Plastic covers for headlights are pricey. Here's how to fix them yourself.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2004

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 1997 Caravan, and the plastic covers for the headlights are becoming cloudy from the debris, salt and road dirt that get thrown up at them. To me, this is a safety problem, and the manufacturer should have known that this would happen with time. The lights are getting dimmer from the clouding of the plastic. Do you suppose the local Dodge dealer should replace these for free or for some small fee? Has there been some kind of complaint about this? I can't be the only one to notice this and be concerned. -- Cary

TOM: Yeah, I would ask the dealer to replace them for free, Cary. And once he stops laughing, consider some of our other ideas.

RAY: In the old days, headlight bulbs looked like large floodlights. Their lenses were made of glass, which didn't get scratched and foggy. When you replaced an old-style headlight, you replaced the whole thing, including the lens.

TOM: But then aerodynamics and weight became more important, and car makers switched to permanent plastic lenses that protect the headlight bulbs. When you replace a bulb these days, you just replace the little bulb itself from behind, and the lens stays put.

RAY: And like you say, over many thousands of miles, the lenses can get scratched up, cloudy or broken. And as you've probably discovered, Cary, they're expensive to replace!

TOM: New ones can cost hundreds of dollars -- each. Yeah, each!

RAY: So here are our suggestions. The cheapest approach is to try some very fine polishing compound. There's one that's even sold specifically for this purpose. It's called Mother's Plastic Polish, and you can look for it at auto-parts stores. If you can't find it, other people we know have had success using a fine-grade polishing compound (like 3M Perfect-It II Rubbing Compound -- Fine Cut) and buffing the lens with a foam buffer or terry-cloth towel. If your lenses are in really bad shape, these polishing compounds are worth a try. You have nothing to lose, right? You can't see anyway!

TOM: A second option is to try to find a set at a junkyard. You'll need to find a vehicle with fewer miles than your own, or at least with fewer high-speed miles.

RAY: And the third option is to go to a body shop and ask those guys about getting aftermarket lenses. The replacement lenses from the dealer are very expensive. But in a number of cases, our nearby body shop has been able to get us cheaper, aftermarket versions for certain popular cars. Or maybe they just pull them off other cars in the mall parking lot and put 'em in boxes. Hmm.

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