As I edged ever closer to being “done” with dialing-in the Tacoma, one of the last things I still needed to address as part of my de-chroming process is the exterior lighting. More specifically, making changes to the head, tail, fog and mirror light housings and upgrading the H11 halogen low beam & fog light bulbs to better quality bulbs.
This was the final result:
The truck ended up with blacked bezel / TRD Pro Original Equipment (OE) replacement headlights from DEPO, a set of black bezel / TRD Pro Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) headlights from Toyota and my own black-out treatment to the switchback turn signal lenses in the rear view mirrors. The fog lights, I gave up on an aftermarket solution… at least for now. But, they do have much-improved, yellow H11 halogen bulbs so function was fully-addressed, even if form was not.
The stock headlight assemblies on the Tacoma trucks, with the exception of their top-of-line off-road TRD Pro, have a chrome bezel. So long as you keep all of the chrome emblems and other touches of chrome, polished aluminum, etc. on your truck, they look fine. However, if you’re looking to tone down the brightwork by removing those shiny bits of decoration, you have a couple of options:
- You can buy a set of the blacked-out TRD Pro headlights from Toyota for $2,000
- You can buy a set of used or salvaged TRD pro headlights off ebay for $900
- You can buy a set of Original Equipment (OE) replacement lights that look very much like the Toyota lights but only cost $435 TO $600
- You can buy aftermarket lights that look great and have great features, but are also of really questionable quality for $300 – $600
- You can modify the original headlights by removing the lens, sealant and paint over the chrome, then re-assemble the lights for a cost of about $50, so long as you don’t damage your lights in the process, which entails the use of an oven: yes, an oven.
The Black Headlight Modification, aka BLHM:
My original plan was to go with the least expensive modification, also known as the “BLHM” or the Black Headlight Modification.” This entails removing the headlights from the truck, removing all of the exterior hardware and bulbs, and then warming the assemblies in an oven so the sealant used to bond the lens to the bezel will reach a temperature where the bond can be broken. Yes, it’s a bit out there for the average vehicle owner who doesn’t relish the thought of taking apart their new vehicles. But, as regular readers have already observed, I have no qualms about taking apart my truck, motorcycles, bicycles, you name it.
However, given the relatively high replacement cost of these sealed headlight assemblies, I decided to purchase a slightly damaged headlight from a salvage yard for $49.99 that I could use for a trial run of the BLHM process and it went well. Based on what other’s have suggested, it was 15 min in the oven @ 300°F and then work around the lens to break the seal using a wide-bladed gasket scraper. Back into the oven for 8 minutes, then back at the bead with the gasket scraper and then a panel removal tool. Once I “quickly” had a corner of the lens pulled up and away from the housing I used the panel removal tool plus a firm grip pull to separate the two halves; they came apart quite cleanly. I was actually surprised almost none of the sealant came off on the lens. In fact, I was very surprised to see the sealant still had a glossy bead all around the housing and had simply released vs. becoming a gooey, stringy mess the way butyl or silicone rubber does.
The next step is the one that usually makes folks who attempt the BLHM to question their motives: removing the sealant from the channel. I had a couple false starts where I attempted to remove the sealant under less than ideal conditions. However, what I quickly learned was there seems to be a sweet spot in the temperature range where the perma-seal likes to release from the housing and for me it was in the 77°F – 95°F range. Anything below or above that is problematic, i.e., the sealant will not release from the housing and comes apart. In the sweet spot, it comes out cleanly and relatively intact, albeit in segments. Patience is the key. To get and keep the headlight in the sweet spot range I opted to put the headlight housing back in the oven at 250°F for 10 minutes. Once it came out I’d wait for the sealant temperature to drop to around 110°F and then use a medium-width screw driver blade to separate the sealant away from the housing with one hand while using the other to pull the sealant away nearly intact. However, once the part cooled into room temperature (~ 72°F) I could tell it needed to be heated back up so it went back into the oven for 5 minutes, then was allowed to cool into the sweet spot range before I started working the sealant in earnest. I’m guessing it would have taken the initial heating + 2-3 additional trips back to the oven for the entire sealant removal process on a single headlight, or about an hour per light to remove the sealant. Painting the bezel satin black with Krylon Fusion paint was a no-brainer and took very little prep beyond a light scuff and cleaning and taping off a chrome band around the projector light housing.
So, the $49.00 expense for the salvage headlight, including shipping, was well worth it as messing around with a headlight I knew was a throw-away allowed me to come way up on the learning curve, especially with the sealant removal process.
However, based on what I learned — and despite my high-confidence level in being able to do this modification — I had to ask myself if I really wanted to screw around with the stock headlights on my truck. The most significant cost is my time, effort and any costs related to an appearance by ‘Murphy’ during the process which also puts the truck out of commission until I could fix my problem or get a replacement light, etc.
There was one more wrinkle in the BLHM decision process, and that was the condition of my existing headlights. As I spent more time looking at my headlights I realized the right headlight had streaks on the inside of the lens, most likely some type of post condensation issue where water formed inside the lens and then ran down over the anti-fog coating creating streaks that even with the lens removed would be problematic to deal with without damaging the anti-fog coating. Thankfully, Toyota replaced the headlight under warranty. A close inspection of the left headlight revealed it was in better shape than the left, but still showing a lot of hazing on the inside of the lens and a light splattering of condensation staining on inside top of the lens. So, now I had to ask myself, do I want to spend the time and effort to black-out a mis-matched set of headlights, where one of the lights was now showing 2 years of wear & tear while the other was brand new?
Exercising My Options: I Bought a Set of DEPO TRD Pro Lights
Based on everything I learned on the BLHM test project, not wanting to do the actual modification on my only set of headlights without a back-up plan, and the condition of my headlights I decided to go ahead and purchase a set of the DEPO original equipment (OE) TRD Pro lights and install them, freeing up my original headlights for either the BLHM process on a far less time-constrained schedule or to sell them individually and defray the cost of the DEPO lights.
The minute I made that decision I could tell it was the right one, so $529 and 4 days later a re-seller in California had a set of DEPO headlights sitting at the house, noting shipping on these things is about $70 of the cost.
DEPO is one of those companies that make auto replacement parts insurance companies require repair shops to use as a cost-savings to the insurance company. There’s no doubt about it, factory-level quality parts, aka, Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts are a lot more expensive than the copies made by Original Equipment (OE) companies, which often time use less expensive materials, processes and don’t carry the overhead cost of having had to develop the original tooling to make parts for the manufacturer. Usually, OE parts look pretty good, especially if they get painted, i.e., body parts. However, as you get into things like lights, electronics, etc., they don’t always look or perform as well as the OEM parts. When I describe my DEPO tail light experience in the next segment of this article, you’ll see what I’m talking about. However, the DEPO headlights I received were quite nice and match up well to the factory assembly in terms of the materials, fabrication, assembly and fit/finish quality.
After they passed my quality inspection, I went ahead and prepared both the old lights and the new lights for the exchange by covering the lenses with painter’s tape. This is a must-do as these lightweight, plastic lenses are easily scratched and there are all kinds of opportunities to do just that while they’re being handled, removed and installed. After that it was just a matter of :
- removing the truck’s grille,
- taking out the side shrouds,
- loosening up the lower bumper cover,
- releasing the front wheel fender flares enough to gain access to some headlight fasteners,
- unplugging the lights, and then
- carefully lifting the lights out of the front metal work.
The new lights are direct replacements, so everything just plugs back in. All told, it took me about 90 minutes because I wasn’t hurried and took my time.
The appearance of the blacked-out bezel was exactly what I was looking for. While I would have preferred a satin or black finish instead of the gloss black finish spec’d by Toyota on the TRD Pro headlights, the gloss black looks fine and matches the TRD Pro tail lights now on the truck as well. Again, just a great look but also very stock aside from the color. I also upgraded the stock H11 halogen bulbs to a higher-quality OSRAM 55 watt, 3600K bulb legal for street use per DOT guidelines. They have better optical qualities that provide a slightly whiter light vs. the stock bulbs and a more well-defined beam pattern.
