Home » Our Daydreaming Designer Discovers The Missing Late Cold War Era Default Taillight

Our Daydreaming Designer Discovers The Missing Late Cold War Era Default Taillight

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The long weekend ahead means time away from the computer and thankless work for most Autopians. However, with the new semester, the Bishop’s work is just beginning…and I could use your help.

From washing test tubes and grading papers to helping a professor move his hot tub (seriously…it happened), the life of a graduate student is really about two or three notches up from being in a Turkish prison. The Bishop should know…I never thought that getting my Masters in Automotive Exterior Lighting would be so difficult, but here we are.

The level of pain a student experiences is usually proportional to how big of a douchbag the instructor you play obedient acolyte to is, and if your advisor is the great Dr. Torchinsky, you’re gonna have a bad time. This guy is, by his own admission, ‘the greatest taillight scholar of modern times’, and his ability to use his pool of MAE candidates for slave labor is unparalleled. In addition, he has so much tenure he could practically smoke weed naked in a classroom and not get fired.

My latest task for The Great Doctor involves a bug he has up his ass about the sequel to the famous ‘Late Cold War-Era Default Car Face’, a discovery that won him an Amber Filament Medal.

If you don’t remember what the ‘LCWEDCF’ (pronounced luke-WED-cuff) is, here is how he describes this seemingly unnoticed styling trend:

If you look at cars from around the early 1980s to the early ‘90s, you may notice one pervasively common theme throughout that decade: a front end design incorporating a very clean and logical arrangement of elements. A front end incorporating wraparound indicators at the corners, a pair of rectangular headlamps, and a simple, usually black, mostly flat grille between them.

I call it the Late Cold War-Era Default Car Face, and it was everywhere.

Here’s a layout of the ‘face’ and a few examples:



All of these schematics and verbiage to say that a bunch of cars from the era of leg warmers had the same damn front end. Now, however, Torchinsky was CONVINCED that there had been another epidemic during this time: the Late Cold War-Era Default Car Taillamp.  Thankfully, he was going to ‘let me go ahead and spend the weekend’ researching examples of this so-called trend. Wonderful.

But what, exactly, is this ‘Default Taillamp’ I needed to be looking for?

The way the Great One described it to me, the (primarily) rectangular shape of this taillamp design is divided into three sections of amber, red, and white for turn signal, brake/taillamp, and reversing light. Proportionally, the red section should be equal to at least the combined width of the amber and white sections…kind of like a box of Neapolitan ice cream with too much vanilla in the middle, but the vanilla is replaced by cherry:


[Editor’s Note: I’ve actually discussed this color order once before, but in a sort of different context, comparing this well-known order to the red-amber-clear order. Is this order and general shape alone enough to qualify as an independent taillight design? Perhaps! – JT]

I fire up the laptop and get cracking on this unenviable task. About three minutes into my research I came to a startling realization: the poor fucker was right.

This taillight design was seemingly on every other car built from the mid-1970s up through the 1990s. Here’s a bunch of examples…left to right, top to bottom….how many can you identify? (answers here)


The bigger question is…which ones am I missing? I know that there are more cars out there with this ubiquitous tri-colored lamp, and the great hive mind can tell me…can’t you?

I’m tired, y’all….seriously, ANY assistance you can offer on my path to get a goddamned Masters degree from this dickhead will be appreciated!


Credits:  The Bishop, Virtual Parking, Bard Finds, various manufacturers

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53 Responses

  1. Sorry, The Bishop, I’m not sure if you’re looking to prove the assertion that _all_ cars of that era adhered to this taillight formula, or are you trying to prove The Poor Fucker wrong?

    If the latter, I’m hoping these may be of assistance:
    – Polski Fiat 125p (okay, this is just a vertical rectangle)
    – FSO Polonez
    – Dacia 1310
    – Trabi
    – Skoda 120 (various years, various letter-designating models)
    – Lada 1200 + many other models

    Basically, at the height of the cold war (the ’80s), _every_ Soviet-bloc manufacturer had adopted a layout composed of horizontal elements (only or hybrid – one large H with several V elements).

    If I’m cynical as to why that was the case – it was probably a combination of a) less sophistication required in manufacturing, b) a desire to refresh/modernize/better fill rear areas of very old silhouettes (all of the above were 60s designs) and c) to compensate for the dim lighting – of the roads, of the headlights of following cars, and of the taillights themselves, given that said lack of sophistication allowed dirt and water to enter the assembly.

    Why/how did JT not know? I’ll leave it to you to phrase that question.

  2. Ah, the glorious days when most cars had amber turn signals. I hate red turn signals with the burning passion of a million suns. The current trend of red automotive turn signals on USDM cars is an example of regressive automotive design.

    1. You are 100% correct, but what is even more incomprehensibly absurd is when an overseas car has amber signals and they MAKE THEM RED for the North American version of that same car. What is this madness?!? They ALREADY HAVE the parts made, why go through the considerable expense of manufacturing a DIFFERENT set of parts just to remove the amber signals for ONE market?!!

