It’s been a while since we’ve had a Today’s Taillights, which is, as you’d likely agree, tragic. But it’s being taken care of as we speak, as at this very moment you’re engaged in reading about a truly remarkable taillight – really, a whole family of taillights – that are effectively extinct on modern car design. And yet, during the era when these sorts of lights were in their prime, they helped define a brand’s identity, and while occasionally copied, these remain iconic. I’m talking, of course, about the ribbed taillights used across most Mercedes-Benz cars from the 1970s to well into the 2000s.
I’m just about certain that everyone reading this right now is picturing the same thing: big, bold, tri-colored taillights, with deep horizontal ridges molded into the plastic shape, creating corrugated lights that were absolutely unmistakable. These lights were first used on 1971 Mercedes-Benz C107 coupé/R107 roadster, as wide, corner-wrapping units that helped define the distinctive look of that sporty car, which had other ribbed elements, such as the body detailing on the lower door and rocker panels.
But it wasn’t style that dictated the corduroy look of these taillights – it was safety. The lights seem to have been the idea of Mercedes-Benz’ safety guru Béla Barényi, a legendary designer I’ve written about before in the context of his early work that was shockingly like the Volkswagen Beetle that would come decades later. But, when he got to Mercedes-Benz, he really thrived when it came to safety, as you can see Mercedes themselves proudly crow about in this video:
Visibility is, of course, a huge part of automotive safety, and while having lights on a car is great, they don’t do you any good if they’re too filthy to be seen clearly. That’s why in Mercedes-Benz brochures, the justification for these unusual taillights is given like this:
“The ridged rear light was tested in the wind tunnel and is specially designed to repel dirt,” and “taillights designed to remain visible after driving on wet, muddy roads.” The whole point of those deep ridges is so that the taillight stays visible even when all spattered with grime or dust or whatever.
Is this actually true, though? It seems like it would be, just based on the physical nature of those lights. If the surface gets spattered with muddy water, there’s still plenty of recessed lens area there that would remain clean. It has to, right? Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of images online of filthy Mercedes-Benzes, though our pals over at Curbside Classic did test this out deliberately, at least once:
Of course, the flip side of this is that cleaning those lights takes more work as well, since there’s a lot more surface area, and a lot of that area is sunken back about 3/4″ from the surface. If you’ve ever washed a Benz of this era, I bet you can still feel how your fingers felt sliding a sponge into those grooves. I’m feeling it right now.
After the initial ribbed light introduction in 1971, other Mercedes-Benzes started getting the treatment, like the W114 and W115 which got same-sized but now-ribbed lights when they were facelifted in 1973, and it didn’t take long to spread to every Mercedes-Benz in the lineup.
The ribbed taillights as a design theme had a remarkably long run, finally petering out – after getting quite stylized, smoothed, and almost useless for their original purpose by the end – around 2010, giving this distinctive design signature a nearly 40 year lifespan. That’s pretty incredible, especially in the world of automotive, and especially automotive lighting design, which tends to be constantly re-inventing itself.
While there were a few copycats, it’s telling about how associated these taillights were with the Mercedes-Benz brand that there weren’t more. Taillight design tends to be highly trend-based, with designs spreading like wildfire across the automotive world. Remember how clear-lensed Altezza-style taillights started showing up on almost everything in the mid-2000s? That didn’t really happen with these ribbed lights.
Sure, there were a few, like late ’70s Honda Accords or mid-’80s Mazda RX-7s, Plymouths, and even some Brazilian Volkswagens, but I think generally if you had ribbed taillights, it was seen as trying to copy Mercedes, and just came off as derivative.
Seeing these ribbed lights is becoming less and less common, but there are still plenty out there. So the next time you see some on the road, take a moment to appreciate them and, if you can, splash some filth all over them. The owner won’t mind at all, especially once you explain that you’re just letting those fantastic taillights really live up to their raison d’etre. I bet they’ll thank you.
Have you done an article about the Mazda CX-30 rear turn signals yet? I’ve been seeing them on the road lately and every time I see those LEDs attempt to fade out like incandescent bulbs I wonder what your take would be on them.
TIL – this is such a fantastic tidbit of information where function dictated form for the betterment of safety.
Question RE: “clear-lensed Altezza-style taillights”
Has there been another automobile stylistic feature that is referred to the Model-specific (not brand, else we’d [USDM] call it IS/IS300 lights) name when used on a different manufacturer’s product? For example: if anybody did a Black Panel (official nomenclature [TIL] aka Night Panel), we’d reference Saab, Hofmeister Kink on BMWs, the taillights above…
The Toyota Altezza only lasted one (!) generation as a model (JDM inherited the Lexus IS name for 2nd Gen) yet yet the model name carries both taillight and instrumental panel (chronograph watch) designs for every derivative design used by other manufacturers (OEM or aftermarket).
Thinking about it Angel Eyes/Corona Rings E39 is the next closest example, but BMW expanded the lighting element outside of the 5-series lineage.
Altezza is a good example and probably the strongest one.
Tall, D-pillar taillights on wagons and SUVs seem to get referenced as Volvo-style.
“Bangle butt” gets thrown around for the rear quarter panel/trunklid style that was spreading throughout the BMW range in the early 2000s. Like on the 6th gen ’07-11 Camry.
More of a general trend, but the VW/Audi arched roofline starting in the late 90s would get referenced on some new designs that followed – I remember reading it in reference to the 3rd gen ’02 Altima and more obviously the Ford Five Hundred/Montego.
“Has there been another automobile stylistic feature that is referred to the Model-specific… name when used on a different manufacturer’s product?”
