I’m going to be honest — today’s been sort of an off day for me. I had to take my wife to the dentist earlier, and I’ve just been swamped with various life things that have made work-focus elusive. It happens.
But then a friend of mine sent this link to an old photograph and everything changed. There’s really only one kind of old photograph that has this sort of unholy power, and that’s a photograph of a weird taillight, ideally on an old Volkswagen. And holy crap is this one weird.
My friend spotted the photo on the Reddit r/beetle subreddit, and it appears to be a portion of an Alamy stock photo. I tried and tried to find the original source photo, but so far I’ve had no luck. Also, because I can’t find the actual source image, I can’t get rights to it, so that’s why I’ve redrawn it and am only including small bits of the actual image here. Just follow the links to see the entire section of the photo in question.
The image shows what looks like a 1964 Volkswagen Beetle parked on a street, with a lot of traffic behind it, and a portion of a person in a striped blazer in the foreground. (And, yes, I tried searching for striped blazer images).
The remarkable part of the image is, of course, the deeply weird taillight on that Beetle, which looks like this:
Whoa. What glorious madness is this? The comments on the Reddit post don’t really reveal much. One person suggests it may be an “aftermarket housing used on taxis back in 1960s Europe” but I have never seen anything like this before on European taxis. I mean, it’s possible, but I want to see some evidence.
Let’s see what we do know from this picture. I’m pretty sure that Beetle is a ’64 or ’65, and I think the location is in the UK. There’s a Humber Super Snipe or Hawk in the background, and those were by far the most common in their homeland.
Looking at the Beetle’s license plate, BBT 513B, I can tell that it’s a 1964 plate, because of the “B” suffix there. When I tried to search it with the UK Ministry of Transportation, I learned that it’s no longer listed — I suspect because it’s been out of use since before they started keeping records online. The “BB” may refer to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but I’m not exactly sure. Anyway, I’m pretty sure this Beetle is a British one.
Now the taillight itself could be an aftermarket accessory, and based on how the housing fits flush with the Beetle’s rear fender, it would have to be specifically for Volkswagen Beetles. I love the crazy, wildly utilitarian look of it, but who would be buying this? It’s extremely out of the style for the era and doesn’t even mesh with the rounded look of the Beetle.
It’s clearly a safety/visibility-focused design, with what I assume are the three arrows for the turn indicator, the down arrow for the brake lamp I guess(?), and the square for the normal taillight itself. The picture also shows what look like aftermarket reversing lamps below the rear bumper. The owner of this car clearly was very, very interested in conveying intent with the rear lighting.
The Beetle was pretty new at the time the photo was made; it’s unlikely this light unit would have replaced the original because of damage or wear, so it must have been outfitted like this from the get-go, likely as part of some sort of work the car was intended to do.
My first thought along these lines is that perhaps this Beetle had a job at the airport, much like these internet-famous “follow me” Volkswagens:
Those cars certainly had showy, obvious turn indicators and a similar style of boxy, illuminated cut-out shapes-sort of lighting units, but airport vehicles like these would never be registered for normal street use like our pal BBT 513B there.
Was this some carefully hand-built project from some extreme road-safety nerd? Was this part of how a Beetle would have been outfitted to work in some sort of specialized industrial application, but still used for general transport duties?
So far, none of my usual information sources have come through, so I’ll just try the strategy, often surprisingly effective, of yelling it out to the internet.
Who thinks they can help me solve this Volkswagen taillight mystery? I’m hoping someone who worked in some wildly specific industry in midcentury England will step up and say, oh yeah, we used to fit those on all the Beetles we had shuttling us around the pasty-filling mines or whatever.
Someone has to know, right? I hope so. It’s driving me bonkers.
UPDATE! Wait, wait, this is a photo of Paul McCartney!
Aha! Is he at an airport? Maybe this is an airport vehicle! So we have a Beatle with a Beetle situation here. I still can’t see the other taillight, though. It’s from 1967, so that Beetle’s still pretty new. The building back there has a sign with “North Wing.” Hmm.
OK! Now we’re getting somewhere — the other guy in the photo is Mal Evans, long time Beatle roadie and assistant, and in his Wikipedia article, look at what’s in there:
They cunningly cropped out the taillight (nobody would see the people if they left it in) and we have a positive location: Heathrow! It is an airport!