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Today’s Taillight: Lancia Fulvia

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Back in the mid 1980s, when Baltimore was working hard to steal the American Taillight Enthusiasts and Fetishists Convention (ATEFCon) from its traditional home at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Convention Center, the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce started sending representatives to taillight-themed bars and clubs all over the country, hoping to win favor. They used a number of tactics: drugs, sex, violence, blackmail, but the one I remember most was their Today’s Taillight program for public schools. I’d like to revive that here.

As we all remember from the news reports, the Baltimore initiative crashed and burned hard when a whistleblower revealed that the mayor’s office was attempting to pressure Madeline L’Engle, author of the beloved children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, to endorse Baltimore’s ATEFCon hosting or they would release a sex tape of her and author and radio personality Garrison Kellior. It wasn’t even ever clear that such a tape even existed, but the whole scandal was death to Baltimore’s bid.

(Off the record, that tape definitely did exist, because I saw it at a party of select taillight community VIPs at SNL-alumnus Nora Dunn‘s sex-aviary in 1998. It’s so hot.)

[Editor’s note: As an editor who would like this site to continue to exist, I’m going to make it clear that this is a joke, presumably a reference to the D.A.R.E. program that was so prevalent in the U.S. Please don’t sue us L’Engle estate. -DT]

Anyway, the one good thing to come from all that mess was the Today’s Taillight program, which introduced K-12 kids to important taillights as part of their school curriculum. I remember the Hella-sponsored filmstrips and the big, wall-mounted displays of brightly flashing taillights provided to my schools, and how much they influenced me to pursue a life of taillight appreciation.

So, with that in mind, I’ll periodically do a Today’s Taillight here at The Autopian! Maybe it won’t be every day, but I will periodically select an important taillight from automotive history to appreciate and explore. We’re going to start with one of my absolute favorites, the taillights of the 1963-1968 Lancia Fulvia Berlina and the 1965-1976 Lancia Fulvia Coupé.

Lancia, just to refresh you, was an Italian carmaker with a long history of innovations. The Lancia Theta was the first car with a full electrical system, in 1913, and the first unibody car was a Lancia Lambda, from 1922. The first production V6 engine was a Lancia, from 1950! Lancia has always been envelope-pushers technologically, though in recent years they’ve just been mostly re-badged Fiat-Chrysler cars. But let’s focus on their glory years.

I mentioned the cars’ model years are there because the Fulvia Berlina did change its taillight design after 1968, though it looks like the Coupe retained the ones I’m thinking of the whole time.

Here’s the lights I’m talking about:

Look at them! It’s like a majestic wing of tri-colored light! There are actually two variations of this lamp: the example above is from the coupé, while the Berlina (you know, sedan) version had them with a slightly different, more tapered, less wing-like shape:

The Berlina version also was a good deal more dimensional, with an incredible-looking profile as well:

Look at that! Those are downright sculptural, even! Stunning!

Oh, I suppose these also had some chromatic variants, as some had amber rear indictors, while others used red:

 

While I am partial to amber rear indicators, I think these lights work well with red ones, too, which can’t be said of every taillight design.

What I really like about these lights is that it seems the designer started with an off-the-shelf part – that round red unit that forms the brake/tail portion, likely as a cost-saving measure, and then incorporated that into a housing with two unique lenses for the indicator and reverse lamp.

This sort of cleverness fits the overall design of the car, conceptually. The Fulvia was designed under the eye of Lancia’s chief designer, Pietro Castagnero, who gave the car – the Berlina especially – a certain understated yet potent sophistication.

At first glance, the car may seem boxy and static, but the more you look at it, the more you find it’s actually a compendium of well-executed details, everything reeking of quality and careful engineering, which fits the car’s mechanical specifications too, relying on a narrow-angle longitudinal V4 driving the front wheels, a layout very much tailored to a lover of engineering novelty and refinement.

Most of the design is boxy, so you’d think the taillights would follow suit, but they don’t which is part of what makes them so remarkable. They’re like jewelry, subtle yet attention-luring, and like jewelry, their job is to stand out, not blend in, which is why a square-themed rear lamp cluster would have been so wrong for the car, as it would have just been too expected, too easy, too forgettable.

Also interesting about these lights are the way they flaunt accepted convention regarding proportions of light areas; usually, red tail/brake is largest, then amber indicators, and then, the clear reverse lamps, which are usually far smaller than the rest. Here, I think the reverse lamps may actually have the largest area of all sections, by a small amount at least, on the Coupé’s more wing-like version, and on the Berlina, it’s about equal to the indicator.

Also interesting about these lights: they’re one of the very few that could work well in almost any orientation: horizontal, vertical, inverted – I can’t think of a context where these would look bad.

This is an unusual and bold design choice, and I respect it, even if it is a little counter to rationality, since reverse lamps are used comparatively rarely compared to the other sections.

The only real issue I have with these lamps is the failure to incorporate the reflector, which just sits below, a tacked-on little rectangle. I’d bet there is some sort of round lens that incorporates the reflector that could have been used instead of that little scarlet postage stamp, which would have made for a cleaner setup, but I suppose I’m a few decades too late to pen an angry letter to Lancia.

Everyone, I hope you’ll take a moment to appreciate Today’s Taillight, the taillights of the Lancia Fulvia, and perhaps you’ll find them as inspirational and life-affirming as I have.

 

(images: Stellantis, Modern Classic Auto Sales, Thinking Outside The Box)

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41 Responses

  1. You know what, I clicked on this article just because I liked the mildly confused expression on that rear end, but I think I really see it now. Those taillights are really awesome. And no, I’m not joking!
    I guess your “unusual” intro must serve the purpose of disarming us, but this taillight thing is actually rubbing on me. I genuinely look forward to those, not just because of the funny stories, but for the actual, honest to God taillight critique!
    And, of course, “compendium of well-executed details” is a very, very classy complement (or a very clever insult, I’m not entirely sure).

