June 18, 2012

Headlamp Replacement - '99 Malibu and '95 Saturn SL

It's a simple fact of life that, if you own a car long enough and drive it year-round, you will end up with a pair of hazy headlamps, and if your mechanic is any good (and cares about your life and his license), he'll tell you that you have to replace or restore them before you can pass inspection.

Saturn SL2

I find the latter option to be a waste of money. I tried a headlight restoration kit on my Saturn about two years ago, and it seemed to work well at first. After about an hour of sanding, scrubbing, and polishing my headlights, I was able to present my favorite shop with something they could allow me to keep driving. The lenses looked almost brand-new. There was a faint line where the original glossy finish (which is next to impossible to remove on purpose) ended, but the lenses were plenty clear to pass state inspection. A year later, I had to do the same thing again because the finish from the polishing kit had worn off, and a couple of months after that, the haze was back. This was all done with a kit that came well-recommended. I had had enough of it, and I was not interested in trying a bunch of different polishing kits.
The hunt was on for a pair of affordable headlamps. Parts stores wanted at least $80 apiece for new ones, so I was going to have to hunt elsewhere. eBay has some available for $35, but I needed to make a trip to the junkyard anyway, so I thought I would try there before I bought anything online. Most of the cars in the yard had the same hazy headlamp issue, but one former owner had bothered to replace them within the last few years with a nice fresh pair. I snagged them for about $20 apiece plus tax.
Removing and installing headlamps in a Saturn S-series is one of the simplest things you can do to a car. They're held in with three bolts with 10mm heads: two right on top where you would expect them, and one down below, also easy to access. The procedure takes about eight seconds. Simply remove the bolts, twist the bulbs out, and reverse the procedure for the new lamps. If you like, you can unclip the bulbs instead and use the ones from your new set (if equipped). The signal bulb has the connector twist into the housing, then the bulb clips into the connector. Either way, you'll now have a few spares, which might come in handy if a police officer tries to write you a ticket for a burned-out bulb before you notice it.
Comparison shot before the swap.
The socket is on the lower mounting bolt. Top mounting bolts are also visible here.

Aiming these headlamps can be a bit trickier than installation. On my car, both the old set and the new were aimed low and cross-eyed. Ideally, the left headlamp should be aimed straight ahead and down slightly (to avoid blinding oncoming traffic), and the right should be aimed dead forward. The vertical adjustment is intuitive. There is a torx head at the top-center of the headlamp. Tighten it (turn right) to raise, loosen to lower the aim. The horizontal adjustment is a littler trickier. Toward the outer edge, behind the headlamp, there is a plastic adjustment wheel that looks like a gear. In my case, this was a very stubborn piece to move. Stick a flat-tipped screwdriver on the appropriate end and tap it with a hammer to make the adjustment. The way it works is, the adjustment wheel is stationary on the light, and it turns a screw that connects it to the mounting bracket. Since it's on the outside edge, screwing it into the bracket pulls the outside of the lamp in and moves the adjustment outward. Thus, tapping on the outside of either adjustment wheel will move the light to the driver side, and tapping on the inside will move it to passenger. Adjust accordingly.

Chevrolet Malibu

I thought that replacing the headlamps on my Saturn was as simple as it could get. I was wrong. The headlamps on this 1999 Malibu that I acquired can be changed without using any tools. The two plastic clips on the back of each headlamp pop up to release the lamp from the mount. This can all be done with bare fingers. There may be a rubber flap bolted to the frame rail, that somewhat obscures the clips. It can still be done without tools, but you might find it easier to remove it. As with the Saturn, the bolts have 10mm heads.
The price was also more attractive on the Malibu lamps. A cheap pair made in China can be had off of for $25.89 plus shipping. Fitment is slightly off, but the rubber gaskets around the lamp still seal with the body. The light pattern is indistinguishable from stock, and, of course, output is much better with clear lenses. I have not adjusted these yet, as the car is not driveable, but I will update later with proper instructions.
Here, you can see the two plastic mounting clips. One is at the top of the picture.
The other is a little difficult to make out, a little below the middle.
Here, you can see the mounting points to which the plastic clips attach.