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.

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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:

Sets

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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.

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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.

Corneryes

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:

Sidebackup

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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:

Cornerno

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.

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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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Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
2 years ago

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.

Robert Hall
Robert Hall
2 years ago

How about the Scion that had a backup light set in the bumper like this, but only one on one side?

M L
M L
2 years ago
Reply to  Robert Hall

Shockingly Jason actually has one of these.

v8corvairpickup
v8corvairpickup
2 years ago

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.
Thanks!

duckhunter71
duckhunter71
2 years ago

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.

v8corvairpickup
v8corvairpickup
2 years ago
Reply to  duckhunter71

I’ve seen what I was describing on a number of 4runners without rear mounted spare tires.

Sekim
Sekim
2 years ago

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.

i3 Driving Indicator Fetishist
i3 Driving Indicator Fetishist
2 years ago

Pretty sure Pontiac called these ‘rear cornering lamps’ in their order guide… I’ll try to remember to dig up the document when I’m back in the office next week.

Larry B
Larry B
2 years ago

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!

Carguy2219
Carguy2219
2 years ago

These secondary backup lights were not exclusive to the Grand Am. Pontiac also used them on the Sunfire in the early 2000’s.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
2 years ago

I just pictured that Volvo design engineer, holding the XC90 taillight with a dreamy look in his eyes, sitting in a steam room covered with soggy nachos.

EYE BLEACH

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 years ago

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.

Lew Schiller
Lew Schiller
2 years ago

Was this by any chance a Holden and if so were those spots originally rear fog lights?

OSpazX
OSpazX
2 years ago
Reply to  Lew Schiller

As an ex-pat Aussie, I have some expertise in Holdens. So, No.

J. Beresford Tipton
J. Beresford Tipton
2 years ago

What about the rarest and most beguiling of all…..the ’50-’51 Chrysler…..with AMBER backup lights…..????? Whatabout……Whatabout……Whatabout…..?

https://www.hemmings.com/auction/1951-chrysler-windsor

Rmkilc
Rmkilc
2 years ago

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.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
2 years ago
Reply to  Rmkilc

If you are referring to the certain SUVs made by Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Hyundai, and others with main (or secondary) taillamps integrated into the bumpers or very close to the bumpers, some explanations…

If the entire taillamps are attached to the tailgate that swings up, the secondary taillamps attached to the bumpers or on the D-pillars (that are visible when the tailgate is lifted) are mandated. Several Audi Q models have the secondary ones on the bumpers that are activated when the tailgate isn’t completely fastened to the body. The first generation Opel Insignia estate has the secondary taillamps attached to the D-pillars.

https://tinyurl.com/opel-insignia-taillamps

Many vehicles with bicycle racks attached to the rear towing mounts must have the secondary taillamps attached to the racks.

https://tinyurl.com/Bike-Rack-Towing

Australian Design Rules mandate that must have one side of taillamp wholly visible from the opposite side and vice versa. (I couldn’t find the exact URL for this particular ADR). If swing-out spare tyre/wheel mount at the tailgate obstructs the visibility, thus, the main or secondary taillamps on the bumpers. You can see the difference with Land Rover Discovery Series I for the United Kingdom (no secondary units) and for Australia. (I haven’t found the exact mandate in ECE WP29 that reflect this, but some European countries like Germany do require this).

https://tinyurl.com/Land-Rover-Discovery-UK
https://tinyurl.com/Land-Rover-Discovery-Australia
https://tinyurl.com/Nissan-Patrol-Australia

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
2 years ago
Reply to  Rmkilc

“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)”

The problem is your oversized hood, not the car ahead.

E Petry
E Petry
2 years ago

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?

Maymar
Maymar
2 years ago

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?

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 years ago
Reply to  Maymar

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

Maymar
Maymar
2 years ago
Reply to  Maymar

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.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 years ago
Reply to  Maymar

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…

Andrew Daisuke
Andrew Daisuke
2 years ago
Reply to  Maymar

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.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
2 years ago

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.

Steve Gray
Steve Gray
2 years ago

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.

David Smith
David Smith
2 years ago

I think you meant to say the sub-sub-sub-sub culture Backlighters.
(was that one too many or one too few subs?)

FUCK YOU
FUCK YOU
2 years ago
Reply to  David Smith

Automotive > lighting > rear > reverse lamps. Sounds like you got it right.

Lava5.0
Lava5.0
2 years ago

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.

Old Busted Hotness
Old Busted Hotness
2 years ago
Reply to  Lava5.0

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.

Mike G.
Mike G.
2 years ago

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.

duckhunter71
duckhunter71
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike G.

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!

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
2 years ago

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.

SLIDTossedPissedinto BleuCHSaladwCroutons
SLIDTossedPissedinto BleuCHSaladwCroutons
2 years ago
Reply to  Lava5.0

They are called Double Repeaters.

My 92 Accord had the same lighting design. There were 2 turn signals in every headlight unit. Making them flash opposite of the other.

LTDScott
LTDScott
2 years ago

Compensating for the single one sided reverse lights on 2nd gen Scion xBs.

T18
T18
2 years ago

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.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 years ago
Reply to  T18

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.

Cool Dave
Cool Dave
2 years ago

I’ll guess they are built-in redundancies, it’s a GM, they’re gonna fail inexplicably so have 4 instead of 2 limits the chances of them ALL going bad!

Amberturnsignalsarebetter
Amberturnsignalsarebetter
2 years ago
Reply to  Cool Dave

It doesn’t really limit the chances, just delays the inevitable.

HeyCharger
HeyCharger
2 years ago

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)

M L
M L
2 years ago
Reply to  HeyCharger

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.

Jason Snooks
Jason Snooks
2 years ago

How does this have no comments?

Actually, after sitting here trying to type out my thoughts, I now understand why it has no comments.

Regardless, I enjoyed the read.

BloggyMcBlogBlog
BloggyMcBlogBlog
2 years ago

Jason, these are nice and all, but when are you going to write about the greatest taillights of all time, the 2007-12 GMC Acadia?
https://i.ebayimg.com/images/g/OG4AAOSwpMFh16mY/s-l500.jpg

max_power
max_power
2 years ago

I love the picture you choose is a one example with blemish chrome trim.

Fit perfectly how poor quality these car are.

Mr. Frick
Mr. Frick
2 years ago

These wouldn’t last a week on a Camry

SLIDTossedPissedinto BleuCHSaladwCroutons
SLIDTossedPissedinto BleuCHSaladwCroutons
2 years ago
Reply to  Mr. Frick

Some say he torture tested the Grand Am rear Lights into Beams.
Some say he his mother raised him by backing her Toyota into Bollards..

ALL WE KNOW.. IS HE’S CALLED THE STIG!

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