Cars with pop-up headlights may seem to be a distant memory from some long-ago era. Yet such was the effect that hidden headlamps left on most of us that these retro vehicles still hold a certain sort of appeal.
Though pop-up headlights died out in 2004 with the final production runs of the Lotus Esprit and C5 Chevrolet Corvette, their golden era was definitely the ’80s and early ’90s. The first pop-up headlights made their debut in 1936 on the Cord 810.
The original pop-up headlight was an intelligent design tweak that allowed designers to hide the large headlights of the time. Touted as both an aerodynamic improvement and a way to keep the cars of the day looking sleek, hidden headlamps didn’t take long to catch the general population’s attention. And when they did, there was no turning back.
The Most Iconic Cars With Pop-Up Headlights
Throughout 70 years of hidden headlamp production, around 200 cars were adorned with this unforgettable feature — these 20 vehicles are some of the most unforgettable. From obscure supercars to coveted sports cars, these are some of the most iconic cars with pop-up headlights to grace the roads.
Cord 810 (1936-1937)
It’s only right to start this list from the very beginning with the first car to implement pop-up headlights. Not only was the Cord 810 was the first car to feature hidden headlamps, but it was also the first American car with a front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout. Part of the Auburn Automobile group, the Cord brand and the 810 didn’t survive after 1937, but its legacy lives on in the hundreds of cars with pop-up headlamps that took inspiration from this early model.
Chevrolet Corvette (1963-2004)
The Chevrolet Corvette holds the distinction of being the longest-running model to feature pop-up headlights. For 40 years, Chevy sent out the C2, C3, C4, and C5 Corvettes decked out with variations of the hidden headlamp. And every single Vette looked good, thanks to the streamlined hood with its unassuming crease. In 2004, the C5 was the last run of Corvettes to boast pop-up headlights, marking the end of an era.
Aston Martin Lagonda (1976-1989)
Over their 12-year production run, only 645 Aston Martin Lagondas rolled off the assembly line, but that was enough for the Lagonda to become one of the most iconic British cars ever produced. Apart from being extremely expensive at the time, the Lagonda also came with hidden headlamps sitting on one very sharp nose. This wedge-shaped Aston Martin certainly has a look you won’t soon forget, with the hidden headlamps adding to the aesthetic.
BMW M1 (1978-1981)
The BMW M1 was only produced in 453 units, but again, that was enough to earn cult status. What started as a Lamborghini/BMW collaboration, the M1 ended up being BMW’s first foray into the supercar market. And luckily, BMW’s engineers kept some key design features from Lamborghini, including — you guessed it — hidden headlights.
Lancia Stratos (1972-1973)
Although the Lancia Stratos was produced for five years from 1972 to 1977, the three-time World Rally Championship winner only featured pop-up headlights for two of those years. Nevertheless, the Stratos may be one of the best-known cars ever to be fitted with the feature. When decked out in rally livery and outfitted with additional front lights, the Stratos made one mean-looking rally car.
Ferrari F40 (1987-1992)
During its time, the Ferrari F40 was the fastest and most expensive Ferrari to date. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it followed the latest fashion trend of its era — pop-up headlights. Sticking true to Ferarri fashion, the styling of the F40’s pop-up headlights has plenty of flair. And perhaps the added aerodynamic advantage helped the F40 achieve its record-breaking feat — clocking the first 200+ mph speed in a production road car in 1987 with a top speed of 201.4 mph.
Lamborghini Diablo (1990-1998)
No Ferrari story is complete without their arch-rival, Lamborghini. The Lamborghini Diablo still stands as one of the best-looking Lamborghinis ever offered with hidden headlights — and Lamborghini offered more than a few models with pop-up headlights, including other fan-favorites like the Countach. The high-performance, mid-engine Diablo wore pop-up headlights for nearly half its production life and wore them well.
Toyota Supra (1982-1992)
It wasn’t only the Italians who knew how to stick pop-up headlights on a car. In fact, this design feature wasn’t exclusively reserved for supercars alone. When the Japanese started added hidden headlamps to vehicles in the ’80s, the average person was given a chance to get his hands on such a car. The second and third-generation Toyota Supra was one of many affordable Japanese cars with pop-up headlights.
Mazda RX-7 (1978-2002)
Though you might think of the Mazda MX-5 Miata as the more obvious model with pop-up headlights, the RX-7 actually had hidden headlamps earlier than the MX-5 — almost 25 years earlier, to be precise. In fact, every single Mazda RX-7 ever produced came with pop-up headlights, making these hidden headlamps inseparable from this iconic sports car’s image.
