America Is Missing A Golden Age Of Utility Taillight Design

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I’m here in Munich as a guest/captive of BMW to attend the IAA Mobility show. I had a bit of a walk around the streets surrounding the hotel and will be posting a full cars-of-Munich-streets thing here soon, but before that I have something more urgent to share with you: the current state of European utility taillight design. It’s stunning, and I fear that it’s a revolution that has all but ignored America.

America’s utility taillight landscape was once dominated by the clever but aging Box Taillamp (shown below), an under-appreciated design icon.

Now, we most commonly see individual off-the-shelf round units crammed with LEDs–there’s very little exciting design work happening in the American trailer/utility truck taillight space.

America's Ubiquitous

From what I saw in my short walk, that is absolutely not the case in Europe; utility truck and trailer taillights display a vast range of styles and designs, nearly all tri-colored (amber indicators, red stop/tail, and clear reverse lamps), and featuring bold, novel, highly visible, readable designs, with a lot of genuine style as well.

Here, this will be better if I just show you:

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Look at this one, on the back of a hardworking and filthy construction truck. It’s like a conventional rectangular red taillight with an almost mystical-looking round inset lamp, divided into four sections by a central reflective red triangle (perhaps hinting at the cumbersome vehicle’s low speed) and with the remaining three sections set aside for turn, reverse, and brake/tail lamps.

It’s an eye-catching unit, and I’m impressed.

Image for article titled America Is Sleeping Through A Golden Age Of Utility Taillight Design While Germany Thrives

You don’t have to own massive work vehicles to get in on the utility taillight action; this bike rack includes an attractive set of simple yet elegant lights that form a nice, sausage-like unit that incorporates a duplicate number plate.

In America, we don’t seem to give a shit if your bike is blocking 80 percent of your taillights and all of your license plate, probably because of freedom or something.

Check out this little stunner:

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Wow. I’m not a terribly religious person, but that main lower unit looks like a cathedral’s stained glass window, and I’m ready to pray to those gods of highly visible turn indication and brake application.

Look at how the triangular faceted motif divides the sections with geometric grace!

And then that extra gloriously strange 90-degree-bent periscope of light! It actually had a clear lens opposite the red dome, making me think it could be a sort of parking lamp?

I love everything about this setup.

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This forklift’s taillights were much simpler units, just amber and red, but they have such a wonderful old-school charm to them that I couldn’t help but be smitten. The indicator/brake and tail divide could have been accomplished with a simple straight horizon, but this humble little lamp gets a graceful arc, a red hillock basking in an amber sky.

Also, I feel like these would make excellent replacement lights for a lot of pre-’68 Volkswagen Beetles, early Porsche 356s, DKWs and Saabs.

Image for article titled America Is Sleeping Through A Golden Age Of Utility Taillight Design While Germany Thrives

The dogbone/bowtie design above is tidy and still visually interesting, with a distinctive visual signature and a good division of the key elements.

I bet it’d work well in a vertical orientation, too.

Image for article titled America Is Sleeping Through A Golden Age Of Utility Taillight Design While Germany Thrives

This one might be my favorite, thanks to its striking graphical simplicity and visual impact. It’s a sort of elongated bullseye, containing brake, tail, turn, and reverse lamps, all in a slim, efficient package. These looked great on the rear of the clunky utility truck they were on, and I can think of many modern SUVs that would be improved with these lights.

That’s the other thing–I can’t believe so few of these already-designed light units aren’t used by more manufacturers.

Granted, they’re not aerodynamically molded to the form of the car, but sometimes a simple flat light unit can work great.

You could pop these on a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, for example, and I think they’d be great.

I don’t know why we see so few really novel utility taillight designs in America, but I hope that will change.

My eyes have been opened to the glorious red-and-amber glow of possibility, and that’s not something I wish to unsee.