Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of heated discussion at The Red Lantern (the taillight enthusiasts bar and social club I hang out in) regarding the new 2020 Land Rover Defender’s taillights. This is mostly because the original Defender is seen by some as an icon of non-design in the taillight world, a vernacular design that has achieved notoriety despite itself. Can a modern re-interpretation capture the essence while making valuable updates? Let’s take a look.
First, in the very remote chance that, somehow, you’re not familiar with the original Land Rover Defender taillights, let me show them to you:
By the looks of these taillights, it’s easy to believe that Defenders were designed and built with no taillights at all, and it was only at the last minute, as the first batch was leaving the factory, that mid-level manager noticed that something was missing, and sent an intern out in a pickup truck and the company credit card to buy up as many of the cheapest trailer (or maybe even bicycle) taillights they could find at whatever auto parts stores were within a ten-minute drive from the factory.
The lights are small, barely-adequate off-the-shelf tiny round lights for brake/taillights (red) and turn indicators (orange). There’s also a pair of larger round lamps, one red for the rear foglamp, and one clear for the reverse light. Below these are a pair of small rectangular reflectors, slapped on with a mix of adhesive and apathy.
Somehow, despite the obvious lack of shit-donation that went into the design of this taillight setup, it kind of works. The basic, no-bullshit approach fits well with the overall aesthetic of the car, and the minimal rear lighting has become part of the Defender’s identity.
Of course, they’re also way too small, not easily visible, too easily damaged, and don’t really do their basic job very well. An opportunity for improvement is certainly welcome, and whatever efforts are taken with the taillight design of the new model will likely represent the first time anyone has given a shit about Defender taillights at all.
Hence, this is a big deal. So, what did they do? Let’s look at the new one and the old one, side by side:
Interesting! Clearly, someone finally gave a shit. Land Rover has had some excellent lighting designers at work for a while, with vehicles like the Discovery having some particularly well-designed taillights, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve adapted some very modern taillight design ideas while making at least some attempt to evoke at least the spartan character of the originals.
I think the most notable design concept I see here is a bit of an attempt to hide the larger elements of the new taillights, and emphasize more those four tiny lamps on the outermost rear panels. Note how the larger taillight units are almost hidden in those vertical black bands:
At an initial glance, in daylight at least, those tiny lights pop out at you first as the taillights, and those do sort of evoke the tiny outboard lights of the original. Where most modern cars have taillights that consume a vast amount of the real estate on a vehicular butt, here the visually prominent taillamps are deliberately small and swimming in a vast body-colored panel.
I suspect those small lights will just have taillamp/running lamp duty, though they may be hiding turn indicators as well; I’m just not sure yet, not having seen them in action.
The real taillight work seems to be done by the dual stacked rounded-corner square units inset in that black area. These lamps are interesting, highly dimensional things; not so much blocks as they are little cubbies of light.
Our own David Tracy is there in Frankfurt, and got me some good close-up video of the taillights:
Those are pretty nice! From what I can tell here, the LED outer rims are the basic taillamps, and I suspect that we’ll see the interiors acting as brake and/or turn indicators.
I really like how sculptural they’ve made these, and didn’t just settle on flat inset glass-brick style taillights like they could have.
I know Land Rover is fond of color-changing LED taillamps that use the same area for different functions, so we could have both center lamp sections working in unison for brake and indicators, or perhaps just the top or bottom one is the amber turn signal and the other brake. I need to see them in action to know, of course.
As far as the reverse lamp goes, it appears to be small and hidden here:
The legally-required rear reflectors appear to be inset into the bumper corners:
I’m wondering if maybe the small outer lamps are turn indicators in their center areas, and the larger ones are brake lights? I’d like that arrangement.
Overall, I think Land Rover’s lighting design team has done a great job with the Defender’s taillights, and have managed to find something that evokes just enough of the incredibly limited original source material while finding ways to be novel and modern as well.
I’m looking forward to being stuck behind these things in the near future, where I can bathe in their various red, amber, and clear glows.