The basic shape of car headlights remained more or less the same for decades and is only now experiencing a design renaissance through the use of LEDs. The rear lights, however, have always been a place for designers to run riot. Between the 50s and today there have been many upward and downward trends in terms of size, shape and function. The Osram carlight blog has embarked on a journey to show you old, new and long forgotten shapes. After all, a beautiful rear can also endear. The rear of a car and its rear lights are at least as distinctive as its front. Today we look at one of the 50s fin monsters from North America – the I-am-proud-to-be-different 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air.

In Europe the dinosaurs from the rock’n’roll era of American automotive engineering seem like giants from a parallel universe. In the 50s, suburbs conceived at the drawing board sprung up like mushrooms in the US, a square street pattern weaved its way around blocks, and gasoline was plentiful and cheap. Car bodies were built around two comfortable sofas, balancing more floor space on their wheels than many a room in a house share. A big engine size was topped by an even bigger engine size; annual facelifts and ever escalating dimensions showed one thing in particular: we are big, we are bold, we are brash. At the end of the 50s, the sky was literally the limit for this designed-in boastfulness, and shortly after, Chevrolet eased its way into the 60s with a more toned down version. The Chevrolet Bel Air, which many only have as the 1957 model in their display cabinets, slowly started to change the position of the tail fins from swept-up to flat. And the rear lights were adapted to this new shape.

Even 70 years ago, it was all about the customer’s taste, about looking different from the competition, and about anticipating contemporary taste. Tail fins parallel to the ground, almost like wings – and at the beginning of the Rocket Age no less! That was bold; almost cheeky. The lenticular rear lights also lay flat, with their shape perfectly following the fins and the symmetry of the rear. Each rear light alone was the size of half a small European car. However, in the 50s, the US didn’t do just big and chromy, but they were also technical pioneers. Air conditioning, electric windows and seats, power steering, auto-dimming headlights, and automatic cars with beautifully smooth gears were almost de rigueur in a decade where on the other side of the Atlantic air-cooled VWs rattled around and chubby Fords and Opel cars had interior space issues.

That’s why today it’s almost sexy when the entire red rear light flashes slowly when the huge vessel is about to turn. There wasn’t much light on and in American cruisers – but boy, didn’t they do it in style! Today we’re a bit further ahead. Thanks to LED technology pretty much any shape is possible. We can’t wait to see the design of new models; and we already know who will supply the LEDs and lamps for them … exciting times ahead. And don’t forget: Bel Air doesn’t stand for clean air, but is an up-market part of LA.

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