Today’s Taillights: The Forgotten Trend Of Hiding Gas Fillers Behind Taillights

Tailfuel Top

This week will be a bit different for our Moment of Taillight Appreciation, because instead of focusing on one or two specific taillights as I’ve been doing, I want to focus on a fascinating trend that has been effectively extinct for years, but has a bit of a possible, if altered, comeback happening as we speak. Among the taillight community, this category of taillight is controversial; some small sects of purists deride them as being debased into serving a needless secondary purpose, but I think most taillighters genuinely enjoy these. I’m talking about taillights that hide fuel fillers.

Yes, this was something of a trend in the 1940s and 1950s, where a car’s fuel filler would be entirely obscured behind or underneath a taillight, which was hinged or on some sort of pivot to swing or flip or turn out of the way to give access to the gas cap. They’re fun! Like a bookshelf that hides a door or a secret panel in, well, pretty much anything, designs that offer hidden surprises almost always delight people.

Well, maybe not if you’re not familiar with the car and you have to fill it with gas and you walk all around the damn thing and have no idea where the fuel door is. That would be annoying. But for everyone else, pulling up to a gas station, giving a sneaky look around you, and then making your taillight pop up to reveal your gas cap is essentially everyday spy shit, and the world appreciates that.

From what I can tell, the first mass-market car to design a taillight that hid a fuel filler within was on the 1941 Cadillac Series 62:


Also noteworthy taillight-wise on this old Caddy is the use of that single reverse lamp. But let’s get to that hidden fuel filler; you’ll note that while it’s hidden in the greater taillight housing and trim, the light unit itself doesn’t move. Sure, there’s a little red reflector part on the trim that lifts up, but I do not think that part actually illuminates or gets power at all.

This style was used a number of times, where the fuel filler was hidden within the taillight trim or housing, but the light itself didn’t move. Chrysler’s former fancy-trousers marque, Imperial, did this a few times, along with a some others like Oldsmobile and Nash:

Others Trim


Other adherents of the taillight-that-you-can-fill-with-gas concept got bolder, and actually hinged the light unit itself out of the way. Examples of this approach include Cadillac, again, who did it from 1949 to the early 1950s– you pushed the little round reflector as a release for the hinge! Aw hell, may as well show you:

So cool, right? Anyway, there was also the 1956-57 Lincoln Continentals, there were multiple Chevrolets, and while this seemed to be primarily an American affectation, at least one European automaker gave it a go, Peugeot:


For a while there, this was definitely A Thing. By the 1960s, though, the trend had pretty much died out, and if your shame about having a fuel filler was so intense that you needed to hide it, tucking it behind a flip-down license plate became the preferred solution for (almost exclusively) American cars well into the 1970s, when a ban on center-rear fuel fillers killed it. (Well, I should correct this: GM stuck with it until at least 1996 on the Impala SS, but it was very uncommon that late.)

I wonder if part of what cause the demise of the taillight fuel filler was the fact that you had to have some often-flexed 12V wires going to the taillight, right over a possibly open hole that led to a tube that led to a big tank full of gasoline. If the insulation on those taillight wires cracked and cause the wire to ground onto something metal, making a spark, that could mean a lot of trouble.

In fact, I have a memory of some ’80s or early ’90s movie where a character smashed a taillight, pulled out a bulb on some wires, broke the bulb, and stuffed all of that into the fuel tank, so when some other character hit the brakes, it would make a bomb. I’ve been trying to find out what the hell that movie was for 20 minutes here, but I can’t seem to figure it out. I’m also not sure I believe most cars have that much play in their wiring.

[UPDATE: The Bishop comes through! Our Daydreaming Designer knows the movie: Bad Influence, from 1990, a Rob Lowe/James Spader thriller, I guess, about some stranger who meets someone and goes all nuts on them, a trope that came up a peculiar amount in movies of that era.

Here’s a screengrab of the part I was describing:


There’s no way a Mazda FC RX-7 had brake light bulb wires that long. ]


Anyway, I mentioned that this funny old idea is sort of experiencing a revival, with an emphasis on the “sort of.” It’s not a fuel filler anymore, but Teslas do have their charging port located in their taillights, on the side, where the side marker lamp reflector flips up to reveal the port:


Same basic concept, really, just probably a good bit safer, since it’s all electricity in there, anyway. It’d be sort of analogous to if gasoline cars had gasoline-fueled taillights, I suppose.

Modern fuel fillers are almost exclusively hidden behind boring body-colored doors, which makes looking back at these wonderful and playfully deceptive taillight fuel fillers all the more appealing. I’m not sure that going out of your way to make a crucial part of your car as invisible as possible is the smartest idea, but it sure as hell was fun, and, at least for a little while, lots of carmakers agreed.

