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The Case Of The Friggen' Headlight Switch

Sometimes, what should be a very simple repair turns into a nightmare. Getting a working headlight switch (which, by the way, was used on pretty much every GM car and truck from the mid 60's through the late 80's) in my El Camino has been one of these projects.

One of the first non-drivability related problems I noticed on the car was that when you hit a bump, the dash lights would either flicker or they would go off completely until you tapped on the knob for the headlight switch. There were also a few dead spots in the dimmer part of the switch so I knew it was time for a new headlight switch..

During one of my many trips to the local AutoZone for parts, I picked up a new switch. Since the car was running badly when I got it, and the dash lights were the only lights affected, I had the switch for a few months prior to installing it. As with most parts of this nature, the warranty period is pretty short (compared to most of the parts AutoZone sells) at 90 days. This, of course, means that the switch was doomed to fail since I was installing it way outside of the warranty period.

Once installed, this switch proved to be worse than the one that was in the car (you actually had to keep pressure on the knob for the dash lights to work). Figuring I had just gotten the statistically bad switch, I went back and picked up another (which I of course had to buy since the first was well out of warranty). This switch was equally bad so I returned within 5 minutes of purchase (I drove the car since it was daylight and tested it in the parking lot).

This switch was made by Wells. I'm not sure when AutoZone switched from Standard brand (which is what I have in both Ramblers and both have performed flawlessly since day one) to Wells, but Wells obviously has some serious quality control problems. Don't take this as bad-mouthing AutoZone because it really isn't, but I was very surprised that I got two very bad switches from the same place.

So with my dash still torn apart, I headed for the local Smyth (they're part a Parts Plus store) which is the store I go to when the part absolutly has to be perfect the first time. Smyth sells Echlin brand headlight switches (same brand as Napa) and I've had very good luck with Echlin products in the past. I again did the test in the parking lot and everything seemed to be working well so I headed home and put the dash back together (this was sometime in the late August/early September timeframe) and all was well with it until a few days after Christmas when I decided to drive the car to dinner since it was still warm from the driving I'd done earlier that day.

When I pulled on the lights, the headlights didn't come one at all. Staring in disbelief, I tried them again and still nothing. The next day, I tried them again and they came on. Since it was to cold to mess with them (and the switch was again out of warranty), I just let them be. A few days later I ended up almost having to leave the car at my grandpa's house because the lights wouldn't come on (I really intended to leave before it got dark but you know how that goes). I opened the car door to shut it off (I was going under the theory that this was tempurature related and I had the car running to warm up the interior) and the lights came on. I took that as a good sign and drove home before they decided to quit working. Since then, I've checked them several times and somethimes they work, sometimes they don't.

So this Monday (Feburary 4, 2002), I took the dash apart. I found a few wires that were not pushed into the connector all the way. I pushed them in and tested the lights and they of course came on. Tuesday, I was planning on driving the car to work. It was dark when I was leaving so of course, the headlights didn't work. That night, I came home, got out the service manual and my multi-meter and started checking the switch. I found that by moving it into certain positions, I could get the lights to blink on and off. Thinking I had more loose wires somewhere, I spent the next hour fiddling with it with no improvement. I finally gave up and pulled the switch from the car.

After dinner, I took it apart to see what was going on inside. The problem with the switch was the circuit breaker wasn't properly assembled. I messed with it trying to get it to work properly but gave up on that after I broke the body putting the cover back on.

Today (Thursday), I left work a little early and picked up a switch from another auto parts store. This one is made by Borg Warner. It weighs more than either of the other ones I've bought so it has to be better, right? I installed this switch soon after I got it and so far, so good. Hopefully, this will be the last time I replace it. I guess I'll find out in another 91 days.