In the early decades of motordom, front grills stood tall and proud, reflecting the proportions of early radiators. Headlamps, originally housed in separate housings, began being integrated into the cars design in the late 1930s. Nevertheless, grills and headlamps remained separate elements with the exception of Peugeot, which placed the headlamps near the centre of the car, behind the grill.
Designer E. T. Gregorie came very close to aesthetically integrating headlamps and grill with his custom roadster built for Edsel Ford in 1940 by fitting a front grill shaped to fit tightly between recessed headlamps.
Outside these examples, typical frontal designs continued to present headlamps as a separate and distinct element, as they had been since the dawn of motoring.
After the war, automobiles began migrating to unified ponton shapes and grills became wider, but as late as the 1950s, headlamps were still routinely treated as a discrete styling component.
This began to change when Carrozzeria Pininfarina redesigned the front of the Nash-Healey roadster. Its headlamps were moved inboard and the grill surround extended to encircle them.
In 1955 the Nash Ambassador and Statesman were treated to a similar design.
For their 1959 models; Edsel, Lincoln, Oldsmobile and Pontiac took the reverse approach, leaving the headlamps in their conventional outboard positions while widening the grill sufficiently to encompass the lamp units. This full-width grill with inset headlamps was destined to become the New Look for the exciting new Jet Age sixties.
1960 models featuring this new style were introduced by Chevrolet, Edsel, Ford and Mercury.
Headlamps floating on or within a broad grille aperture emphasized and accentuated the low, wide look that was en vogue.
By 1964 virtually all American cars featured a unified grill and headlamp arrangement except Cadillacs, Chryslers, full-size Pontiacs, Studebakers, the Dodge Dart, Plymouth Valiant and Barracuda, Rambler American and Marlin, and the new Mustang.
European manufacturers also joined in. In the course of the decade, the Alfa Guilia and 2600 Sprint, Aston DBS, Rover 2000, Lamborghini Espada, Peugeot 504 Coupe and Cabriolet, Renault 16 and Volvo 140 Series as well as countless Audis, Fiats, Fords and Opels sprouted headlamps integrated with the grill. The New Look also swept Eastern Europe and Japan.
By the end of the sixties, headlamps set into a full-width grill had become the de facto standard, excepting some venerable holdouts that included Bentley, Ferrari, Jaguar, MG, Mercedes–Benz and Rolls-Royce.
At the decade’s close, in line with the nascent nostalgia theme that was increasingly influencing automotive design, some models broke trend and began reverting back to a separate, more classically styled grill divorced from the headlamp units; a movement spearheaded by the 1968 Lincoln Continental Mark III and 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix.
In the 1970s, Sixties frontal fashion was still strongly entrenched, although further signs of dissention were visible. Notably, in 1972 Aston Martin reverted to separate headlamps and a more traditional Aston grill on their AMV8 and Vantage.
In the ensuing decades the 1960s full-width grill with inset lamps all but disappeared with headlamps reverting back to discrete stylistic elements, although the frontal designs on recent models from Volkswagen, Kia and Lincoln are rather reminiscent of that vintage 1960s Look.