Introduction: Rebuild Your Car's EL (electroluminescent) Lights!
So you've got a beautiful old ride, and everyone is jealous. Only one problem- those electroluminescent opera lights! They probably stopped working sometime before 1992, and no one has made replacements for twenty odd years. What to do? Scour junkyards? Search eBay daily? Replace them with generic substitutes? Rig up some LED's? Deal with them being dead forever? After rejecting all those ideas, I decided to pioneer a way to bring your original lights back to life and looking completely original for under $50!
But first, let's take a step back and explain what EL panels / lights are...
Step 1: Intro to EL Lighting 101: Electroluminescence Explained
Most older vehicles with opera lights (or any "extra" lights, inside and out, for that matter) are simple 'normal' ones. That is, they are the kind you're used to seeing everywhere- what Thomas Edison is famous for. 12v direct current electricity runs though a glass-enclosed vacuum, traversing a filament that gives off light. It's cheap, replaceable, and they still make all the funky little bulbs that you'd need to replace them.
At some point in car design though, someone got the bright idea (pun intended) to use electroluminescent lighting. EL lights use an entirely different (and admittedly odd-sounding for a car) principle. The standard 12v DC car current is run through an inverter to create a higher-voltage AC source, then applied to a printed layer of phosphor. This makes it glow. It's the same principle as those glowy green-blue nightlights.
Which is better? Well, they each have plus points. The phosphor panels glow evenly, unlike standard bulbs. They also don't 'break' like filaments- instead, the phosphor simply gets dimmer over time. They also run quite cool. However, the phosphor tends to break down under direct sunlight, and they must be run off of AC current, thus requiring an inverter. I won't choose a side, but say that they each have their own uses. For the purposes of this Instructable, we are trying to keep the vehicle as original as possible.
Step 2: Alternative Options?
Okay, you say, how do we get them lit again? There's a few options. I rejected them all and came up with this way, because in my opinion they do not keep the original look. To be fair, though, I'll quickly list them here:
1. Find original EL replacements: As any classic car owner will tell you, "hahahaha!" Seriously, though, I looked around. I did manage to find a single EL light that somewhat fit my car, but it had no guarantees whatsoever and cost $50. The same goes for the used junkyard inverter. So for $100, I could maybe get one working 26-year-old light on my car... which will likely die within the year. Not really the option I wanted.
2. Replace the opera lights entirely: Nowadays on eBay, they sell 'add-on / replacement' opera / limo lights to shove on your car. They are slim, new, and look plain awful IMO. They especially would look bad replacing a rectangular OEM part. The wiring would have to be redone as well, since they are standard 12v deals, not requiring any inverter, and obviously don't have compatible plugs.
3. Shove LED's behind the EL lenses: I'm not even going to debate this option. I'll just point you to the picture, shudder, and move on.
What's left? Hrm, I thought, why not just replace the old EL elements and refurbish the original lights to their former glory?
Step 3: What You'll Need
My vehicle (and our guinea pig for this) is my cream puff 1985 Buick LeSabre LTD Collector's Edition sedan, shown in the Intro picture. The opera lights have never functioned while I've owned it. After some testing with a voltage meter, I determined the inverter to be dead as well. This is pretty common; after the EL lights fade out and die, the inverter struggles and eventually gives out too. So we will have to replace both.
Here's what I collected together in preparation for this project. I'd make notations on the picture, but adding notes is currently 'broken until further notice' ... Notice that everything was purchased as cheaply as possible, and you likely already have most of it:
1. Fine-tip soldering iron and solder
2. Cheap volt meter (from Walmart)
3. Electrical tape (from Walmart)
4. Dremel tool (replaced with utility knife)
5. Scissors (c'mon, I know you have some)
6. Clear packing tape (from Walmart)
7. Epoxy (from Walmart)
8. Electroluminescent panel and inverter ($27.99 shipped from here *)
* The picture shows two EL strips, but I only ended up needing one for this project.
Step 4: Getting Started
The EL opera lights on my LeSabre came off using a hex screwdriver to remove the chromed metal surround, then a Phillips head to remove the two screws holding the lights in place. Because the lights are meant to be (theoretically) complete replaceable units, the wiring attached via an easy four-prong plug. Chances are it will be a bit different in whatever your car is, but it should be fairly simple to figure out.
My opera lights are over two and a half decades old, so aren't in perfect shape- the plastic surrounding the mounting screw holes have deteriorated. That's okay, though, since they are still firmly held in place and the lenses (the only visible part when installed) look great.
