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Great Ferrari Innovations: Headlights

Headlights are one of the most important elements of a car, vital in terms of driving but also key when it comes to aesthetics
Words: Jason Barlow
Film: Oliver McIntyre

Car designers enjoy anthropomorphising their work. Tigers, cheetahs, sharks, and even Olympic sprinters crouched in the starting blocks are all regularly cited as inspirations when it comes to the automotive form language. It seems we need these visual touchstones to make sense of what we’re looking at.

Which makes the notion of a car’s ‘face’ rather interesting – especially the role played by the headlights. Are these equivalents to eyes? They’re certainly something we tend to take for granted, but we’d clearly be lost without them, irrespective of the role they play in shaping our emotional response.

In the 1950s, Ferrari headlights tended to be simple, functional, yet stylish

Ferrari has made a significant contribution here, in terms of technology and also in the design morphology. It’s a subject that is constantly being debated and reviewed. As Chief Design Officer Flavio Manzoni explains:

‘Heritage is a formal language that defines the identity of a brand like Ferrari. There’s a kind of meta language and certain features that characterise a Ferrari. It’s about using a vocabulary and making it modern. In my opinion, the greatest masterpieces are disruptive. My intention isn’t to kill tradition, but to disrupt it. The past is a universal force representing Ferrari, but never forget the importance of modernity and an original approach.’

Take the Daytona SP3, example. Although it takes its cues from the late Sixties 330 P3/4 – one of Manzoni’s back catalogue favourites – it’s thrillingly modern in design and execution. There are many high points here, but in particular the retracting panels on the headlights, which slide back to reveal the car’s LEDs – past, present and future united in one theatrical flourish.

Watch the way Ferrari headlights have evolved in style and function over the course of 75 years

Early Ferraris used sealed beam headlights, which arrived in 1939 and used a parabolic reflector, a tungsten filament and a lens sealed together. Halogen lamps were first used in 1962 and used a gas to react with the tungsten for much more potent illumination. Then came high-intensity discharge lamps (HIDs), which use a combination of gas and metals to produce a blue-white light when the filament is hot. Or alternatively xenon, a gas which is charged with a high voltage via electrodes. 

Today’s Ferraris rely on LEDs – light-emitting diodes – which use semi-conductors to transmit energy-emitting photons to create light. LEDs have a lifespan of approximately 45,000 hours versus the HID’s 15,000 hours. They can also provide light in a range of colours, another element on the designer’s palette of possibilities. 

The Ferrari Testarossa may well lay claim to being the most famous car with 'pop-up' headlights

Innovation and design go hand-in-hand, if we track Ferrari’s journey in light through the years. The 166 MM Barchetta, designed by Touring of Milan, is expressive, elegant and almost innocent looking. Just four years later came the 375 MM, in particular the car bodied by Scaglietti for the celebrated Italian new wave film director, Roberto Rossellini; its covered lights and the auxiliary ones inset on the grille are powerfully effective. 

As was the car he ordered for his wife, actress Ingrid Bergman, whose lights are secreted in the top of the front fenders, in a style that was so far ahead of the curve that 2003’s 612 Scaglietti was able to homage it whilst looking entirely contemporary. 

A few years later came the 250 GT California Spyder, another Ferrari created with the intention of wooing a growing and powerful US client base. Covered or uncovered: owners could choose, although the extreme rarity of the short wheelbase version – just 16 open headlight cars were made – tends to sway opinion.

The F12berlinetta made us of the new LED light technology to provide better vision and eye-catching design

Similarly significant among Ferrari collectors are the early European-spec 365 GTB/4 Daytonas, which featured a plexi-glass cover over the headlights. 

American legislation deemed they had to be replaced by pop-up headlights and this configuration survived right up to the end of the Nineties, when the 360 Modena replaced the retractable-lighted F355. 

The advent of LEDs has had a dramatic impact on the form of the contemporary Ferrari’s face. Take the F12berlinetta, on which eight square LED modules, each with its own lens housing, sit alongside L-shaped polycarbonate units, with an individual projector lens beneath. 

It’s a complex arrangement that’s crucial to the impact of the car’s overall design and impact. And in the decade since the F12’s arrival, Centro Stile has taken the possibilities of LED technology and morphed it across a number of limited-run Ferrari specials in parallel with the principal model lines to create a look that is highly progressive and pure Ferrari.