Posted by Keith Alan K
Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: You Must Have A Variable-Speed Drill
The Long Version: We own a 2002 Honda Civic, and the plastic headlight covers were already faded and yellowing when we bought it in '05. Cars parked outdoors like ours suffer the most, and I imagine that the brutal Texas summers we enjoy don't help matters.
But the days of sealed beam headlights made of glass are just about over, with small halogen lighting elements, plastic reflectors, and plastic covers being the norm.
After a vehicle swap last year my girlfriend's father (who lost his tact shortly before retirement) told us: "Your headlights suck! Can't see shxt at night."
We agreed, and began a casual search for a solution.
Option 1 was new covers from Honda but this was quickly rejected on the basis of our aversion to going without electricity or food for a month.
Option 2, naturally, was used parts. However, I soon realized that a donor car has been sitting outside in the same bad weather as ours for just as long. No such thing as indoor pick-and-pull junkyards.
Option 3 was spotted while driving around town: A sign on a small business offering headlight restoration. We thought we had a winner, but again the price was much too high. But at least now we knew that it was possible to fix our old and faded headlight covers, because if they can do it, so can we.
You'll note that I still hadn't used the internet effectively, but as I mentioned above this was a casual search for a cheap solution, and I really didn't know what I was looking for.
Then one Sunday afternoon I was going through the stack of newspaper adverts and while scanning one from O'Reilly's (AutoZone/PepBoys-type autoparts place) I spotted a sale price on the product under discussion here.
A quick internet search yielded positive reviews, and a few weeks later we saw the same kit at WalMart for $20 and tossed it in our cart.
We were both very excited about this purchase and couldn't wait to get home and try it!
I recommend masking off your paint with much wider tape, unless you're careful and skilled like me.
You tightly chuck the pad into your variable-speed drill (mine is a 24volt Black & Decker), apply some of the PlastX compound to the pad, and try your best to keep it under control and at a nice medium speed as you polish away the road and weather damage on a small area of a few square inches. Repeat as you work your way over the entire surface, then start going over larger areas to blend and finish the job.
I spent less than 15 minutes on each headlight after noticing that there was only minor refinement with each extra application, but it looked like you could keep going as long as you felt necessary for desired results.
My original idea was to do only one headlight and take photos of the resulting difference in light output using my camera in manual mode, in an attempt to quantify how many stops of light were being lost "before".
Well, that plan gave way to finishing the job while there was still daylight to work under and getting everything cleaned-up before dinner.
Therefore, what follows is subjective and without hard data, but informed by my experience as a photographer and rock band lighting tech:
I had NO idea we were losing so much light, but I should have.
A little embarrassing, actually.
The difference after dark was instantly shocking as I activated the headlights against our garage door, and our amazement continued once I backed into the street.
Distant murk was now lit up like it was supposed to be.
My semi-educated guess would be that we could see three times as far.
Once you have the drill-mounted pad, bottles of the PlastX compound are around $5.00US, so an enterprising young man might go into business for himself.
It wasn't all that difficult for me to give this product a pair of "4" ratings.
Saved me a LOT of money, worked as advertised, and was quick and easy.
This stuff also works on helmet visors and motorcycle windscreens, boat windows, and even plastic aquariums.
Updated March 31:
I just finished doing another car's headlights, and this time it was after dark so I was able to quantify before and after using my camera's exposure meter and Photoshop.
This is before treatment:
And this is after:
For this test I placed a white foamcore board 4 feet away from the headlight and put my camera on a tripod against the bumper.
In manual mode I set exposure for 0EV for the "before" photo, then left it there for "after", at which point my meter read +1 2/3EV.
(Both exposures are 1/50 sec at F5.6 and iso100).
This equals approximately 3 and 1/3rd times the light, which is a significant improvement.
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