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About this time last year, we featured a couple of articles on the topic of headlights being the face of your classic car. I’m convinced there was plenty of scope for a third and even a fourth article, but as not to exhaust the topic entirely, let’s rather move on – or as it is, backwards – to an equally enlightened design element: the taillights. They no doubt offer similar potential for creating inspired design aspects on any car, and surely, if the headlights are the face of your car, then the taillights must be the booty of your classic car. Like I said; inspiring…

In case you missed those two articles on headlights or simply want to revisit them, you can find them right here: Part 1 and Part 2. But enough about the face. Let’s get back to what really matters – the booty! Ehrm… or, the taillights.

Finishing off the flow of the lines which shape a car, the taillights can influence the overall feel of any car just as much as can the headlights. There are plenty of very ordinary and dull taillights out there where the designers really didn’t give them due attention. But then there are also plenty of truly fascinating taillights which have each become small design icons in their own right. Here are some of my personal favourites:

1984 Ferrari Testarossa:
Ferrari had spent a couple of decades making the dual round rear lights their signature. Then came the eighties and it was time for a change. Enter the flamboyant Testarossa! It didn’t really matter what the actual taillights looked like – it was the way that they were partially concealed behind that full-width satin black horizontally slatted louvre which made the broad-hipped rear look so menacing and downright evil.

1978 Datsun 160Z:
If the dual round rear light design was Ferrari’s signature, then trust the Japanese to take the theme one step further. We all know the 240Z and its successors, but if we’re talking taillight design, it was the little brother in the family who brought something new to the table. Based on the third-generation Sunny, the South Africans took the 120Y Coupé and shoe-horned a twin carbed 1.6-litre engine into it, added a host of very LOUD visuals to the package and dubbed it the Datsun 160Z. If you can distract yourself from those go-faster stripes, check out the warm red glow of those SIX round taillights placed deep within the matt black rear panel.

1962 Ford Thunderbird:
As a BMW 02-owner, yes I quite appreciate round rear lights. But Ford proved that Datsun’s approach of more is better isn’t always the best solution. At the very height of the jet crazed early sixties, Ford launched the sleek third-generation Thunderbird, and with it what is most likely the best executed round rear lights in automotive history. There’s only one either side, but they’re big and they’re bold! Both the ’61, the ’62 and the ’63 had their own unique taillight design. They were all fabulous, but to me it’s the ’62 which narrowly walks away with the trophy. I would almost be inclined to believing that they are indeed jet engine exhausts rather than just taillights…

1970 Hillman Avenger:
But taillights come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it only takes an otherwise very humble family saloon to prove that a different, daring and funky taillight design really can make all the difference. Later in life, the Hillman Avenger received a facelift in which it lost its boomerang taillights in favour of ordinary rectangular lights. Needless to say, it’s of course the early version which looks better.

1974 Porsche 911 G-series:
Even fairly ordinary taillights can be quite effectful in the right surroundings. Just look at the G-series 911 launched in 1974. The earlier longhood 911’s have a purity and simplicity which the G-series lacks, but the G-series wins hands down on its taillights. The actual taillights are actually largely unchanged from the earlier 911’s, but the full width reflector placed between them made quite a visual impact. Especially those with P-O-R-S-C-H-E spelled out in black across the width of the reflector looked decidedly cool. They even started a trend with Hella offering similarly designed aftermarket reflectors for all sorts of mundane hatchbacks and saloons. I can see why too, as it looked great on the 911. Those taillights are almost as iconic as the spoiler which lives just above them.

1966 Dodge Charger:
But in all fairness, the Americans got there first. Not just did they have full width taillights, but they were functioning lights all the way across too, rather than merely a reflector. In terms of the Dodge Charger, it’s always the ’68 model which runs with all the credit – probably largely thanks to its major supporting role in the movie Bullitt. But as we’re not about to let a bit of Hollywood stardom steel our focus on awesome taillights, it’s clearly the first-generation 1966 predecessor which deserves its moment in the limelight. Taillights just don’t come much wider than this…

1967 Mazda Cosmo 110S:
Just WAUW…!! The Cosmo’s design was – and still is – thoroughly outlandish in just about every perceivable way. With a design so striking, it would have been all too easy to fail when it came to finishing off the rear end. But not so in the case of the Cosmo 110S. The two half-moon taillights split horisontally by the rear bumper is clearly influenced by the jet age designs of the early sixties, but is executed with a much more modern crispness to it. For the taillights to actually stand out on a car design so astonishing is quite an accomplishment.

