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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62 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. The worst new design fad is those new cars with the turn signal way down in the bumper all by itself. I don’t know how many times I’m sitting at a stoplight behind a car (their rear bumper not visible below my giant all-American truck hood) and none of the lights on the car in front of me are blinking. So obviously no turn signal is on, right? Wrong. I can’t see it because some idiot designer put them ankle height and separate from the rest of the lights. Also, in the dark when there is a bit of traffic, the big separation between the brake lights and turn signal makes it hard to tell it’s one and the same car.

  3. I’m so glad I found this website. I’ve been looking for this kind of comments every since the old website was abandoned. Do you have an article about how alot of German cars replace their turn signal with the brake light on US models but brand like Lexus still use amber turn signals?

  4. Huh, I was certain these were rear fog lights. I have an original brochure (that admittedly I probably haven’t looked at in 20 years) that I could have sworn listed rear fog lights as a feature.

    Completely unsubstantiated guess, but knowing GM thought they could find any market for the Alero in European markets, could someone have built in the possibility of rear fogs on the Grand Am in hopes the Euro market would finally get a little driving excitement?

    1. that’s what I always assumed back in the day, never really paid attention to what they did when the cars were backing up, but, since Pontiac was supposed to be the “driving excitement” brand, always seemed like unnecessary rear fog lamps to remind people of them You-ro-pian sports sedans was on point

    2. Okay, scratch that, I have an okay memory for arcane stuff like that, but the brochure I was thinking of lists them as Rear Cornering Lamps (just like a C4 Corvette!).

      It’s also a multiple choice questionnaire to see if you’re a serious enough driver for a Grand Am, which is cringeworthy enough. That said, one of the questions has something to do with the higher hertz rating (because the chassis was stiffer), and one of the answers was “what does this have to do with renting a car?,” which is kind of hilarious in retrospect. Not much foresight on the part of whoever wrote that.

      1. I love it.

        There’s just something wonderfully cheesy about Pontiac. I trace that to Smokey and the Bandit, as before then, Pontiacs were mostly competently athletic performers with a dash of edgy menace.

        But seemingly once you decide you need a decal of something covering the entire hood, you’re on a different path…

    3. Rear fog light(s) would have to be tinted red in color. US cars got one rear fog light, Eurospec was two.

      For instance, on North American Volvo S70’s (and possibly 850’s) there was only one rear fog light that came on the car, and it was on the drivers side rear light assembly, BUT, it was also on the passenger side assembly, you just had to drill out the rear of it and the bulb socket and wiring connector were there. “dual fog light mod” was a popular one on the volvospeed forums.

  5. Jason, you need to ask the Backlighter community what their position is on GM’s backup lights being on while people sit in their cars in a parking lot thereby making everyone think they are about to back out.

    I’m betting there are backlighting fundamentalists who are all, ‘ALL the backup lights ALL THE TIME!’, while others-like me sometimes- who just want to grab a lug wrench and disable all of them permanently.

    Or, maybe not: this could cause a major schism in an already small community.

  6. The 2022 VW Tiguan also has two apparent back-up lights on each side. One is integrated into the larger light housing on the hatch. The other is on the side of the hatch. At first, I thought one of them might contain an amber turn-signal, but no… the turn signal “cancels” the brake light when operating. I don’t know whether both white chambers illuminate when in reverse. And Torch, this is yet another example of a “split” taillight design.

  7. A little different but still related, the 99+ Mercury Grand Marquis has front headlights with side angled lights that illuminated with the blinkers. It was the first time I saw something like that on a car.

    1. Cornering lights! Cadillac introduced those in 1963 (?) and they spread to every luxury or near-luxury brand soon after. Ironic now that most cars have lamps that extend to the middle of the wheel arch that they’ve gone away.

      Jason needs to do an article on these, along with swiveling spotlights tied to the steering, like the Tucker’s center headlight.

      1. I’m happy to report that Cornering Lights are still alive and well today, though they are not always a dedicated bulb/light.

