C3 Electric Headlight Actuator Install - Light At Last
Installing C3 electric headlight actuators from Elite Custom Paint and Body
From the January, 2012 issue of Vette
By Jeremy D. Clough
Photography by Jeremy D. Clough
There are certain things on the C3 Corvette that were simply designed to be non-functional. Yes, I have the clock and the e-brake in mind, but I'm also talking about the headlight covers and the wiper door. I can't vouch for how they worked when brand-new, but I've owned two sharks, and neither of them had headlight assemblies that functioned reliably. And when they did work, they only went up and down using the override switch under the dash, and never with the light switch itself.
Oh, sure, one might work, leaving you winking your way down the roadway, or both would stop working, forcing you to get out of the car and pull them up when it got dark. The problem is especially vexing on the chrome-bumper cars, which, as we know, have a high CDI factor. For those unaware of this judging criterion, the CDI factor is an objective measurement that's crucial in evaluating the performance, appearance, and general je ne sais quoi of a car. It stands for "Chicks Dig It."
No matter how high that factor is for your car, when you're out on the town, there's nothing impressive about having to get out and pull up your headlights. Yeah, you can smile at the pretty girl in your passenger seat through the windshield as you try desperately to wedge your fingernail under the cover to pry it up, but it's pretty hard to look cool doing that. Trust me.
And once they're up, there's nothing cool about lying down in the parking lot so you can reach up under the grille and pull down the armature to fold them closed. (Eventually, I learned a half-pushup maneuver that kept me from having to literally lie down on the ground, but that lost its charm after I fell over in the Post Office parking lot. See above comment about looking cool.)
So we know they're a problem, and even when you've recently replaced the little witches-hat pieces, they won't last in perpetuity. Passing over the obvious, tired joke about vacuum systems in general, the headlights are devilishly hard to troubleshoot--no multimeters here, folks. Even when the system is all sealed up, it still depends on vacuum produced by the engine, which means both that it has to be running in order for them to work, and that their function will be affected by mods (such as a performance cam) that change the amount of vacuum the engine produces.
Now that we've outlined the problem, let's talk about the solution. When Wolfgang Geiger took on a '72 coupe, nicknamed "Rebecca," for a complete restoration in his shop, Elite Custom Paint and Body (ECPB), the owner had already had enough of the stock system. Among the modifications, which included EFI and a gorgeous Steel Cities gray paint job, were firm instructions from customer Bill Ray to eliminate the vacuum system entirely. As the car neared completion, Geiger realized that there wasn't a kit available that would let him replace it with an electric alternative. Perhaps underestimating how committed the customer was to getting rid of the vacuum, Geiger apologetically told him that while he was sorry, it couldn't be done.
"You are an electromechanical engineer, aren't you?" he asked.
"Well, yes," Geiger answered, not quite sure what to expect. Whereupon Ray simply walked out. Three days later, with the help of Sean Broome, Geiger had fabricated a set of electric actuators and had them installed. While that may seem like sacrilege, never forget that C2 headlights were electric instead of vacuum, as were C4 and C5 units, leaving the vacuum-operated C3 lights as an anomaly.
The story wasn't over yet--there was still the wiper-door issue to surmount--but the headlights were well and truly dealt with. Triggered by the headlight switch, the electric actuators pivoted the lights smoothly up in sync with one another. With that done, the customer wanted to know when Geiger would start selling the conversions separately. Since ECPB works on other cars in addition to Corvettes, Geiger wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the proposition. "Who would want that?" he asked.
Now is when those of us who own sharks chuckle, by the way. Relentless, Ray finally convinced him, actually bankrolling the first batch of the kits. His car, Rebecca, became the demo car that attended the shows (Geiger actually added a remote control to it just to catch people's attention when they saw the lights open on command), and the conversion is now offered for sale by Eckler's, Rik's Corvette Parts, and Corvette Central.
Having seen Rebecca at the Sevierville, Tennessee, Corvette Expo, I had the opportunity recently to visit ECPB and follow the installation of the electric actuators on my own Corvette, a red '72 coupe, which suffered all the typical vacuum-based maladies.
It's been said that the mark of a good sound man is that you never think about him, and that's the way Corvette headlights should be. It's been three weeks since the actuators were installed, and the most impressive thing about the conversion is that I never worry about the lights anymore. I just pull the switch, and up they come.
01 Other than this view,...
01 Other than this view, which shows the electric actuators replacing the missing vacuum canisters, it’s difficult to tell that anything’s changed. Except, you know, they work. For those concerned about appearance, the factory vacuum system can be left in place.
02 The conversion kit consists...
02 The conversion kit consists of a pair of electric actuators, as well as the wiring harness and control module required to operate them. While the wiring may look daunting at first, the installation process is fairly simple, and should take no more than a couple hours or so using jackstands.
03 The first step is to remove...
03 The first step is to remove the two grilles from beneath the bumpers, as well as the flaps that protect the headlights. Next, remove the vacuum lines from the tank to the canisters mounted on the headlight assemblies, as well as those on the headlight switch and carburetor. Cap off the vacuum port on the carb and make sure the car still runs as it should, then shut it off.