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61 Responses

  1. Quick Fact Check:

    “well into the 1970s, when a ban on center-rear fuel fillers killed it.”

    Grew up riding around in a series of Caprice Classics, the last one being 1989. I learned to drive in that car (305 V8 with posi-traction and the police handling package) and it had the flip down license plate.

      1. Sometimes I miss that feature. Could use any pump. Except that one time on a ’86 Oldsmobile, the license plate swung back up and flipped the gas nozzle out of the filler neck. Got gas everywhere, including my mouth & eyes. That sucked.

        I also miss the trunk lid lock hidden behind the emblem.

    1. Did he do the Blazer tank relocate to between the frame rails, too? Had a shortbed ’76 that I ended up having to get rid of in college, but that was my plan – tank in the middle, run the filler to the tail light.

  2. In the modern world where people absentmindedly drive off from the gas pump without removing the fuel nozzle first would sure cause a lot of damage to your car.

    You’re movie seems familiar, but maybe it’s like that Sinbad genie movie. You’re sure it happened, but all evidence of its existence has been erased from reality. Like Nutty Bars, except with lemon flavoring.

  3. My favorite feature of the moving Continental MK II taillights is that the exhaust is right below the taillight. Meaning you better not spill a drop when filling up the Conti after a long drive lol

  4. A broken bulb fully immersed in gasoline wouldn’t start a fire, it would just boil the gasoline if it didn’t simply burn out. You need to vaporize the gas and mix it with an oxidizer (e.g. air) if you want it to burn, gasoline doesn’t carry an oxidizer of its own.

  5. I had to register just to comment on this, and this is my first post here! One of my earliest – if not the first – automotive memory is my family borrowing my uncles 1957 Cadillac Coupe DeVille for a weekend. Besides the enormous backseat (I was then like 5 years old) the one thing that strike to me as cool as hell was the taillight-hidden gas cap.

    That uncle used to have also other cool cars, next car after Caddy was Mk1 Karmann-Ghia. I was lucky to have a ride in that too as a kid. Cars like those were rare in 90s small town Finland.

  6. As a Gasoline Dispensing Engineer in the mid-70’s, I remember the license plate fillers. Later Ford Granadas had the filter above the license plate. It had a longer neck to allow moving the tank further forward. The old GM tank behind the bumper was a firebomb waiting to happen.

  7. When I was a kid, my mom inherited a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500; its gas filler was behind a little flip-down door just over the rear bumper. In addition to the big gap around the door, there was a little tab to pull on, so it wasn’t exactly hidden.

  8. I love ideas/designs like this. They went away once manufacturers stopped hanging the gas tank behind the rear axle and moved them forward and internal of the frame rails. It would make the routing too long.

  9. That picture of the 1955 Chevy taillight is actually an aftermarket jobber. Stock they came with a filler door on driver’s side quarter panel. After popularity of 56-57 taillight fillers, aftermarket kits were available to convert 55.

  10. The Brits had one car too with a hidden petrol cap behind a lamp.
    Well, not exactly because it was not one car but two but sharing the same body – the Humber Hawk and Humber Super Snipe (1957-67). And it was not hidden behind a lamp but behind a reflector. But that reflector was part of the rear lamp unit.
    The reflector screwed off.×700.1k7dgy.png/1499210740105.jpg

  11. Ah yes. When I was a kid, a neighbor bought a (IIRC) ’56 Chevy. His kid and I hunted for the fuel filler for quite a while. Turned out the taillight had a trim piece that you had to twist to make it swing open. I think the giveaway was that the two taillights were not mirror images of each other (and that there was a bit of a gap at the ends of the trim.

  12. My friends dad had an ’88 Ford Fairmont Ghia (really really fancy Falcon) it filled from behind the number plate. 6 year old me thought this was the pinnacle of luxury (my parents ’86 Telstar didn’t even have a passenger side rear view mirror)

  13. When I was a kid, I had a rich uncle who had a bunch of classic cars. He once lent my family a 1956 Chevy station wagon to go to a hot rod car show. It was all fine, but on the way back, we had to stop and get gas. We looked around the car for probably 10 minutes, totally flummoxed.

    Eventually an old-timer from the attached garage walked over and twisted a little knob on the drivers-side taillight and it flipped out, revealing the filler cap.

    It was pretty embarrassing, probably even more so for my father.

    1. My first daily driver was a ’56 Bel-Air (it was already a classic when I started driving it). Mostly drove it local, but did make one long trip to Oregon, where you aren’t allowed to pump your own gas. Not a single pump jockey had a clue what to do when I pulled in.

