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Clear Vision: H4 Headlamp Conversion

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Whether you drive a classic truck, muscle-era Chevelle, or a Chevy Citation, good quality headlamps are a must. Most of us have new daily drivers, these cars often have HID (High-Intensity Discharge) and use far better technology to light your path, making your evening drive safer. The classics we enjoy owning and driving, on the other hand, use outdated, less efficient lighting, otherwise known as sealed beam lamps.

Traditional sealed beam headlamps, with heavy glass housings and sealed elements inside the lamp, have long been the staple (required in the US until 1983) of practically every car made from the 1940’s through the late 1980s. When the composite halogen headlamp began showing up in American-built autos in the mid-1980s, the results were a simple and cheap replacement, only requiring the bulb to be removed and replaced, not the entire assembly. As time moved on, the technology of the bulbs increased as well, in 1996, the first HID or High-Intensity Discharge bulbs were introduced. These brighter bulbs illuminate the road much further and wider than standard halogen bulbs, and are far better than sealed-beam headlights.

While Halogen is the main gas used in OE and replacement bulbs, for most cars, there are some more exotic gasses available. Xenon, for instance, burns brighter, giving off a “white” light versus the classic pale yellow light from halogen. Also known as HID-style, these bulbs cost a little more, but are superior to Halogen in terms of visibility. Krypton is another gas that is commonly found in bulbs. The main benefit of Halogen is that it can actually bond with burnt filament molecules inside the bulb and redeposit them onto the filament, which adds life to the bulb. Most Xenon and Krypton bulbs use Halogen, as well as the base gas, for longevity. Xenon\Krypton bulbs have a lifespan of 5-10 years.

Transferring this technology to older cars is really quite simple, as long as you take the time to make the conversion properly. Pilot Automotive manufactures H4 conversions for sealed beam headlamps. These plastic housings are lighter, more durable, and come in various shapes and sizes to fit most older vehicles, the most common being the round 5 1\2” version, though we needed 7” units for our ’67 C10 truck. These housings are a direct replacement for the sealed beam housings. This opens the options for bulbs, which can be standard H4 halogen bulbs, and are a little brighter than the sealed beam lamps which can be run using the stock wiring.

Unless you are going to use standard H4 halogen bulbs, you will need to supply extra amperage to the bulbs. This is a crucial step for using Xenon\Krypton or anything other than STOCK replacement style Halogen bulbs, but it is highly suggested that you update the wiring regardless of the style of bulb you use. While you could sort out the relays, plugs and build your own harness, Painless Performance has already done the hard work for you. Their H4 conversion harness plugs into the stock plug (GM square style, our truck had the round plugs), 2 wires run to the battery and it has 2 plugs for the headlights. The kit uses 2 relays and larger gauge wire to safely supply the bulbs with the higher amperage they require. If you plugged in a high-output bulb, the stock wires will literally melt and can burn down the entire car (it happens quite often). Replacing the stock wiring with this harness will increase the brightness of the stock-style lamps as well.

We replaced the stock sealed beam head lamps with Pilot H4 conversion, Pilot Hyper-White Xenon HID-style bulbs and the Painless wiring kit in our 1971 Buick GS convertible. While not a true HID system, which requires a ballast to supply the higher voltages (and costs a hefty sum), HID-style bulbs offer the look and near the performance in a simple system. The results were pretty impressive, the lights are brighter and shine with an intense white light that really illuminates the road. We also opted for the “Angel Eyes” housings, which is a lit ring around the lamp, similar to modern European cars. While not for everybody, angel eyes add a unique look and in our case, really add a trick feature for the truck as we wired the angel eyes to the turn signals. The housings we used cost anywhere from $50 on the internet to as much as $95 in our local parts store, the bulbs are similar, with the internet price of about $40 bucks, to about $60 in stores.

1.The conversion is really simple, and for most cars this is all you need. We had to make a few alterations for our install; we have all the details for you.

1. The conversion is really simple, and for most cars this is all you need. We had to make a few alterations for our install; we have all the details for you.

2.The first step is unplugging the stock lamps. With the stock lamps, you have to pull the entire assembly to replace the lamp, this conversion will make replacement much easier.

2. The first step is unplugging the stock lamps. With the stock lamps, you have to pull the entire assembly to replace the lamp, this conversion will make replacement much easier.

3.The trim rings were removed. Now is a great time to give them a quick polishing.

3. The trim rings were removed. Now is a great time to give them a quick polishing.

4.Using a small screwdriver, the headlamps adjusters were loosened. You can remove the entire headlamp bucket or just the trim ring and the lamp. Initially, we only pulled the lamp, but the bucket had to be modified, so we ended up pulling it all.

4. Using a small screwdriver, the headlamps adjusters were loosened. You can remove the entire headlamp bucket or just the trim ring and the lamp. Initially, we only pulled the lamp, but the bucket had to be modified, so we ended up pulling it all.

5.The housings we chose had the accent rings, or angel eyes. The angel eyes are lit by two bulbs that fit into the small openings on either side of the large bulb mount.

5. The housings we chose had the accent rings, or angel eyes. The angel eyes are lit by two bulbs that fit into the small openings on either side of the large bulb mount.

6.The stock lamp has a tight fit between the retainer ring and the bucket as shown here.

6. The stock lamp has a tight fit between the retainer ring and the bucket as shown here.

7.This is where we ran into a snag. Since we opted for the accent ring housings, it didn’t all fit together in stock form. Non-accent housings would have fit no problem. There is a good 1\2-inch gap. This won’t work.

7. This is where we ran into a snag. Since we opted for the accent ring housings, it didn’t all fit together in stock form. Non-accent housings would have fit no problem. There is a good 1\2-inch gap. This won’t work.

