I’d argue that one of the most under-appreciated automotive lamp types of all time is the humble side marker light. With some exceptions, most designers seem to treat these helpful orange-and-red reflector/lamp combos as an afterthought, at best. This wasn’t always the case. When these lights first became required, at least one automaker celebrated them, before gradually sliding into apathy. The automaker was Pontiac, and the car was the Firebird.

Side marker lamps first became legally required in the United States for the 1968 model year. At first, they just had to be either a lamp or a reflector, red for the rear, and either amber or clear for the front. By 1970, both electric lights and reflectors were required. 

Now, in general, automakers tend not to be too crazy about new regulations, but the usual pattern is that initially, their efforts are just to meet the law, and then a few years down the line, when they’re used to it, they can more seamlessly integrate the needed component and play more with the design. The center high-mount stop lamp (CHMSL) is a good example of this—early ones were mostly just stuck on the rear package shelf, facing out of the back window, while later better designs integrated the lamps into the actual bodywork.

In the case of the Pontiac Firebird, at least, the opposite seems to have happened. Pontiac’s designers came out of the gate in 1968 with a strong, fun rear marker lamp design, then got even better the next year, but by 1970 seemed to just suddenly and dramatically give up, reverting to a boring, uninspired design.

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Let’s look at these milestones of rear side marker lamp designs, ones that are still studied in exclusive marker lamp design academies all over the world:

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1968: The first year for rear side marker lamps, Pontiac decided to use the required light as an opportunity to add some extra branding to the car. They designed the lamps to look like the Pontiac “arrowhead” logo, creating a novel and charming little extra bit of light-up automotive jewelry.

Compared to most other companys’ simple round or rectangular lamps, Pontiac really stood out.

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1969: This is the “zenith year” of Firebird side marker lamps, possibly of all side marker lamps. Running with the concept of using the marker lamp to emphasize brand identity, Pontiac decided to showcase the Firebird model over the Pontiac marque, and created this wonderful chrome-and-plastic illuminated red Firebird, noble and bold, bravely marking the rear corner of the car with its avian grace. It’s almost like the car has a tattoo that it wears proudly.

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This is an example of a company’s designers turning what could be just another mundane required part into something really special.

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1970: Just two years into Pontiac’s bold experiment with novel marker lamps, and it’s all over. The third iteration of the Firebird rear marker light has abandoned any attempt to be fun or interesting, and now just looks like a red equals sign, bland and forgettable.

So what happened? Was it the extra requirement to incorporate a reflector section? That seems like the designers of the lovely Firebird-shaped marker lamp would have been up to the task. Did GM just decide that bold marker lamp designs only suitable for one model just weren’t worth the cost?

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Probably. Those plain equal-sign lamps got used across the whole GM model range, something that the bold and specific Firebird could not do.

Marker lamps like the 1969 Firebird have not been duplicated in the motoring world since, I don’t believe. Even if it’s not cost-effective, an expensive indulgence, I think it’s worth calling attention to a time when GM designers looked a new, boring regulation right in its DOT-mandated face and saw an opportunity to really shine.

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That’s a very inspiring marker light.