Home / Featured Post / Saab Put Reverse Lights At The Front Of Its Cars And It’s Actually Brilliant

Saab Put Reverse Lights At The Front Of Its Cars And It’s Actually Brilliant

Saab Revs Top

The back tables at the Crimson Lantern are bleak, forgotten places shunned by the popular cliques of the various factions of Taillifestyle — the amber-clad Blinker Kids, the Altezzas, the Red Menaces, and so on. The back tables, under constant aerial assault by leaks and crumbling acoustical ceiling tiles, are the haunt of the Backlighters, which is what the loose confederation of reverse-lamp aficionados and fetishizers call themselves.

Reverse Lamps Have Aways Deserved Better

The Backlighters are a sad, strange group ostracized by the more glamorous, prominent, larger, and more colorful taillight sections and their respective factions, and as a result they’re constantly imbibing a cruel brew of resentment and pride, genuine in their beliefs about the value that reverse lamps bring to humankind, yet constantly chafing at the lack of respect from their peers.

I really can’t think of any good reason why, but reverse lamps tend to be treated with at worst near-contempt, and at best disinterested forgetfulness by the greater taillight community. Nobody loves them, and that’s sad.

They’re one of the only lamps not required to be paired (a single reverse lamp is legal in most global markets) and if you look at a lot of taillight designs, the reverse lamp seems like it’s just slapped on as an afterthought, minutes before the car was to be shipped out. If you somehow don’t believe that the reverse lamp is not respected, let me remind you of some of these reverse lamp treatments that feel like either last-minute corrections, cheapskate cost-savings, or some kind of strange shame:

Phonedinreverse

The reverse lamp deserves better than this. After all, it’s the only taillight component designed to provide both signaling functionality as well as actually illuminating the driving direction, like a headlamp. It’s a big job, and it should be respected!

This radical idea that reverse lamps are worthy additions to the constellation of automotive lighting and deserve respect, even admiration, is something I genuinely believe, and am not afraid to express. This has allowed me access to the Backlighter community, normally highly mistrustful of outsiders, and with that access came the arcane knowledge of what the Backlighters believe to be the greatest advancement of the Art of Reverse Lamps.

Old Retrograde, the leader of this branch of Backlighters, was the one to reveal the secret to me. He beckoned me to his dank table, in a dark, forgotten corner of the bar. I sat down, and he immediately seized my arm with a strength and intensity that belied his frail looks.

“I don’t have much longer,” he rasped, making a show of some very moist-sounding coughs. “I need you to see this before…before I’m gone.”

He slid a blue-and-yellow envelope to me, emblazoned with the SAAB logo. Then, he muttered “put it in R, friend,” and let his head drop heavily to the table.

I leapt up in shock, and yelled to the bar. “Old Retro is dead! He just died here! At the table! Someone help!”

The bar was silent for a moment, then the din of conversation resumed. Blanche Lux, the Backlighter’s most charismatic member, a spry 92-year-old woman in a sequined halter top, turned to me.

“He’s not dead,” she said, bored. “He does this like six times a night. Just give him a shove. Or don’t. I don’t give a fuck.”

In the end, I realized that I didn’t donate any fucks either, so I threw my jacket over the old drama queen and opened the envelope.

What I saw in there made me realize that if I thought I had esteem for the reverse lamp, the fine Swedes over at Saab agreed with me. In fact, they’ve done more to advance the art of reversing-illumination more than pretty much anyone, and one of their incredible driving-backwards-with-light innovations is what I want to show you today.

Saab’s Incredible Innovation

You see, Saab built cars with reverse lamps not just at the rear, but at the front as well, for years and years.

Okay, calm down. I mean it. I need you to stay calm and listen. This is not madness; there are some excellent reasons for the front, corner-mounted reverse light, and you need to understand them. So, let’s get started. They can take a few forms, but they generally look like this:

To the casual observer of automotive lighting, one may assume that these are simply cornering lamps, another sort of clever and under-appreciated bit of automotive lighting I once covered for the Jell-o Picnic Internet Car Magazine. And, while there is a cornering light function in those corner light units (as well as a parking lamp, turn indicator, and sometimes DRL) the reverse lamp innovation is a separate function entirely.

According to Saab owner’s manual bulb charts, the official name of this lamp seems to be the Side Guidance Reversing Lights, and that’s a pretty appropriate name. What these extra reversing lights do is provide a really useful bit of extra illumination where it’s needed most, especially when you’re reversing out of a tight place in the dark. This may be best explained visually:

A diagram of the illumination of a Saab reverse light array

Often, when you’re backing out of a parking spot or some other location, you’re not going straight. You’re turning, in reverse to maneuver where you need to be, yet in the dark, your reverse lamps just illuminate the area directly behind the car, even though the front half of the car may actually be moving in a different direction due to steering angle.

