Woodlites: When Looking Cool Is More Important Than Seeing the Road

Woodlites: When Looking Cool Is More Important Than Seeing the Road

03/16/2020

Glance at the front end of a big, prewar classic; usually, you can’t miss the big, round headlights. Every once in a while, though, the car will peer back at you through strange vertical slits. What are these weird, slightly evil-looking things?

The answer: They’re Woodlites, and there is—at least in theory—a reason for their distinctive appearance. The creation of inventor William G. Wood, these headlamps were supposed to concentrate and project a beam of light farther down the road than a conventional headlight. You can read Wood’s description of the method of operation, and check out diagrams of the Woodlite’s interior geometry, in the U.S. patent granted July 31, 1928. Wood filed a series of patents for headlights, and the one that outlined the ornamental appearance of the Woodlite can be read here (note that this patent was filed after the one detailing the principle of operation, yet granted earlier).

Whether the theory behind the design is sound, the source of illumination was ultimately a relatively weak 6-volt automotive headlight; there’s only so much fancy reflector setups can do to ameliorate anemic light sources. The general consensus is that Woodlites were no better, and possibly worse, than whatever was in common use at the time.

But there’s a reason Woodlites are still highly sought today, with a complete pair commanding thousands of dollars. What’s more, you never really know who is going to be buying them; this is one of those interesting cases where a restorer of full-classic cars could get in a bidding war with a customizer for the things—Woodlites are equally at home on concours greens and traditional hot-rod shows.

Woodlites were actually standard equipment on a few cars—notably, front-wheel-drive Ruxtons and certain Jordans. But they could also be found on coachbuilt vehicles from the likes of Cord (there are more than a few front-drive L-29s equipped with Woodlites), Auburn, Packard, Stutz and so on.

And in part because early rodders and customizers looked to high-end coachbuilders for inspiration—and also because the things looked so unique on their own—Woodlites proliferated in the aftermarket, as well. Interestingly, custom-car pioneers didn’t always use Woodlites as free-standing units; the So Calif. Plating Co. truck, a notable prewar custom, integrated them (or something like them; information is sparse, and the truck has gone missing) into the front fenders. The lenses were mounted flush with the sheetmetal.

Woodlites were hardly the only aftermarket headlamps available before WWII, and they certainly weren’t the only ones to be adopted by hot-rodders and customizers: Edmunds & Jones (often called E&J) produced a series of streamlined, torpedo-shaped illuminators that have also proved popular with certain segments of the rod-building crowd. Their popularity is such that, like rare vintage speed equipment, both Woodlites and E&Js have been reproduced.

But while the E&Js are certainly distinctive, they can’t touch Woodlites for outright weirdness. Love ’em or hate ’em, at least you’ll seldom miss a pair when you walk by a car so equipped—and rest assured, that’s exactly the effect the commissioner of a coachbuilt Cord, or the backyard builder of a gnarly traditional hot rod, was going for. The Woodlite’s enduring popularity is yet more proof that, even if you don’t serve your intended purpose particularly well, simply looking cool can take you places.

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