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We’ve all seen you, blinding us at night. People (like myself) who are dissatisfied with lackluster OEM headlights, wanting a decent upgrade in output and brightness. Upgrading bulbs is a good place to start, high-quality halogens and proper aiming can go a long way. But many people are enticed by the extreme brightness and modern look of plug-and-play LED replacements that slot in where halogen bulbs are meant to go. Don’t do this – if your headlight housing was not made for them, they will not work, no matter what the box says.

My own journey with upgrading bad factory lighting is about as typical as they come. I was 15, driving my parent’s old 2000 Toyota 4Runner, and thought I knew what I was doing. The factory reflector halogen headlights were dim, and an ugly yellow. I did what any self-respecting high school student does, and ordered an eBay-spec 35-watt HID (High Intensity Discharge, aka xenon) H4 headlight kit. This was 2014, and much before LED tech was cheap or good enough for car stuff.

HIDs were fathoms-deep impressive to me. Suddenly, the entire world in front of me was flooded with ice-blue light. The light was piercing, and went everywhere. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize at the time that “everywhere” is not exactly optimal in this context. But even if 15-year old me knew how to aim headlights, it wouldn’t have solved anything. I lived in ignorance of things like “headlight leveling” so I sent the car down the road.

Naturally, many many people flashed their high beams at me. Like, every single car. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to rectify my mistakes and save some retinas. That 4Runner got wrecked just a few days after that (not by me).

You see, the reason the HIDs in the stock reflector housings didn’t work is the same reason LEDs don’t work. Most factory cars with reflector-style headlight housings were never designed to focus the light of HIDs and LEDs. The quality, size, location, and strength of the light source changes drastically when you swap to HIDs and LEDs, and this changes the focus of the headlights themselves.

Essentially, the projection of your headlight beam is dictated by the reflectors in the housing, not directly from the bulb. Light comes from a certain point in the bulb, gets bounced off the reflectors thusly, and onto the road. Aftermarket “bulbs” and retrofits emit light at a position and intensity that’s incompatible with these reflector designs so they bounce around arbitrarily. They might look bright, but they don’t work right.

reflector headlight and projector headlight comparison
A comparison of two types of headlights. – Image: Chris Rosales

Next time you walk to your car, take a glance inside the headlight, and you’ll see one of two things: a projector (looks like a glass orb) or reflectors (looks like a stadium of mirrors). Both styles can be designed to work with halogens, LEDs, or HIDs. Up until about 2016, LED projector and reflector style headlights weren’t ubiquitous standard equipment. Now, it feels like every new car for sale has some sort of LED lighting, with a lot of Japanese manufacturers opting to use the Koito Bi-LED, and Bosch and Hella supplying much of its lighting to the Europeans.

For a long time, LED headlights weren’t even viable or effective but the technology has come a long way. For most older cars, starting in the late-’90s, there were options for HID headlights. Most came as projectors, like in BMWs, Benzes, and Porsches, though Lexus opted to use an HID reflector in the original IS300, the 98-00 LS400, and other models until the next generation of Lexii standardized HID projectors for the whole range.

OK, enough of the history lesson. The point here is: you can only really use LED and HID lights effectively in housings designed for them. Otherwise, you’ll spread light everywhere (except for down the road), and blind everybody. Sure, you think you can see more, but it’s a placebo from brightness. More light doesn’t mean more vision. There are a few exceptions, like the rare occasion that a reflector headlight is designed for halogen and LED, like the ‘98-’00 LS400. To be completely clear, there are no reflector headlights that support LEDs in the way you’re supposed to. Not even decent products like the Morimoto 2-Stroke LED bulbs, or the eBay garbage that’s floating around. I could forgive you for the right HIDs, but seriously stop it with LEDs.

Stop Putting LED Bulbs In Your Headlights
The output from a proper projector. – Image: Chris Rosales

Basically, the only way to upgrade your headlights while being considerate to your fellow motorist: a correctly installed projector retrofit. It’s a little expensive, but the benefits are endless, and you get insane output, all the while not blinding everybody. It’s like anything else with modifying cars: don’t skimp out.

Wanna learn how retrofit projectors? Well, Car Bibles reader, you’re in luck. That is coming soon.

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