For decades, car headlights were round. As was the case with coaches, headlights were mounted in free-standing form, but next to large radiator grilles. When high-volume production was introduced, cars became more compact and lights were then integrated into the body. Shape, size and arrangement of headlights thus started to define the brand look.
In the case of the Volkswagen Beetle, round headlights gave it friendly-looking 'eyes'. The Beetle fronts then changed from the 'recumbent' headlights to the 'upright'. New models with new faces came along too: the 411 with oval main headlights, the K 70 with wideband lights, the Passat and Golf, yet the styling spectrum remained limited until new materials and processing techniques revolutionised lighting design. The clear-glass headlight with plastic free-form reflector that first defined a standard production Volkswagen (Golf Mk4) in 1997 can be credited to the headlamp team newly founded by Volkswagen Design in 1995. And thanks to CAD data, it has since been possible to adopt a fully integrated approach in design. This was new terrain for Volkswagen designers, and Xenon and LED now light up the path to tomorrow's technology and design.
Sandra Sturmat, Urs Rahmel and Michael Werner from Volkswagen Design sheds some light on ... well, light design.
Beetle: The beginnings
"In the beginning, light was simply just functional," Urs Rahmel.
Big, round eyes - the headlights of the early Volkswagen Type 1 had a decisive effect on its appearance. While the headlights in the Prototype V3 were still mounted externally, in the Beetle they were already integrated into the front of the vehicle. Due to the 6-volt electrical system, the light output from the Beetle would be considered as modest today, but it complied with the contemporary standards and achieved the statutory light values. From 1960, the Beetle featured modified headlights for asymmetric dipped beam. Light was functional, round with diffusing lens, two-dimensional.
Beetle: 12-volt electrical system (1967)
"The familiar Beetle face, only fresher. Development is also evolution," Michael Werner.
In 1967, the upgrade of the electrical system to 12 volts proved to be a real bright spot for the industry. The position of the headlights on the Beetle changed, too: they now had an 'upright' design resulting in a more modern appearance. Additionally, 1969 marked the introduction of the halogen light at Volkswagen, and in 1971, the more powerful H4 headlights were installed in the Beetle. The successful Beetle now had halogen lighting for dipped and main beam, which doubled the range of visibility.
Golf Mk4: Clear glass headlights (1997)
"As if the car had opened its eyes," Sandra Sturmat.
A quantum leap: from 1997, the Golf Mk4 appeared as an innovation platform. "We set new standards with this headlamp - with the styling of the interior! The new technology (plastic free-form reflector) now enabled us to reinterpret and redefine the car's eyes," says Michael Werner, summing up the major technical development. The diffusing lens had served its time, the free-form reflector significantly increased the usable light intensity. From then on, the new headlights shaped the brand design and gave the vehicle front its own expression, while maintaining the typical Volkswagen design. The combination of xenon light and clear-glass headlights was also available.
Phaeton: First headlight with LED daytime running lights (2007)
"LED points to the future," Urs Rahmel.
LED lamps require only roughly one quarter of the energy of H4 lamps. And in future they are expected to need only half of the energy that xenon bulbs currently consume. Apart from that, they are durable and have a colour temperature close to that of daylight. The first Volkswagen with LED daytime running lights in the headlights and a full-LED 3D rear light was the Phaeton in 2007. "With LED, technology and design are pointing towards the future," says Urs Rahmel. So, the Arteon is the first Volkswagen vehicle to offer a dynamic cornering light with new predictive control functionality. The LED dual headlights illuminate the approaching bend up to two seconds before the vehicle even steers into it.
Arteon (2017): the LED projection system that comes as standard offers a significantly improved light performance. The LED dipped and full-beam lights have a daylight-white colour temperature and make driving more relaxed, less tiring and safer.
LED is the new xenon. High-performance LED headlights have replaced the xenon systems in more model series, from the Arteon to the Polo.
Left: Polo (2017): fitted with LED daytime running lights with a coming-/leaving-home function as standard.
The light of the future – a bright outlook
"Hardly any element is as emotive as light," Sandra Sturmat.
It's not only the exterior design and the type of drive that point to the future. Light is an elemental aspect of the future Volkswagen vehicle family, and the future lies in lighting scenarios. "The Volkswagen show cars are very visionary and offer a glimpse into the future. A lot is still up in the air, but modern lighting technologies offer designers undreamt-of scope for creativity - and it is an incredible amount of fun to express this creatively!" says Urs Rahmel.
Designers and technicians today are capable of creating their very own light signature, which allows for recognition value, and personalisation. The character of the light will change, light will take on completely new assignments. "Light is very dynamic. While design used to deal exclusively in shapes, in future we will be able to include a fourth dimension - time. Time sequences will play a role in creating light scenarios," explains Sandra Sturmat enthusiastically. Light will serve the purposes of communication and interaction while bringing the car individually to life.
Left: Volkswagen concept vehicles: new creative scope thanks to modern lighting technologies. And visions are becoming more tangible - light is becoming more communicative, more customised and more intelligent.