Wednesday, 23 May 2018
Car News

When Tail Lights Were Stylish, Or Sent the Wrong Signal

This tail light assembly, created according to 1959 Cadillac design, has red LED lights built inside.

This tail light assembly, created according to the 1959 Cadillac design, has red LED lights built inside.

Tail lights are often the last thing you see on a vehicle, but they can be one of the first things that establish a car’s design. They have almost always been red, but not always blended into the slab of a rear-end body trim. Back in the day, tail lights were often special designs intended to promote a model’s individual flair. That’s before formal safety standards were established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—an agency that wasn’t formed until 1970—and before fuel efficiency concerns got engineers thinking more seriously about aerodynamics.

eBay Motors offers a vast selection of classic and modern tail lights.

Who could forget the iconic dual tail light cones from a 1959 Cadillac, like the ones on this gorgeous lavender 1959 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible (shown at the top of this page)? Its tail lights provided the necessary accents to what is generally considered the epitome of the tail fin era for classic cars. The size of these tail lights and their flush-mounted design make it easy to graft on most back ends. For many aficionados, the Cadillac marquee showcased the American obsession with tail fins in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1949 Cadillac is acknowledged as the beginning of the quest of the tail fins. Even Cars Land at Disneyland’s California Adventures pays homage to the tail fins with its giant backdrop of a “Cadillac Mountain Range.”

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The 1959 Edsel wagon’s tail light shape created confusion. (Cropped image by John Lloyd courtesy of Creative Commons)

The Edsel, often the butt of jokes about its design shortcomings, featured a unique tail light. The 1958 Edsel Wagon used a directional arrow shape on the left side that pointed to the right, and the right side pointed to the left. When the signals were used, it indicated that the car was turning—but in the opposite direction.

The trio of tail lights on the Chevrolet Impala was a signature design feature of the Chevy lineup starting in the 1960s. The three simple globes could easily be replicated on any car or truck. Eventually that scheme incorporated synchronized flashing turn indicators,

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Three simple globes give the Impala its signature tail end look.

In 1985, NHTSA started requiring that all new vehicles must be equipped with a high-mounted brake light. The agency claimed that it would result in 900,000 fewer rear-end accidents and 40,000 fewer injuries. But the higher third brake light for better visibility was not a modern innovation. Plenty of cars and trucks mounted tail lights at high levels for better visibility. Chevrolet Suburbans of the 1950s had their solo tail light mounted above the bumper line, albeit still somewhat low for line of sight.

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A solo light was used on 1950s Suburbans.

Volvo's "cuckoo bird light” mounted on the roof.

Volvo’s “cuckoo bird light” mounted on the roof.

Perhaps Volvo had a better idea. This extremely rare 1952 Volvo PV444 DS, available now on eBay, has a so-called cuckoo bird light mounted on the roof.  It was the single model-year when Volvo used extra lights mounted at the tallest point of the car for the greatest visibility (if you knew to look for it). For whatever reason, the design fell out of favor after one year.

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