn as much as they were with the equipment they had.


  1. Brian J. »

    24 December 2010 · 7:26 am

    Complain about how things are not universal these days, and some with libertarian impulses will jump upon you and think you’re favoring government regulations dictating these things. But you could get the same effect from industry standards and without the tax-paid bureaucracy.

  2. CGHill »

    24 December 2010 · 7:33 am

    I’m pretty sure no one from the Federal Bureau of Dashboards descended on Detroit to order a single headlight design be used by all. Based on Martin’s Mopar comment, I figure that this design took hold largely because it performed all the functions deemed necessary and didn’t cost a bundle.

  3. Brett »

    24 December 2010 · 9:04 am

    Sometimes I find myself reaching out with my left foot to tap the dimmer switch that was on the driver’s side floor of my ’68 Impala. Unfortunately, only in my memory are dimmer switches in such a sensible spot.

  4. Jeffro »

    24 December 2010 · 9:04 am

    I replaced a bunch of those old headlight switches. Usually the rheostat spring would burn out, then no more dash or dome lights. Those things got hot! The park/headlight part would sometimes die. There was always a release tab somewhere so the knob and bayonet could be pulled out and reused in the new switch. The dimmer switches wore out fairly often as well.

    Since the headlight controls moved to the steering column joined with the turn signals and the dimmer switch was separated and kept in the dash, I’ve only replaced one – and it was easy. The steering column had a clamshell plastic cover when removed exposed the switch. Simple.

    Every class 8 truck I’ve driven has a turn signal/dimmer switch on the column – and it’s a big honking durable hunk with exposed attachments (some attach with a hose clamp, others with small bolts). The headlight and panel dimmer switches are on the dash – somewhere. That isn’t standardized even by brand of truck – different models have different dashes.

    I’m tickled if the manufacturer has bothered to illuminate the switches or labels.

  5. Tam »

    24 December 2010 · 10:11 am

    I find it interesting that the Zed Drei sports the classic chrome pull-knob to the left of the steering wheel.

    I am happy with the turn-signal stalk as a location for the dimmer switch (and flash-to-pass), though because my left foot is busy with the clutch, as it should be in all proper vehicles. ;)

  6. Charles Pergiel »

    24 December 2010 · 11:34 am

    Now you’ve done it, you’ve unleashed the hounds!

    Dimmer/schmimmer: I used to know what this means, but now I’m confused. There is the headlight dimmer switch, which used to be on the floor, and is now built into the turn signal stalk, and then there is the instrument panel dimmer switch, which used be built into the headlight control, but is now out wandering around lost on your dashboard somewhere.

    Near as I can tell fog lights only serve to make your car look cool. I have them on my truck and I like them, but only because if you don’t have them you have two gray plastic recesses in your bumper where they go, which looks dumb. I’ve tried using them on a few foggy occasions, but I never found them useful.

    I remember reading something in Road & Track once decrying the position of the American headlight dimmer switch on the floor: you had to move your foot to activate it. For a long time I thought this was dumb: what else is your left doing that you can’t tap the dimmer switch? But Tam drives a manual (and I dont’) and she prefers the stalk control, so I will defer to her judgement.

    I’m surprised Jeffro had so many switch failures. I think I only ran into one. Perhaps that was because my cars ended up in the scrap heap before the light switch failed?

  7. CGHill »

    24 December 2010 · 11:47 am

    I’ve never had a switch of this sort fail.

    Speaking of fail, the first batch of 2000 I30s, I am told (and the manual seems to bear this out), had two controls for instrument-panel brightness, the usual one for when the lights are on, and one for when the lights are off. (Since the gauges are backlit, there’s some sense to that.) This was eliminated later in the production run. I’m trying to decide whether I’d rather have the extra control or the side air bags, which were added late that year. Not that I can do anything about it at this point.

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