Good lighting has always been important to me because I’ve always spent a lot of time driving and riding at night.
I first started working with automotive and motorcycle lighting back in the 70s. In the early 70s our cars all had sealed beam headlights, usually GE or Wagner. The best we could do back then was add wiring, relays, and switches that would allow for turning on the low beams when the high beams were on, to get a bit of foreground fill, and adding driving and fog lights for even more light in the foreground and down the road. Those were, if memory serves, technically illegal and it was our responsibility to use these mods only on back roads with no traffic, and to properly dip and turn off with approaching traffic. I even played with aircraft landing lights, but they sucked for voltage and fitment reasons.
Then the e-code lights started becoming widely available, the likes of Cibié, Hella, Autoroche and SEV Marchal. These were illegal, too. Back in the early days of automobiles all headlights had big reflectors with replaceable bulbs, but they weren’t sealed well. That led to corrosion, dust contamination, and degradation of the reflector and very poor lighting if the system wasn’t well maintained. Headlight manufacturers developed the ability to manufacture sealed beam units and the 5 ¼” quads and 7” round pairs became the standard. The government thought this was fantasmagoric and, when writing the headlight standards that eventually became FMVSS 108, decided that only sealed beams would be legal. That’s why the e-code lights were illegal (they also didn’t really meet the beam pattern requirements of FMVSS 108, as the beam was too well controlled and wouldn’t light up overhead signs (c’mon, really?)), as they used an excellent parabolic reflector, excellent crystal glass lens, but with a replaceable bulb. These were the H7 bulbs in the 5 ¼” quads and H4 in the 7” pairs. Fog and driving typically used an H1. They were sealed pretty well, too, so reflector contamination wasn’t a problem but still were not allowed under US law. Canada pretty well followed suite with the US, adopting the FMVSS standard, so our Canadian brethren were similarly hamstrung.
The Europeans did adopt the 5/14” and 7” sizes, though, so it was an easy swap into our cars, though sometimes it was necessary to modify the housing a bit and the addition of good wiring and relays was par for the course in a good retrofit.
My ’64 Corvair Spyder was running SEV Marchal and my ’79 CX500 had a 7” Cibié in the headlamp and one big, round Hella driving light and one big, round Hella fog light. My ’74 Capri got the Marchals when the Corvair went away. My ’70 Spitfire was running 7” Autoroches with Lucas driving lights. I later changed that to Hella 7” and finally sold it with Cibié Z-Beams in it.
Moving into the modern era, my ’00 Ford Eff Two Fitty 4X4 had its aero lights removed and replaced with base model 200mm buckets with Cibiés fitted, along with a pair of Cibié Oscar driving lights with 100 watt bulbs. “I can see for miles and miles…” Literally. Damn thing could start a brush fire at a quarter mile. My ’12 BMW R1200RT, stock, has two H7 lows and an H7 high and I’ve added a pair of Hella driving lights and Hella fog lights to it. I use Osram AllSeason yellow bulbs to help with the Tule fog on I5. I sees good with that thing.
After all these years I know good lighting when I see it and I know how to build it.
My latest project is to retrofit a pair of HID bi-xenon projectors into the Gen 2 KLR headlamp. I’ll be candid. It’s been expensive in both time and money. But hell, if you’re going to play, PLAY! It’s been a good learning experience; I knew and understood the basics of HID, but the hands-on building, aiming, adjusting, comparing, and tweaking has been really educational over the past year.
The question has been posed to me “Uh, dumbass, you know you can buy an H7 retrofit kit for probably $40 and it’s plug ‘n play. Wassamatter witchu, boy?”.
And, after this long-winded introduction, that’s the challenge I’m going to accept. But, before I get to the meat, there’s going to be some theory and some truth. And, I’ll wager, I’ll piss some people off. Won’t be the first time, will it?
To the theory. A headlamp is made up of a bulb, a parabolic reflector, and a lens. In the case of modern lamps, there isn’t a lens because computer modeling and computer-aided manufacturing has gotten to the point where the reflector can be designed and manufactured to do all the work with no lens needed. We’re going to be talking about a 200mm headlamp of the kind used in the Gen 1 KLRs, so it’s old-school and the above description applies.
Any time you bounce something off of something else, the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. That is, the angle the thing comes in at is the angle it goes out at. If you bounce a ball off the sidewalk at a 45° angle it will leave the point of impact at a 45° angle. Light works the same way.