As a result, there’s a pretty huge, un-illuminated blind spot behind the front quarter of your car, which could easily end up in an impact to an unseen post or bollard or wall or other car or hydrant or swirling blades or whatever. Lots of us have banged into things in exactly this situation, and Saab’s clever Side Guidance Reversing Lights could have solved this problem simply and effectively.

The Side Reverse Lamps Deserved Better

It’s such a wonderfully useful and clever solution that I just want to spit, out of respect. And yet, somehow, the world remains largely ignorant of this important innovation, with even Saab owners themselves baffled at the side reverse lamps, and thinking that perhaps there’s something wrong with their cars.

Saab’s gone now, and likely won’t return. I can’t think of any current manufacturer that offers a lamp like this today. And, sure, ultrasonic sensors now do the job of warning us when we might smack into something unseen, but those come at a cost of incessant and annoying beeping and bleeping, and the sensors make bumpers and minor accident damage so much more expensive.

They don’t have the elegant cleverness of the Saab Side Guidance Reversing Lights, and that sickens me. Maybe Old Retrograde was right to defiantly fake his own death, as an act of defiance against a world that has failed, once again, to appreciate the contributions of a reverse lamp to the human condition.

For what it’s worth, I appreciate it.

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62 Responses

  1. Funny thing about Saabs and reverse lights — my 2011 9-5 only has one, on the passenger’s side. The tail light assembly on the driver’s side looks like it should have one, but it’s for appearances only.

  2. This is awesome. I want this, and am going to try to figure out how to put this on my truck. I do a lot of campering, and when I arrive to the camp site, in the woods, in the dark, then have to back my camper I always have to make my wife run around with a flashlight cuz I can’t see anything!! Maybe those lights in the wheel wells like on the Morrvair… And some on the side of my camper too. Switched. Dang, now I’m going to Napa on my way home from work.

  3. Count me as a Red Menace member normally, but I agree that reverse lights should get more attention. For starters, I think they generally should be brighter! You’re already trying to look back through a rearview mirror clicked to night-mode and (if you’re like me) a dirty rear window, in the pitch black – it is already an uphill battle. It seems to me that sometimes the brake lights are brighter…
    Other excerpts from my manifesto: “GM should be shunned for using the reverse lights as ‘you just unlocked your car’ indicators!”
    “The great cornering light comeback is at hand!”
    “Amber turn signals are for the weak!”

    1. My old CJ5 doesn’t have reverse lights and you really miss them when they’re not there. I eventually got a cheap set of fog lights and a toggle switch. It does the job pretty well but looks a bit goofy.

  4. Off topic, but sort of on topic – Torch, I’m thinking you’ve probably covered this at some point in your taillight history, but I’d really like to know what you think of the whole Euro taillight craze from the early 2000’s (I fully admit I put a pair on the 96 Ford Ranger I had at the time). I feel like this warrants an article – probably the one time in automotive history EVERYONE got interested in taillights?

  5. This is an underused option. My Caddy has this when I turn on the blinkers, that side of car lights up blind spots. I get in other cars without it and wonder where the lights are.

    Saab has ahead is so many areas, too bad GM decided to let it die.

    1. I have a Jeep Renegade, and with the correct options it repurposes the Fog Lamp as a turning light with the signal on.

      This is controlled with Italian wiring and FCA software, so it requires resetting as frequently as you would expect.

  6. Wow, new website and here is Torch branching out from taillight discussion, to taillight function integrated into side light!

    Man did I miss you guys. I’ve been wandering through the Jellopicnic aimlessly since you left. Lost and unfulfilled. This place,, on the other hand instantly offered articles that grabbed my interest. Well done!

  7. Ah, Torch, thank you, for illuminating this wonderful feature.

    Seriously, though, I’ve had three SAABs. Two of them may have had the light but I can’t recall, as that was over 20 years ago. Owners manuals? Are you kidding? I bought the 900 for $500 and the convertible for not much more.

    So yeah, now I drive a Jeep and have owned three SAABs. Oh, and a Renault. I’m sure I’m on the right site.

  8. Ah Torch, I see what you did there. Adding lights is always a “brilliant” idea. Glad to be reading all the thoughts you can churn out. I love the illuminating details on arcane car designs.

  9. My first car was a MKII Cortina, and the reverse light on it was definitely a case of ‘phoning it in’. It was basically a round white trailer light tacked on the back beside one of the taillights, probably at the dealer rather than at the factory. The reason was that only the automatic cars had a reverse light switch on the gearbox, not the manuals, so they saw no point in doing a ‘proper’ reverse light arrangement. I hated this setup so I rewired the indicators with holders for dual filament bulbs so the reverse light function was performed by the rear indicators.
    Then I converted the car to manual, which meant no switch on the gearbox, so I used a spare headlight switch (a toggle type switch) mounted beside the shift lever where I could flick it on as I shifted into reverse. I wired the reverse lights to the ‘park’ light (running lights) position, and fitted a little spotlight on the rear bumper for reversing at night that came on when you flicked the switch to the full ‘lights on’ position.

