Today’s Taillight: The Dream Of The Ombré/Gradient Taillights

Gradient Top

The Scarlet Lighter is the only taillight-subculture bar I can think of that has a Nathaniel Hawthorne theme. Integrating Taillight Culture and Early American fiction isn’t easy, and, to be honest, it all feels kind of forced, like how the beer flight on the menu is called The House of the Seven Brake Lights or how all the wait staff wears big plastic A’s made from red retroreflectors. Really, it’s all pretty stupid. But, I like to go there whenever I’m around Boston because once a month they have a big drunken roundtable where everyone tries to come up with new taillight ideas, or ask the really difficult taillight questions. That’s where I heard about the Ombré Taillights.

Sometimes called Gradient Taillights, these have taken on a near-mythical significance in the taillight community because, as far as anyone has been able to determine, they have never actually appeared on a production vehicle. While the actual design of such lights varies wildly, and many versions can be seen on votives and other ceremonial artifacts, the fundamental qualities of an Ombré Taillight are simple: the colors of the sections of the taillight must blend together in a smooth, unbroken gradient that includes amber, red, and clear.


See what I mean there? There’s no hard breaks between the various sections, just smooth transitions from color to color, a result that many in the Taillight Community consider to be the idealized form of the taillight, as the harmony between the multiple colors and the perceived unity despite differences is considered to represent an ideal, utopian world, a world where turns are always signaled, reverse travels are well lit with a pure alabaster light, and the rear of every car is conspicuous and vibrant.

Plastic dyeing technology is capable of producing such an effect; cheap plastic water bottles, for example, have been produced with similar effects for years. The lack of gradient taillights isn’t an engineering issue; we have the technology.

Regulation-wise, as long as certain criteria are met such as light output and each section of the taillight meeting the requirements for visible area (for example, a brake light needs to have 7.8 square inches of illuminated area), then there’s really nothing against regulations about this still-hypothetical design, as what’s between those required sections of lens is not specified.

Has any car, production or otherwise, come close to the Ombré Taillight? The sad truth is not really. There’s a few examples that are close: the Nissan Pulsar NX’s diagonal-slash mask over a fairly conventional taillight gave a sort-of illusion of a gradient, kinda. Ford’s 1992 Focus concept car used an interesting scatter-dot taillight setup that sort of visually mixed the colors, but looked more biological than gradient, if we’re honest.


A number of carmakers in the early 2000s, such as Volkswagen, used an approach to taillights where a horizontal raster of red lines would serve to kind of obscure the amber turn indicator area, which did blend them together somewhat. It’s not exactly a gradient, either, but it’s something.

The only car I can think of that I might qualify is the North American market Series 2 Jaguar XJ sedans. I’ve written about these taillights before, as they fascinate me so, being the only taillight that uses an exclusively amber lens:


In this unusual setup, it’s an all-amber outer lens over an inner red lens/bulb setup for the brake/taillamp. The end result is sort of a gradient, a radial gradient of sorts, centered on the red brake/tail inner lens and radiating outward to where it fades out into the amber of the rest of that gothic tombstone shape.

It’s still not the ideal Ombré Taillight, but among the gradient-wishers in the Taillight Community, it’s the best they have in reality.

Will advances in LED tech be what it takes to make the Ombré Taillight a mass-market, modern reality, finally? Will we have to wait for taillights made from full-color, 32-bit LCD displays before we’re treated to a glimpse of this vehicular lighting holy grail?

Automotive lighting designers, take note. There’s a striking and unexpected opportunity just waiting for whomever is bold and daring enough to try it: the gradient taillights. It’s time.



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36 Responses

  1. Did you ever cover the practice of using a red lens over a green lens over an amber bulb to get amber indicators when flashing while appearing like a red lens from the outside? I recommend smashing a Saab 9-5 NG Euro spec taillight to get to the good bits inside if you ever get the chance.

    1. FMVSS 108 doesn’t allow this due to the insistence that the minimum size for AMBER turn signal indicator be 4 square inches per light bulb. Sequential turn signal indicators in amber colour doesn’t meet this regulation. No minimum size for RED turn signal indicator…

  2. When will Jason discuss *my* favourite topic in regard to tail-lights? Specifically weather or not the 1970s-1990s “corrugated” Mercedes taillights actually did stay cleaner because of their grooves?
    And why did Mercedes abandon the idea in the mid-late 90s?
    And whether modern Mercs would look better if they still ad this distinctive feature?
    (I’ll be over here in the groovy corner.)

      1. Of course Ford hd a variation too, late model Cortina, escort mkiii (the fwd euro one), Granada of that era (again, euro).

