I’m giving you fair warning right now: The turn signal community is about to be in an absolute uproar. Everything we took as true, on good faith, now appears to be a lie. Well, maybe not everything, but the origins of the modern turn indicator as we understand it – the one based on lights and not a pop-out semaphore-style arm – are not what you may think. I say this because a car I happened to see at Pebble Beach had electrical, light-based turn indicators at least seven years before the normally-accepted First Car With Turn Signals was ever built or sold. Get ready to have the foundation of everything you know shaken, at least turn-signal-wise.
To get started, let’s take a look at what the current accepted origin story for turn indicators as we know them is. A Google search seems like the first place where most people would start, so let’s look at those results:
There we go: The 1939 Buick is accepted as the car where “the turn signal as we know it today” was born. And I myself believed this, too! I’ve written about Buick’s innovation in the past, and so have many, many others.
The Buick turn indication system, which was called the Flash-Way direction signal, was only on the rear of the car when it was first offered in 1939. The directional indicators were a pair of roughly arrowhead-shaped lamps incorporated into the Buick badge on the trunk lid. Later years found the Flash-Way expanding to white lamps mounted on the front fenders as well, and eventually the turn indicators became integrated into the car’s taillamps, as we’re familiar with today.
I believed that these 1939 Buick lights were the start of modern turn indicators, as so many of us did. But then, merely days ago, I was walking amongst the cars of the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance, paying special attention, as I always do, to the wildly varied and diverse lighting solutions contained therein. It was a dazzling menagerie of taillights and headlights and markers and trafficators and parking and and fog and carriage lamps and so so much more.
Among all of this fluted glass and ribbed, ruby-colored plastic, a particular lighting solution caught my eye: a strangely utilitarian lighting setup at the rear of a car, almost clunky compared to the elegant lines of the vehicle it was bolted to:
I was so enamored by this novel light unit, especially because it included that pair of amber arrows, which are clearly turn indicators. The little red lamp is a brake light, the clear one is a reverse lamp, and that odd blue lamp is the taillight/running lamp. It’s weird, but blue does show up in this context, occasionally, back in the wild, lawless days of the early motor age.
I even was able to talk to the owner of the beautiful Talbot 105 to get a bit more information about this fascinating taillight:
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Now, in this exchange, some very interesting information came to light: first, this car, a 1932 Talbot, had modern-style turn indicators, at least about as modern-style as that 1939 Buick. And, these were factory-installed units, not aftermarket add-ons, of which there were a number of options since the 1920s onwards; the milestone is for factory-installed, OEM turn signals, and here they are, on this Talbot, a solid seven years before Buick offered similar ones on their cars.
And, if that’s not enough, look at this:
See those? Let’s get in a bit closer:
Those arrows, mounted at the base of the radiator grille. Those are turn indicators, on the front of this 1932 Talbot 105. So, not only did this Talbot have light-based turn signals before the 1939 Buick, unlike that Buick it had all four indicators, just like a modern car. This is huge!
Sure, those front signals would be pretty hard to see around the car’s bulbous fenders, but still – they’re there!
In fact, they’re specifically mentioned in Talbot’s brochures of the era, like in this 1933 brochure where it’s noted that they’re fitted to Talbot 75, 95, and 105 cars, and that telltale lights on the instrument panel let you know your indicators are on, just like we’re used to today:
I was shown by this car’s owner pictures of at least three cars, all Talbot 105s with Vanden Plas Four-Seater Touring Bodies, all entered in the 1932 Alpine Trial, and they all had these turn indicators installed. A search around the internet shows a good number of other Talbot 105s from 1932 to 1935 with various body types, and they all have turn indicators, some with different rear units, but all with those novel front radiator-mounted ones.
I should mention that despite that picture above, I have not personally confirmed that the Talbot 105 turn indicators blink. It’s possible they just turn on and stay on, though I suppose a determined driver could manually blink them on and off if they chose to. But, even if they don’t blink, they’re still light bulb-based turn indicators, and they’re even amber, the color they wouldn’t be required to be until 1964!
These were factory-supplied turn signals on a car that, while likely not produced in nearly the numbers of Buicks in 1939, were still mass-produced vehicles, and they did all of this at least seven full years prior to Buick’s Flash-Way rear-only indicators.
So, along with having the claim of being the “fastest four-seater to ever race at Brooklands,” as a 1967 issue of Autocar stated, the remarkable Talbot 105 should also have the distinction, instead of the 1939 Buick, of being the first production car with turn signals as we know them.
I have yet to find any reference online of the Talbot’s achievement in this arena, and I hope to correct this today. Drive away, Buick; you’ve been wearing the First Turn Signals crown for far too long. It’s time to place it squarely on the hood of the Talbot 105.
I implore everyone who will be celebrating or mourning this revelation at your local taillight/turn indicator bar to remain considerate and calm; the greater auto lighting subculture is supposed to be a welcoming place, after all.