  14. I know you don’t have them in your side of the Pond, so you might have missed the center flip the thingie port…

    The Renault Zoe have the charging port hidden right in the middle of the front under the Renault Logo.
    You press a button on the keyfob to unlock it, put out the cable from the trunk ( sadly there’s no frunk to store it near the port ) and do your things… once done you press the keyfob again to release the cable, park it again in it’s bag in the trunk and close the port ( there’s a warning if it’s not closed correctly )

    I think the Nissan Leaf has also it’s charging port located the same way. ( which wouldn’t be a surprise )

  15. I always thought that Tesla hiding it in the taillight was a good idea, but there must be a reason why most other EVs seem to have their own little charging port cover, usually on the driver’s side front fender. I imagine that’s a more convenient spot to reach a charger without having to back in.

    Has anyone integrated a charging port into a headlight?

    1. well, I think being at the back, makes it harder to position the car properly before charging. Bringing it to the front of the car makes things easier. It loses style points though, in my opinion, but more practical, especially when going to weird-ass charging station layouts.

      1. Putting the charge port as close to the driver side door is simply the most efficient location, especially for at home charging. When you get out of the car, you’re already at the driver side door. It doesn’t matter if you’re exiting to the rear or front, you just pivot and plug. If you put the port at the front or the rear, it’s only idea if you’re leaving a particular way.

        It’s very subtle, and you need professional levels of laziness to care, but there it is. Integrating a charge port on the B pillar would theoretically be even more efficient, but the cord would potentially be in the way while opening the door, or squeezing into a tight spot between two cars or a wall and a charging ev.

  16. Another variation of a hidden fuel filler is within the frunk of VW Type 3s and perhaps other VWs.

    My ’80 Vanagon had the oil filler behind the rear license plate.
    At one gas place somewhere where we could not fill our own gas, the attendant started to gas up through the rear license plate! I got there in time, but it could have been bad.

  17. “…a flip-down license plate became the preferred solution for (almost exclusively) American cars…”

    My Volvo 66 GL (a.k.a. DAF 66) has its fuel filler behind the rear plate but, having been designed for a European plate, the location of the hinge doesn’t work well with a taller US plate, nor is there enough room to fix the problem by mounting the plate higher. It’s awkward but worth it.

  18. Taillight charging doors work better on EVs because most of those have been doing those with remote openers. So they will do a very showy opening anyway.

    That may not necessarily last, but it does give the hidden ones a veneer of premiumness.

    1. Not to mention it would seem to make sense to eventually have the taillight serve as a visible status gauge while you’re charging maybe?

      I assume currently, you have to look at the dash or maybe your phone on EVs?

        1. I always thought these were pretty cool, and they’ve got to be better than the filler behind a license plate that was so popular in the 70s. My 71 Charger has that and while I love my car, I somewhat loath that filler arrangement. In addition to having to hold the spring loaded license plate up while inserting the filler, there’s a proto-smog era gas cap that’s not particularly easy to remove or install while your doing all this. Couple that with the fact that most gas stations these days tend to be optimized for side filling, in order to reach the pump I either wind up taking up two pump spots or I’m parked with the already long nose uncomfortably past the end of the pump island, often into the traffic flow into or out of the station.

            1. Where to put the gas cap? You wedge the cap behind the plate to hold the spring in the open position.

              But I never liked the rear plate hiding the gas cap. Once every couple hundred fills or so, the contraption fails and the spring knocks the pump nozzle out of the filler neck.

      1. I had a 2017 Volt for a couple of years. It had an LED on the edge of the dash at the bottom edge of the windshield – highly visible from outside the car – that showed charging progress. It lit amber for a second or two at plug-in, then flashed green 4 times in rapid succession when the battery was under 25%, three times from 26 to 50%, twice from 51 to 75, and one long flash until it got to 100%. Then it would stay lit solid green until the car was unplugged.

        My car didn’t have it, but there was an optional illuminated charge port that mimicked that behavior.

        My current i3 has an illuminated charge port. When opened, it lights up white. When I plug in, it lights amber while it’s doing its handshake with the charging equipment, then flashes blue while charging. It does not change the flashing frequency like the Volt did, and it goes dark if the car is locked. If left unlocked, like the Volt, it lights solid when the charge is finished. If I have the key with me, I just need to touch a door handle (either one) and the state-of-charge and projected time for full charge appear on the instrument display for a few seconds.

        Neither of these is actually the tail lamp-as-charge-status-indicator you suggested, but both of them make some effort to make charging status accessible at the vehicle.

        And yes, the charging progress for either car was/is available on their respective apps.

      2. The Tesla logo changes color based on charge state. Not as cool as a level meter, but it works. And I just tap the button on the charger end and it opens the door. It’s pretty slick. And I much prefer the charger in the back, the front would be in the way in my garage. The rear is by the garage door so it’s not in the way when I’m working at my benches beside the car.

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