8.We placed the new housing into the bucket, lined up the locking tabs, and marked the area around the accent bulb mounts with a silver pencil.

8. We placed the new housing into the bucket, lined up the locking tabs, and marked the area around the accent bulb mounts with a silver pencil.

9.Then we cut the bucket with an air-powered nibbler. You can do this with a cut-off wheel, a hack-saw, or tin-snips, the metal is thin and cuts easily.

9. Then we cut the bucket with an air-powered nibbler. You can do this with a cut-off wheel, a hack-saw, or tin-snips, the metal is thin and cuts easily.

10.We also modified the locking tabs. The new housings are universal, which means they don’t always fit everything. We trimmed the tab to fit flush in the bucket. We used a die-grinder for this part.

10. We also modified the locking tabs. The new housings are universal, which means they don’t always fit everything. We trimmed the tab to fit flush in the bucket. We used a die-grinder for this part.

11.Those mods allowed the housing to sit down into the bucket and the retainer ring sat flush to the bucket.

11. Those mods allowed the housing to sit down into the bucket and the retainer ring sat flush to the bucket.

12.The bulbs are fragile. If you have never replaced this type of bulb, you need to know that touching the glass will cause the bulb to burn up quickly. The oils from your fingertips will heat up the glass, and poof, no more light.

12. The bulbs are fragile. If you have never replaced this type of bulb, you need to know that touching the glass will cause the bulb to burn up quickly. The oils from your fingertips will heat up the glass, and poof, no more light.

13.The accent ring lights are normally white, but can be colored using gel caps. The kit comes with red, green, and blue caps, you can buy other colors online, just make sure you get the right size. We are using our accent rings for the turn signals, so the choice was red, plus the truck is red.

13. The accent ring lights are normally white, but can be colored using gel caps. The kit comes with red, green, and blue caps, you can buy other colors online, just make sure you get the right size. We are using our accent rings for the turn signals, so the choice was red, plus the truck is red.

14.The lamp bulb was installed along with the accent bulbs. Doing this on the bench is super easy.

14. The lamp bulb was installed along with the accent bulbs. Doing this on the bench is super easy.

15.We installed the lamp assembly into the truck. Don’t forget to hook the spring around the retainer ring.

15. We installed the lamp assembly into the truck. Don’t forget to hook the spring around the retainer ring.

16.Then popped the bucket back onto the adjuster screws and adjusted the light. You will need to fire up the lights and align the lights for the best view.

16. Then popped the bucket back onto the adjuster screws and adjusted the light. You will need to fire up the lights and align the lights for the best view.

17.The wiring is really simple using the Painless Performance kit. It consists of pre-terminated wires and plugs. It is a plug and play operation for most cars and trucks.

17. The wiring is really simple using the Painless Performance kit. It consists of pre-terminated wires and plugs. It is a plug and play operation for most cars and trucks.

18.Our truck had the wrong style plug. The pins are the same, but the round plug just doesn’t fit the square plug the harness uses. The harness only uses one of the headlamp plugs, it just needs the signal to trigger the relays.

18. Our truck had the wrong style plug. The pins are the same, but the round plug just doesn’t fit the square plug the harness uses. The harness only uses one of the headlamp plugs, it just needs the signal to trigger the relays.

19.Easy fix, we just cut the plugs off and matched the colors. The kit uses GM headlamp wiring color codes, so no problem.

19. Easy fix, we just cut the plugs off and matched the colors. The kit uses GM headlamp wiring color codes, so no problem.

20.Then the other side of the harness plugs onto the bulbs. It can’t get much simpler. If you have 4 headlamps, you will need to make a splitter to turn one plug into two.

20. Then the other side of the harness plugs onto the bulbs. It can’t get much simpler. If you have 4 headlamps, you will need to make a splitter to turn one plug into two.

21.We unbolted the radiator cover and ran the wire to the other lamp through the stock wire chase. You could just zip-tie it off, but this is cleaner.

21. We unbolted the radiator cover and ran the wire to the other lamp through the stock wire chase. You could just zip-tie it off, but this is cleaner.

22.The relays were mounted to the inner side of the passenger fender. We kept everything close to the battery for simplicity.

22. The relays were mounted to the inner side of the passenger fender. We kept everything close to the battery for simplicity.

23.The last part of the wiring was the battery connection. We trimmed off the extra wire and wrapped each on in Painless’ Power Braid, which is a woven nylon wire loom. There is a wire for both positive and negative terminals. These wires will now provide more current flow to the headlamps, yielding a brighter, stronger light.

23. The last part of the wiring was the battery connection. We trimmed off the extra wire and wrapped each on in Painless’ Power Braid, which is a woven nylon wire loom. There is a wire for both positive and negative terminals. These wires will now provide more current flow to the headlamps, yielding a brighter, stronger light.

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25.The new lamps are so much brighter and look very clean. Getting this to come through in a photo is not easy; these pictures don’t do the result justice. You can see much further with the new bulbs. And it is really clean looking, like a new car.

25. The new lamps are so much brighter and look very clean. Getting this to come through in a photo is not easy; these pictures don’t do the result justice. You can see much further with the new bulbs. And it is really clean looking, like a new car.

26.The accent rings add a cool effect, especially when used as turn signals like we did.

26. The accent rings add a cool effect, especially when used as turn signals like we did.

 

 

Sources:

Pilot Automotive

http://www.pilotautomotive.com/index2.html

 

 

About Jefferson Bryant (201 Articles)
A life-long gearhead, Street Tech Magazine founder and editor Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 5 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced. You can follow Jefferson on Facebook (Jefferson Bryant), Twitter (71Buickfreak), and YouTube (RedDirtRodz).

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