These lights use a four-prong plug, which took a little testing to decipher. One side is the AC current, the other is a simple loop-through safety jumper. This design is set up so if one opera light is removed, the power is cut to the plugs on both sides. Again, your car is probably different. Take the time to map things out with your voltage meter before starting, just to get an idea of how things work.
The first picture is of one of the removed lights; the second shows the plug (and the GM part number, much good may it do you!).
Step 5: Removing the Old EL Strip
Now we get to open them! I had originally thought that I'd need my dremel to cut into them, but actually managed to simply use a utility knife to pry the backing plastic and lenses apart. This was quite encouraging, since I worried about how much damage and plastic would be lost having to grind at the edges. One of my lights actually had some sort of glue already holding it together, implying that it had been resealed before many years ago.
Once opened, we see the small defunct electroluminescent strip. In theory, one could use them as a template for making as many as we wanted. I smell a business idea, though a mail-in custom version would probably work better, considering the vast amount of different old opera lights out there.
As you can see from the pictures, after opening mine, I folded it back, revealing the connections to the plug. Then I carefully cut the old EL strip free at the copper connectors, leaving as much as possible to use in reattaching the new ones.
Step 6: Inserting the New EL Strip
The electroluminescent strip purchased through eBay has some convenient wiring and plugs- which we will not use! Here's where we start butchering the EL strip, trimming it down to usable size. We also have to be careful, so read this first!
Electroluminescent tape / panels / strips have two sides. One is a solid color, and lights up; the other, if you look close, is segmented into lines, either thick or thin. This is what the wires connect to, by means of some thin copper strips, stuck on with adhesive or clear tape. Cut off the black rubber coating around the wires to see what I mean. While EL tape can be cut, you must make sure to leave some of both connectivity lines. Otherwise, there's nothing to attach each wire to. I was able to cut my 12" piece in half, then trim one side to the proper thickness.
Now to prepare the housing. I chose to solder some thin flat copper strips to the old original wiring, making sure that the outer one was thin enough not to touch both EL connection lines. Here's where the clear packing tape comes in; use it to insulate any possible overlaps or touching between the lines and copper strips. I also used it to hold the copper strips in place and seal the cut edges. Remember that EL panels come with a thin clear plastic coating, which you will have to peel off one side in order to make contact.
It's a little tricky to explain (and even harder to photograph), but you really just tape the copper strips to the two bared connector segments on the bottom of the EL strip.
Step 7: Closing It Up
I highly recommend that you test the rebuilt lights at this point, before you seal them up. In my case, this meant getting my inverter replaced...
The inverter was located in the trunk of my car, in the driver's side wheel well. I pried it apart and recycled the four-prong plug (12v positive, 12v negative, and two AC), as well as the plastic snap-in mounting post. I could have cut and spliced the wires instead, but I'm trying to keep things as unmolested and original as possible. A little soldering, some electrical tape, and ta-da! A drop-in- er, plug-in- replacement for the original inverter!*
The lights worked great. A super-cheap success! Okay, now time to close these things again. I applied a liberal amount of epoxy, then held them closed with twist ties so they could dry.
* I'll post wiring diagrams if asked. I just assume that more Cadillac owners will be doing this than '85 LeSabre Collectors Edition enthusiasts, so my info probably wouldn't be very relevant.
Step 8: Patience, Grasshopper!
Here's the toughest part of the whole thing. Ready?
The epoxy has to set. And after it has set for about half an hour, you should go over it carefully looking for possible gaps or holes, and fill them. Then wait at least another half an hour. Remember, we need it to be completely watertight. No cutting corners, rushing, or slapping it on the car while still gooey.
To deal with this insufferable delay, I recommend a White Russian. Or three.
Once the epoxy has begun to harden, you can then trim any drippings, bumps, or large irregularities on it. Use a utility knife if you have to. If it has completely hardened, sandpaper is probably your best bet.
Step 9: Success!
All that's left now is to reinstall them, fire up the car, and marvel at your brand new OEM electroluminescent lights!
A couple notes-
I ordered the White electroluminescent panels. You could technically do any color, but I believed White would be closest to the original look. Yellow might imitate the glow of 'normal' bulbs, and I suppose other colors would certainly give you a unique look. Just check with your local laws before slapping blue and red lights on your vehicle. A safe bet is to go with White, and alter brightness and color as desired by inserting colored plastic or paper between the EL panels and lenses. Just be sure it's exactly how you want it before resealing them!
My apologies for the low quality pictures. They were taken on a cell phone, so aren't perfect. If you're somewhere in Utah and want to see things in person, just drop me a line.
So what did I do with the spare EL panel? Well, that's the subject for another Instructable :)