Headlight Upgrades

Upgrading the headlights on your 200-Series Volvo


Do you want to see better at night? We all do! Unfortunately, Volvo (like all manufacturers), is strangled by antiquated US lighting laws. Fortunately, there are other options!

First, let’s see what you have in your car. The below listing is for US-spec cars:

Lights per side
Year/Model 242 244/245 262/264/265
1975 Single round Single round No models available
1976-77 Single round Single round Dual round
1978-79 Single round Dual round Dual rectangular
1980 Single round Dual rectangular [GL/GLE]Dual round [DL] Dual rectangular
1981-82 Dual rectangular,halogen high beam Dual rectangular,halogen high beam Dual rectangular,halogen high beam
1983-84 Dual rectangular, halogen high and low beam Dual rectangular, halogen high and low beam No models available
1985 No models available Same as 1983 No models available
1986-93 No models available One piece, Plastic lens No models available


Until the early ’80’s, all Volvos came from the factory with tungsten sealed-beam headlights. Whatever you do, replace them. They make lousy light.

Later cars (through 1985) use halogen sealed beam headlights. Staying strictly within the letter of the law of most US states, this is the best light legally available. But…

For owners of 200-series cars built through 1985, you have two options. Both are provided courtesy of the less restrictive lighting laws in the rest of the world. These lights are commonly called E-(for European)code lamps. These can be subdivided into two types:

  • Sealed-beam replacements are E-Code lamps designed to replace sealed beams of every type found on Volvos. The most common brand names (and the best lights) are Cibie, Marchal, Carello, Bosch, and Hella. Each of these manufacturers makes a light with an especially good form factor – ask your vendor which one makes the best for your application. These are the only brands trusted by enthusiasts. They are widely available from many sources on the World Wide Web. Expect to pay $50-80 per lamp for these – and they are well worth the price!
  • Flush-lens lights are the large, glass-lensed lamps you may have seen in pictures of Volvos from Europe. Do not confuse these with the plastic-lens lamps found on 1986-93 US Volvos; those are junk; more on them later. These lamps are not widely available in the US, and when you do find them, the price tends to be very dear.

Notes to the above:

  1. If you are capable of replacing your sealed beams, you can install E-code sealed beam replacement lamps. One exception: when replacing the outer lamps on systems with 4 rectangular lamps, you will need wiring adapters. Your lighting vendor should be able to supply these.
  2. Depending on your specific model, installing flush-lens lights may require additional parts, such as corner lamps. If your car has plastic composite lamps, your US corner lamps will not work, and will need to be replaced with corner lamps that correspond to the E-code lamps being installed.

Model-specific considerations:

If you have a car with single round lamps (see chart), you will discover that flush-glass lamps are not widely available. Even when new, these were uncommon, and now it is 20-25 years later. Fortunately, your car uses 7″ round lamps. These are the most widely available lamps in E-code sealed-beam replacements, and quite likely the best, due to their large reflector and lens area. Since these lights are legal in the US for motorcycles (but not cars, go figure), and because they are commonly seen on Harleys, you may find some good lights locally at a Harley specialist.

If you have a car with dual round lamps (see chart), you have a mixed blessing. These lamps fall between single round and dual rectangular setups in light quality. Unfortunately, since there are few cars left on US roads with this setup, E-code replacements can be harder to come by. Any major supplier should be able to get them for you, however.

If you have a car with dual rectangular lamps, you have two choices. Either use direct replacement E-code lamps (make sure to get the adaptors as discussed above), or convert to the dual-round configuration. Dual-round makes for a pretty easy swap. Make sure to obtain the wiring sub-harnesses from the donor car, or use your existing wiring and the adaptors.

Other considerations:

Regardless of what permutation of E-code lamps you buy, make certain they are for a car using left hand drive. Countries that drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (UK, Australia, etc.) use reflectors and lenses suitable for use when oncoming traffic is on your right side, as opposed to the left side as in the US. If you use lamps from a RHD car, they will glare in the eyes of oncoming drivers.

E-code lamps of either type use separate bulbs. Dual-filament (high- and low-beam) lamps are H4, and high-beam only lamps use the designation H1. Do not buy quality lamps and go cheap on bulbs. Use bulbs from the above manufacturers, or get bulbs from Osram or Philips.

If you have the urge to buy blue bulbs, ‘superwhites’, or any other marketing hype, DON’T! They are just so much B.S.

Standard wattage H4 and H1 bulbs are 55-60 watts. Higher wattages are available if you feel the need. Please note that the wiring on your Volvo is not designed for high wattage bulbs. If you want higher wattage bulbs, you must upgrade your wiring and add relays. A top-notch lighting supplier can supply you with details and parts.

But I have a 1986-1993 240! What can I do?

Let me tell you how sorry I am for you. When these lights were new, they sucked. Now they are old. The lenses have probably gotten clouded and/or pitted. Now they suck more.

First, let me tell you what not to do. These lamps use bulbs designated 9004. 9004 bulbs are available in higher wattages, but please resist the temptation. Since the reflector and lens in these lamps is pretty lousy, higher wattage bulbs just provide more lousy light. Also, the plastic lens is not designed to withstand the higher temperatures generated by high-wattage bulbs, and your wiring will not withstand the higher amperage draw.

So what can be done? Two choices, and they are both pretty expensive:

  1. Replace your front fenders, grille, corner lamps,and radiator/headlight support panel with parts from an earlier car. Then see all the options above.
  2. Obtain flush-lens glass E-code lamps with all of the expense and difficulty discussed above.

Credits/Information Sources/Suppliers:

I have culled most of the above information from two sources. Not only do these people know lighting, they also know Volvos! A special thank you to both; I’ve learned a great deal.

Copyright 2002 Evan Reisner – updated by John Laughlin 02/22/07