Over the weekend I was a judge at the 24 Hours of Lemons race at Carolina Motorsports Park. It was a pretty clean race overall—surprising number of fires, though. While trolling the paddock area looking for interesting cars, I came across an old mid 1970s Honda Civic, and seeing that car reminded me of a strange, mostly forgotten automotive design trend: turn indicators that look like they’re pretending to be foglamps. Let’s take a moment to reflect on this odd little trend, why not?
Here was the pleasingly well-worn Civic I saw:
See those orange lights on the bumper there? They look like foglamps, don’t they? The shape, the fact that they are clearly separate units placed onto the car’s front as opposed to being actually integrated into the design sure feel like add-on foglamps.
But they’re not. They’re just the turn indicators.
I’m pretty certain this was a deliberate design choice and not something done out of necessity; while these units do appear to be the same ones used on the earlier Honda Z600 and N600...
...it’s not like Honda was incapable of producing other sorts of indicators. In fact, the N600 came with both these foglamp-style ones and smaller, more conventionally integrated ones:
While it’s never flat-out stated that these types of indicators are meant to look like foglights, it seems they very clearly are. For example, here’s a Honda Life from the same era as these cars with both smaller, integrated turn signals and real foglamps:
The foglamps are pretty much the same shape and in the same location as the Civic’s faux-foglamp indicators.
This was a strange little styling concept, and it had to be a deliberate stylistic decision, because making these sorts of indicators is inherently more expensive than having ones integrated into the body or grille or on or below or in the bumpers. Integrated blinkers—wherever you stick them and whatever shape they are—only really need a lens and bezel and lamp housing—these foglamp-like ones need all that plus a separate outer shell and some sort of extra mounting hardware. They can’t be cheaper.
You know what else is crazy about the early Civic’s turn signals? Honda really, really couldn’t make up their mind about what they wanted to use for them. Around 1973, it seems that Honda had at least five versions of front turn signals for the Civic. The U.S. market got the fake foglight ones, but look what else they had:
Holy shit, Honda, what were you doing? There’s pretty much every possible version here: integrated into the bumper, two different versions below the bumper, and an over-bumper one that isn’t trying to look like a foglamp.
I’m pretty sure any of these would have been legal anywhere—what was going on?
This stylistic conceit wasn’t just restricted to Honda; off the top of my head I can think of two other cars that did this, both quite different in target markets than the little Civic or the 600 series:
The 1969 to 1972 Toyota Hilux pickup truck, which wore its foglight-style indicators way on top of its fenders:
And, at the other extreme of the market, Mercedes-Benz was trying to pass off blinkers as foglamps on their 280SE. And what makes the Benz version even more puzzling is that Euro-spec editions actually had real foglamps in the same spot, and moved the indicators to small units on the outer edges of the headlight housings:
In this example, the one on the left is the U.S. version with indicators that look like foglamps (it’s also Elvis’ old car, just so you know) and on the right the lights—slightly more yellow than amber—are real foglights on this Euro-spec car.
I’m also picturing but can’t quite place another car with these—they were in rounded rectangular housings, with a clear lens and amber bulbs. I want to say captive-import Mitsubishis sold as Dodges, but I can’t find it on any of them.
Ugh, it’s driving me nuts. I can see them!
I have complicated feelings about these sorts of indicators, and I know I’m not alone. Autojournalism legend Jamie Kitman confided to me (well, confided on Instagram) that he was, at one point in his life, offended by these indicators (at least on the Honda).
And, in a way, I get it. They do appear to be posing as something they’re not, and that can feel wrong. Like the car is pretending to have capabilities (in this case, better visibility in fog) that it really doesn’t have.
I understand the appeal of the look of foglamps, of course; I have them on my Pao not because I’m constantly driving in thick fog, but, if I’m honest, because I just love the way they look.
So, is it so wrong that these other cars sought a similar look? Even at the expense of a little bit of harmless deception?
Well, I say harmless, but I suppose it’s possible someone, once, somewhere, was in the middle of a thick, dense pack of fog and arranged to drive a friend’s Civic because they were laboring under the illusion it had foglamps, and as a result maybe drove off a cliff or something.
If that happened then, well, maybe they’re not so harmless.
I’d love to hear what any of you think about this important turn-signal related issue.
Ah! I just remembered the other indicators-like-fake-foglights car! A Plymouth Arrow!
Whew. That was driving me batshit. This is the only one to try it with clear lenses, too!