The 1968-’82 Corvettes are famous for a lot of things: great looks, performance and they still seem to be a great value in the collector car market. Of course there is famous and then there is infamous, which leads us to things like rusted birdcages, power window problems, electrical gremlins generally caused by bad grounds and the most common one of all: failed vacuum actuator on the headlight doors. Often it may not be the actuators but rather some other piece in the complicated vacuum-operated headlight door system.
It’s easy to recognize the problem by simply observing how many Corvettes are running around with the headlights permanently in the up position, or worse yet, the Corvette “wink” where one headlight is up and the other down. Let’s be honest here, C3 Corvettes don’t look particularly good with the headlights in the up position, that’s why they were designed to only be up in the dark.
With age, the components in the vacuum system will require service and/or replacement and since Corvette owners typically love performance and horsepower they like to add a big cam to their engine. This simply exacerbates the problem; while your nice lumpy cam may have increased your horsepower it sure didn’t help operation of vacuum accessories. And so we came to the same conclusion our 7th grade science teacher taught us, vacuum sucks.
So what’s the cure to the headlight door problem? Well, if you’re building a 100-point restoration your only choice is to rebuild or replace the factory stuff, but if you’re one of the majority of C3 owners who enjoy driving their cars there is a better solution.
We were recently made aware of the Detroit Speed and Engineering, Inc. (DSE) electrical conversion kit for 1968-’82 Corvette headlight doors. Like all of their products, the engineering is apparent and it is also obvious that installing this conversion kit will solve your headlight door problems for the life of the car. But it will do a lot more than just open and close your headlight doors. It should be noted that the DSE electrical headlight door conversion kit is a direct bolt-on with no drilling or permanent modification to the car.
After the kit is installed you’ll be pleased to find out the electric actuators are pressure sensitive. Should a foreign object (that includes things like fingers) come between the headlight door and the body the actuator will stop. There is also an adjustment that ensures both door open to the same height. While the factory dash switch is reused, the headlights will function as follows:
Pull the switch to the “Park” position: Parking lights illuminate, headlights off, doors closed.
Pull to “Headlamps” position: Headlights illuminate and doors open.
Push from “Headlamps” to “Park” position: Headlights turned off, parking lights illuminated but the headlight doors remain open. This is very handy for cleaning and bulb replacement.
Push to “Off” position: All lights are off and the headlight doors close.
But wait, there’s more! The electric headlight control module is simple to wire and even has an integrated failsafe protection circuit that protects the system from potential damage caused by an electrical short. Should an electrical short occur the module will click continuously until the wire is repaired, now that’s pretty cool.
The installation is well within the reach of the home mechanic and will provide smooth reliable operation of your headlight doors. Be sure to properly remove and plug the applicable vacuum hoses to prevent any unwanted engine vacuum leaks. Speaking of unwanted vacuum leaks, now that your headlight doors open and close electrically it might be a good time to eliminate all vacuum accessories and convert the vacuum windshield wipers to electric operation. And yes, DSE makes a kit for that, too, and we can tell you it works as well as the headlight doors.
01. This is the Detroit Speed headlight door kit that completely eliminates the clumsy factory vacuum-actuated system. The kit bolts in with no drilling or permanent changes to the car. The results are a smooth, reliable and synchronized method of raising and lowering headlights on 1968-’82 Corvettes.
02. The first step is to remove the hood from the car and disconnect the battery. When you look in the headlight area you’ll see the four headlight actuator springs.
03. Next, carefully remove the springs from the vacuum actuator. With the springs removed the actuator pin can be removed.
04. The actuator pin and the two inserts will be reused. Now is a good time to clean, inspect and lubricate the pins. Likewise, check all springs for damage.
05. Now you can disconnect all the headlight vacuum hoses followed by the four bolts surrounding the rubber boot that holds the original assembly in place. Now, remove the bolts and place the original vacuum actuator parts in a box marked swap meet.
06. With the original unit removed you’ll have a flat mounting surface with four boltholes just waiting for the new and improved electric actuators.
07. One original piece that will be reused is the rod end from the actuator. Use a Vise-Grip to hold the rod and then insert a long punch or screwdriver through the hole and unscrew the rod end.
08. This is the rod end that will thread onto the new Detroit Speed electric actuator. Again, now is the time to clean, inspect and paint all of the used parts.
09. The new Detroit Speed unit is compact, efficient and completely eliminates any vacuum hoses. Note the original rod end is threaded in place on the new unit.
10. The new unit is bolted in place with the supplied bolts. One look at this and it is easy to see how superior this system is to the old vacuum unit.
11. On the side of the unit you’ll find a red knob that is the manual override. You can use this knob to align the linkage pin and bushing with the headlight door assembly.
12. Here we can see the rod end, pin and linkage installed on the headlight door assembly. With the linkage rod in place install the original springs.
13. This is the completed assembly with the linkage rod, pin, bushings and springs all back in place.
14. To access the headlight switch the dashpad must be lowered. That begins by removing the plastic panel that holds the manual override push/pull switch.
15. Removing the plastic panel will expose the two bolts that hold the steering column to the dash, remove these two bolts.
16. With the steering column lowered you can gain access to the headlight switch. Remove the wires and vacuum lines from the switch and remove the switch from the dash.
17. Follow the wiring instructions in the kit, but we can tell you it is as simple as removing the factory blue and brown wires from the switch and plugging in the blue and brown wires from the new Detroit Speed harness. It’s that simple.
18. This is the portion of the harness that plugs into the light switch. The control module for the new headlights must be mounted under the dash and the headlight harness will plug into the module.
19. The entire kit is very well engineered and the wiring is completely plug-and-play with connectors that come pre-crimped. The instructions walk you through the process that includes locating proper power on the fuse panel.
20. The harness that leads to the new actuators can be fed through an existing hole in the firewall and the Weather Pack connectors ensure a watertight connection. Now, reconnect the battery, test the system and adjust door height. Then simply enjoy opening and closing your headlights on command.
Good News For 1963-’67 Corvettes, Too
If you were reading this story wishing there was a similar kit for your 1963-’67 Stingray to cure the all-to-common problems with the original opening system wish no more, as Detroit Speed has you covered.
The system completely replaces the original system and requires no permanent modifications to the car. This allows owners the option to return their vehicle back to its original configuration if desired, leaving no holes or spliced wires behind.
When installed, the headlight doors will operate reliably, smoother and open and close in sync. Once installed, you will no longer need to operate the headlamp doors separately with the problematic factory momentary switch. The Detroit Speed control module will automatically actuate the doors when the headlamps are turned on/off. The doors can also be manually opened and closed for headlight maintenance/cleaning by simply rotating them by hand (unlike the originals that require the owner to open the hood and locate/spin a tiny wheel on the motor.)
Much like the headlight kit shown for the C3, the 1963-’67 kit comes complete with everything you need for the conversion from start to finish. So there you have it and now you understand why we flipped out over these kits.