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Lighting the way

Headlamps don’t just guide drivers in the dark, they give cars their ‘personality’, too. We shed light on the history of illumination at the Prancing Horse
Words: Chris Rees

OK, so Ferrari Formula One cars don’t need headlights. But if you’re driving a road-going sports car, it’s kind of vital that you can see the road ahead clearly, day or night, whatever the weather. And as with every area of technology, Ferrari has always invested the maximum effort in design, research and development in order – literally – to illuminate the way ahead. 

From the very first Ferrari, the 125 S of 1947, onward, Maranello’s engineers and designers have never ceased to innovate. As early as 1953, sporting Ferrari models like the 500 Mondial and 340 MM were using covered lights for reasons of aerodynamics and protection. Many road-going Prancing Horses followed suit, including the 250 GT California with its smoothly styled, shrouded lights and then, famously, the 365 GTB4 ‘Daytona’ with its Plexiglas front panel. (The ‘Daytona’ – equally famously – switched to retractable ‘pop-up’ headlights in 1971 due to changes in US regulations.)

The headlights on Ferraris were a priority as far back as the 125 S in 1947, with engineers striving to make lights as efficient and stylish as possible

The idea for concealed lights had been trailblazed in a Ferrari as far back as 1954, when Maranello built a unique 375 MM for the iconic Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman. Pop-up lights subsequently appeared on many Ferrari models, from the 512 S Pininfarina Speciale show car of 1969 all the way to the 512 TR, which left production in 1994; its replacement, the 512 M, switched to fixed lights. Today’s Ferrari Daytona SP3, whose headlights are partially hidden by moveable ‘eyelids’, offers a knowing nod to that classic era of charismatic pop-ups.

A novelty which very much gained traction in the 1960s was the idea of four front lights instead of two. The first Ferrari with ‘quad’ lights was the splendid 330 GT 2+2 of 1964. Even though this model soon reverted to single headlights, many other Ferrari models subsequently featured quad front lights, including the 365 GTC4 and 365 GT4 BB.

The 1966 P3 had 'quad' lights, with two sets of bulbs, one stacked on top of the other - several subsequent Ferrari models followed this layout

One striking variation on this theme was the 330 P3 of 1966, whose quad lights were stacked vertically in spectacular fashion. In the 21st century, vertically stacked front lights re- appeared as a signature feature on such models as the 458 Italia (2009), FF (2011), and 2013’s LaFerrari.

Many Ferrari innovations begin on the racetrack. And so it was in 1962, when iodine vapour ‘halogen’ headlights were first tested on the sinuous Ferrari 330 TR of Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill. Since then, beam technology has taken many leaps forward. High-intensity xenon bulbs were adopted by the Ferrari 575M Maranello of 2002, whilst light-emitting diodes (LED) arrived with the 599 GTB Fiorano of 2006. 

The 512 TR, which ceased production in 1994, was the final model made in Maranello to feature the much-loved 'pop-up' headlights

New-generation adaptive headlights became available on the California of 2008, enabling beam angles to be automatically adjusted in line with the steering angle and the car’s speed and lateral acceleration, offering wider illumination when cornering. 

LED technology then moved the game on yet further with the 2012 F12berlinetta. The SF90 Stradale’s striking, horizontally arrayed headlights saw the first Ferrari use of matrix LED headlights. This cutting-edge technology can detect other vehicles within the car’s light range, then automatically turns off the area of the light beam that might otherwise dazzle their drivers. This system works even with reflective road signs.

LED (Light emitting diode) headlights arrived on the Ferrari line-up with the 599 GTB Fiorano in 2006

Ingeniously, Maranello engineers realised that headlight design can be adapted to assist other areas. For instance, designers of the F8 Tributo wanted the smallest possible headlamps, so they adopted new LED technology to gain space above the lights for air intakes to cool the brakes.

This has reached new levels of sophistication with today’s Purosangue: what look like headlamps are in fact twin air intakes surrounding daytime running lights; the headlamps themselves are ‘hidden’ in the lower grille.