Home » Taillight Researchers Believe There May Be A Golden Ratio For Taillights

Taillight Researchers Believe There May Be A Golden Ratio For Taillights

Goldenratio Taillight Top
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A new taillight bar recently opened up in my community, which is a bit surprising; I just wouldn’t have guessed this little cluster of college towns and ex-tobacco plant cities would be able to support over a dozen taillight bars, but here we are. This new one, The Reddest Slice, is unique because it’s not just a taillight bar. In an attempt to maximize resources, it’s a bar that serves both the taillight enthusiast community and the cold cut hobbyist community, which is much bigger than you’d think.

I like it because I can get a gin and tonic and talk taillights while also having easy access to salami and prosciutto and corned beef from the cold cut crew, who are quite evangelical about their hobby and are happy to press a fistful of clammy pastrami into the hands of anyone who shows even the slightest interest. The night I was there, the bar was having two simultaneous events to cater to both their clientele groups: their monthly ham fight and a seminar from some taillight researchers from the University of Iowa at Baltimore. Both were fascinating events, but I want to tell you about the taillight researcher’s findings today.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

That’s not to say the ham fights weren’t incredible; the Cold Cut Community (CCC) has always had a strong emphasis on physicality and exercise, and their deals with local cold cut providers sometimes mean they have large amounts of about-to-expire cold cuts to dispose of. So, back in the 1950s, they started doing ham fights: picture a something like a boxing ring, but with low walls on the side that allow the ring to be filled with ham slices up to about knee-level.

Two contestants are in the ring, and it’s much like boxing, but instead of boxing gloves the fighters hands are encased in canned hams (removed from their cans, of course) and strapped to their hands with the same sort of elasticated ham straps you probably have in your kitchen junk drawer. The fights are vigorous but because of the slowing effect of the ham slices and the cushioning of the canned hams, are much less brutal than conventional boxing, and everyone seems to have a great, if greasy, time.

I watched the ham fights for a few rounds but after losing $40 on a fighter who I’m pretty sure deliberately took a dive just to get to a nice patch of honey-smoked ham on the ring in front of her, I decided to check out what the taillight seminar was about.

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The researchers were doing some truly fascinating work; they were Jungian Taillight Cultural Anthropologists, and as such they subscribed to the idea that there is a greater Taillight Collective Unconscious that informs our thoughts when it comes to taillights. They were attempting to prove this by establishing that there is an innate ratio of the sizes of the areas of a taillight’s various colors that feels “right” to humans, and deviations from this ratio cause people to be unsettled or disturbed in some way, even if they aren’t even aware why.

I immediately felt a surge of recognition as I listened; though I’d never really vocalized it before, I know I have feelings about what sizes the various colored lenses of a taillight should be in relation to one another, and this works for both two-color (red and clear/white or red and amber) or tri-color (red, amber, clear/white) taillights.

Essentially, the study is concerned with how the various taillight colors – red (brake, tail, sometimes turn indicator), amber (turn indicator), or clear/white (reverse) relate to one another in terms of proportion and size. And while some of this is dictated by law (for example, in the US 49 CFR § 571.108 – Standard No. 108 states that brake lights must have 7.8 square inches of illuminated area, and turn signals must have 3.4 square inches) there is also plenty of room for manufacturers to play once the minimum sizes are reached.

To gauge peoples’ reactions, they showed images of a number of taillights to test subjects connected to a wide variety of monitoring equipment and logged their various reactions, both voluntary and otherwise. Here’s a sample of some of the taillights shown:

Fiat128

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This one, from a Fiat 128 Sport, is interesting; while I like this taillight design a lot, it nevertheless feels somewhat… wrong, somehow. We have three lenses, with reverse and red getting an entire lens, while the amber indicator lens is divided in half, sharing its area with the legally-mandated red reflector. My gut tells me that this taillight design would be better if the red reflector was on the clear reverse lamp, instead of the indicator.

Why is this the case? I’m not certain but I absolutely feel it. To get closer to understanding, let’s find another car that has its taillights set up in three same-size-and-shape lenses, one per color. My own car, a Nissan Pao, does this!

Cs Pao Colors 6

This is very similar conceptually to the Fiat 128; but the Pao mounts its red reflector under the bumper:

Pao

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So, by doing this, the three colors are equal; it still doesn’t feel entirely right, but for whatever reason, it’s better than the 128 in this regard. Let’s keep looking; in order to eliminate variables of design preferences, it’d be good if we could find one car that had multiple versions of its taillights with different proportions. Happily, I can think of at least one such car: the Plymouth Volare.

The Volare had versions with tri-colored lights:

Amberrear

… and two versions of red/white lights:

Volare 2

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I’ll be honest: I can’t quite tell from the upper picture if part of that lens is actually amber, but for our purposes here, let’s just say it’s red. Between these two, the upper one feels more “right” because the size of the reverse lamp in the lower one just feels too… big. There’s something off about that, even if we factor in the red lenses on either side of the main 50/50 split lens.

For whatever reason, a 50/50 split between amber and red feels acceptable, but a 50/50 split between red and clear does not.

50 50s

I don’t fully understand this, but I do feel it; perhaps it’s because reverse is used less frequently than the other lights, and that’s why it should have the smallest area? If you’re still not convinced there are some innate proportions we as humans prefer, let me show you this:

Feelswrong

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This just feels wrong, doesn’t it? Even if each section meets the minimum requirements for area, having a much bigger reverse lamp area strikes us as deeply wrong. If the big area was red and the reverse was in the small area, no one would bat an eye. And yet, if those proportions are flipped, all of a sudden it feels like everything is on the verge of collapse and nothing means anything anymore, ever.