04 Here, ECPB’s Sean Broome...
04 Here, ECPB’s Sean Broome begins the fun part of removing all the old actuator parts, starting with the springs.
05 Once the springs are off...
05 Once the springs are off the L-shaped operator arm, it’s time to remove the arm itself; this requires pulling out the cotter pins that hold the pivot pins in place. Note the adjuster screw at the top of the operator arm, which is used to set the height of the headlight cover when it’s in the down position. Save this screw, as you’ll need to install it in the new arm. If you lose it, or it won’t come out, install a new 5⁄16-inch x 24 hex bolt instead.
06 While the operator arm...
06 While the operator arm has to be removed, you’ll leave this part—also more or less L-shaped—in place on the headlight assembly. Among other things, it contains the seat that the adjuster screw bears against, controlling how high the headlights sit when closed.
07 With the operator arm...
07 With the operator arm out of place, it’s time to remove the vacuum canister, whose actuator rod you can see on the right side of the photo.
08 To remove the vacuum canisters,...
08 To remove the vacuum canisters, it helps to have the headlights at least partially in the up position—this method reduces the risk of scratching the paint.
09 The vacuum canisters have...
09 The vacuum canisters have to be unbolted from the front, then freed from their bracket and pulled out, also toward the front. This doesn’t have to be a two-man job, but you’re a lot less likely to scratch your hood if it is. Here, ECPB’s Bryan Kelly pulls from the front while Broome keeps control of the canister from the hood side.
10 Originally, the canister...
10 Originally, the canister mounts kept these supports in place. With the canisters removed, you’ll want to add a pair of bolts to replace them.
11 This car had an interference...
11 This car had an interference issue between the corner of the headlight bucket and the mounting bracket for the vertical bumper; this had to be addressed before going further. In this case, installing an extra washer in the bumper mount moved this part of the mount far enough out to keep it from obstructing the headlight’s movement.
12 Now the top of the actuator—the...
12 Now the top of the actuator—the two operating arms—can be connected, both to the top mount near where the vacuum canister used to sit, and the L-shaped armature on the bottom of the headlight assembly.
13 Here’s the front portion...
13 Here’s the front portion of the operating arm, where it connects to the original L-shaped armature that you left in place on the headlight assembly. Note the adjusting screw (also retained from the original assembly) which adjusts the height at which the closed headlights sit.
14 Now it’s time to locate...
14 Now it’s time to locate and install the lower mounting bracket. The bracket is year-specific, so make sure you order the right kit for your car. On ’68-’72 models, this requires drilling and tapping two holes in the bottom of the radiator support. Before the holes could be drilled on my ’72, the dryer bottle of the A/C system had to be unbolted and moved to the side.
16 Once the holes are drilled,...
16 Once the holes are drilled, tap them at 1⁄4 x 20. For those who haven’t done this before, the 1⁄4-inch x 20 is a standard thread (it’s the “coarse” quarter-inch thread), and taps are readily available at most hardware stores. After affixing the tap in its handle, called a “tap stock,” simply push in and turn it. You’ll feel it bite into the metal; after a turn or so, back it out a half-turn to break the “chip” (the piece of metal you’re cutting out), so it’ll continue to cut cleanly.
17 Next, bolt the brackets...
17 Next, bolt the brackets into place in the radiator mount, being careful not to strip out their holes. Note that the 45-degree cut is oriented upwards.
18 Now, bolt the bottom of...
18 Now, bolt the bottom of the actuator into place in its bracket.
19 With the bottom bolted...
19 With the bottom bolted into place, make sure the two operating arms up top are bolted in place (if you removed them to mount the bottom bracket). Do the other side, following the same procedure, and then it’s time to hook up the electrical system that makes it all work.
20 Route the wiring harness...
20 Route the wiring harness to the actuators from the control box through the gap between the radiator support and the radiator on the driver side of the car. The clips that held the vacuum hoses in place provide an excellent guide for the wiring. Plug the harness into the actuators.
21 Use the included template...
21 Use the included template to locate and drill the four 1⁄4-inch holes that hold the control box in place on the inner fender, making sure to orient the box so that the wires are coming out of the bottom. With the car on jackstands, the wheel should hang low enough to let you drill the holes from the wheelwell toward the inside.
22 Bolt the control box into...
22 Bolt the control box into place through the holes in the inner fender, just opposite the alternator.
23 Fasten the red wire to...
23 Fasten the red wire to the battery (red/positive) terminal on the back of the alternator; this will provide power to the system.
24 Find a good ground for...
24 Find a good ground for the black wire, either on the radiator mount or (as shown) on the alternator bracket. At this point, touching the yellow wire (not shown) to a power source will cause the actuators to extend. If you hear a humming noise from the actuators, that means they did not fully extend or retract, and you’ll need to adjust the length of the piston. (Rotate it clockwise to extend, counter-clockwise to shorten.) Now is also a good time to adjust how high the headlights sit when closed; do this using the adjuster screw in the new operating arm.
25 Once the actuators are...
25 Once the actuators are working properly, route the yellow wire through the firewall and pull up the carpet covering the dimmer-switch assembly. Either connect the wire to the center pin of the dimmer switch, or use the dual terminal that comes with the kit to splice into the wire coming off of it. (We did the latter.) If in doubt, use a test light to ensure power is only going to the wire when the headlight switch is in the “on” position.
26 Gleefully remove any and...
26 Gleefully remove any and all vacuum hoses that went with the old system, and cap off the ports on the vacuum hoses that need to stay in place (such as those going to the power brakes). That’s it: The whole process takes about two hours, and the result totally changes the driving experience. vette
Elite Custom Paint & Body, LLC
220 West Patton Street