Some make fun of animated indicators, others complain that more and more drivers don’t indicate at all. Indicator lights have been a normal part of every car for as long as we can remember, but their nature and shape has fundamentally changed over the years. It’s not so long ago that indicator lights weren’t even noticed all that much and weren’t really needed that often. In our three-parter, we look at the historical development in the modern era using various examples, and explain a few bizarre and largely unknown facts about this bit of flashing amber. We begin with only the front and the rear. Enjoy.

The indicator is defined as “lighting equipment on vehicles providing information to road users about a change or intended change in the direction of travel. It is usually shown as a regularly flashing light.” Until the 50s, mechanical trafficators on the sides of cars were quite common; until 1956, German road traffic regulations even prescribed a direction indicator that would have to change the contour of the vehicle. As early as the 40s, indicator lights were used in North America to show the direction of travel, which also gradually became popular in other countries. According to American studies, a flashing red light was easier to perceive than an amber one, which flashes next to a red brake light. This is why red indicators in many American vehicles were continued into the 70s, and sometimes even the entire rear light was flashing. By the way, red indicators were also permitted in Germany until 1969, but, unlike in America, separately next to the brake light.

As late as the 60s journalist Carl Hertweck was still complaining about indicators, especially on motorbikes, calling them “unnecessary and dangerous”. He wrote: “Good drivers drive in such a way that each driver behind them and approaching them needs to be able to tell from their way of driving what they’re doing”. Well, if only it were that easy. Because compulsory indicating only slowly made its way into the minds of drivers, and the density of traffic was still manageable, indicator lights appeared as small dim amber lights on the front and back of vehicles in Europe first – next to or below the dipped beam headlights. If you looked at a vehicle from the side, you could guess neither its direction of travel nor whether it was indicating. In the US, side lamps (but not side indicators) became compulsory from 1968. With increasing traffic, engineers also improved the technology. Hazard lights had to be present on every vehicle from 1973, and more and more indicator levers automatically clicked back to their original position once the car had straightened out. After all, you had enough to do as it was if you wanted to maneuver your car through increasingly dense traffic.

Until well into the 70s, there were cars (with few exceptions) where the indicators were only visible at the front and the rear. Some European marques added side indicators to the fenders near the A pillar, or next to the headlights at the very front. This design became popular. Then the trend continued toward increasing the size of lamps and indicators which were “wrapped around the corner”. But we’ll tell you about them in our next story.

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