        I kao remember Peugeot making a fuss about the tail lights in their phase 2 106 from 1996. It was the first car to have an all red tail light that incorporated amber turn signals and a white reversing light. It was all over the launch literature but unfortunately can find no trace now.
        But of course you’d know all this if you ever spend time in the trendy Le Feu Arrière situated in Barbès in Paris.
        In fact, the Renault 25 also had ribbed taillights, just don’t ask how I know.

    1. Always loved that aesthetic and figured it had something to do with the manufacturing process or rigidity, this is the first I’ve heard it was meant to keep them cleaner and thus more visible. It makes sense as it always seemed cars were covered in more grime in NW Europe in this this era than back in the States. A lack of car washes? A glut of Diesel vehicles? A mixture of those and constant rain/snow? No matter, I miss the tiny wipers and always wanted to see a pair on the tail lights, I guess that’s why the grooves were supposed to achieve.

  3. This seems to be a relatively good place to ask a question on taillights!!
    This pate April I saw a BIG SUV on 75 in Fort Myers, Florida. Think biggest GM,Ford, Korean size. It was vibrant metallic green. No markings. Front end covered. BUT, very distinct taillights. “U” shaped, played on the side with open end outward. Any idea what I saw?

  4. As I have mentioned before in my abstract of my preliminary doctoral thesis, I believe that this whole sub-culture of vehicular lighting phenomena, comes directly from unresolved childhood psychological issues regarding fruit flavored foods.

    Many children first experience this with the red and yellow plastic circle lights on the classic school bus. The lights flash when children board and instantly the young minds are inundated with cherry and lemon candy thoughts or some variation thereof. Often, young children deprived of these candies have a stronger coefficient of visual representation.

    Jason’s current discovery of the Ombre (gradient) taillight expression fully supports this hypothesis but using the classic “blended” flavor approach. The cherry flavor melts into orange into lemon into coconut similarly generating a “Rocket Pop” (also called “Bomb Popsicle”) viewpoint. This often is found in much warmer climates for some apparent reason baffling researchers.

    In other words, it can basically summed up as simple “eye candy”.

  5. I have one for you, Jason. It’s a concept, but I assume concepts are fair game since you mentioned some in your article. I also seem to recall other concepts from around the same period, where LEDs were starting to appear and, rather than having each element exposed, they were hidden behind a semi-opaque “film” of sorts (which I loved the look of, but I don’t think it made it to production in any form) going for a similar treatment – front and rear, but I can’t recall specific models at the moment.

    Therefore, I give you the ombré tail-lit Volvo YCC (your concept car) from 2004:

  6. Similar to the MK4 Volkswagen, the 987 generation of Cayman offered an “all red” taillight. I believe the Design Edition came standard with these lights, though you could special order them on any 987 Cayman or the older 986 Boxster. My 2008 Cayman S has this option. It consists of a clear lens for the reverse and turn signal with the housing internals painted red like an early Lexus RX.

    987 Cayman Design Edition Taillight:

    As someone with the aforementioned taillights, as well as a MK7 with the perfectly-designed MK7.5 Euro-spec sequential taillights swapped… keep these posts coming, Jason.

  7. If a brake light has to have 7.8 square inches of area, what the everloving fuck is the deal with the brake lights on RAV4s? Because as far as I can tell, they are basically just a couple of laser pointers fitted to the inside of a plastic housing. They’re pinpoints. Also, they suck ass and I hate them.

    1. This is the most pressing issue of modern taillights. Why is the RAV4 allowed to have such small taillights? Why do they even want the RAV4 to have such small taillights? Why does it have a big light housing if they don’t actually light anything?

  8. The 2004 Opel/Vauxhall Astra sort of had that kind of thing – the indicator and reverse light were both behind one glazed lense which looked like a single unit when off. When the indicator flashed, the amber light made a gradient to white towards one side.

    The SAAB 9-3 estate also had glazed rear lenses, so when each part lit up the same kind of gradient effect happened with a blurry separation between each colour.

  9. So cool to see a mention of the Pulsar NX.

    Such a snappy little guy from back in the days when it was okay to make cars whose main thing was being fun. It had it all – coupe, popup headlights, t-tops, and even that super-rare sportback wagon conversion.

    Miss those days.

  10. Oh and hey, can we get an opinion on the animated rear turn signals on the “Mustang” Mach-e? Instead of starting out dark and then lighting up with a progressive side-to-side sweep like God intended, they start out *fully lit* and then sweep *off*. Also, they are slightly
    too yellow—not amber at all. I submit that they are an abomination and move that they be declared Anathema.

    1. Euro Mustangs don’t have sweeping turn signals (at least 2015 pre-facelift ones), because “homologation”, but when your driving lights are on all three rear bars light up, and then when you turn blinker on, only the last bar flashes from, and get this, red to orange. Yay?

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