As many philosophers have noted over the centuries, if you want a microcosm of the human condition and all its complexities, one need only look to the world of taillights. A great example of the Richness of the Taillight Experience can be seen in these ingenious Mercury Eight Station Wagon taillights from the 1940s. These taillights provide a very clever solution to a problem easily avoided.
The problem these taillights seek to solve is one that we still struggle with today: How to keep taillights visible and productive members of the lighting society even when the body part they’re mounted to changes position?
Usually, this happens because the taillights are mounted to trunk lids or tailgates, and one common (if inelegant) solution is to provide a duplicate set of taillights inside the trunk or hatch of the car, so even if the primary set is now facing the sky or ground, the other can still be seen.
This is a wasteful solution, though. There’s a better way to do this, isn’t there? Of course there is. And Mercury had a better solution back in 1949.
My friend Jason (not me; I wouldn’t call me a friend, exactly) noticed this on a Bring a Trailer auction for this lovely 1949 Mercury Eight woody wagon. Let’s look at the taillights on this lovely beast:
Pretty normal small, all-red, single-bulb taillights, very normal for an American car of the era — but what’s going on with that long rod there? Why is the taillight mounted to the upper part of the wooden tailgate and down at the bottom, below the tailgate? What’s going on here?
Well, this is what’s going on:
See that? when the tailgate is folded down, the taillights, which are mounted on hinges up top, are pushed into a position where they’re facing properly rearward by that hinged rod!
It’s brilliant! As you open the tailgate, the taillights automatically reposition themselves!
It’s so damn clever I want to spit. I love it.
Though, to be fair, you can’t really talk about how clever it is without mentioning the elephant in the woody: they really could have avoided this by just mounting those taillights on the rear quarter panels, on either side of the tailgate.
It looks like they’d have fit pretty easily:
Of course, with the taillights mounted off the tailgate, you’d have to deal with the license plate visibility separately, maybe? Also, you’d need a separate license plate light, too.
That’s the solution competitors like Buick took, though it is a bit odd because in the case of the Buick, when the tailgate was down you’d lose visibility for your rear turn signals (in the middle there, also the first of their kind from 1939) and the reverse lamps.
So, sure, maybe the Mercury solution was a bit more complicated, with four hinges and two rods added to the taillight hardware, but you have to respect just how cool a solution it was.
And, in the end, isn’t that what taillightery is all about?