Today’s Taillights: The Round Kings, The BMW 2002 And Ford Cortina

Tail Top

Ever since I started a regular place on The Autopian to focus on important taillights, I’ve been getting a lot of pressure from the Taillight Community, especially from those members with intense loyalties to a particular taillight. I’ve been threatened, bribed, even had a Volvo 240 taillight thrown through my house window, all to have either their favored taillights featured, or despised ones suitably shunned. I’m proud to say that I will not be swayed by any outside forces or influences, and the taillights I chose to feature will be ones that I select, based only on a deep, gut-level feeling that I have grown to trust, at least when it comes to taillights. Today, my gut has counseled me that it’s time to discuss a pair of taillights, perhaps the two best examples of the European Round category, the BMW 1600/2002 (1966-1972) and the Ford Consul Cortina Mk I (1962-1966).

Round taillights have been around since the very earliest of cars, starting with the lone red-lensed kerosene lanterns found on so many early vehicles, and continuing on as a design element on many cars, notably Ford’s affinity for them in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tail Rounds1

Unlike headlamps, trapped under the cruel bindings of America’s sealed-beam headlight laws (at least until rectangular lamps were available in the mid-1970s and then shaped ones from 1984), there was nothing that forced taillights to be round. Taillights could be any shape plastic could be molded, well, within certain limits of regulations and decency (though even that seems to have a good bit of play), but even with this freedom, the appealing simplicity of round lights still remained a draw for the taillight designer. Tail QuadsInterestingly, quad-round taillights have always seemed to be more popular than a simple pair of round lights, perhaps because circles tend work well in series, or because a lone round lamp per side may not seem to cover enough area in many cars. It’s partially because of the relative rarity of single round taillights that I’ve chosen the ones I have today.

Let’s take a look at the ones I’ve selected today, and compare their similar yet quite different approaches to solving the taillight challenges. Tail 2002 Cort

Tail T34Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t included the very-similar Volkswagen Type 3 Ghia taillight here as well; the reason I’ve chosen not to include it is because its extremely similar to the BMW lamp, yet positions its reverse lamp externally (when installed at all), and it has a much smaller production run than the 2002 light.

These factors together means that the Type 3 Ghia taillight, while close to the BMW light, never quite reached the iconic status of that lamp.

And that’s the thing about these two round taillights from BMW and Ford (of Britain): they somehow do have iconic statuses, to the point that they’re some of the few taillights to be regularly noted and known by normies, those poor bastards whose lives don’t seem to be guided by glowing scarlet beams from the rears of cars.

Round-taillight BMW 2002s are more desired by collectors, and part of the appeal of Mk 1 Ford Cortinas is definitely the styling, of which those round, bold, tri-sected lamps play a huge role.

Personally, I do consider these taillights to be the standout examples of integrated, round taillight design, and what I love about them is how wildly different their personalities are.Tail Cortina1

Let’s start with the Cortina. Of the two, the Cortina lamp is more exuberant and expressive, and, like many round taillamps, especially from Ford in America, seems to be inspired by Jet Age design, with the overall look of the light referencing jet engine exhausts.

Tail Lotus Cort SmThe chrome Y-shaped detailing that delineates the three sections: amber indicator at top, then a pair of red-lensed sections, one for tail, one for brake. This era of Cortina didn’t bother with reverse lamps, because that’s for going backwards, and as we know, a Cortina, especially the partially-Lotus-engineered ones, were all about going forward, fast.

Also, reverse lamps weren’t required yet when these were made, so there’s that.

These round lights are very stylized and bold, and really define the rear of the car, as they’re even more oversized in proportion to the rest of the car than you’d normally find in this era. The two-tone paint of the Lotus Cortina serves to just make them even more prominent.Tail Lotus Ad

The required reflector in the light unit is round and inset into the inner red lens, with matching round bulb-fresnel lens detailing for symmetry, giving a three-circles-inset look to the light, if you’re paying attention. It’s a nice touch.

These are flashy lights, perhaps more about style than function, though they’re plenty big to be useful.

Tail Bmw1600Moving to the BMW 2002 (though these did debut on the 1967 1600) we find round lamps that while equally stylish, nevertheless carry a remarkably different tone and aesthetic about them.

Proportionally, they’re smaller than the Cortina lamps, and they’re a bit more detailed, incorporating an entire other function – a reverse lamp – that the Cortina lacks.

Tail Bmw ReflectThey appear to be divided into three sections like the Cortina lamp, but the approach is different, with the upper reverse lamp (an unusual location for a reverse lamp, which tends to get shoved down to the bottom of the taillight assembly) commanding the upper 120° of the circle, then a red section below covering a larger 240° arc. In between those two sections is a little round button that forms the amber (sometimes on US-spec cars, red, but only for very early ones) turn indicator.

A more careful viewing will show that the taillight is really divided into four sections, with the fourth one being the reflector/taillight section, separate from the other red brake light section, which means that the outer ring is actually divided into three 120° sections surrounding the center circle.

It’s very satisfying, but in a much more analytical way than the Cortina light. This taillight feels like the result of some formula that dictated the optimal placement of the three colors and four sections, and then set all of that into a deep chrome collar.Tail Bmwdiag

There’s four bulbs in that little taillight, making a fairly complex and densely-packed unit. It’s clever and precise and complex and fits the character of the BMW incredibly well.

