Home » The Grand Mystery Of The Pontiac Grand Am’s Second Set Of Reverse Lights

The Grand Mystery Of The Pontiac Grand Am’s Second Set Of Reverse Lights

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I’ve been writing about taillight subculture a lot, and not in the alarmist ways that mainstream media outlets tend to do, portraying them as deviant libertines capable of almost any atrocity, luring in our children with alluring blinking lights, and so on. That’s not what they are, of course, and I want to be sure to portray all the facets of the Taillight Subculture clearly and fairly, including more marginalized groups like the Backlighters. Backlighters are reverse-lamp enthusiasts, and I’ve written about them and notable reverse lamps before. This time I want to talk about a car that’s very important and controversial in the Backlighter community, the fifth-generation Pontiac Grand Am.

I was informed about the importance of the 1999-2005 Grand Am when I was invited to a Backlighter gathering at the only Backlighter-specific establishment, The Clear Nacho. Because the Backlighter sub-subculture is so small, they can’t really support any bars or clubs, so the primary Backlighter gathering place is a combination food truck that sells nachos and serves them in a portable steam room.

Granted, the combination of what should be crunchy nachos eaten in a steam room that rapidly turns them into limp corn Kleenex triangles is pretty ill-considered, but the Backlighters seem to have embraced the experience of eating soggy nachos while wearing nothing but a towel inside a tent full of hot steam, so I did my best to play along and try to enjoy it. I did this because any invitation to a Backlighter meeting is a rare thing indeed, and I wanted more insight into the reverse-lamp focused subculture.

I got that insight, because when I arrived I found myself in the middle of a heated debate about the fifth-gen Grand Am. You see, the Grand Am is unique among nearly all cars in that it has what appear to be twin sets of reverse lamps, one set integrated into the taillight units as on most cars, and another, larger set integrated into the lower bumpers of the car:


Now, I had noticed these before and, surprisingly, hadn’t given them much thought. I’d always assumed the extra, large, round reverse lamps were there because Pontiac’s rather busy styling of the era demanded something to be going on in that vast tract of bumper-skin plastic, because those four creases and license plate-flanking panels just weren’t enough.

Why they decided to go for redundant reverse lamps always struck me as an odd choice, since they could have used those units for rear fog lamps, perhaps, even if almost no American cars ever include those.

The reverse lamp fetish community tended to see the choice as a tacit bit of approval from one of the largest carmakers on the planet, and that meant something. Exactly what they meant is where the controversy starts.

See, there’s a contingent that feels the lamps are purely redundant, and only there to give approval to back-up light enthusiast groups like the Backlighters. Another contingent thinks this idea is ridiculous, and the extra reverse lights have an additional function: to act as side or corner reverse lamps.

We’ve seen these sorts of corner reverse lamps before, like on Saabs that called them Side Guidance Reversing Lights and on C4 Chevy Corvettes where they were simply called (rear) cornering lights.

The point of these useful and under-appreciated lights is to make reversing out of tight, dark spots easier, so if you’re, say, turning and reversing out of a tight parking place at night, you get some illumination around the corner of the car so you don’t run over a discarded bear trap or abandoned infant or whatever. Or hit a brick wall. Any of those.

The problem is that I can’t definitively tell if these extra reverse lamps are set up to act as corner reverse lights, and it seems to change with the various styling changes to the rear bumper skin over the years.


Some versions of the bumper skin really do seem to point the lights out to the corners, and the light unit itself does seem to be designed to throw light laterally, based on the reflector design and lens fluting. The most compelling argument for the side-corner reverse light function, though, is what GM calls the part:


See that? “Side Back-up Lamp.” That feels pretty definitive, right? A backup lamp for side use! Mystery solved, right?

Well, maybe not. Advocates of the “they did it to send us a message” camp showed me soggy pictures of other variants of the bumper skin where it looks like the lamps are too far inset into the bumper and too removed from the corners to be effective at lighting up the sides:


While I see what they’re saying – some of these are quite inset and likely would have a lot of their lateral light blocked by the bumper cover itself, I personally think that’s just a case of sloppy design as opposed to the alternative, that they weren’t intended to be side-illuminating reverse lamps.

I understand the Backlighters’ need for acceptance and approval, and I’m sympathetic. But, ultimately, I think these aren’t just ridiculous redundant reverse lamps, but are intended to have the additional function of casting light on those tricky rear corner areas.

Either way, these reverse lamps put the Grand Am into a very exclusive class of cars that actually take the time to go above and beyond for reversing light needs, and I think the Backlighters should simply be happy about that.

They should also not serve nachos in a steamy tent, but I’ll pick my battles, I guess.

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63 Responses

  1. I’m pretty sure Torch was lit when he started this article. It seems as the bong-hit wore down he transitioned from the land of Xanadu and began to steer himself somewhat toward an answer that we never got. Either that or he needed to turn a 30 word article into a 500 word acid-trip to get the “engagement time” numbers up. Either way, incredibly entertaining info. So glad I finally found this site and can quit hoping that the site-who-must-not-be-named figures out how to talk about cars to car people some day.

  2. @Jason @JT @TheTorch @Tourchinski @Tourchopian @JasonJasonHesOurMan

    For the sake of humanity, please tell us what strain you are smoking. It is obviously a very creative one, which would be a benefit to myself in my job role.

  3. GM would have been better suited to mount those light in the lower rear bumpers of their pickup trucks. Why do pickup have such lousy backup lights, usually too high to aid in backing up.

  4. Having good backup lights is quite the automotive luxury. I have two beefy flood lights for off-roading and backing up my trailer, and it makes a world of difference. As a bonus, they are wired to a seperate switch, so they function as “courtesy” lights if the person behind me has forgotten to turn off their high beams.

  5. My theory is that the designers knew the car would inevitably end up making night time deliveries like pizza and drugs, so good backup lights were needed to navigate sketchy apartment parking lots and the narrow spaces behind businesses.

    1. It was also convenient having 15 rear lightbulbs instead of just 5. If you’re a drug dealer with 1 or 2 lights burned out the fuzz can’t pull you over because of the redundancy.

  6. So let me get this straight. The fools at Pontiac decided they absolutely must have redundant/cornering backup lights yet left the brake light and turn signal as the same goddamn bulb??

    Does anyone else realize how absolutely fucking ridiculous that sounds?

    1. This car has four back up light bulbs, three center brake light bulbs, two brake light bulbs on each side, & two different turn signal bulbs on each side. The Grand Prix of that era used the brake light as the turn signal, not the Grand Am. And yes, if you were wondering, I am a lighting fetishist like Jason.

  7. I swear that years ago on my neighbor’s Grand Am the lower lights did nothing, and we concluded that they were a non-functioning ‘design element’, like the ‘ribbed for her pleasure’ cladding and the rest of Pontiac’s gingerbread of that era. Were they an option, and not standard? That would explain the apparently bulb-less versions in their car.

    Nonetheless, I miss Pontiac.


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  9. As a prior owner of this model GrandAm GT I can tell you that the upper backup lights are more backup indicators and do very little to light the road behind you. Those lower ones were really excellent at lighting the ground. I had them burn out a few times and you really noticed the difference. Especially since I had a very tight and very dark driveway I had to back out of, on a hill, with a retaining wall on one side.
    It’s the same reason that snow plow rigs include aftermarket backup lights. Check that out.

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