How "reverse camouflage" helps my small car remain visible in trafficJoe Essid, Hemmings Motor News | March 13, 2023
In the comments sections on stories at Hemmings, we euphemize something called “modern traffic.” To be blunt, it means - so often in the U.S. anyway - distracted drivers breaking the posted speed limit in large, tall vehicles. Even a car with less bulk than a hurtling Ford Super Duty can kill you. In my case: twice, a Dodge Charger. There’s no changing the physics of p=mv, but one can do things to be more visible.
Two near misses
My first brush with Newton’s ironclad Second Law happened in 1980, when a pre-grunge, Neil Young version of me sat behind the wheel of my original Buick Apollo. At a three-way intersection, I ran a hand through my long tangled hair and turned off a major road, just as a blindingly orange third-generation Charger ran a stop sign. Might have been a ‘73, with those triple opera windows and white vinyl top. Yes, being a car guy, I noticed this right before I would have T-boned the driver’s door.
A split second later, I floored my Buick’s anemic GM 350. It did have low-end torque, and that may have saved my day. I swerved to cut in front of the Dodge, missing it by less than a foot, then braked hard to avoid an oncoming vehicle, the make and model of which now escape me.
How history repeats itself!
My second near-experiment with the Second Law of Motion occurred last year. As a 60-mph wind blew over my bald head, I barreled down a two-lane in a black Miata we call Marco. I’ve a special fondness for Marco because I used it to learn how to drive stick.
Imagine my flashback to teen terror when a white Charger, of the reborn four-door sort, turned directly in front of me. I had perhaps 40 ft before T-boning the passenger side.
A Miata handles better than any stock Apollo, and with no time to brake, I zigged into the left lane to see a full-size pickup’s battering-ram grille coming at me. The driver – bless him! -- saw what was going on and stood on his brakes so I could zag back into my lane. When I cleared him, I think 15 ft separated our sheet metal from a collision at a combined speed of 100 mph. You can do the math to calculate our momentum.
Thank you, Miata handling and my time-honed art of paying attention. In 1974, when mom taught me to drive, she constantly reminded me “Joe, you have to drive everyone else’s car, too.”
The Charger’s driver? Onward, not even knowing what had nearly occurred. No horns, no screeching of tires thanks to ABS in the pickup and two attentive drivers.
When I got home, I decided to sell Marco. I wanted another Miata in a brighter color. Sadly, a Carfax report revealed what I had been too stupid to check when I went over the Miata: several owners back, it had been rebuilt (well) from a salvage title. Its value dropped faster than a cryptocurrency portfolio.
So I was stuck with a car that appears to become invisible under certain conditions. Could I add a giant Hemi-Orange hazard flag to the radio aerial? Sure (but no).
Paint the entire car bright pink?
“Hard no,” as my students say. Yet I suddenly had a plan, beyond following my mom’s maxim.
Striper Joe tries reverse camo
We recently covered an interesting topic: Do stripes help some cars look better? My need was more primal: Do stripes in a bright color mean someone can see me in the Miata and not squish me like a bug?
A contrast stripe works like reverse camouflage: If camo tricks the eye into making an object vanish, then the reverse camo of bright stripes might make a black object stand out against a dark gray road surface, gray tree trunks, and green canopy. I began keeping track of vehicles I noticed casually versus those I don’t. Cowl stripes really seem to help, if their contrast proves great enough.
I hoped. Then I said “Okay, how about stripes and better daytime lights?” My wife crossed her arms and nodded.
Thus I had a plan. If you want to upgrade your classic’s lights or add vinyl stripes, read on.
We once had a local shop called Striper John, and we older car guys made fun of tuner-era cars on which John had gone to work. We’d say that the stripe job and other add-ons ended up being worth more than the Civic.
Whenever we saw a small Japanese car with wild graphics, my buddy Devlin and I joked about Pep Boys racing-stripe tape, of the sort we’d used in the mid-1980s to put cowl stripes over the blue-and-mustard ones that came with his AMC Hornet, bought at an auction from the local phone company. Yes, children, back when dinosaurs walked the earth, we had one phone company and communications devices that worked over something called land lines.
Devlin saw a photo of my current stripe job and noted that duct tape had come a long way since 1985.
Little did we know how much “tape tech” and adhesives have changed in four decades, but the art of doing it well still takes a lot of time. Striper John put a lot of painstaking work into applying vinyl stripes. If you’ve not done it, please heed my warnings.
