In the early 1970s, off-road racing began making its mark in history and atop those early Ford Broncos, Chevy Blazers and International Harvester Scouts was the iconic KC HiLiTES Daylighter light.
Most people can identify the bright yellow smiley face cover that has adorned the Daylighter for over 45 years, yet few know that its origin is Williams, Arizona and that Williams resident Bob DeLander is part of the company’s success.
KC Hilites Remembering The Highlights
DeLander, who recently announced his retirement, has been with KC HiLiTES since its 1972 conception in the Saugus, California garage of founder Pete Brown.
As the story goes, Brown was enjoying a camping trip near Parker, Arizona in the late 1960s when he drove around a corner and nearly went off the road.
This experience was the catalyst to prompt Brown to find auxiliary lighting for off-road driving. Finding nothing on the market, he looked to the commercial air travel industry and found a new use for aircraft landing lights.
In his garage, Brown took the landing bulbs and retrofitted them to steel housings which became the original concept for the KC Daylighter.
After making the discovery, Brown set off to market his new highly illuminated lights through camping magazines and local off-road races. Brown began distributing the lights, giving away bright yellow KC covers to race winners to market the product. As racers and truck enthusiasts discovered the quality and performance of the lights, demand grew.
Brown solicited help from his neighbors and friends, which included Bob and Carol DeLander, and production grew from the Brown’s garage to almost every house on the street.
“KC HiLiTES was all out of his garage and other people’s garages,” DeLander said. “After a couple of years, they had to move out.”
Brown eventually decided he needed to expand his facilities and relocated to Williams in 1974, opening a warehouse on east Route 66.
“He wanted us to come with him from the beginning, but it was a brand new business,” DeLander said. “As much as we loved Williams, I was thinking ‘If KC HiLiTES doesn’t go, then what?’”
Two years later, in 1976, the DeLanders followed suit and brought their family to Williams.
“The kids were excited to come,” he said. “We found a few acres outside of town and moved.”
A Williams adventure
The company relocated to the present day Perfection Auto building, filling the warehouse with parts and products.
“With no I-40 yet, that was when all the traffic came through town,” said Michael DeHaas, former CEO and stepson of Brown. “Pete would start his wood stove and have coffee for the highway patrolmen. People just hung out in the KC store in the 1970s.”
DeHaas, who bought KC HiLiTES from Brown in 2004 and sold it in 2016, said DeLander was an important part of the growth of the company.
“Bob never looked back once he moved here,” DeHaas said. “He was a big reason for the success at KC — from the operational side he made me look good as the owner.”
DeHaas said DeLander was known as the go-to guy for the company. DeLander had started on the assembly line when the company first began and moved up to become the chief of operations and vice-president.
“Bob has a story about how they had a ping pong table in their master bedroom where they would assemble wire harnesses for Pete, and Carol would mail out the catalogs,” he said.
DeHaas said DeLander oversaw the inventory and production of KC HiLiTES for over 43 years.
Expansion in the off-road market
With the Daylighter as the backbone of KC’s product line, demand for variations in lighting pushed the company to expand. With off-roaders pushing farther into harsh desert and mountain environments, KC developed ways to dampen vibrations to the lights. They created a special patented isolated rubber mountain and rubber reflector ring inside the metal housing of the Daylighter.
Collaborating with lighting engineers, KC’s developers learned about the intricacies of lighting, sealed beams, filaments, varied construction, wattage and candlepower.
In-house testing helped with the development, but KC looked to professional racers like Walker Evans and Ivan Stewart for thorough results.
The growth of KC HiLiTES was largely attributed to the success the company had partnering with motor sports and using the most advanced performance lighting available.
“We use off-road racing as our engineering and quality test beds,” DeHaas said. “We build lights, we sponsor all these different race vehicles and we use them as our R & D test beds. If they hold up to that, they will hold up to the average consumer.”
The company began using High Intensity Discharge (HID) technology in the 1990s, which is the same metal halide concept used to illuminate many large sports complexes.
Off-road racers Cameron Steele, Jason Voss, Rob McCaren and many others can be seen using KC’s HID lights today.
DeHaas attributes the longevity of the company to the quality of the products and the brand recognition.
“We have a lot of competitors, and some of our lights are the most copied lights out there,” DeHaas said. “Our biggest asset is our brand and that smiley face and it all comes out of Williams, Arizona.”
DeHaas said the 23-year warranty the company offers is a testament to the quality of their products.
“If you’re going to offer a warranty, you have to ensure you product on the front end is going to last,” he said.
KC HiLiTES can be found all over the world now, and has a niche market in desert environments where extreme temperatures push night-time recreational and race driving.
DeHaas said KC has also played a role with the U.S. military, specifically in the war in Iraq around 2005.
“We used to do a lot with the U.S. military,” DeHaas said. “We have some lights in the storage facility that were on a hummer that hit an IED. It destroyed the hummer but three or four of the lights were still working. They even have the holes from the shrapnel.”
DeHaas said he has received letters from troops thanking the company for their products.
“Whether you agreed with the war or not our lights were helping keep troops safe,” he said.
Although KC HiLiTES is under new ownership with Alan Wang as CEO, the company continues with its original mission to outfit race and off-road vehicles with exemplary lighting. As off-road lights evolve, KC continues to evolve with popular products such as LED lightbars. But the original 1970s Daylighter remains in the line-up and is still seen today.
As DeLander reflects on his time at KC, he has fond memories and few regrets.
“We have loved the town and the people,” DeLander said. “Williams has been good to us and we’ve been pretty fortunate. Making the move to KC HiLiTES was good to me. It has been a good career.”