How to Restore Your Volkswagen Headlight Buckets

Headlights, with their shiny chrome trim rings, are the "eyes" of a VW and restoring them to original condition can really brighten up the appearance of your VW. So here are some helpful headlight restoration tips:

1.   Both bugs and buses use headlight assemblies that install in large sockets in the front of the vehicle (in the front fenders, if it's a bug) using a single chrome screw. This assembly consists of the sealed beam headlight (6V or 12V) secured to a ring that is suspended inside a metal "bucket" using 2 long screws that tilt the sealed beam when they're screwed in or out, to "aim" the headlight once the assembly is installed in the vehicle. The glass lense is sealed against the backside of the chrome trim ring which is then clipped to the bucket to complete the assembly. Depending on the year of your VW, you might also have a small "parking light" bulb installed in a socket on the bottom of the bucket. The photo on the right shows the backside of a headlight assembly installed inside the bucket. Note that the sealed beam ring pivots on the short black rubber plug just above the blue part number information.

2.   The headlight bucket is the "heart" of the assembly. An original bucket will have the bucket part number, trim ring part number, and other factory info printed on the outside in blue ink. If you're a real fanatic for authenticity, I guess you could search for used buckets stamped with the part numbers that are correct for your vehicle, but this seems extreme since it's impossible to see this part number information once the assembly is installed on your VW. Original buckets are pretty easy to find and since a bucket will work fine on the left or right side of your VW, you don't have to be too picky. And to make the search even easier, most buckets will fit a bug or a bus, so you don't have to look specifically for a "bus bucket" or a "bug bucket".

3.   Bug Headlights: Virtually any headlight assembly will fit any bug, but some setups are more "correct" than others. The main difference is the position of the 2 adjusting screws that you see in the face of the chrome trim ring. Different glass lenses were also used over the years, including ones stamped with the "VW" logo, but finding those older logo lenses will be very difficult. On bugs manufactured through model year 1960, the 2 adjusting screws are at the bottom of the trim ring, at the 5:00 and 7:00 positions (when you look at the assembly installed in the fender socket). Starting with model year 1961, the adjusting screws were moved to the 1:00 and 7:00 positions (see photo on the right) and the parking lamp socket now used 2 male push-on tab connectors (instead of the screw connectors used through model year 1960;, see photo above right). Either headlight configuration will fit your bug, but the important thing to remember when you're scrounging for parts is that the 5:00/7:00 trim rings will only work with a 5:00/7:00 bucket and a 5:00/7:00 glass lense (the edge of the lense needs to have ground-out notches in the right spots, for the 2 adjusting screws). Obviously, the 1:00/7:00 setups will be much easier to find, but again, make sure the trim ring, bucket and lense are all designed for the 1:00/7:00 configuration. Note that headlight assemblies are interchangable between the left and right side of the car. Also note that the parking lamp socket can be easily unscrewed and moved from one bucket to another, regardless of whether the bucket is the 5:00/7:00 or 1:00/7:00 style.

4.   Bus Headlights: Like your bug, just about any headlight assembly will fit any bus but to do it right, there are some differences you should be aware of. Buses have always had their adjusting screws at the 1:00 and 7:00 positions (when you hold the assembly so the chrome tab sticking out from the trim ring is at the 6:00 position). Early buses used a headlight "bulb", but starting in model year 1960 buses came with a "sealed beam" lamp instead of the bulb (the fuse block now held 8 fuses instead of just 6), and the glass lense was also changed at this time. Since headlight assemblies mount horizontally on a bus, instead of a bug's vertical orientation, the chrome trim ring on a bus assembly is not the same as on a bug. On a bus, the trim ring has a small hole drilled in the bottom edge to allow water to drain out (see photo on the right, the hole is circled in red). Bus headlight assemblies are interchangable between the left and right side of the bus, but because of the weep hole at the bottom of the bus trim ring, a left bus trim ring is not the same as a right bus trim ring. So here's the plan, if you're restoring an early bus (i.e., 1959 or earlier), look for the buckets that hold a bulb instead of a sealed beam, then find trim rings and glass lenses to match. If your bus is a 1960 model or after, you can use bug or bus buckets that hold a sealed beam and have adjusting screws at the 1:00 and 7:00 positions, then find glass lenses with the 1:00/7:00 notches for the adjusting screws. You can use 1:00/7:00 bug or bus chrome trim rings, either will fit just fine, but really, you should try to find a pair of left and right trim rings with the "weep hole" drilled in the bottom unless you want puddled water to rust-out your trim rings.