  2. You know Jason I love your quirks and most of your columns. This site is one of the best things to happen to auto journalism since the Hulk Hogan sex tape. I’ll also admit you must know more about tail lights than any expert I know. Caveat you are the only expert I know.
    But to sum up my feelings at the current moment in time? Tail lights are boring, they are inconsequential in car history, while the occasional facts you spew out are interesting I would recommend one twilight column a month at most.
    I know you don’t want to hear that. If we were closer together this would be an intervention but really for any guy who has been laid the tail light thing is over done.
    But I love you and don’t ever change (much)

  3. I was going to comment on you referencing one of my favorite authors as a kid, but then you had to go and make it all weird… Just promise me you’ll leave E.L. Konigsberg and Norton Juster out of it, ok?

    You’re right about the Fulvia; it’s gorgeous, especially the coupe. I never really noticed the taillights before, but they are just as perfect as the rest of it.

  4. Recently I began fawning over the pre-LCI (2008-2010) R55 Clubman taillights as there were two variants and one of them had amber turn signals (pre-LCI taillights also contained a fair bit less chrome trim internal to the housing which I also find favorable).

    Started looking into it and my LCI taillights have one extraneous bulb and the connector to the housing is completely different. A bit more work than I wanted to undertake for amber turn signals. …but only just.

    1. Controversy in the MINI forums when it was pointed out that federal regulations required separate red reflectors when clear taillights were installed. The clear housings had very bright white reflectors integrated into them. I said “fuck it” and installed my clear tails without the extra reflectors.

  5. Jason’s imagination is as colorful and raunchy as the Lancia Fulvia is beautiful. This is one of those rare cars where I don’t pay special attention to the tail lights but rather the rest of the car. In this case, though, I can learn to appreciate them. Even more so when you describe them as fine jewelry. A fitting comparison tbh.

  6. Torch – I love ANY article about taillights. And as you may recall, “under separate cover,” I have suggested yet another idea for a taillight article/research piece. As for the Lancia Fulvia… what’s not to love? Simplicity at its best.

  7. I dunno — to my untrained eye they look off-the-shelf and tacked-on. They don’t harmonize at all with the rear end profile, and the randomly included reflectors only emphasize those dissonant impressions.
    Apparently I just don’t get it.

  8. Beautiful tail lights but poorly integrated. Although honestly, that was a trend back then in some basic/cheap cars.

    It looks like Lancia originally wanted to stick vertical tail lights back there.

  9. I’m torn on the reflectors. On the one hand, they do seem tacked on, like they just forgot they needed them when they designed the lights. On the other hand, they do add some verticality that breaks up the quite flat and plain rear of the cars.

  10. So am I the only one who thinks it looks cross-eyed? Like, if I were behind a car, and there was a kid in the backseat of said car, and that kid turned around and started making faces at me, this is what it would look like. Look at that banner pic on this article. That is just a big, derpy face staring at you.

  11. While the reverse lights maybe used the least, they are the only ones that are expected to illuminate something, i. e. let the driver see what’s behind the car, instead of simply being seen themselves by others. So it makes total sense to have them be the biggest, and most powerful, of the rear lights.

  12. I’d like to see an article sometime about the grossly oversized, disproportional taillights (and headlamps) on some 1990s-2000s Oldsmobiles and how they directly lead to the fall of that brand.

    On second thought, no I wouldn’t. I just threw up a little remembering the taillights on Achievas and Aleros.

    1. Holy shit this. The Olds Alero has comically large tails. I guess they figured eye tests in this country are basically a joke when it comes to licensing so they made tail lights you could see from space with glaucoma.

  13. I’ve long thought the Fulvia coupé is the prettiest car ever made. I bid on a couple in the early days of Bringatrailer’s auctions, but even then they ended up being out of my reach.

    It’s a shame how many of them have been uglified into black-hood rally recreations.

  14. The taillights are lovely, yadda yadda yadda…now:
    Anyone else noticed that our little David is growing up right before our eyes? Give him a year and he’ll be chainsmoking in some little office and screaming at his secretary : “MARJORIE! get that little Topinsky asshole in my office NOW! And bring me some Rolaids!”

  15. I’ve owned my 1965 built, 1966 registered Fulvia 2c Berlina since 1997.
    Just a few comments after reading the excellent article which as a series 1 Berlina owner I mostly agree with.
    The trim isn’t chrome it is stainless steel, this includes the front and rear bumpers.
    Funny enough the reflectors grow on you and I quite like them, and besides I can’t see how a reflector could have been incorporated in the taillights.
    The early Berlina mine included, have chromed cast bases and detachable lenses.
    Whereas later series one Berlinas had two piece lights made of plastic once the bean counters had been let loose to cut the costs.
    This also applied to many other components such as the storage bins by the occupants feet, originally these and the armrests were fabric covered the same as the door trim pads, and in the same colour as the interior trim.
    Later models all have black only, self coloured plastic bins and armrests, irrespective of trim colour.

    One slight niggle, the picture of the Berlina shown from the front is incorrect, this is in fact a series 2 Berlina that is different from the series one and outside the years covered here.
    Thank you for an interesting article.

  16. The Fulvia Berlina is one of the most perfectly designed cars in automobile history. You’re absolutely right, at first glance it’s just a few boxes. But then you notice the details. The meticulously placed chrome trim. Those magnificent taillights. The graceful curve on the bottom of the grille. The tiny wings in back. And then you drive it and it’s an absolute joy. Such an amazing car.

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