Nissan 300ZX (1984-1989)
The first-generation Z31 of this sleek Nissan sports car might not have looked as good as the second-gen Z32, but at least it came with headlamps that popped out of the car’s hood. Though the 300ZX might have lacked some of the pizzaz of the Ferraris and Lambos and other cars with pop-up headlights of its time, this relatively affordable car still came in a sporty package with plenty of options that driving enthusiasts loved.
Porsche 928 (1978-1995)
Just like the Mazda RX-7, the Porsche 928 never knew life without pop-up headlights. Its round headlamps weren’t covered when retracted, giving the 928 a distinctive look both when the headlights were on or off. With its round headlamps and frog-eyed look, you can’t miss a 928 driving down the street.
Opel GT (1968-1973)
Opel’s two-seat sports car had two production stints, with the second one starting in 2007 and ending shortly after. But for hidden headlight enthusiasts, it’s the first-generation Opel GT that featured rotating pop-up headlights. Apart from the short-lived Opel Speedster, the GT was the German automaker’s only foray into the sports car market. Thankfully it came off the production line with these awesome headlights, which rotate dramatically at the pull of a manual lever.
Acura NSX (1990-2001)
The Acura NSX was one of the more affordable supercars of its time, and true to supercar form, it came with pop-up headlights. One of the most handsome cars ever to be adorned with this beloved feature, the first-generation NSX quickly became a fan favorite with drivers looking for a mid-engine car with exotic looks that could still be a (mostly) functional daily driver.
SAAB Sonett III (1970-1974)
SAAB’s only true sports car, the two-seat Sonett, went through two iterations before the release of the Sonnet III, the only version to feature pop-up headlights. Originally designed as a race car to compete against European roadsters, the third-generation Sonett kept true to its motorsports heritage while getting some distinct styling updates. Though the Sonett III didn’t sell well at the time of its original production, modern SAAB collectors and pop-up headlight car enthusiasts seem to agree; this is one model that SAAB got right.
Pontiac Firebird (1982-2002)
For two straight decades, the Pontiac Firebird came with hidden headlamps. That included the Trans Am and Formula models as well. Both third and fourth generations of the Firebird were mean and sleek — in great part thanks to their pop-up headlights. This design feature helped distinguish these Firebirds from previous year models and other cars with pop-up headlights.
Lotus Esprit (1976-2004)
Shoulder to shoulder with the Corvette C5, the Lotus Esprit was the last car to feature pop-up headlights, ending production in 2004. The Esprit was produced for almost 30 years, and all 10,675 models of the Esprit have pop-up headlights. Would this iconic car have been as cool without them? Probably not.
Plymouth Superbird (1970)
Fitted with either a 426 Hemi or 440 Super Commando engine, the Plymouth Superbirds were perhaps never coveted for their headlamps. It was their performance that mattered. Nevertheless, the hidden lights on their long and sharp noses helped make them what they are — a roaring beast of a vehicle that you can’t miss in a line-up of cars with pop-up headlights.
Vector W8 (1989-1993)
The Vector W8 is still considered one of the most obscure supercars. Its performance wasn’t to blame, and neither were its looks. In the tough-to-compete-in supercar market of the early ’90s, the company made some wrong decisions, and the W8 never had a chance to come into its own. A rare beauty, this supercar has near flawless looks thanks to its hidden headlights.
Maserati Ghibli (1966-1973)
The Maserati Ghibli is currently enjoying its third production cycle, but if you want pop-up headlights, you’ll have to seek out one of the first generation Ghiblis. Back in the day, the Ghibli was one of the most advanced cars in terms of its design, and its pop-up headlamps added to the wow factor.
Cizeta-Moroder V16T (1991-1995)
Although the official production of the Cizeta ended up in 1995, pop-up headlights were still a part of a few additional models produced up until 2003. The Cizeta-Moroder V16T is one of the most obscure supercars ever produced but having no less than four popping headlamps; we wonder why. The stacked pop-up headlights on this car are truly one-of-a-kind.
A Case For Nostalgia: Pop-up Headlight Cars Are Cool
Though there certainly are other cars with pop-up headlights, such as the legendary Ferrari Testarossa, some Toyota Celica models, and numerous Alfa Romeo classics, the ones we’ve listed above are the production car models that we think have the best pop-up headlights in the business. If you’re lucky enough to get behind the wheel of one of these headlight popping icons, don’t think twice about turning those lights on and off — a few times.