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Spotlights when Where Who


Spotlights When where who? That has been a subject for many Custom Car Enthusiasts conversations. We know these mostly Appleton Spotlights were near mandatory in the 1940’s and early to mid 1950’s. But where did the use of them come from?

I do not really know the answer to the when, where and who, I wish I did, but at the time the first Spotlights appeared on Custom Cars, it was just something the customizer did. It was not seen as a special event, or something trend setting, nor did they guys back then realize that enthusiast many decades later would still talk about, or do research on. So it just happened, and was never really documented.

My good friend Ulf “Wolf” Christiansson is a die-hard traditional Custom Car guy. He loves the customs from the Golden Era from the 1940’s to the mid 1950’s. And to him no custom is complete without a set of Appleton Spotlights. He has been doing a lot of research about the use of Appleton spotlights, another friend Per Webb also has done a lot of work on researching the subject, and hopefully he will be doing a full magazine article on the history of the Appleton Spotlights in the near future. But for this article I would like to highlight just one small piece of the puzzle. An observation Ulf “Wolf” Christiansson pointed out to me. And perhaps this shows where the early Custom Car guys found their inspiration to start using the Spotlights on their Custom Cars.

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-01An 1937 filed spotlight switch patent shows the already typical shape we are familiar with. But from the samples we show you here we know that the spotlights and handles shaped like these are dated back to at least 1930.

We all know the stories that the early Custom builders were inspired by the Coach-build high-end Packards, Cadillac’s, Duesenberg’s, and other exotic car brands. Styling ideas that were transferred to the low-end car brands like Fords and Chevy’s. Low windshield, tear drop shaped fenders and bodies, full hubcaps and a lower stance and smooth body’s with simple chrome elements. Many early custom ideas where most likely inspired by these one-off Classics. Wolf had noticed that these Classics from the early 1930’s sometimes also had accessory Spotlights mounted on the cowl, or windshield posts. Even the very popular roadsters had these spotlights mounted on the chrome windshield posts with special brackets. Most of these are mounted with the glass in either the forward or rear ward position, and not like we know from most customs, with the glass facing the hoods. But on a lot of early Custom Car photos from the very early 1940’s we can see this same forward or rear ward position of the Appleton Spotlights being used. It seams that towards the mid 1940’s to spotlights where repositioned with the glass facing down, adn the point of the bucket upwards.

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-03An 1930 Duesenberg with a set of Spotlights mounted on the lower section of the windshield pillar. The glass is pointed to the front of the car. 

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-02The handles are on the inside underneath the wrap around section. These handles have round knobs on the end.

It looks like the Spotlight trend was first set by the Classic cars of the 1930’s and that the Customizers copied this in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s. The aftermarket companies noticed the demand and made more models available for the Custom Car enthusiast as well as for every day use on regular cars.
Many Custom Cars from the early 1940’s used the spotlights. And the Spotlights were also a popular accessory part for the semi custom cars in those years that where perhaps a bit lowered but other than that only had dress up custom parts like Single bar filler hubcaps, different bumpers and a single or double spotlight.

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-05Another Duesenberg, this time and SJ from 1935 has a set of spotlight mounted on the A-Pillars using a special bracket.

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-07This photo from another 1935 SJ shows shows how the bracket looks like. 

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-08This is how the handles look like. Interesting is that these handles are chrome plated.

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-09Another 1935 Duesenberg SJ shows the Spotlights with the bucket point facing the front of the car.

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-10Extremely elegant 1935 Duesenberg SJ Walker LaGrande with a set of A-Pillar mounted Spotlights.

One of the great promotors of the spotlights on custom cars was the Barris Kustom Shop. Most of their creations left the shop with a set of Appleton S-112’s or S-552’s mounted on the A-Pillars. When the early Hot Rod and Custom Car magazines showed these cars on the cover and inside in full features the demand for the Appleton Spotlights grew fast. Today a lot of people feel that an custom car styled after this period needs a set of Appleton spotlights to complete the look. Still the Spotlight is also a very controversial Custom Car accessory. Some people absolutely dislike them, and the question often asked is why spend a lot of time to clean up a body from all the handles and chrome trim and then add a huge teardrop shaped ornament on one of the most visual sections of a car, the A-Pillars. However if you look at photos taken in the 1940’s and 1950’s the majority of the Customs used them, and many would look naked without them. Fact is that the famous Appleton spotlights are a highly sought after and demanded part, that only increases in value.

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-11Tommy the Greek’s 1940 Mercury in 1941 shows the use of a set of spotlights with the glass facing to the back.

CCC-early-spotlights-classics-12This photo shows a typical semi Custom Car with basically only add ons for customizing. The photo taken in the early 1940’s from the collection of Bart Bartoli shows that the spotlight are mounted with the glass facing the rear.

