It’s always interesting to find that your obsessions had fellow obsessives long before you were born. That’s why I was so excited to see this old 1960 Popular Mechanics article about taillights, which is a deep dive into how taillights could be better, in an era when it seemed like the only goal was to see how much taillights could be made to look like jet exhausts. Plus, I think this is the first time that, at least publicly, the case was made for not just amber rear indicators in America, but also the idea of progressive brake lamps.
The article, We Need Safer Taillights was written by a Pennsylvania State professor of electrical engineering named Charles Marsh, and I bet he and I could have had long, involved conversations about taillights that would have made anyone within earshot long to drink bleach just for the sweet silence the cold clutch of death would bring.
Marsh seems fed up with the poor quality of taillights in America in the late 1950s, and it’s easy to understand why. While this was an era of a lot of exuberant taillight styling and jet-age design, the actual function of taillights wasn’t great at all, with the actual lights being dim, small, and, often, confusing.
Marsh points out a lot of issues with taillights of the era, mostly on American cars, though he does also have words for the Volkswagen taillight of the era, which was, admittedly, pretty minimal.
I sort of wonder if VW saw this, because in 1962, the Beetle taillight received a complete redesign, one that I suspect Prof. Marsh would have been more approving of.
The biggest issues Marsh seemed to have with most taillights were pretty basic: visibility and understandability. Marsh didn’t like the small, dim lights many cars had, made worse by complicated and reflective bezels and ornamentation. Plus, he saw that the use of one red lamp for three jobs: taillamp, brake light, and turn indicator, could only lead to confusion when more than one function was required, as is common.
To remedy this, Marsh proposed a solution:
“So, one fairly obvious improvement would be to use different color lamps for different messages, instead of using only red lamps in the rear. Many European cars use red for for their taillights and amber for stop and turn. This is an improvement, but it is really backward. Red should mean stop and only stop, while amber should mean proceed with caution.
One such system would require an upper red and a lower amber light on each side. Both would be on as dim taillights for night driving. At a distance, the red and yellow lights would merge to orange, giving some measurement of spacing.
For signaling, both lights would flash, the red flashing for stopping only, and the amber light for turns...The rate of flashing of a brakelight might even indicate the rate of braking.”
There’s a lot in those three little paragraphs, so let’s go through it. Marsh is suggesting that amber lamps be used in taillights, and I think this is the earliest proposal of that I’ve seen, at least in a mass-market publication. I think that’s significant.
Marsh’s system is different than what we have today, in that he wanted both amber and red lamps lit concurrently for taillights, which is an interesting idea, since he was thinking the blurring into orange could help determine distance.
He proposed amber rear flashing turn indicators, like pretty much all cars outside of the American market use today, and he also proposed what we would now call progressive brake lamps. which blink faster based on the amount of braking involved.
Progressive brake lights are still pretty uncommon, and are generally thought of as pretty novel and new. One patent for them is from 1999, and I can’t think of many cars that use them yet, other than some BMWs from the mid-2000s and on:
I’d say Marsh was pretty ahead of his time on this one.
I still think its sort of insane that the United States is the lone global holdout against amber rear turn indicators, and it’s even more insane now that I know people have been wondering about it for over 50 years.
(thanks to Jason S. who showed me this!)