I've been very impressed with the power of collective minds, lately, as they got my car back for me, and as a group, Jalopnik readers/commenters have a pretty good track record of getting things done. So I'm hoping to enlist your collective help on a little research project about an unsung hero: this iconic jeep/trailer taillight.
I can almost hear masses of eyebrows lurching upwards as you're all likely thinking "What? Who gives a shit?" but please give me a moment here to explain my fecal donations. This taillight is, absolutely, a common, trivial thing. Other than when it lights up, warning us the dump truck in front of us is screeching to a panic stop, we generally ignore them.
They're ignored, but they're everywhere. Their role on the buttocks of Jeeps is probably their most notable job, but these humble taillights have been on Hummers and other military vehicles, school buses and prison transports, forklifts and bulldozers, 18-wheelers and flatbeds, and even in rare solo guise on the Corbin Sparrow. They've probably been on a wider variety of vehicles than any other single automotive part.
Once I started to realize how frequently I saw these humble, unloved lights, I started to appreciate them more and more. They're really an elegant design: compact, and with a certain form-follows-function attractiveness about them. I love the way the taillight/stop light bulb does triple duty as the license plate light, thanks to a clear window in the base of the unit. And the border made up of reflector material is a genuinely stylish solution.
It's a great and unappreciated piece of our automotive landscape, and I wanted to find out who the gifted and largely unsung designer of this thing was. So far, I've come up blank. I'm not even entirely sure who first made these, or when. I have a theory that the unit probably came about in the late 1960s— say, 1968, around when reversing lights became mandated on American cars. I think a parts supplier designed them to replace the plain round red generic vehicle/trailer taillights they'd been selling, the addition of the reverse light bringing them up to current code, and making them a more attractive, integrated solution than separate red and clear lights.
On Jeeps, I think they appeared first on the 1969 Jeep CJ-5. That was the year they added side marker lights, and the iconic taillights have those integrated onto the sides of the housing, bringing the number of jobs that one main bulb does up to... let's see, taillight, brake light, turn indicator, license plate light, and marker light. Five. Five jobs for that one bulb.
Lots of companies build these now, and I have no idea who made them first. If I can find the original company, I have a shot at finding out who the designer was. And I really believe this unknown industrial/automotive designer deserves recognition for this achievement. I think it's one of those things, like Henry Dreyfuss' Model 500 Telephone or Raymond Lowey's Coke bottle that have become so integrated into the visual fabric of our lives that we forget it was even designed at all.
So that's why the call for help. I've hit too many dead ends in my research, and I'm hoping that if I put the call out, some chain of people and knowledge may unfold that leads to whoever first drew this red glowing thing.
Anyone have a '69 Jeep? That's probably a good place to start, If you have one with the original light units, maybe we could check for some small manufacturer's logo pressed into the plastic? Maybe someone knew someone who's dad worked at a trailer-light manufacturer?
You used to see these things all over the place, but I think they're now starting to be replaced by lower-profile LED units, so the reign of these silent kings may be ending. Let's see if we can't figure this out, and make an unsung hero a bit more sung.