Working on hard-to-reach, hidden-away parts of cars can be a rather awkward job, so here are some of the best inspection lamps and headtorches to help you out.
If you’re as ancient as some of the guys and girls that work here, you’ll remember a time when the only illumination on offer in a garage was a 60-watt wanderlight in a metal cage, plugged into the mains. Nowadays, there is a vast assortment of lighting options to help with your car maintenance, so we decided to look at the most portable of them all: headtorches and handheld inspection lamps.
There are so many of these on the market, offering fantastic features such as motion sensor operation, zoom controls and magnetic swivel bases, so we prepared some thorough garage tasks to put our selection to hard work.
How we tested these products
We visited our local garage and handed over all the inspection lamps to an MOT tester, and all the headtorches to a couple of mechanics. We then left them to complete a variety of jobs inside engine bays, underneath vehicles, and inside wheel arches, in the hope that this would give us the best comprehensive overview of each product in the shortest amount of time.
Happily, it worked out pretty well, because they brought up issues which we had never considered, such as the ease of switching a light on and off when wearing oil-covered gloves (especially important with a headtorch). Plus, they found that some lights dimmed after an hour, despite the specification quoting several hours of battery life – which is a great testament as to why you can’t always take specified figures at face value when reviewing products like this.
Rob Hawkins is the perfect guy to decipher and compile their feedback, as he’s been contributing to Car Mechanics magazine for many years now. So, without further ado, here are the results.
Best Inspection Lamps & Headtorches
AWARD: Fast Car BEST BUY
RRP: £62.34. Not available in the US. Buy Sealey LED3601R here.
This was the inspection lamp our MOT tester preferred. It has a 2W COB LED that produces up to 220 lumens from a 3.7-volt 1.5Ah lithium polymer battery, which lasts for 3-6 hours and takes around three hours to recharge via a micro-USB lead. The illumination is bright and wide, and there’s an additional pencil torchlight on the top, which is useful for directing a beam of light into an engine bay to look for a lost spanner. The raised rubber on/off button at the front of the lamp is easy to find and the body is straightforward to wipe clean.
However, the one feature that really sells this lamp is its magnetic swivel base. It has a ball and socket design, so you can maneuver the top half of the lamp to any angle. We found this to be the most versatile feature of all the lamps tested.
Laser Rechargeable Headlight Torch
AWARD: Fast Car BEST BUDGET BUY
RRP: £22.20. Not available in the US. Buy Laser Headtorch here.
Looking more like a miniature camera strapped to the front of your head than a torch, Laser’s model uses a 3W Cree LED bulb, which provides 2-5 hours of illumination from a lithium-ion battery that takes roughly three hours to recharge. There are two settings for illumination and a strobe light that may be useful for cyclists… or garage raves.
You can twist the lens on the front both clockwise and anticlockwise to alter the angle (zoom) of the light, while the entire headtorch itself can be tilted down to 90°, making it easier to illuminate objects below your body and work on something up close. The rubber on/off switch on the top of the headtorch is quite fiddly to operate when wearing gloves, and we found the light started to dim after 1.5 hours, however the price is remarkably low for a compact rechargeable headtorch.
Draper Inspection Lamp
AWARD: Fast Car RECOMMENDED
Powered by a 3.7-volt 2.6Ah rechargeable lithium-ion battery, Draper’s inspection lamp includes a UV light (useful for leak detection) and an 80-lumens pencil light at the end. The main light provides 350 lumens of illumination from a 4W COB LED, which lasts for around three hours (the pencil light lasts for eight hours and the UV for 28 hours), taking roughly five hours to recharge. A magnetic swivel base makes this lamp very versatile and we found it could provide an adequate 120° of illumination when positioned inside an engine bay, underneath a bonnet, inside a wheel arch and underneath a vehicle (secured to a chassis leg). It’s one of the most popular designs of inspection lamp and finishes second place in our group test, second only to Sealey’s LED3601R that’s smaller, has a more versatile magnetic swivel base and is cheaper.
AWARD: Fast Car RECOMMENDED
Price: $36.84 / £29.61 from OnBuy.com. Buy Sealey HT108LED here.
Illuminated by a 5W Cree LED and powered by a 3.7-volt 2Ah lithium-ion battery, Sealey’s headtorch provides 100 or 360 lumens, lasts for 2-6 hours and takes up to six hours to recharge via a micro-USB lead. The illumination and angle of light is strong and ideal for working in the dark areas of a vehicle, such as a wheel arch, plus you can rotate the body of the torch to help point the light further up or down. The rubber on/off button is quite easy to find on the side.
A rubber grommet/cover for the USB port kept falling off our test model and could easily be lost. A useful feature is the motion sensor, which when set, allows you to switch the torch on and off by waving a hand in front of the lens. This works in an open space, but not so well when working in a wheel arch or underneath a vehicle where objects can switch it on and off accidentally.
Laser Tools Racing Beanie Hat
RRP: $25.98 / £20.90. Buy the Laser Tools Racing beanie here.
This is a novel light if you wear a hat when working on a vehicle. Beanie hats have long been available with a small light attached, but Laser’s product goes a step further. The four LEDs offer three settings of brightness up to 120 lumens and can last for between 1.5-4 hours. The light unit can be removed from inside the hat and plugged into the USB port to recharge, which takes roughly 90 minutes. The lamp can be replaced if required (part number 60475) and costs £6.46. At such a low price, this beanie hat with built-in headtorch is good value for money and provides a sufficient amount of lighting for its size.
Price: $99.44 / £79.99. Buy the Philips RCH21S here.
This compact handheld inspection light from Philips produces 120-350 lumens, which can last for 3.5-6 hours. The lithium-ion battery takes a couple of hours to recharge via a docking station, which is less convenient than many of the other inspection lamps on test, where a USB lead plugged into the back is all you need. The head of the light has a hinge, so you can position it downwards to illuminate objects below. There’s no magnetic base, only a magnet on the back, so it’s not possible to stand the light upright in an engine bay, unless, say, it can be fitted against an inner wing.
The on/off button is hard to find when wearing gloves and there’s no pencil light to help illuminate a small area. By contrast, the main light provides wide and bright illumination. This is the most expensive inspection lamp on test and, sadly, cheaper units such as the Sealey Best Buy are more versatile.
Not found what you’re looking for? Try our guide to LED Slimline lamps instead.