There are other, aftermarket headlight manufacturers making all kinds of exotic headlights for the Tacoma trucks, noting these little trucks are perhaps one of the most-often modified vehicles out there short of a Harley-Davidson. As much time, energy and expense as I’ve put into “personalizing” our Tacoma, it pales in comparison to what a lot of enthusiasts are doing with just $10k in suspension, wheels and tires, never mind as much or more going into custom front & rear bumpers, carrier systems for tents, recovery gear and the like: it’s breathtaking, to be sure.
Like the headlights on a non-TRD Pro Tacoma, the tail lights on our Tacoma also had a chrome-look bezel under the red and clear lens, noting there is a window at the bottom of the lens that allows the chrome bezel around the back-up lights to show through. It’s not a bad look, but with the headlights being swapped-out for the black bezel TRD Pro style, changing the tail lights to match was both a logical and aesthetically appropriate change. Once again, the same options existed for doing this, including:
- cutting-open the tail light and blacking-out the bezel yourself,
- buying the rather pricey OEM lights,
- buying less expensive DEPO OE lights or
- one of the other aftermarket offerings.
DEPO OE TRD Pro Tail Lights vs. Toyota OEM TRD Pro Tail Lights
I decided to go with the popular, well-reviewed DEPO OE TRD Pro tail lights and ordered a set from a re-seller on the east coast. They arrived a couple of days later and much to my surprise, they were a huge disappointment. The quality of the material and the fabrication process was nowhere near close to the OEM parts and, as a result, the lights didn’t look quite right. The hot melt seam had an almost white color which made it stand out quite prominently against the Barcelona Red color of our Tacoma. Add to that the poor quality of the bonding, especially the right-hand light, and there was no question in my mind these had to go back. In fact, I had to drop by our local Toyota dealer to take a look at a TRD Pro model on the lot just to confirm what the lights were supposed to look like, as I was now even questioning if the factory lights would look right on the truck. Sure enough, the “real” TRD Pro lights looked very different, in a good way.
Thankfully, the re-seller was excellent and agreed the right light was not 1st quality; in fact, he was surprised at how bad it looked. But, he also quickly processed the return, sent out a return shipping label and then credited my account as soon as the lights arrived back at their location.
After confirming the Toyota OEM TRD Pro tail lights had the right look I was after for our truck, I went ahead and ordered a set of “the real thing” from Sparks Toyota in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Valentines Day. They seemed to have the best pricing and were relatively local. They processed and shipped the lights with blazing speed, and they arrived two days later. The quality and look of the lights was exactly what I’d expected. Well, almost. I must still have a little black cloud over my head as the right tail light had a flaw in the hot melt bead seam and it was not something I could over look.
So, while the lights look great, they came right back off and the right-hand tail light went back to Myrtle Beach and was quickly replaced at no additional cost to me. The replacement arrived in fine shape as I could tell they’d taken the time to open the box and inspected the light to make sure it was 1st quality. All said and done, I’m really glad I went ahead and purchased the OEM lights, as they just look so far superior to the OE model and, well, I “had” to do something with the taillights, right?
SIDE MIRROR SWITCH BACK SIGNALS
After changing the head and tail lights from chrome to blacked-out bezels, the only other bit of obvious chrome trim left on the body of the truck were what are referred to as the switch back turn signals nested in the left and right hand review mirrors. The default solution for Tacoma owners has been to replace them with aftermarket lights that are heavily tinted and otherwise blacked-out. However, at present, the small company that has been producing these is awaiting a new shipment. As an interim solution I decided to see if I couldn’t achieve some level of de-chroming the mirrors using left-over black-out trim tape.