And yet, when I think about it, I know that some of my all-time favorite taillights do violate these innate rules. Take the Lancia Fulvia’s beautiful taillights, for example:

Pasted

These lights definitely violate the rules, and yet, somehow, I love them. The reverse area appears bigger than the amber section, and maybe the red round lens, too! It should be as wrong as my crude sketch up there! And yet, somehow, because of the powerful and intoxicating effect of taillights, these work. They do more than work; they shine, literally and figuritively.

Same goes for the incredible BMW 2002 round lights:

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Tail Bmw Reflect

Here there is more red area, but the reverse area is larger than the indicator area, which also feels wrong, as we saw on the Fiat 128 Sport lights. And despite that, these taillights are an icon.

The researcher’s studies eventually came to the conclusion that the ideal proportions of a taillight’s lens colors should be about 50% red (including reflector area), 35% amber, and 15% white/clear. A number of taillights do roughly hit these proportions, such as the Mark I Volkswagen Golf/Rabbit taillights:

Golf1

This is a pretty simple example, but I think you get the idea; if the colors’ proportions are roughly in this range, something is satisfied deep inside the human psyche. Ecactly what or why that is, the researchers didn’t claim to know yet, but they intend to keep studying this phenomenon, thanks to a very generous grant from the M&M/Mars corporation.

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I spoke with the researchers about volunteering for one of these studies; they’re eager to have me, though they did say for the next round of testing, a small chunk of my brain (they assured me it would be no larger than a regulation racquetball) would need to be removed. Seems like an acceptable trade-off to me! This is for science!

Taillight science.

 

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Bryan Pai
Bryan Pai
9 days ago

EVENT/SPONSORSHIP IDEA: The Autopian presents: Tail Light Fest — A convention on tail illumination and cold cuts. Possible Sponsors: Spam, Philips, Optronics, EagleLights, KC HiLiTES, Oscar Mayer, Cuisinart, The American Society of Cold Cuts, Galpin Automotive, etc….

There will be a car meet up, lighting demos, meat slicing, area for tail light replacements/installs, meat tastings, and meat/light pairings.

Special Event will include an art competition for tail light replicas made out of cold cuts. There can be multiple awards: Best Jambon Modules, Best Salami-based Indicator, Brightest Chicken Roll/Side Indicator, etc…

You are welcome.

Nick Fortes
Nick Fortes
10 days ago

What the heck is a Volare Streetmachine? I’ve never seen/heard of that trim before although the Volare was only made until I was 4 years old, I might not have seen them all.

When I had my Mk3 Jetta Trek, I put Hella half clear tail lights on it (amber bulbs in the turns). The bottom half was the deep red lens, top half clear, on a white car they looked great.

Maine Maine
Maine Maine
10 days ago

You tease with an image of Eurovan taillights and there’s nary a mention! The Eurovan is perfection in many ways – taillights, for one.

Thomas Benham
Thomas Benham
10 days ago

I wanna go bar hopping with Torch!

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
10 days ago

My initial gut response is the same as a classic Margarita: 3:2:1 – in the case of taillights, just replace the 3 parts tequila with “red”, 2 parts orange liqueur with “amber”, and 1 part reverse light instead of lime juice. Yes, I used to bartend, albeit not at a taillight bar.

I scoff at your percentages.

2nerkid
2nerkid
10 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

The funny thing is that this works out to almost exactly the same numbers, at 50% red/tequila, 33.3% amber/liqueur, and 16.6% reverse/lime

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
10 days ago
Reply to  2nerkid

Totally. But my answer is much more elegant. 🙂

Jatkat
Jatkat
10 days ago

BIG RED WITH LITTLE WHITE. AMBER IS FOR THEM EUROPEAN TYPES, I AINT INTERESTED.

Jatkat
Jatkat
10 days ago
Reply to  Jatkat

More specifically, I am a huge fan of the standard fleetside pickup tailight configuration, with a nice long red STT, and a small reverse at the bottom or top. See 71′ Chevy, 77′ Cherokee, 95 Chevy.

Stryker_T
Stryker_T
10 days ago
Reply to  Jatkat

the only amber I think looks physically good in person is the fancy LED ones, where it’s otherwise red or a red lens until you use the turn signal and at that point it lights up amber.

Jatkat
Jatkat
10 days ago
Reply to  Stryker_T

Agreed, I converted my 80 series land cruiser to white/clear tailights, rather than candy corn style. The indicator area was clear, so I added amber bulbs. Best of both worlds, you get the nice clean aesthetic of the two colors, with the greater effectiveness of amber turn signals.

Beto O'Kitty
Beto O'Kitty
10 days ago

Isn’t the golden ratio times 1.6 or something like that ( see skinwalker ranch)? So red 1.0 ,amber .3 and white .3! Golden! Great article.

William Sheldon
William Sheldon
10 days ago

love the golden ratio design up top. Taillight retrofit kits!

Outofstep
Outofstep
10 days ago

I was hoping this was another Mack Hardigraw tale. Like he went undercover at a taillight symposium or something. Still loved it but would have loved it 34% more if it had been a Hardigraw tale.

Hangover Grenade
Hangover Grenade
10 days ago

What about those dorky Kia’s and Hyundais that have an area that looks like a brake light, but is actually just the taillight. The brake lights are down in the bumper like a dumbass.

Rafael
Rafael
10 days ago

I feel like we’re collectively willing a tail light bar into existence.
I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all, most bars don’t even have a theme anyway, so what’s the harm in slapping some taillights here and there for a start, and inviting some taillight heads in?
Invite the in. They will come. And never leave.

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