When a headlamp is designed, the parabolic reflector is designed to take light from the focal point of the reflector and make it all come out in one parallel beam. Obviously, if you look at an H4 bulb, the filament is positioned axially and is about 5mm long. An ideal light source would be a point of zero dimension at the foci of the parabolic reflector. That’s physically impossible, so the reflector is designed to take the light from that axially oriented 5mm long filament and focus it into a parallel beam.
Once the light is organized into that parallel beam, the lens is designed to shape that parallel beam into a coherent pattern that will put light out onto the road in a useful way. This is where the e-code lights excelled, as they had a very precisely located filament, a very good reflector, and a very good lens made from quality glass. American manufactured lights typically had much wider tolerances on the placement of the filament the shape of the reflector, and the glass quality was about the same as a Mason jar.
The lens turns the pattern 180°, so the light from the right side of the reflector goes to the left and the light from the top of the reflector goes to the bottom, same-same with left and bottom. That is, the pattern that is projected is what you’d see if you turned the lamp over and looked through the bulb-hole at the pattern that is formed by the lens.
This brings us to the very first problem with an HID retrofit. An HID retrofit bulb has an HID capsule grafted onto an H4 base. The HID gas bulb within the capsule is not the same shape as the H4 filament, so the reflector simply can’t work as it was designed to. That gas bulb is quite a bit smaller and more circular in shape than the cylindrical H4 filament. Further, the position of that gas bulb, fore and aft, up and down, and side to side, is only as good as the Chinese factory chose, or was able, to make it. What we find is that the position ranges from ‘damn close’ to ‘WTF, O?”. ‘Damn close’ seems to be a matter of luck but, as stated earlier, even ‘damn close’ is not ‘right’ simply due to the shape of the light source.
“But Tom, it says right on the box that this is an Osram retrofit bulb. It must be good!”. Let’s explore that.
Take a look at the box pictured below.
It says right on it that it is an Osram D2S 35W bulb. Made in Germany. 4 year Osram guarantee. Original spare part. This bulb is the top of the line from Osram. They run about $170 a pair.
In fact, that box, and the bulb that came in it, is a counterfeit. It was bought for $20. It takes a sharp eye to discern it from the real McCoy. Until you put it in a projector; then it’s a piece of crap that needs to be shimmed to get the light source to the right point, and even then it can never work right because the bulb is canted a few degrees.
Here’s another example. This is a OEM Matsushita Gen IV ballast, That’s how it was advertised, a genuine, NIB Mtsushita OEM ballast.
Or is it? Last I checked, Spanish for ‘Danger’ isn’t ‘PELIGRG’.
Here’s a real one.
Ya gotta admit, they are pretty good at counterfeiting.
The lesson here is that Chinese manufacturers have absolutely no problem counterfeiting stuff, and they have no problem claiming that a retrofit bulb is Osram or Philips on an H4 base and will lead you to believe that it is made by Osram or Philips.
In truth, neither Osram nor Philips would ever consider building such a thing because it simply can’t work right, at least until the laws of physics are repealed. The capsule is not made by Osram or Philips, either. A run of the mill 35 watt D2S from either company will run $40, and probably wholesales for half that. There ain’t no way that some Chinese company is buying Osram or Philips, disassembling and rebasing them, and selling them for $20. And there ain’t no way Osram or Philips is selling them capsules for $5 to graft onto H4 bases.
The bulb that you get in a $40 kit is entirely of Chinese design and manufacture, worth about $2, and you get what you pay for.
The proof is in the pudding, though, so here’s what I’m going to do. If I had a Gen 1 KLR and wanted better light, I’d go get a decent e-code light and put a decent bulb in it, run it off a good harness, and be on my way. It just so happens that I have a Cibié 200mm and a decent bulb, so we’ll look at pictures of the pattern with an H4 bulb and we’ll look at pictures from the perspective of oncoming traffic.
Then we’ll look at pictures with a retrofit kit and compare both the pattern and the oncoming perspective.
Let’s talk about a couple of other things, too. Color and luminosity. The color of light is usually expressed in terms of degrees Kelvin, and what that means is the color emitted from a black body that has been heated to a certain degree Kelvin. Colors under 5000°K are yellowish, while over 5000°K is white to bluish. Sunlight is in the range of 5000°K to 6000°K. We’ve spent a lot of time evolving under that sun and it is generally accepted that, at night, we see best with illumination in the mid 4000°K range, and 4300°K is pretty much standard for OEM lighting. For perspective, 5000°K is about 8500°F.