5.   The "wire clips" that secure the sealed beam into the tilting ring and secure the the chrome trim ring to the bucket (to hold the lense in place) are tricky to attach. Wear safety goggles when removing or installing them, because they have a tendancy to fly away at amazing speed. Try to use original ones if you have em, because they seem to stay in place better than the after-market ones. Check out the metal tab on your car's body (it's about 1 3/4" long on a bus), opposite the threaded hole where the large screw secures the headlight assembly. The chrome trim ring hooks over this tab, so make sure the wire clips on the backside of the trim ring aren't in this area, or the headlight assembly won't be tight against the the body and the bucket could come loose from your vehicle. Try to find an original bolt to secure the headlight assembly to the vehicle. On a bus, this is a slot head, pan-head bolt, 20mm long, with 6mm threads. Place a 1/4" long nylon spacer "tube" between the headlight trim ring tab and the body, and then tighten down the bolt.

6.   When you restore your headlight assemblies, don't forget to buy a new rubber gasket (part# 111-941-119) for each lense, to seal the lense against the bucket. These gaskets will appear to be way too small to fit around the edge of the lense, so lay each gasket in the sun for awhile to soften them up, before attempting to wrap them around a lense. While the gasket is softening up in the heat, clean both sides of the lense with Windex. The gasket has 2 different sides. One side is smooth and the other side has a groove straddled by a wide ridge and a narrow ridge. When you stretch the gasket onto the glass, center it on the edge of the glass, with hanginging over the "smooth" side against the glass. The wide ridge on the opposite side of the gasket should be on the "inside" face of the lense. Then fold the gasket down on each side of the glass to "wrap" both sides of the lense edge with gasket. When you start to assemble the headlight pieces, make sure you orient the glass lense in the bucket so the "ribbed" section of the lense is towards the outside edge of the bus and the smooth section of the lense is towards the center of the bus.

7.   The tilting ring that holds the sealed beam in place, pivots on 2 short rubber plugs that are pressed into the sides of the bucket. When you disassemble your headlight buckets, these rubber plugs will probably fall apart. New plugs are no longer available, but a 3/8" length of 5/16" o.d. rubber vacuum line or fuel hose will work fine.

8.   When you restore your headlight assemblies, also remember to replace the black rubber gasket that attaches to the rim of the socket in the car's body, to properly seal the headlight assembly to the car body. This gasket has a 'T' cross-section. Stretch the gasket around the metal flange on the body, so the "head" of the 'T' is against the body and the "leg" of the 'T' is sticking straight out away from the body.

9.   The 6 Volt sealed beam headlamp with the 3 metal tabs on the backside, is VW part# 111-941-161A, but it should be available through your neighborhood Auto Parts store as Philips# 6006. The 12 volt sealed beam headlamp is Wagner# 6014 (cost $3.99). Both of these sealed beam lamps are high beam/low beam units.

10.   If the inside of your buckets are rusty or discolored, repainting this area will really improve the look of your headlights. Disassemble each unit and remove the parking lamp socket. Sand the inside of the bucket with progressively finer sand paper (to 120 or 150 grit) until it's smooth and even. Then mask off the outside of the bucket to protect it from overspray. You can spray the inside of the bucket with light gray paint, but I feel that using a light gray primer (like Rust-Oleum "Light Gray Primer" #2081) instead, gives a much more authentic appearance.

11.   New chrome trim rings are available from most of the after-market suppliers. But don't fall for the cheapo ones because the thin chrome finish will quickly turn to rust.
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