      Same goes for any manufacturer who regresses from amber to red within the same design generation for no goddamn reason. Yes I’m talking to you, Ford Econoline!

      1. Mr. Fusion- I completely agree with you on the amber lights in back.

        For the Econoline, I’ve noticed removal of amber lights on successive generations of numerous Fords (and other makes). I would venture to guess that in the all-red versions the bulbs are no longer in there either….if you can save ten bucks on a wiring harness and sockets and nobody really cares then that’s more money in the coffers.

      2. I read somewhere that there’s a minimum area rule for amber turn signals in the US. Could it be that narrow amber LED turn signals don’t meet this rule so they’re using red instead?

        1. Yes, four square inches per bulb. That’s why sequential LED turn signal indicators in amber colour failed this regulation. Why four square inches for the amber but no minimum for red is beyond me. What evidence does DOT NHTSA come up with the minimum size of four square inches?

          Shame that we lost the opportunity to insert the rider in the massive budget package recently that would have forced DOT NHTSA to mandate the amber turn signal indicators in the rear. That package had a rider, mandating the “smart” headlamps, which DOT NHTSA belatedly updated its FMVSS 108.

          United States was supposed to harmonise its FMVSS with UN-ECE in the 1990s as Australia and Japan have done, but US continued to drag its feet for eternity. Canada almost went full ECE in the early 2000s, but Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors threatened to pull the entire production out of Canada if it became law.

    2. foreversincebreakfast- what is odd is that in the seventies I think it was actually cool to have amber rear indicators. Cars even had fake rear amber signals. You might recall that the 1975-6 Vega had amber lenses that did nothing (no bulbs) and the 1975-7 Mercury Monarch had amber reflectors that also did nothing.

      1. “Hey!” cried Dodge Spirit (1993–1995), “I do have the fake amber turn signal indicators, too! They don’t work, but they do make me look so cool and so European!”

  3. I can’t free you from your current predicament, my ecclesiastical friend, but I can offer you the *Default Car Butt* of my culture:
    ▓██░ ▒▒▒▒ ░██▓
    I was born in Brazil, that forbade imports from mid 60’s to mid 90’s – so this is as useful as doing ecological research in a fish tank. However, this butt was seemingly everywhere when I was growing up, in cars as diverse as VW Brasilia and Ford Del-Rey. Most of our car fauna evolved from European ancestors, so this butt was also present in cars like Fiat 147 (a Fiat 127 variation)

    The height of the number plate could vary a bit, and American and European plates have different widths, of course. Also, some cars had the plate under an indentation, in order to allow for plate lights (this often underdeveloped portion of Exterior Lighting Sciences).

    Some variations also have narrower lights, but them all followed the orange borders, red centres and white inner portions.

    1. EDIT: formatting during editing is not the same as formatting in posted comments; this is, more or less, what I meant:
      ▓██░ ▒▒▒▒ ░██▓

    2. Hello Ruivo- Yes, there is a Default Car Butt! I know that some cars used extra red lights to the inside to cover up the void space left when using US 12″ x 6″ plates. Or some had black plastic blocks with license plate lights in them.

      When I was a kid in the back of car magazines you could by red filler ‘heckflosse’ panels for cars with the Default Car Butt with the car name like SCIROCCO in all caps. You had to put your license plate on the bumper which looked pretty bad.

      1. Now that you mention it, I remember seeing aftermarket filler panels for the DCB – and some manufacturers even started to integrate them, right when they started to wrap bumpers on plastic skirts. Some started to just paint that section – I even remember that my father doing this on an older VW Voyage that he had, once it became “fashionable” 🙂
        Maybe a good example is the VW Apollo (actually a rebadged Ford Escort – crazy times!). It was an interesting case in that the reverse lights were also blacked out, giving the car with the plastic black outs this appearance:
        I was on the fence if this qualified as a DCB, but after seeing your post, I think it does! Sort like an emo version of it?

  4. So Tracy is out of the country for a week and Torch has not only gone “Full Taillight”, but activated the MAVI (Minion Army of Vehicular Illumination.

  5. I’m not quitting…..I’m not quitting…..like Richard Gere’s character said to Louis Gossett ….”I GOT NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!!!! I GOT NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!!!”

  6. Looks like the Mk2 Ford Capri counts.

    Also, knowing Dr. Torchinsky’s fondness of subcategorization, do you get any points for slight variations on the default taillight? I’m thinking of the Merkur XR4Ti, which has an additional inner strip of red to follow the standard layout.

    1. Maymar- YES! It’s funny how that red strip to the inside (let’s call it the modified Late Cold War Light) started to take over on facelifted cars. For example, the w126 Benz had the red strip after the pure Cold War light on the w116. The Mazda GLC got an inner red strip, as did the VW Golf, AMC Concord (Eagle)….