I’d wanted something like the bonnet-to-boot stripes that had been on my Cooper S hardtop and convertible - wide and highly visible. I picked a bright red eight-inch stripe with enough extra in the roll to give me more material if (when) I made a mistake. The plan? One stripe off-center on the passenger side. The kit advised wetting down the stripe with soapy water from a spray bottle, backing side up, while laid on a wet car before peeling the backing and applying the stripe wet, then using an included squeegee to get out bubbles.
This part proved simple. The stripes moved around easily to marks I’d premeasured to keep them aligned. That too was easy, using some masking tape at intervals on the bodywork.
Yes, that all sounds trivial and it looked good, until I hit the wrong curve on the body. Immediately, the stripe stopped laying flat on the wet paintwork. A small corner would poke up. Stretching it only made it worse. So I removed the stripe and played with leftover pieces of various widths, until I realized that a three-inch stripe would work perfectly on the Miata’s curves with a one-inch stripe beside it. Using my wife’s cutting table for fabric plus a T-square left from when I failed out of engineering school, I razor-cut my big stripe into sections and resumed. This yielded about an hour of feeling proud of myself. Then…bubbles.
No matter how careful, you’ll get a few. The smallest, after more squeegee-time and heat-gun drying, got poked and flattened almost invisibly with an airbrush needle, the finest one I own.
Before that, however, I used a heat gun–carefully–to warm the vinyl and set the stripe in place. This stop eliminated bubbles near the edges of the stripes. That detail proved essential, as I found that for ends wrapping around the edge of a hood or trunk, natural drying will not make vinyl adhesive stick. The gun made it tacky, and when the adhesive cured, everything looked factory installed.
One caveat: too much heat will melt a stripe. I avoided that, but I did score a second-degree burn on my wrist from brushing a still-hot gun. That will leave a scar I’ll carry for a long time. Use gloves or if you switch to working bare-handed on a stripe, put the gun down far from you while it cools down, as you reach for a tool.
Will these vinyl add-ons hold up? So far, they have done well on 55-mph drives. If they peel off? Maybe they will, but I have half a roll left.
With hood and rear stripes done, I moved on to the headlamps before waxing the car’s fading paint job.
What is a lumen?
I stupidly thought adding brighter daytime lights would be the hard part. How wrong I was. Compared to striping, I nailed down brighter headlights in an hour.
With a set of foglamps in hand, I pondered when and how I drive the car, almost always in daylight. My foglamps proved a little tedious for running wires and moving the bracket for the license plate, so I focused on replacement bulbs for the existing headlights instead, a bolt-on improvement.
My theory? LED lights, with a bright white and not yellow-white of halogen bulbs, would make excellent daytime running lights. At night, however, LED lights can pose hazards if they get directed into the eyes of oncoming drivers.
That particular hazard, in any case, seems remote for a Miata. Mine sits so close to the pavement that my lights could miss the lower bumper of a new F-150.
All that won’t help if a state deems LEDs illegal when added to an older car. Virginia allows them as long as 1) the lights are white or amber, and 2) they must follow our other headlight laws, namely “not to project a glaring or dazzling light to persons approaching [the vehicle].”
How bright are LEDs? That depends on the set. Stock lights on most new cars run 2000-4000 lumens. As a point of reference, California limits headlight brightness to just over 2500 lumens. My new lights shine at 4000, compared to the 1500-lumen halogen bulbs they replaced.
Rule of thumb from a web search: One lumen equals the light of a single birthday candle from one foot away.
Now try imagining Methuselah’s birthday cake.
My fanless LEDs installed without any trouble. I pulled one headlamp cover to see how it all worked, then did the other without removing the assembly from the car. One small snag slowed me down; the heat-sinks at the back of each light required enlarging the opening in Mazda’s rubber dust-boot. I took off as little material as possible, after finding on my daily driver (a Honda CR-V) that if a boot fails to stay snug it lets in moisture and soon, the plastic lenses get condensation inside.
In 10 minutes, I had working lights, but then I went back to add one important element.
LEDs can act oddly without a “driver,” or a resistor, as the company who sold me my lights calls their device. I ordered one for each light. These drivers guarantee a consistent voltage to the headlights, not that LEDs pull a lot. My lights did not have them installed internally, so I had to find spots for two boxes under the hood, each slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes. They bolted to existing places underhood with wiring to spare.
We find ourselves driving the Mazda more than our older classics for several reasons, such as the car’s airbags and disc brakes, though the drop-top cinches the deal most months of the year.
I now feel a little more secure on the road, but I’m watching out for a third Dodge Charger.
So what have you done to make yourself more noticeable in that “modern traffic” as you pilot a classic car? I’d like to hear your ideas in the comments.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Hemmings Motor News.