There are often several degrees of separation between what car designers dream of and what government regulations allow.
Finding a common ground is one of the most difficult parts of designing a car, especially if it’s a model destined to be sold globally. Sometimes, designers get their way. Often times, however, the regulations can’t be bent, broken or brushed aside. Here are some of the cars, body styles, technologies and, in some cases, entire companies affected by regulations in America:
In 1940, the American government made sealed beam headlights mandatory on all new cars to achieve a degree of standardization. Starting in 1968, car companies were banned from installing fixed covers in front of the lights. Early on, building a car to US specifications required fitting market-specific lights. This led to unique (and often unwanted) front-end designs.
Fiat 500 (1957)
Fiat briefly sold the rear-engined 500 in America. It needed to install bigger headlights to comply with regulations but it didn’t want to completely redesign the front fascia; officials must have known the 500 would never sell in significant numbers. Instead, US-spec cars wore headlights tacked on to the body and market-specific rear lights. The modifications also included comically large bumpers on both ends.
Renault ran into a similar problem with the Dauphine. Unlike Fiat, it chose to mount the bigger, US-compliant headlights flush with the body for a cleaner, more cohesive look.
Citroën DS (1968)
In Europe, the 1967 redesign gave the Citroën DS headlights that were far ahead of their time. They were mounted under a glass cover to improve the car’s drag coefficient and they swiveled as the driver turned the steering wheel. In the US, the new-look DS arrived for the 1968 model year with more basic, fixed headlights and without the glass covers.
Jaguar E-Type (1968)
For the 1968 model year, the Jaguar E-Type lost its glass headlight covers for the same reason as the Citroën DS, the Alfa Romeo Spider and the Volkswagen Beetle. Jaguar also stopped offering knock-off wire wheels and it replaced the toggle switches on the dashboard with bigger plastic units, all in the name of American safety regulations. These cars are sometimes called Series 1.5. Jaguar released the Series 2 E-Type for the 1969 model year.
Porsche 911 Targa (1967)
The Porsche 911 Targa wasn’t so much harmed by the rules as created by them. American buyers loved the convertible variant of the 356 so Porsche naturally looked into releasing a drop-top 911. The company worried that looming rollover regulations would kill the convertible segment so it developed the original 911 Targa. The body style gave buyers the option of taking the top off while offering the protection of a roll bar. Period ads accurately predicted that “some day, all convertibles will have a roll bar.”
Regulations evidently didn’t decimate the convertible segment in America but the Targa became a popular member of the 911 family and has returned several times since. Porsche didn’t take the 911 into convertible territory until it released a close-to-production concept at the 1981 Frankfurt auto show. The original 911 Cabriolet arrived on the market in late 1982 and today Targa and Cabriolet continue to coexist in the 911 lineup.
Citroën SM (1971)
In Europe, the Citroën SM launched with six headlights mounted under glass covers. This setup was illegal in America so Citroën went through the trouble of fitting the Maserati-powered coupe with four exposed sealed-beam headlights. The design made the SM look considerably less futuristic. The changes were worth it and the US became the SM’s single largest export market.
Stricter bumper regulations came into effect in the United States for the 1973 model year. They mandated the use of bumpers that protected parts like the headlights, the engine and components of the fuel delivery system in a 5mph collision. The idea was to save motorists and insurance companies money.
The simplest and most cost-effective way to comply with these norms was to make cars with mammoth bumpers that stuck out like park benches, which car companies unenthusiastically did. In the 1970s, every car sold new in America came with big bumpers. Some wore them better than others. PICTURE: Volkswagen Rabbit, better known as the Golf in other markets.
BMW 2002 (1974)
The US-spec BMW 2002 made between the 1974 and 1976 model years proved that 5mph bumpers often looked worse on small cars than they did on big, bulky ones built by American automakers. The 2002’s basic design was from the 1960s so BMW had no way to neatly integrate the bumpers into the body. They instead stuck out from both ends of car, adding about 10in to its length.
The original 3 Series wore 5mph bumpers big enough to double as diving boards, too, but they were arguably a little bit better integrated than the 2002’s. However, BMW had trouble integrating 5mph bumpers into its designs well into the 1980s.
Citroën’s entire line-up (1974)
In 1974, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) passed new, stricter norms that mandated a fixed height for bumpers. Citroën’s pneumatically-suspended cars couldn’t comply with these regulations without receiving extensive (and costly) modifications and the US government refused to grant the company an exemption. Its smaller, steel-sprung models were ill-suited to the American market -- it tried to sell them in the 1960s and failed -- so it decided to leave the US after 1974. It hasn’t been back since.
Mercedes-Benz W116 (1974)
Every member of the Mercedes-Benz line-up during the 1970s wore big-boned bumpers in America. The W116 took the look to the next level with rubber bumperettes that made it even longer. It received sealed beam headlights, too. But it wasn’t all bad news for American Mercedes buyers. In the US, the German firm offered the W116 (and, later, the W126) with a turbodiesel five-cylinder engine not available in Europe.
MG B (1974)
While most carmakers were content with fitting gargantuan bumpers to their cars and calling it a day, MG saw the regulations as an opportunity to give its B and Midget roadsters a major redesign. Starting in 1974, it integrated the grille and the turn signals into one massive piece of plastic plastered over the front end like a Halloween mask. The company also had to raise the ride height -- at the expense of handling -- in order to comply with bumper height regulations. All told, MG's 1970s US line-up looked like it was made up of safety prototypes.
The so-called rubber-bumper MGs were ignored by collectors for decades. In 2018, they have built up a small but loyal following that continues to grow.