1969 Peugeot 504 Coupé & Convertible:
On what is otherwise a very subtle and stylish coupé, the taillights on the pre-facelift Peugeot 504 Coupé and Convertible were of a rather aggressive design. Three individual and slightly angled slashes of red and orange tied together by a chromed backing plate. I don’t recall any other car having a similar taillight design. If any proof was needed that those three slashes either side of the rear panel were a stroke of genius, look no further than the facelifted version which was launched in 1977: By all means still a hugely handsome coupé, but with ordinary rectangular taillights, the booty lost some of its allure.

1972 Mercedes-Benz S-class W116:
The ribbed taillights of Mercedes-Benz are legendary. Many take them for granted nowadays and even more fail to understand why they were designed as they were. But it’s not just a design gimmick. The ribs actually prevent the lights from picking up as much dust, dirt and road grime, as the deep grooves accelerate the air through them. This enables them to remain clean while dirt only sticks to the protruding ribs. As such, 50% of the light will always remain reasonably clear. Proof that German engineering, practicality and safety can indeed be pretty cool.

1974 Maserati Khamsin:
As with the 911 G-series, sometimes the surrounding design can be so clever that even fairly ordinary taillights suddenly stand out as something truly inspiring. The Maserati Khamsin is possibly the car which best displays this. While the actual light cluster is about as inspiring as an oversized pair of granny undies – now place those granny undies on a young and curvy Sophia Loren, and suddenly they appear awfully appealing. Or… how about placing an ordinary set of taillights “floating” freely within a vast pane of glass. Sexy

Which of the above taillights stand out as your own favourites? And more importantly, which ones do you feel that I forgot to mention? Please feel free to use the comments area below to discuss freely. Perhaps – just as when we featured stylised headlights – we might need a part 2 on taillights as well…


16 Responses

  1. Niels V

    @søren, Lovely,
    I do prefer design from the fifties and sixties, where the lights where predominately a single colour an still multi function, compared to the more modern combined lights like W116

  2. thunderbird

    Anders, wonderful and inspiring article.
    The Charger looks great, but 1966 Ford Thunderbird also presented full width lights and even had sequential taillights.

  3. Tony Wawryk

    Cool subject, and lots of great examples to pick from. I’ve always been a fan of round tail lights a la early BMW ’02’s, Ford Cortina Mk 1, Opels Manta A and GT, etc, as well as the vertically stacked tail-lights built into the fins of cars such as the Triumph Herald, Ford Zephyr Mk III, and the Farina-designed Morris Oxford among others. I also love the delicately curved tail-lights on the BMW E9, and the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, and then there’s the extravagantIy styled lights on such as the 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville or 1959 Chevrolet Impala…but I think my favourites – today at least – are going to come from the finned era – and from a car that I actually think is generally very awkwardly styled – the Daimler SP250, with the Lancia Flaminia GT a close second.

  4. Peter

    Let me add another picture of a well designed tail: The Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider. Tail lamps are fully integrated in the shape of the curvy body

  5. Anders Bilidt

    Gents, as always your answers and suggestions are overwhelming! :-)

    @soren-navntoft, your love affair with Zagato A6G is really quite cute. While I’ll be the first to agree that she is indeed a thing of true beauty, you’ve clearly been blinded by pink and fluffy love to the point where you can’t even see her flaws.

    @niels-v, I thoroughly agree that there’s something strangely pleasing about all red taillights.

    @thunderbird, the thing is, we could no doubt come up with an entire Part 2 on this topic comprising purely Americana. Especially the 60s was a design-high for American automotive design. The ’66 T-bird taillights are yet another brilliant example of that, but seeing as I simply had to include the ’62 T-bird, I figured I’d let the honours for full width taillights go to the ’66 Charger instead.

    @tony-wawryk, oh dear me, how could I possibly have left out the Flaminia GT. Thank you for putting that right… ;-)

    @peter, you’ll be pleased to know that the Duetto was in fact on my short list as I was writing up the article. On another note, that particular picture you choose of a Duetto… it would appear to be from a Sunday Morning Drive with the CCC of Hong Kong. Makes me wonder whether I actually took that picture once upon a time…?? ;-)

    @dave-leadbetter, class indeed! :-D

  6. thunderbird

    Anders, I fully understand your fascination of the 61-63 Thunderbird taillights.
    They are exceptionally stilish. Good choice.

  7. Dries Leysen

    I just agree with all of the above, except the nissan :-)
    I just want to add one car that is often overlooked, the mighty Facel Vega HK500 and it’s stylish, subtle and yet striking tail lights…

  8. Anders Bilidt

    Indeed @dries-leysen, that’s a horrible omission on my behalf. Surely one of the very most artistic taillight designs in automotive history. I’d almost claim that the HK500 alone justifies us revisiting a Part 2 for this topic at a later time…


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