There is little doubt that the manufacturing processes for vehicles and their components have evolved mightily since the 1980s. Lighter, more affordable but durable materials have revolutionized many areas inside and outside of modern vehicles. While most manufacturing decisions have ultimately benefited car companies and their customers, there are examples that have caused issues instead. In fact, one change has made it difficult for drivers to see when driving after dark.

Anyone who has looked at a selection of modern used vehicles likely knows the problem. A car or truck can look great from bumper to bumper — the windows are clean, the carpets are spotless and the exterior paint is buffed and shining — but there’s one major issue upfront. The plastic lenses on both headlights are foggy and white. Unfortunately, this problem now can be found across multiple vehicle makes and models.

Over the decades, all car manufacturers left glass headlights behind, and they now use plastic instead. This manufacturing change and its consequences have created a new service that many detail operations and carwashes with detailing services have added to their menus. Today, headlight restoration is a lucrative option for operators looking to expand their list of services.

Greg Woodbury, owner of Greg’s Mobile Car Wash & Detailing, based in the Dallas, Texas, area, is an operator that has benefitted from adding a headlight restoration service to his menu. Noting that replaceable glass headlights have become a thing of the past, Woodbury points out that fogging was never a problem previously because of the headlights’ glass construction. That’s not the case anymore.

“You can have a car that’s just four or five years old — maybe even younger — and the headlights start to have fogging issues,” adds Woodbury.

A restoration education

Though carwashes and detailers are in the business of making vehicles look great, the problems with headlight fogging are more than cosmetic — they also affect safety. “If you’ve ever driven a car that has really bad shading, the headlights barely work,” Woodbury says.

Another factor that adds a sense of urgency for customers to purchase a headlight restoration service would be a state safety inspection. Woodbury shares that some customers he’s serviced had previously failed an inspection due to the cloudy lens covers. Customers who have an old vehicle can find that the entire headlight is oxidized and uniformly shaded over.

When it comes to servicing cloudy headlights, an operator will notice that some headlights belong in two extreme categories, according to Woodbury. First would be vehicles with severe fogging. Thankfully, these can be easy to restore because the headlights are uniformly oxidized. The other extreme includes customers with slight headlight fogging. Of course, these are the easiest to service, and these headlights can be made to look nearly perfect.

That said, the majority of customers will have headlights somewhere between the two extremes. “Their headlights are in an in-between stage — part oxidation and part crackling of the cell covering. It makes the service very difficult,” Woodbury reveals. “I have to be honest with customers on what my expectation will be; it’s not going to look perfect.”

Knowing what to expect based on an initial inspection is a skill Woodbury learned via experience. In Texas, the sun beats down, and the rays damage headlight film. Sometimes, one headlight will be worse than the other. In fact, Woodbury can tell when one side of a vehicle is parked in the sun for most of the day because it will be more damaged than the other side.

Woodbury explains that headlight restoration customers need to be educated to a certain extent when it comes to expected results. This service is not like other offerings. Often, a detail or carwash worker can use the right products and invest time and elbow grease to make an older vehicle look really nice — maybe even almost brand new. In some cases, headlight restoration can’t create the same type of results.

Spreading the word

A few years ago, Woodbury began marketing his business with a Groupon offer for common detailing services. While it generated business and helped develop some lasting relationships with customers, Woodbury felt the detailing offer needed to change. In the end, he was investing a lot of labor for little money. “I was talking with Groupon, my representative there, and he asked, ‘Do you do headlight restoration? Let’s do a headlight Groupon.’ They helped me come up with the idea.”

Greg’s Mobile Car Wash & Detailing has offered a headlight restoration service Groupon — priced $49 — for approximately a year. Woodbury notes that the offer has received a lot more attention than the previous detailing Groupon. Further, the Groupon for the headlight service helps generate not just headlight business but detailing business as well. Frequently, customers who purchase the headlight offer will want to purchase a full detail.

Other times, customers will use Groupon to find businesses and schedule a service, but they may not be interested in buying the Groupon offer. “One time, I had somebody call me, and she wasn’t interested in the Groupon. I said, ‘So wait, let me get this straight. Were you just using Groupon like Google?’ And she said, ‘Yeah. Pretty much.’”

Even with the Groupon offer, the idea of educating a customer about the results so he or she knows what to expect is still important. Woodbury recalls an example with one challenging headlight restoration. He restored one of the headlights, brought the customer outside and said, “I think this is the best that I’m going to be able to do because this car is too new. I’m not comfortable sanding down your entire headlight unnecessarily. I don’t want to do that.” The customer was understanding but wasn’t happy with the results. Since it was a Groupon deal, Woodbury performed a restoration on the second headlight and told the customer to simply return the Groupon offer.

Customer expectations

Woodbury estimates that at least 50 percent of his customers either ask about headlight restoration or purchase the service. Not every client wants to buy the service, and sometimes Woodbury even suggests that customers delay having the service. “I will recommend to them that they hold off until they get worse.”

This service suggestion is another example of educating the car care customer. In some cases, just because the headlights start to look bad, that doesn’t mean it’s the best time to perform a full restoration. As the restoration process literally sands layers off of a factory product, performing the service at the first sign of oxidation is not always the best thing to do, according to Woodbury.

Further, customers should understand that there is a continued expectation of maintenance with today’s headlights. While a detailer can take a foggy headlight and make it look nearly brand new, in about a year it will start to fade again, Woodbury states. The good news is that correcting the new fading just takes a quick buff. “Just buff it with a little bit of compound and a pad, and it’s back to new again. I have customers that I’ve had for a while where, if I see it start to do that, I just give it a quick buff and it’s back to looking good,” he explains.

Learning how to restore

Learning the headlight restoration process is similar to learning other car care services: The first steps are practice, practice and more practice. Woodbury reveals that he started out practicing on his own cars and on a friend’s car. After these practice cases, he was “pretty comfortable” doing it for a customer. After a few years of frequently restoring headlights, Woodbury can look at a customer’s situation and predict a restoration’s results.

Woodbury notes that there are numerous YouTube videos and how-to restoration articles available to operators today. Even so, the glut of information can be a double-edged sword. “I think, in one regard, there’s so much out there and so many different opinions that you can get confused on what’s the best and most efficient way of doing it,” he asserts.

Thus, Woodbury turns to resources he has trusted in the past to learn new skills or update his services. “For instance, when I first started doing headlight restoration, I would use an electric drill, which is pretty common,” Woodbury recalls. “I saw a detailer that I trust and respect on YouTube, and he was just doing it all by hand; he preferred it by hand. So, I tried doing it by hand. I found out, at least with my experience, it’s a better method. It’s just as fast as using a drill, but you have better control.”

As Woodbury is a hands-on operator, he has only trained one other person to restore headlights. “If I do have someone helping me, generally if I’m there, I’ll do the headlights, and we’ll detail the cars together. Headlights come in so many different shapes and sizes, you never know what you’re going to get,” Woodbury concludes. “You don’t want to send a new guy to do it without practice first.”


Thomas Hawkins is a freelance contributor.