LED lights have improved dramatically over the last year or so, and LED retrofits are becoming very popular for motorcycle brake lights, tail lights, turn signals and courtesy lights.
There are a couple of good reasons for this: LEDs are unaffected by the vibrations that are prevalent in a bike’s nether regions where brake lights and tail lights ply their trade.
LEDs also draw much less current than incandescent bulbs, and high-quality LEDs can provide light that is both brighter and more visible than most bulbs.
The stock brake and tail light housing shown here has been packed with LEDs, and it imparts a profoundly brighter and “redder” looking light than the wimpy 1156 bulb, a 25 Watt combination brake/tail light that lived there for nigh on 20 years.
The current draw of the stock bulbs was about 600 milliamps for the tail light and 2.7 amps when the brake was fired up. This LED replacement draws only 185 milliamps for the tail light (running light) and 1.78 amps when everything is fully ignited. And the LED does this with almost no measurable heat.
Note that not all LEDs will perform as well as these. There are still many LED replacement lights that are poor substitutes for their incandescent cousins, with wimpy output and a very narrow “cone of visibility”. So don’t compare the $4.99 specials in Wal-Mart with these high-quality, next-generation LEDs. Cheap or poorly designed LEDs may end up giving you much less light than the stock bulb.
It’s important to choose carefully when selecting an LED light for a motorcycle application, or you may end up getting what you pay for (for more information on articles about motorcycle lighting and LED replacement bulbs, see the wBWMotorcycle Lighting page). A custom fitted LED replacement, using top-quality LED lights, can make a big difference in both functionality and appearance.
You’ve probably seen some cool-looking custom lights on a show bike. But there are several benefits for custom fitting LEDs to a bike’s stock reflector housing rather than using “add-ons” stuck to the back of the bike. If your motorcycle is a vintage, antique or collectible model, it may be important to keep the appearance of the bike as close as possible to original.
But most older motorcycles’ brake lights, turn signals and tail lights offer very poor performance in today’s mondo traffic, so LEDs offer a nice way to provide modern lighting capabilities for the road, while maintaining an original appearance for show.
For example, how about a nice LED replacement brake light for a 1966 R69S, whose stock bulb is almost invisible in modern traffic?
You probably wouldn’t want to stick some double-sided tape LEDs on such a beautiful classic, but you can greatly improve its brake light output with custom fitted LEDs, and no one will notice (except the traffic behind you!).
HeavyCycles specializes in designing and manufacturing custom LED motorcycle lights. HeavyCycles can design and manufacture almost any type of custom light to your specifications. The HeavyCycleswebsite has some really neat photos showing examples of their handiwork.
The standard BMW Airhead housing shown here is fairly typical of a stock motorcycle tail light assembly originally designed for incandescent light bulbs, and it was used to illustrate what can be done with either a stock or custom housing.
This particular tail light assembly is divided horizontally into two sections: the top 2/3 house the brake light, and the bottom 1/3 houses the tail light (running light). The stock lighting system on this bike consisted of an 1156 single filament bulb (21W) in the upper portion of the housing that only came on when the brakes were applied.
The lower 1/3 of the housing was home to a puny 5W running light that stayed on as long as the bike’s ignition was on. The 5W bulb also served to light the license plate through a clear opening in the bottom of the tail light lens.
The R100RS’s stock bulbs didn’t offer much visibility, but I didn’t want to add my usual assortment of blinking LED brake lights and other devices to beef it up, yet I definitely wanted to improve the rear brake/tail light visibility.
This bike looks like it just came out of the showroom, and I believe it is definitely a collectible (supposedly, BMW only brought 250 of the “Last Edition” R100RS machines to the U.S.A. in 1984), so I’m not interested in deviating too much from its original look.
HeavyCycles filled the lower 1/3 of the housing with LEDs, which function as the bike’s always-on tail light and running light. They also added an optional pair of LED running lights (one on each side) to the top section of the brake light housing. This increases the running light surface area over the stock setup. They also custom-fit four separate LEDs to point downwards, for illumination of the license plate. When the brakes are applied, all of the running lights are dual function, so everything becomes brighter and the unlit LEDs fire up as well.
The difference is as dramatic as it is noticeable (see comparison photos below). The running lights are brilliant and have a strong, saturated red color that can’t be captured in the photos on this page. When the brakes are engaged, watch out behind! The entire tail light assembly virtually explodes with brightness and color.
Very impressive! And the fast engagement time of the LED lights is also noticeable; it always seemed like it took forever for the stock 1156 bulb to ramp up to full operating brightness, but the LEDs simply pop in a matter of milliseconds. LEDs work very well with brake light flashers or modulators also, as the fast on/off cycle time really makes them pop.
Installing the customized housing is a piece of cake. Unscrew the two Phillips head screws that attach the stock tail light lens, remove the lens and put it somewhere where it won’t get stepped on by accident. Motorcycle red tail light lenses seem to be very fragile! On the BMW, there were 3 wires feeding the lights. The ground (brown on this bike), a hot wire for the running light (green/red) and a hot wire for the brake light (white/blue).
I cut the three wires, leaving about 75mm (1.5″) hanging from the back of the existing bulb sockets so there will be some wire to use for splicing in case I want to re-install the original housing. I then stripped a small length of insulation from the end of each 16 gauge wire.
Screw the cap onto the body of the Posi-Lock connector.
Repeat for the other end of the wire.
I use Posi-Lock connectors for almost all of my motorcycle electrical connections, and they work very nicely in this application.
They’re easy to use, they provide a solid connection, and they’re re-usable, which helps if you need to prototype a wiring harness or if you decide to go back to the stock setup.
In this instance, I can easily unscrew the connectors to access the tail light wiring if necessary.
To use the Posi-Lock connectors, cut the wire, slide on a Posi-Lock cap, screw the cap into the Posi-Lock barrel, repeat with the other wire and you’re done. For more information, see the wBWreview of Posi-Lock connectors. The entire job of installing the replacement light housing took me about 15 minutes.
I’m really pleased with the results. I also understand that this is a significant expense just to customize a stock light assembly, and I’m sure not everyone will want to do this.
But price is relative — if you’re creating a custom bike and you want a really unique look while also keeping the functionality of the light for safety’s sake, it’s going to cost you a few bucks. What you’re getting here is a hand-made, custom fitted product that’s more like a “lighting system” that’s engineered to meet your design specifications.
All LEDs used in HeavyCycles products meet SAE/ECE/JIS color requirements for automotive applications. HeavyCycles uses the same LED technology preferred by the top automobile manufacturers. HeavyCycles’ LEDs are claimed to be up to four times brighter than off-the-shelf “super bright” LEDs, and they have far superior viewing angle compared to other LEDs at that brightness level — 4 times the brightness at 6 times the viewing angle.
Viewing angle is very important when using LEDs, and not many LED retailers will discuss it. Unless the LEDs are top quality and specially designed for these applications, the viewing angle can be very limited, resulting in poor performance.
All of the HeavyCycles designs can be fitted and sealed into OEM or your supplied light housings. They also use OEM connectors whenever possible to help eliminate potential splice failures. By the way, turn signals can also be integrated into most taillights.
Some other FAQs about LED lights: The approximate life of LEDs is around 100,000 hours or about 6,000,000 miles of riding at 60MPH!
Here are some photos of the before/after results. Note that it’s very hard to take photographs of this type of lighting to have a meaningful comparison. But everyone who has seen these new lights remark that there is a big difference in the color and brightness of the LEDs: