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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Tail Light Tales

1963 Ford Thunderbird
2015 Honda Fit.
(The pillar lights are extra).
Last night, as my wife and I were on our way to Florida, we were marveling at the crazy variety of tail light configurations we were seeing. It occurred to me that at various times I've written about the art of auto design. Most of the focus is usually on the front or front and side. Seldom is there much interest in the rear of the least not since the great tail light explosion of the 1950s and 1960s. However, in more recent years, as LEDs have largely replaced light bulbs in tail lights, the anonymous designers of the aft end of automobiles have taken on a new era of creative expression as seen in the 2015 3rd generation Honda Fit (right). They pose a challenge to some of the best signal lights the tail fin era had to offer, as seen in my old 1963 T-bird (top) with it's "afterburner" tail lights. They didn't make the Thunderbird take flight, but look like they might.

The first tail lights were really just carriage lights adapted to new purposes.
In doing a little research in the origin of automobile signal lights it quickly became apparent why no designer was much interested in how the back of the car looked...or lit up. In fact the very first automobile tai lights didn't even have light bulbs. The first Model T tail lights were carbide. Only later were they upgraded to oil, and still later kerosene before eventually being hooked to a dynamo for electrical power. It really wasn't until the 1920s that the electric tail lights we know today came into common usage, and, to say the least, the designs were pretty common as well. The emphasis was on the utilitarian goal of avoiding rear-end collisions.

During the 1920s, when top speeds were barely more than that the car's model year,
drivers actually had time to read tail lights
At one time during the 1920s, Ford, with his Model A, and other car makers seem to think it was necessary to cue drivers of the car in back as to what tail lights meant. Some read "stop," others "slo" while the right tail light was shortened to "rite" (in the early days of turn signals). Presumably the left turn signal spelled its meaning correctly. "Dodge," could be the maker of the car or maybe it meant, don't slow, don't stop, just "dodge" me. One riotous turn signal system involved coded red, yellow, and green light combinations operated by the driver by pushing one of eight buttons on the dashboard (below). Had it come into widespread use, the driver would likely have been so distracted as to have run into another car or a pedestrian, not to mention the confusion caused by the unlucky driver in back.

If you can read this, your eyes are better than mine. Fortunately someone had a better idea.
1940s tail lights--nothing to write
home about.
Tail lights did not much interest auto designers until the 1940s, and even at that, they seemed to be more of an afterthought than a point of interest. Chevrolet's tail light evolution during the 1940s seems to have been designed by the night custodian as a means of staying awake waiting for the newly-mopped floor to dry. Across town, Ford seems to have assigned tail light design to an unpaid design intern. In the race to come up with the sexiest tail lights, Ford may have been slightly more creative in integrating the tail lights into the body design, but none of them moved much beyond a chaste kiss on the hand. Designers seemed to have grasped the fact that an aerodynamics also led to attractive autodynamics. Yet these same designers seem to have had little under-standing of the art of making the functional beautiful. However, all that came to an end in the early 1950s. The realization seems to have hit Detroit's "big three" about the same time. The year was 1954.

Ten years of creativity run amuck until, suddenly, around 1963,
cooler head designers prevailed.
During the 1950s, when there appeared to be only minor differences in the design of automobiles and fighter jets, cars were designed as much as three years before they went into production. Moreover design espionage was a persistent concern among the major car makers. Thus when security conscious General Motors suddenly took the tail fin horizontal, in 1959, other makers, mostly Chrysler, were caught flatfooted following suit as much as two years later (1961, above). Their tail lights took a direct hit in 1963 as they reverted to common sense functional design only incidentally related to the overall design of the car.

During the 1950s, body styles were often remarkably similar within
a single carmaker's line; while individuality came from the chrome
"jewelry," such as tail lights...and with a steep price tag.



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