Site icon Christina Engela: Author

Easy DIY #35: Fit LED Headlight Bulbs To An Older Car

There are many reasons why LED lights are better in a car than the older bulbs, starting with their much lower need for power. For example, if you forget your car’s lights on, it’s unlikely to run your battery down as quickly. Heat generation is another – I’ve had to replace more than a few interior light covers made brittle and cracked and even broken by extended exposure to heat from incandescent bulbs over their lifetimes! They’re also tougher and last longer. They also come in different colors, if you’re that way inclined. LED bulbs – if you’ll forgive the pun – are just cooler.

I have a fairly old car, a 1962 VW Beetle, and it’s what some people call “old school” – in fact, most of its equipment is still original factory machinery! You might want to upgrade the old bulbs on your old car to something shiny, brighter and new, and you may be wondering how. Let me tell you what I did.

The only upgrades I performed on this car when I inherited it from its original owner in 2015, was to change the 6 volt electrics to 12 volt so that I didn’t have to push-start it every morning or spend nearly R3000 on a new 6 volt battery! All this entailed was to swap the 6 volt generator with a 12 alternator, and of course, all the light bulbs.

Recently I decided to upgrade the standard, dim incandescent light bulbs to LED replacements. For the most part, this went perfectly fine and without a hitch. I started in the interior of the car – and almost immediately ran into a wall – aside from finding a replacement LED light for the roof light fitting easily enough, I was unable to locate a single LED light replacement for the instrument bulbs! In the meantime, satisfied with the brighter, cooler interior light, I decided to replace what I could with what I could find – and work on the trouble-children later.

The standard indicator, brake/night light bulbs are easily replaced with a wide variety of LED equivalents that you can buy for not much at virtually every car accessory store in PE – and then some!

I even found LED park-light bulbs – but, when it came to the headlights bulbs, that’s where I seemed to hit a wall!

First, the standard three-pin fitting (labeled H4 by the peeps who looked at me like I was from Mars when I asked for a set of LED headlight bulbs with the “regular, ordinary 3 pin plug fitting”) is apparently easily available – when it’s in stock!

As with everything nowadays, LED headlight bulbs are available in a diverse variety – you get the ones that look almost exactly like the original incandescent items, being the same size – and then you get the ones that have fancy heatsinks complete with miniature cooling fans built into the back, with the connector on the end of a short cable behind!

In fact, as it turned out, I had to do a little digging to find some. For example, when I asked around, one car accessory shop (the one everybody seems to think of first and is named after a king with the golden touch) was completely sold out – across town – and didn’t know when they would restock.

Another place I tried had some high-end bulbs for sale – to the tune of nearly R2000 for a pair! “Well, we do cater for people who enter car-shows, y’know.” The guy apologized when he saw me turn pale and lean on his counter for support.

I guess he felt a little sorry for me, because he was nice enough to invite me into his workshop, where he demonstrated the awesome power of the expensive bulb on his test bench!

“Look,” I said, blinking furiously while still seeing spots, “all I want is a pair of nice bright headlight bulbs with the right fitting – LED ones – not something that could be weaponized or fry eggs from across my garage!”

“Ah.” He smiled, and then referred me to a small shoppie on the Bridge that sells everything from snow-globes and mp3 players to train-sets and crossbows. “Try them, they have some Chinese-made ones there for R150 a set. Of course, they’re not as good as these.”

Of course not, Bob, of course not. But I could live with R150 a lot easier than I could with R2000 – even if the fancy ones could probably set the car in front of Dolly on fire.

So that’s what I got – a set of very nice looking LED headlight bulbs for R150 in a neat, stylish box – with the H4 fitting at the back, even though it was attached to a cable on the back of the bulb. They had little heatsinks topped with cute miniature cooling fans too! I went home, feeling very pleased with myself!

That afternoon, I set about taking the bug’s headlight units out in preparation to fit my new acquisitions. Dolly is a 1962 model, so she has the more stylish sloping oval-shaped headlights, and a slightly different bulb-mounting fitting than most later models post 1967. As it turned out, taking the old bulbs out was the easy part. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

The brand new LED bulbs were very shiny and pretty and high-tech looking – but there were a few problems. They didn’t have the right collar plate that seated the bulbs into the reflector opening firstly, and secondly, the heatsink and fan built onto the back was too big to fit through the bulb-mounting ring!

The bulb’s H4 plug worked just fine alright – I plugged it in and tested the lights – they were nice and bright and switched between dipped and beam as they were supposed to… but how the Edgar Allan Poe was I supposed to get them to fit the headlights?

Horrifying visions of duct tape and nightmares involving bits of wire and cable ties filled my head! No, I don’t work like that, I chided myself… Definitely not! Or, wait a minute, or I could just put the old bulbs back and return my hard-won wares to the shop in the hope of a refund? Er… no. I didn’t want to do that either. There had to be a way, I thought.

I took the whole lot inside with me and sat on the couch beside my love to have some coffee while I mulled over the dilemma. How the hell was I going to make this lot work? About half an hour later, after holding this part against that and postulating ‘what-ifs’ and ‘maybe I coulds’, I had an idea or two, and took the first headlight and bulbs new and old with me to the workshop.

The problem was the cable – it came out via the side of the rear of the heatsink unit, as opposed to directly out of the back – where there was a small fan intake to aid in cooling the heatsink. This prevented the ring housing from passing over the top of the bulb.

I overcame these issues by addressing one at a time. I removed the collars from the LED units easily – they slipped off without any fuss. Next I took the correct collars off a pair of old headlight bulbs – you can see how I did it in the photos, using a screwdriver handle and light hammer – and cleared the center holes so that they would allow the LED part of the new bulbs pass through as far as they could without being actually fitted to the bulb.

Why not dispense with the collar entirely? Well, because the mounting ring contains a spring with presses against the back of this collar in order to hold the unit to the reflector housing. Without that, the whole lot would be loose and might need something like duct tape to hold in place – and I didn’t want that!

With that out of the way, I looked at ways to make the mounting ring fit over the heatsink – which was about the same girth as the hole in the center. Trouble was, it wouldn’t pass over it from the rear due to the position of the cable, and for a moment I considered cutting a gap through the ring to allow it to do so, but decided against it. I didn’t want to make any irreversible changes to the originality of the car. Headlights like that are either very rare or very expensive to replace y’know!

Instead, I simply adjusted the edges of the hole in the ring with pliers and did the reverse – inserted the bulb unit into the hole from the back, and adjusted the edges of the hole so that it had a fairly firm grip and wouldn’t just fall out again.

With a bit of tweaking and refitting and more tweaking, I got the first headlight together, and then did the same thing on the second. Both went into the bug without a hitch, despite a reduced gap behind the headlights in the headlight buckets. I wondered how that would affect the new-fangled cooling fans in the back of the headlights… but in the time since I fitted them, several weeks ago now, I haven’t noticed any problems. The best thing about doing it this way, is that it makes no permanent changes to your older classic car – if like me, that sort of thing worries you! If the fancy took me, I could whip out the new LED bulbs and replace them with stock units without a problem.

Incidentally, you might want to remove these little things from your headlights (if they still have them) – they basically serve no purpose other than to make your headlights even dimmer!

Dolly now has nice bright LED headlights, and I feel a lot safer in driving on overcast or rainy days when other road users drive like they’re the only cars on the road! Driving at night is now also much less stressful an experience!

Dolly’s feeling all bright-eyed and bushy tailed – see you later, we’re going for a drive!

Pictures included – enjoy!

Have a DIY day!


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All material copyright © Christina Engela, 2020.

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