I removed signals from the mirrors — a relatively easy process so long as you know what you’re doing — then cleaned them and applied two 1/2″ strips of the black-out tape to the outer lens so the chrome strips under the lens on the housing were hidden. I’d considered separating the lens from the housing by using a razor blade to break the epoxy seal so I could apply the black-out tape directly to the chromed housing so the tape would be under the clear lens, but since this would most likely be a temporary solution putting it on the outside of the lens would be sufficient. The tape has similar properties to shrink-wrap tubing in that when you heat it up it bonds and conforms. After getting a nice clean line over the chrome I held the lens under my halogen work light on the drafting / work table in my office to activate the bonding characteristics of the tape then trimmed away the excess. After that it was just a matter of re-installing the light assembly in the mirror housing, pressing the cover back on and I was done. Less than an hour for both mirrors and less than $1 in material., no fuss and no muss. From two feet away, they look good even with the clear lens and the black satin finish of the tape looks right at home on the Tacoma.
As I mentioned, this may only end up being a temporary solution until the completely blacked-out, aftermarket switch back lights are available. On the bright side, it takes all of 5 minutes to swap these lights out.
There were two compelling reasons to replace the fog lights on the truck; one is a good reason and the other not as good. The truly good reason is help improve the quality and effectiveness of the lighting, whereas the not as good reason is to make the fog lights a closer match to the headlights instead of being a pair of chrome discs stuck in the grille of the truck.
Better Lighting is the Key
I’m not sure if it’s the high hood design or what, but the lighting on the Tacoma trucks is not great, and definitely not as good as it was on the Tundra. I’m not looking to blind on-coming traffic with some of the non-DOT approved, European-based LED and HID upgrades a lot of people put in their trucks, cars or motorcycles without really understanding how lighting works. What I’m after is better quality stock wattage H11 halogen bulbs in using a yellow version of the same higher-quality H11 halogen low-beam bulbs to eliminate the reflection / bounce back off of fog, rain, snow, etc., while also adding a slightly wide and longer light pattern with a cut-off line to ensure they don’t blind on-coming traffic.
Two Swings & Two Misses
I ended up ordering and returning two different types of aftermarket fog light housings, as they both had awful optical characteristics. Yes, they looked quite nice once they were installed but I certainly didn’t need a novelty light that couldn’t be used as intended.
As an example, the following photo is the light pattern from the stock fog lights that come on a Tacoma, including the stock bulbs. Note the very well-defined upper and lower cut-off lines and the broad swath of strong light?
Here’s what the 1st set of replacement lights looked like. Yeah, not exactly what you’d expect in any respect. The strange round beams of lights were actually holes in the light baffled inside the lights that, well… shouldn’t have been there. Just awful stuff.
The second set which used a housing that was “similar” to the stock model already on the truck was equally bad in terms of the light pattern due to cost-cutting short-cuts in the design of the housing.
On the bright side, both of the resellers sent out return shipping labels and processed full refunds. So, at least for now, I’ll stick with the stock housings but have upgraded the bulbs to a yellow, legal 55W / 2500k halogen bulb. By legal, this means I’m running the DOT approved bulb wattage for a halogen H11 bulb, not some type of “off-road use only” 75W or 95W super-bright bulb that blinds on-coming motorists and you’ll see on so many vehicles. Or worse yet, super bright LED bulbs installed in stock housings with reflectors not designed for LED bulbs… which also blind on coming motorists while providing the user with marginal visibility.
PLEASE BUY MY OLD LIGHTS!
After living with the new lights for a couple of weeks I decided there’s no reason to hang on to the older, original equipment manufacturer lights. They’d just end up sitting in boxes in the attic taking up space and collecting dust. So, while they’re still “current” and can be used on a very large number of 2016 through 2019 Toyota Tacoma trucks, I’ve put them up for sale on ebay at what I think are reasonable prices. I say that as most of the “used” lights I see were taken out of crash-damaged trucks and have some type of broken tabs or cracked lenses that have been repaired. Mine are A1 quality so I’m hoping there’s a market for those and have priced them for less than I should ask, but enough to get them gone sooner rather than later.