    Yes, I am a taillight nerd.

    1. No offense Mike but… please no!

      The site looks good as-is, larger text would just ugly it up and require more scrolling. I suggest you use the zoom function on your device or go into the device settings where you can usually make the default text appear larger.

  10. The number of miniscule yet ingenious features on the Saab 900 is the most exciting topic in all of cardom for me. You simply have no idea until you get to live with one of these magnificent beasts day-to-day!

  11. The coolest part was that the SAAB key wouldn’t come out unless you first put the car in reverse. This turned on the reverse lights. Next time you got in the car, as soon as you started it the lights came on. It served as a warning to others that your car would likely start to move. Really lit up the car’s surroundings at night.

  12. Having waited for the site to go live for some time, nothing could have prepared me for the first article I see and read to be about the weird and wonder Saab! Just fantastic, just what I was hoping for. I miss my Saabs, owned a early 80s 900T, and an early 00s 93 convertible. Two of the most fun cars I’ve ever had. Would still own the 93 if a deer didn’t decide to get up close and give it a kiss.

    I didn’t know about the backup lights until the first time I drove at night. Couldn’t believe it. Actually had to get out of the car and check it out, thought maybe a lens was broken or something. But the longer I owned my Saabs, the more I really learned to appreciate all the minor but great details they put into their cars.

  13. More Saab content. Their entire automotive history is littered with strange, interesting designs and engineering. Who wants a super car when you could drive something with barely 100 horsepower and a motor installed backwards?

  14. My 2018 Audi Q7 has this function by utilizing the cornering lights, they function in reverse also (when you turn the wheel left or right) effectively lighting up that side of the car too. I think it’s more of a standard euro option but I have heard of users coding in the functionality with OBDEleven too.

  15. Here’s my ultimate sad Saab backup-light story:

    My mom (76 and still driving the 1994 NG900 that my dad bought 28 years ago) has a habit of backing into things. She got her brother to install a backup beeper, like an old Fedex truck. Looking for something to wire it to, he declared the front backup lights to be weird and useless, and wire the beeper to it. So now it beeps stupidly with no cool Saab backup lights.

  16. Torch, what chance we can get some renderings of the Crimson Lantern at some point? Your words are very evocative, but I think some visuals would help. Is it all dark mahogany? Are their booths or tables? Carpet (sticky?) or floorboards? What does the bar look like? And importantly, what’s the lighting situation?

  17. My lighting knowledge for the day has been fulfilled! In a way I guess these are sort of like the door handle lights on a BMW that can be coded to come on when you put the transmission in reverse. I have my i3s setup like this, they aren’t super bright but I suppose they would be better than nothing in a completely dark rural setting.

  18. Well, I can’t say how excited I am that The Autopian opened up with a SAAB feature on day one. Also, as the owner of 4 Saab C900’s, I’m incredibly embarrassed to say that I never noticed the front reverse lamps on any of my cars and now have to go into the barn to see if I need to replace some bulbs! Great read and I will be back every day for more!

  19. What only a few knew about Old Retrograde is that he had been silently suffering from an undiagnosed case of type II diabetes for nearly three decades. In his younger days, he relished the chance to talk ingenious lighting designs, both automotive, aeronautical and marine for hours on end. In fact, it was a well known that he once stayed up for +48 hours straight with none other than Blanche Lux herself. Theirs was a passionate love brought together by the brilliance of man made lighting designs. It is with great sadness that their passion just wasn’t enough to over come their uniquely different lighting preferences.
    When you last met with Old Retrograde the other night, he knew his time to meet the great big reversing light in the sky was coming sooner than he’d like and he knew he had to pass on this knowledge, least it disappear to the sands of time for ever. So stay close to Old Regtrograde (and Blanche Lux), Torch, for they are the heart and sole of the lighting community… For we are truly Standing on the shoulders of giants

  20. Fun fact – having those nifty reverse lights did not prevent my 17-year-old self from crunching the front corner of my dad’s 9000 into a tree as I was backing it out of a steep driveway at my friend’s house. I thought I’d be clever and avoid scraping the exhaust by cutting it a bit early… didn’t look at the big oak tree to my left. He got his revenge a few years later though when he backed into the same quarter panel with the family van just before I was heading off to college. Great car, but that front left quarter panel took a fair bit of abuse!

  21. I did this on my fifth wheel camper years ago. I mounted lights at the front of the trailer and pointed them down the side towards the rear. They are wired up to the 7 wire plug to the truck which includes reverse lights. If I get to a campground in the dark, I can actually see when parking the trailer. I also added a switch so that the lights can say on when in forward in case I need to maneuver the trailer in the dark.

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