CCC-custom-car-pride-joy-12Another early 1940’s photo shows one, perhaps two spotlights mounted the glass facing forward.

So, here it is, another small piece of the Custom Car Spotlight puzzle. Hopefully one day we can add all the pieces together and get the full picture about the history of the Appleton, and other Spotlights used on Customs. When? Where? Who? and why?




Rik Hoving

Rik is the CCC editor in chief. As a custom car historian he is researching custom car history for many years. In 2004 he started the Custom Car Photo Archive that has become a place of joy for many custom car enthousiasts. Here at CCC Rik will bring you inspiring articles on the history of custom cars and builders. Like a true photo detective he will show us what's going on in all those amazing photos. He will write stories about everything you want to know in the realm of customizing. In daily life Rik is a Graphic Designer. He is married to the CCC webmaster and the father of a 10 year old son (they are both very happy with his excellent cooking skills)

6 thoughts on “Spotlights when Where Who

  • At the risk of overstating the obvious, the spotlights I recall from childhood in the ’40s were a safety feature. Six volt headlight systems were iffy in rural driving where livestock and wildlife roamed. The spotlights were bright and could be aimed off the both sides of the roadway to catch onto dangers in time to avoid hitting an animal.

    The eyes of animals glowed distinctively in reflection of the spotlight. This knowledge was used to advantage by hunters who illegally hunted game (i.e. “poached”) at night.

    With spotlights mounted in a high and handy location as on the A pillar, minor mechanical tasks to the sides of the car could be illuminated. Most common was the changing of a flat tire, a hazard of rural gravel roads.

    It also was illegal to aim your spotlights directly at oncoming traffic in Wyoming and Montana, for example. A young fellow I knew, from South Pass, Wyoming, had a pair of spotlights on his ’47 Chevy Fleetline. Driving down a long stretch of two-lane road one night, he became increasingly irritated with an oncoming car which did not dim its brights. First he switched on his driver side spotlight, and aimed it at the offensive on-comer. No dimming resulted. He then did the same with the passenger side spotlight. This time, he got a response. Red lights started flashing from the offender. A response; not the one he wanted! It was a cop. And he was stopped and fined.

    Not sure just what kind of poaching, or responses, California city boys were after with spotlights on their customs.

    Larry Pointer

  • I know Cadillac offered accessory spotlights early on. My 53 Eldo has two door mounted ones. My46 conv has an a pillar mounted one. Larry makes a good point about poorly lit country roads. . But as far a customs go, I think it just caught on as it became part of the vernacular. Skirts, stance, spotlights, style. It possibly acted as a balance for the chrome and bright work that had been removed elsewhere on the custom vehicles.
    There was possibly a law that spotlights could not be forward facing on some roads. Ie only to be used on country roads. That’s possibly how the turned around thing started.

  • I was told by my Dad and Uncle and their friends who were all “car guys” that in California it was illegal for a civilian car to have spotlights pointed forward. Only police cars and emergency vehicles could have them facing forward.
    Thus, the spotlights on customs were pointed down and tucked in. And always 2 spotlights, symmetry symmetry.

  • All I could afford were dummy spots back in the 90’s but I fitted aircraft landing lights into mine. They were so bright they melted the plastic lenses so I switched them over with some glass ones from a train at work. Back when I built my sled nobody knew what spotlights were, let alone the style my ride was built to. The majority off aussie car enthusiasts thought they were just weird oversized mirrors.

    I’d love a set of original appletons for my 41 ford ute turned into a pickup truck.

  • Rik…Looking forward to a full and detailed expose on the legendary Appleton/Lorraine spotlights. It is interesting to note that the Duesenbergs and other fine make automobiles that are current (1960’s-2000’s) restorations seem to sport dual and single spotlights much more than was common during the era that they were first sold. A sad fact of over-accessorizing that effects the hobby currently. I have owned and examined quite a few pairs and single examples of the Appleton Electric Co “teardrop” spotlight and have often been surprised at the variation (mainly in the smaller details) that I have encountered. I will offer a few examples in my next comment on this article. Suffice it to say, concerning the aiming or attitude of the spotlight itself, the other fellows are correct.
    Only military, police, and emergency vehicles were authorized to have spotlights, single or dual, facing in a forward direction, whether turned on or off. This particular law is culled from Nevada Revised Statutes circa 1946 (as well as in California, and nationwide).

  • I really dig the kustom styling of a well placed, well restored pair of Appletons on a Kustom. My ’51 Vicky will soon get a pair of S-552s installed and they will be working too. I had collected quite a few examples of Appletons to restore before I found the ones I have now and there certainly are variations in them. Probably from various manufacturers being subcontracted by Appleton to meet demand. My son will be putting a pair of S-112s on his ’48 Plymouth. We dig them and think as stated above, they are proper for the era we want to kustomize to. Nice bit of writing on your article. Can’t wait to here more about them.

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