I think these two round taillights make such a good pairing because they’re similar, yet from each end of the spectrum of round lamps: they’re left and right brain lights, art and science, style and substance, yin and yang, and together they’re a wonderful reminder of how much we can learn from the vast, rich world of taillights.

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45 Responses

  1. Screw you all the taillights of the 68 Mercury Cougar, the 1st to appear to run if I recall, are the best taillights ever.
    Put up pictures of taillights in operation and have a poll, I dare you.
    Also I believe taillights started as round the same reason pizza is, it’s just easier shape to make.

  2. Torch. We’re going to talk a bout round tail lights and we’re not going to bring up Japan? Seriously?
    Specifically, the Mitsubishi Colt 1100F.

    https://www.thaiscooter.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=3649744&d=1345307197

    No, those are NOT BMW knockoffs or Ford knockoffs. They are Mitsubishi originals. Look closely – the reverse light is about 5/16ths of the tail light. It’s not divided into quarters. The amber protruding turn signal indicator. The right side is the reflector, the top is the brake, and the bulb is not in a straight up and down line.

  3. What is your take on the Fiat 850 rear lights, Jason? They feature a rear light, brake light, amber indicator and reflector in a singular unit. They don’t have a reverse light or chrome dividing trim like the BMW lights have but they were simple, cheap, light and ubiquitous. Do you think they made in it onto cars like the Ford GT40 and the Lancia Stratos on merit?

    1. I feel like their inoffensiveness is what led them to bring used on other models. Which I think is a hard point to sway as either a positive or negative.
      Generic design, while useful, isn’t really emotionally invigorating like a well designed unit as Torch posted above. They have character and that’s what really matters.

  4. It’s worth mentioning that BMW’s roundie taillights had their origin on the 3200CS. Those taillights only had 3 sections, though. 2 on the outer ring and the inner “button.”
    https://www.bmwgroup-classic.com/content/dam/grpw/websites/bmwgroup-classic_com/classic-heart/blog/classic-heart_pop-up-layer/2017/BMW-3200-CS/AF-3100-1_2224x1482px.jpg.grp-transform/xxlarge/AF-3100-1_2224x1482px.jpg

    But that wasn’t the first round taillight from BMW. The Isetta, of course, originated Bavarian round taillights.

  5. One reason the Cortina had no reverse lights was the fact that the manual gearboxes they used had no reverse light switch built in. The later MKII Cortina I had as my first car was an auto (which did have a reverse light switch) so the reverse light was a round Hella trailer light tacked on beside one of the taillights – not sure if this was done at the factory or at the dealers.

  6. A well-rounded essay, sir.

    You may have covered this on your previous site, but it would be great to highlight some of the truly bizarre tail lights from back in the day, such as the 1960 Mercury or the ’62 Dodge B-body.

  7. So there’s a bulb behind the reflector in the 2002? That’s cool, I didn’t know that. Usually reflectors are just passive. The BMW E34 also comes to mind with backlighted reflectors.

    That’s another article for you right there, Torch. Cars with passive vs “active” reflectors.

  8. I have always loved round taillights. I used to have a 1969 Opel GT, an example of which you included above, and I always liked the taillights more than the headlights, which were pretty cool in their own right.

      1. Mostly DRLs shut off when the turn signals are on, but being unable to see front turn signals at night because the headlight glare completely obliterates them is a real problem that I almost never see anyone else talk about. Everyone’s so busy arguing about amber versus red rear signals (hot take for the taillight ‘thoosies: the practical difference is miniscule :-P) that they ignore the other end of the car where you often can’t see the signals at all.

  9. Jason, you missed a golden opportunity to reference the huge outcry that arose when the C7 corvette debuted. Round taillights were tossed for highly styled ones. The Corvette forums were burning with outrage. People are still grumbling to have round taillights return.

  10. JASON!

    There’s one VERY important fact considering the BMW 2002 rear lights.

    In your image on top, you have a 2002 touring. In the images below in the article, it’s a normal 2002 (sedan, not coupe!).
    The touring has slightly different rear lights than the sedan. On the first look they appear to be the same. I reality, the touring rear light is different. The metal/chrome frame around the arrangement of lights is thicker on the top part, while on the sedan, the lower part is thicker. Since I cannot add pictures to my comment, I cannot describe it better. But you will find out, when looking at used parts.

    As a touring owner I can tell you, that it’s always a bit tricky to see and that you will buy lots of wrong sets of rear lights, when searching for the correct ones.

    Another interesting fact:
    Nearly everything is different on the BMW 2002, starting from the A-pillar. The pillar has a flatter angle compared to the sedan. Result: Different wind shield, different doors, windows and so on.
    In total the car is also 10cm shorter than the sedan.
    From todays view this does not make much sense, but hey, times were different. And wouldn’t it be boring if you find all the parts you need instantly?

    1. Kinda like the 1st gen Mazda 3. The sedan/hatchback basically only share the door mirrors and fender signals. Possibly the front doors, but every other piece of bodywork is unique to its body style!

      1. Yeah ya never realize how much you use one, until it’s not available. Also, it’d be nice if you (or I) were able to post a pic of such a car for reference.

        Alas, I’ll be here for the content regardless lol.

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