Here’s the catch. People get fooled by the appearance of ‘more light, brighter light, better light!’ with color temperatures in the 6000°K to 8000°K range. It’s an illusion. What you actually have is less light that is useful for seeing with (too much in the blue range) and, in most cases, less actual light in terms of lumens. To illustrate that, here is the data for an average HID bulb:
3000K: Golden Yellow (~2800 lm)
4500K: Warm White (~3500 lm)
5500K: Pure White (~3400 lm)
6500K: Cool White (~3200 lm)
Lumens, of course, are an important characteristic of any bulb, and it is one place where HID shine (groan).
With the exception of my BMW, I like light that is in the mid 3000°K-4000°K range, so I’ll look at the H4 bulb I use, an Osram BiLux 60/55W, for comparison. It puts out 1000 lumens on low beam and has a color temperature in the 3000s. That means that the HID is going to put out about three times the amount of light. Where it goes is the question.
Here’s the pattern of the Cibié with that Osram bulb, followed by an oncoming perspective. I placed the camera at a point calculated to simulate me, in my Forester, seeing an oncoming KLR at 200 feet. Note the relatively sharp cut-off and well-defined pattern. This is a classic e-code pattern. If you look carefully you may be able to see a red laser-dot where the pattern starts to slant up and to the right.
Here’s the same shot, with the same camera positions, with the retrofit. This is advertised as a 35W bulb at 4300°K. It’s noticeably brighter and should be whiter, though the camera settings may not accurately reflect color and brightness. Color and brightness we don’t care so much about. Both the color and brighter light are pretty much given. What we do care about is the pattern and the relative amount of light presented as glare to the oncoming perspective. The laser-dot is hard to pick out, but it is at the spot where the pattern should start to slant up and to the right.
Quite candidly, it is one of the worst patterns I’ve seen, especially considering the quality of the lamp it is in. The cut-off is ill-defined and there is quite a bit of light above the cut-off. That will present itself as glare to oncoming traffic. The fill below the cut-off is sketchy, as well.
I hadn’t intended to play with the high-beam at all but, out of curiosity, I activated the solenoid to bring the high beam on. The high beam pattern is fully a foot or more to the left of where it should be at a mere 20 feet! At 200 feet that is going to put it squarely in the oncoming lane, not in front of your bike where you need it! It’s also quite a bit lower than it should be; that light source is nowhere near close to where it should be. Here’s that picture. Given how the capsule is fairly free to move, I suppose that the high beam could just as easily be in the bushes to the right…
Notice the amount of light in the oncoming perspective? Granted, that HID bulb is generating a lot more light, but it is not well controlled. That light presents itself to oncoming drivers as glare and there’s nothing, except aiming your headlight down, that you can do about it. Notice that huge flare on the right side of the lamp. As I mentioned above, the lens flips the pattern 180°, so what oncoming traffic sees as glare is what comes off of the right side of the lamp as that light is moved to the left by the lens.
There were a couple of other things about the H4 bulb that concern me, things I noticed when I got to playing with it. Remember what I said about how important the proper placement of the light source within the lamp is? This bulb uses a solenoid to move the light source in and out of low/high position. Where it moves it to and how accurately it moves I cannot precisely say, but I can accurately say that it ain’t good. That capsule is free to wiggle and bounce around by a good 5mm. Take a look at this video. I didn’t want to touch the bulb because I’d have to clean it again, but you can see how much I’m able to move the capsule with the edge of an alcohol wipe envelope. What is it going to do with the bike's vibrations?
I also noted that it is possible to insert the bulb 180° from proper alignment, such that the capsule is partially obscured by the back wire. That’s not good, either.
I will be the first to say that it would be far better if I lived on a farm near Lander, Wyoming where at least there’s a decent Kawi mechanic and where I could take these shots at 200 feet in the middle of the night out on the road to the south 40 rather than at 20 feet in my living room. That doesn’t make the comparison invalid.
My time is not my own these days do to some personal circumstances. This post has been a couple of weeks in the making. When I can find an evening where I can play around I’ll take the same photos in the dark; that will provide a clearer understanding, I think.
One oft-heard refrain is “I don’t think my HID retrofit bothers anyone because I don’t get flashed”. All I can say is “Well, bless your heart.” That’s a logical inconsistency; people can be annoyed, momentarily blinded, and bothered and not flash you. If fact, they may be less likely to flash a ‘biker dude, those guys are all 1 percenters’. I know I’ve long since given up honking my horn at cell-phone-guided-boobs, flashing people with poorly aimed headlights or high beams on, or trying to tell them their blinker has been on for the last 20 miles.
Carry on and do as you please.