        Many cars now include them in the term ‘Adaptive headlights’ which often refers to lights that swivel in the direction of a turn to better light up where you are turning, negating the need for a dedicated cornering light. Our 2016 Touareg does the swivel thing, and also illuminates the fog light on the inside of the turn for a bit of extra light (which does cause some people to comment that one of my fogs may be out when they see it…)

        My sister has a 2015 GTI with the adaptive headlights and there is an incandescent light in the headlight assembly aimed towards the corner that illuminates during turns in the fashion of an old-school dedicated cornering light (not sure if the main headlights swivel in her car or not).

        So I think the idea of corning lights is alive and well, but the execution has advanced with the times.

        1. I just bought a 2022 Ram 2500 Laramie and when my headlights are on and I am either signaling or turning the wheel the corresponding fog light will illuminate. I only noticed after about 3 weeks of driving it when turning into my garage one night. It’s handier than I would have thought!

      2. I am surprised that Mercedes-Benz and German manufacturers didn’t incorporate the cornering lamps given their penchant for stuffing so many safety features in their cars. That is until the Europeans discovered how useful they are and started to add them to their vehicles in the 2000s and 2010s.

  8. You know there was already enough going on with this era of Pontiacs I’d never thought about the lights. I was more hung up on if the car was supposed to be “ribbed for her pleasure” or if the design meeting had just involved Ranch dip and Ruffles.

    1. I remember how at first, the ribbed thing seemed unique and even kinda Pontiac-cool (and don’t get mad at me people, I’m taking the *very* early days when it was fairly restrained and mostly trim, like late ’80s models).

      And then Pontiac kept. Doubling. Down.

      This was also the same era of the Firebird’s hellspawn look that has also not aged well.

      And then in typical GM fashion, as soon as they stopped and got things right, time to kill the division.

  9. What do the Backlighters think of cars that have the rear amber indicators turn on solid when in reverse?
    This was pretty common in Australia in the 60s to mid/late 70s before white reversing lights became mandated under ADRs (Australian Design Rules)

    1. I have a second generation Ford Expedition. I have always wanted to put a Lincoln Navigator rear hatch on it & use amber bulbs for the Navigator hatch mounted back up lights, while leaving the white Expedition tail light area back up lights in place. The aluminum sheet metal is corroded & one glass hinge is broken on mine, but unfortunately so are most other Expedition/Navigator hatches in the junkyard too.

  10. I always just assumed it was Pontiac’s designers going for moar excitement but on a budget. This was after all the time of the beginnings of the popularization of the tuner lifestyle.

    The front end had pretty big/obtrusive fog lamps, so I figure they were like “extra lights are racy, right? Yeah. Let’s add ’em to the back too…nobody’s doing that yet!”

    It always seemed to fit the mojo of a car division that would literally put its name in lights on the rear end of its vehicles. Sigh. I miss its unironic take on this kinda stuff.


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  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. @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.

  17. 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.

  18. Yhe only reason I could think od those things being there from a design standpoint is the visually shrink the rear bumper. I don’t Photoshop, but I think the bumper would look kind of bulbous without the lights there.

    Not saying they look good mind you, they just break up something.

  19. Hey Jason, how about a dissertation on Toyota 4Runner backup lights in the 90’s?

    Some years the backup light is mounted on the corner with the taillight and other years they’re mounted beside the license plate on the tailgate.

    1. If you’re talking about the second gen 4Runner (90-95), some had them closer to the taillights because they had a tailgate mounted spare on a swingout carrier. The rest of them had the reverse lights on either side of the license plate.

  20. I had an 01 GT. I loved the 4 backup lights. The lights in the taillight illuminated cars’ reflectors behind you. The lights in the bumper illuminated the ground. The car also had large, very usable side view mirrors.

  21. I have tried for twenty years to ignore this fascination with the Grand Am reverse lights. You have forced me to confront my probably immoral urges. Yet you have provided no insight. Damn you!

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