      1. Thanks for bringing the 126 up. I fitted extra sockets into my first one for that geek-custom look. Even played with fitting an extra brake light switch with a deeper trigger point: was hoping to put an extra-bright led in the extras with the idea that they would only be activated when I was braking hard. Finally discarded the idea due to the insane contortions necessary to access the brake pedal in these(unwilling to pull the seat as that would have evolved into a full-on pulling of the carpet for cleaning and associated extra work)

        1. TOSSABL- that extra brake light switch sounds like a complex task. I have brake bulbs that supposedly do that in the fog light spaces of my current E61 wagon and I believe they are triggered by the ABS sensors going into ‘full stop’ mode….I think.

      2. That just breaks it wide open, since you can start adding stuff like the Toyota Corolla Levin AE86 and all the Lotuses that used those lights.

        If you do half-height reverse lights then you might be going too far, but that was also everywhere.

      3. I guess this was to accommodate rear fog light(s) which became mandatory in Europe in the late 70s. See Capri II vs Capri Mk 3, or Morris Marina 2 vs 3.

        1. Flying Monstera- that is exactly what I was thinking. Probably why my old US-spec w126 Benz had no bulbs in there at all.

          In some cases, it seems like an ‘upgrade’. That’s another Late Cold War trend….higher level models of a car got wider taillights. Like a six cylinder Volvo got the inside red pieces that the four cylinder did not.

  7. So just a fun thing about the Zagato (as I spent a lot of time on the taillamps of mine for the reason I’ll disclose) if you swapped that indicator lamp with the brake/taillamp bulb (as it had 2 filaments) and stepped on the brake pedal to illuminate the brake light, it would back feed the system and turn the ignition and fuel injection ECU on. Thus, tape the switch down, push start the car and away you go!

    For some reason, the previous owner had swapped the bulbs around and my dad and I were so confused why the ignition would come on when you hit the brakes.

    What an awful car! ???? Wish I still had it tho.

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  8. A bit off topic perhaps but I’ve actually started to pay attention to the rear end of cars in general as a result of Torch’s emphasis. One thing that I have come to realize is how few taillight treatments are actually good looking and how so many are just a scramble of the regulatory required portions surrounded by a chrome “cage” to tie it all together.

    I speak from a position of bias, but I would point out the taillights of my own Cadillac CT6. The lines are simple but very dynamic and provide plenty of light. Each line is tied to the other resulting in a overall pleasing “arrow/triangular” design element. Others that come to mind are the Camaro and the Porsche 911.

    How can such a important design element be so downright ugly in so many cases? I’m looking at you, Japanese producers!

    1. Brummbaer- I can’t unsee a recent meme that equates one popular taillight design (often on Hondas) with Red Swingline Staplers when illuminated at night

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    1. benlowrider- there’s a lot of examples there, and it has me wondering if it has to be considered a separate category or is it really the same Late Cold War light, just vertically?

    1. Ayrton- what I like best about Aussie cars of the seventies is when they had rear amber turn signals that also acted as amber backup lights. Supposedly this was done since when American designs were imported there was no room in the clusters for amber signal so the existing backup lights had to do double duty.

      1. I spent a period of time working on the restoration of an AMC Matador and the way the tail lights had been converted to suit was quite simply gluing a generic amber lens over the top of the factory reverse lamp section.

    2. Absolutely. Seems like Australian cars always obey Torchinsky’s rules – the Ford Falcons of the 80s and 90s followed his “Aerosion” principle to the letter, and yep, the Commodore sedans stuck firmly to Late Cold War Default Taillight for many iterations, flirting with different segmentations, but keeping the proportions:

      VC – Ten little boxes:

      VH – Merc-like ridging:

      VK – Smoky:

      And the wagon variant basically rotates the thing into the vertical axis … does this mean there’s a Late Cold-War Era Default Wagon Tail-light too?

  9. Rectangular tail lights? No. If you want to define the quintessential “Cold War tail light” you have no choice but to go back to 1968 and the first iteration of the coke-bottle Dodge Charger — the one with the round tail lights, not the so-bland and imbalanced rectangular chunks of plastic from later years.

    The ’68 Charger tail lights embodied all of the iconic themes of the Cold War, with stunning simplicity. Two of my favorites: the ’68 tail lights looked like intercontinental ballistic missiles in their silos, just after the hardened hatches rolled back, and just at the millisecond of engine ignition. And they looked like warp coil plasma ignitors from the engines of the starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek.

    So there you go: a world in ruins or a glorious future – the essential tension. What could embody the Cold War ethos better than the tail lights of the ’68 (and only the ’68) Dodge Charger?


  10. When are we going to mention how Rear wagon tailights were never the same again once the 1988 Toyota Corolla All-trac put them up on the D-pillar into the drivers sight line allowing full width tailgate a move years ahead of Volvo and other purveyors of fine wagon light craft.

    1. Timelord- indeed, why don’t ALL cars have the signal lights mounted up high, like in the back window next to the CHMSL. Or even higher like the Citroen DS.

      1. The DS is tres magnificent in so many ways. although I think the indicators were up high and the brake lights down low. perhaps it should have been the other way around?

        1. Timelord- the 1970s Oldsmobile Toronado actually got it partially right by putting repeated taillights horizontally under each side of the backlight. Of course, these were the typical American stop/turn combination, but at least they were in line of sight.

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