“Continental kit” is in that wheelhouse.
That’s a good older example that does illicit a very specific look!
Remember people referring to M3 mirrors, the aero twin stalked ones that at the time were often seen on badly modded hatchbacks
Do we get to see the french tickler next week?
I have a really weird example: The Canada-only 1987-1992 Pontiac Tempest. It was a Corsica with a couple changes: One, the badges. Two, the taillights were swapped out from smoothed units to ribbed ones.
Ooh! Ooh! I’ve got one! The Ford Granada, late 70’s. The taillight design was just one of a lot of cues that were quite deliberately lifted from the then current Mercedes sedan(s), like the wheel covers with matching paint centers. As I recall, they ran ads that included shots of both cars from various angles, pointing out how, see, the Granada is JUST LIKE the fancy, overpriced Mercedes, but cost so much less!
Yes! And our Granada esque local Ford, the XD Falcon. I knew an Aussie car of the late 70’s/early 80’s ripped Mercedes taillights off. At first I blamed Holden VBCommodore, but it was Ford.
They spread across a lot of the Euro Fords but didn’t hang on for a second generation. The late 70’s Cortina and Granada got them, as well as the first FWD Escort. The 80’s aero look got rid of them all again. Compared to the Mercedes lights they weren’t as deeply ribbed and in profile had more of a zig zag: https://tinyurl.com/4rfmvryc
What, the Granada ESS was available in several of the same paint colors as a $20,000 Mercedes, how much more similar could they have been?
Another non-Mercedes example was Subaru starting in 1983. As with the W114/5, the ribbed look replaced smooth but heavily chrome-surrounded units by way of styling updates. Sedans and wagons lost them with the major redesign in 1986 but BRATs and hatchbacks kept them through 1987 and ’89 respectively since they stayed on the older generation body.
So why did MB stop doing ribbed taillights? Dirty taillights no longer a safety issue?
It’s sort of like Ralph Nader’s story where he asked why cars had huge fins. “Aerodynamics,” he was told. Then he wondered why fins went away. “Did the winds change?”
I would imagine cost had something to do with it. More detail = higher tooling cost.
Even if any answer other than “it looks cool” is BS, one can argue that moving away from designs where the front of the car look like a bear cage helped the aero enough that fins are now redundant for that purpose.
Conversely, we could argue that with modern SUVs reviving the “stacked bricks” looks, fins could be ripe for a comeback? 🙂
Look at the taillights of current Crossovers. Fins are already back!
I wonder if there’s any relation to Miki Berenyi of Lush.
These were especially important on the Diesel models, which always gathered soot on the taillight on the same side of the car as the exhaust pipe.
One of the most important reasons not to buy an old diesel MB in light colors.
See also: whitewalls. The front two will blacken into a nice pair of normal tires seemingly overnight.
Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is the perfect tool to get that soot off.
Yeah, related to my whitewall comment, a Magic Eraser and some Dawn cleans them right up much brighter than a tire brush will and with almost no effort.
On the subject of the functionality of the ribs: Mercedes-Benz has always been very eager to highlight the usefulness of all stand-out design features in their cars: The iconic gullwings of in the 300 SL are explained with the bulky tubular frame which didn´t allow for traditional doors. The tail fins of the W110 were officially called “Peilsteg”, indicating it was a visual guide to get a better reference of the car´s length when backing up. The W113´s “Pagoda” beatuiful roof also goes back to Béla Barényi and is said to be shaped in its distinctive way to provide extra stiffness while being light.
These company-created narratives IMHO show an underlying fear of aesthetic decisions possibly being able to be considered / judged as purely ornamental. This “no nonsense” attitude is deeply rooted in the Southern German protestant “Swabian” culture that Mercedes-Benz emerged from and is influenced by to this day.
I never would have made that connection to the newer C-Class. It is a bit generous, but I do see it, now. I will always associate these with the old SL. It is just one detail that I love about that old sled. Those are such classy cars, and I have always wanted one even though they are kind of a slug.
One detail on the W123 taillights is the top of them doubles as a track for water to drain out by the license plate from under the trunk lid. I have an 83′ sedan. I do enjoy running a rag down the ribs.
Jason, I know you would appreciate this question given your interest in taillights. What’s up with the taillights on the Hyundai Kona, particularly the older ones. Now I understand sometimes manufacturers will put elements like the reflector or reverse light in a separate housing. But here it looks like two completely separate sets of taillights on the same car. Like the designer could not make up their mind.
Rover SD1 (1976-87) also. And they were pretty effective although the back end of the car wasn’t too much of a dirt magnet so the lights never got properly caked in crud.
I also remember at least one manufacturer advertising ribbed rear lights as ‘self-cleaning’. Robo-lights!
With Joseph Lucas electricals, was it dirt or no electrons leading to the dark bulb?
Another “feature” of MB taillights of this era was their propensity to go out due to poor quality bulb mounts. I spent many a morning pounding on them to get the bulbs back on.
After owning four of them I can’t say if they were the worst best cars in the world, or the best worst cars in the world.
In Australia, the 1979 Ford XD Falcon had excellent ribbed tail lights
The next model, the 1982 Ford XE Falcon had an updated version
I had a 1976 Firebird with ribbed tailights
I suspect that their longevity was limited by efforts at maximizing aerodynamic efficiency in later models.
Those ribs absolutely work. This was after some light off-roading at Joshua Tree.
Somehow the link got removed.
Another interesting tidbit loaded into my trivia file. I would have sworn it was just for style.