Maserati Khamsin (1975)
Maserati fitted the Khamsin with a jumbo front bumper to comply with American regulations; there were no surprises there. It made bigger and more controversial changes to the rear end. In Europe, the Khamsin wore a small rear bumper and its taillights were neatly integrated into a glass panel. In the US, the lights moved down to the space occupied by the bumper on the European-spec car and Maserati installed an ungainly plastic bumper that could double as a picnic table. Designer Marcello Gandini criticized the egregious changes but the NHTSA refused to grant Maserati an exemption.
Renault Le Car (1976)
The Renault 5’s plastic bumpers weren’t exempt from American regulations. For the US market, Renault defaced the 5 with a huge front bumper that it tried to conceal by installing a bigger grille with chrome-look slats. The 5 – which was known as the Le Car in America – also received sealed beam headlights and side marker lights.
The rear end was even more disastrous because a US-sized license plate didn’t fit into the insert in the hatch. Renault decided not to spend money on making a part specifically for America so the rectangular plate looked like the afterthought that it was.
Lamborghini Countach Quattrovalvole (1985)
The Lamborghini Countach’s wedge-shaped front end wasn’t tall enough to comply with American regulations. Raising the ride height – as MG, Renault and others had done during the 1970s – was out of the question. Lamborghini instead developed a new front bumper for the American-spec Countach Quattrovalvole with impact-absorbing blocks that were bigger than the air intakes. The rear end received similar protrusions. Mercifully, most cars were quickly retro-fitted with a European-spec front bumper.
Ferrari F40 (1987)
American bumper regulations struck again when Ferrari applied to sell the F40 in the US. To make the car compliant, Ferrari had to install a rubber strip over the front bumper that made the F40 look like it had a thin, well-groomed mustache. The rear bumper got a thicker, more visible strip that gave the F40 a bumper car-like appearance.
Ameritech’s McLaren F1 (1990s)
In the 1990s, a company named Ameritech imported seven examples of the McLaren F1 into America via channels best described as highly dubious. The process allegedly involved numerous loop holes and a free-trade zone. Once the F1s were in America, Ameritech made them legal by putting covers on the two side seats so that they couldn’t be used and adding body-colored plastic blobs to the front end to comply with height regulations. The conversion also involved a handful of mechanical tweaks.
Lotus Elise (2011)
Lotus started selling the Elise in America in 2004 but it stopped in 2011 after the exemptions it received from the American government expired. “We’d need smart airbags, plus side airbags and to change the whole front crash structure. It would add 200lb,” explained then-CEO Jean-Marc Gales in an interview with Automotive News. The British firm's new Emira model - a part replacement for the Elise - has been designed very much with American regulations in mind.
Note: Elise S Club Racer pictured.
Audi’s Matrix LED headlights (2013)
The 2013 Audi A8 inaugurated an important development in headlight technology called Matrix LED. Each headlight’s high-beam unit was made up of 25 LEDs that could be individually turned on, turned off or dimmed depending on the road conditions detected by an on-board camera. For example, if the system recognized an oncoming car, it would dim (or turn off) the LEDs that would blind the other driver while keeping the rest of the road illuminated.
Though it’s common in Europe, the technology remained illegal in the US because a 1968 law requires that every new car must be capable of switching between high beams and low beams. Audi’s Matrix LEDs occupy a gray area between the two. But we have good news; following a petition lodged by Toyota in 2013, the NHTSA finally approved them in early 2022, so we should start seeing them on the road soon.
Alfa Romeo 4C (2014)
At launch, the US-spec version of the Alfa Romeo 4C was about 200 lb heavier than the European-spec model. Alfa Romeo had to add aluminum inserts to the carbon fiber chassis for safety reasons and install additional equipment like side airbags, an adjustable passenger-side seat and extra protection around the fuel tank. The Italian firm also decided to make air conditioning and a radio standard on the American market. All in, it tipped the scale at about 2465 lb, a figure which still made it one of the lightest cars in America when it came off sale in 2020.
Audi A8 with Traffic Jam Pilot (2018)
The fourth-generation Audi A8 boasts the most advanced suite of semi-autonomous driving technology in the automotive industry. Called Traffic Jam Pilot, it allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel and their eyes off the road in certain conditions. They need to be ready to take over in the event of an emergency, so they can’t take a nap, but Traffic Jam Pilot provides more freedom than Tesla’s Autopilot system.
According to CNET’s Roadshow, Audi chose not to offer Traffic Jam Pilot on US-spec cars due to the lack of a nationwide standard in America. The technology could be legal in some states and illegal in others, which would make the homologation process tricky. Due to wider regulatory uncertainty, Audi dropped the system globally in 2020.
US-spec bumpers today
In 2018, a vast majority of the cars sold in America look a lot like their European or Asian counterparts. The visual differences between a US-spec BMW 320i and a European-spec 320i are largely limited to the side marker lights. The days of hulking, US-specific bumpers aren’t completely behind us, though.
Aston Martin installs plastic bumperettes on some of its cars to make them legal in the US. Bugatti adopted a similar (and much bulkier) solution to make the Chiron street-legal. Luckily, these add-ons are easily removable and rarely seen. The plastic insert added to the rear bumper of the third-generation CLS (pictured), among other Mercedes-Benz cars, look much more difficult to remove.
Audi E-Tron with rear-view cameras (2019)
The electric Audi E-Tron was one of the very first series-produced cars equipped with cameras in lieu of door mirrors when deliveries begin in 2019. This forward-thinking feature increases driving range slightly by making the E-Tron more aerodynamic. Americans settled for conventional mirrors, however, because the camera-based technology is illegal in the US. Audi told Autocar it’s working with the relevant authorities to make the E-Tron’s cameras legal at some point during its production run.