High Level or Supplemental Brake Lamps

Automotive Mileposts
Image: Rear view of 1971 Oldsmobile Toronado

Above: New for 1971 Oldsmobile Toronado, with standard high level tail lamps

These eye-level brake lights and turn signals on classic cars were styling as well as safety features, and way ahead of their time


By the mid-sixties, gone were the tiny little rear tail lamps that were so common on cars just a decade or so earlier. Now they ran full-width across the rear of the car (1966 Dodge Charger, 1966 Ford Thunderbird, and 1966 Buick Electra 225 to name a few), giving the rear tail lamp more dominance than ever before. And car makers knew that distinctive tail lamp styling could make or break a new design. For instance, when Cadillac came out with all-new styling for 1948, it ushered in one of its most distinctive styling touches ever—tail fins. And the tail lamp was the predominant feature of this new styling touch. A decade later, tail fins grew to proportions that pushed the limits of good taste, and shortly thereafter, the public had had enough of them.

Image: 1968 Thunderbird Supplemental Brake LightsSafety was beginning to influence styling as well, with mandatory side marker lights [links in this article open in a new window] and requirements for automotive light visibility among them. One idea that never quite caught hold at the time was Ford's Supplemental Brake Lamp (shown at left), which was offered as an option on the 1968-1970 Thunderbird. Priced at $33.70, it consisted of two housings that were part of the interior trim moldings mounted vertically at the extreme ends of the rear window. Within each housing, two bulbs lit up whenever the brakes or turn signals were on. Ford promoted them as a safety feature, especially great for those who towed boats or frequently drove on the interstate, where the high level lights attracted more attention, and could be seen better, than lights mounted lower on the car.

Despite their reasonable price and obvious advantages, few cars were built with them, and Ford didn't even bother to continue them into the 1971 model year, which was the last year of that body style for the Thunderbird, this despite having all the tooling in place. But as luck would have it, those wanting this feature in 1971 had another choice: the 1971 Oldsmobile Toronado. All new for 1971, the Toronado featured sharp, chiseled styling that was somewhat reminiscent of the 1967-1970 Cadillac Eldorado. And perched up under the ends of the rear window were two horizontal high level tail lamps. On the Toronado, they operated as they had on the Thunderbird, illuminating only when the brake lights or turn signals were illuminated.

Image: 1971 Oldsmobile Toronado tail lampThe rear deck lid of the Toronado was sculpted and recessed to blend the lights into the car's styling, and the lights certainly did stand out, particularly at night. These high level lamps would continue as a standard Toronado feature through 1978, after which the car was down sized and completely restyled, and the new design did not continue this feature. But the 1971-1978 Toronado would not be alone in the GM stable. For 1974, Buick restyled the rear of its Riviera, which hadn't been selling well. The poor sales were blamed on the 1971-1973 Riviera's "boat tail" rear styling, which some loved and others hated. Desperate to address any issues, the roof line and rear of the car was updated drastically for 1974 to eliminate any remembrance of the boat tail styling. Unfortunately, this didn't address the poor sales issue, but it did give the Riviera a more conservative appearance when viewed from the rear, which apparently wasn't an issue in the first place.

Part of this new rear styling on the Riviera included two high level tail lamps, again perched horizontally under the rear window. They were part of the Riviera's standard equipment through 1976, when the body style originally designed for 1971 was dumped two years earlier than scheduled for a new, smaller, body. The Riviera had not been selling well, and Buick was taking drastic actions to improve the situation.

Image: High-Level Brake Warning LampIn 1985, GM offered a high-level rear stop lamp for some of its vehicles on an optional basis. These differed from the earlier lights in that they had no provision for turn signals, and were strictly brake lights. They were normally placed inside the car, at the center bottom of the rear window.

For 1986, a high-level rear stop lamp became mandatory on passenger vehicles destined for sale in the United States, with exceptions for trucks and a few others. Later, even pick-up trucks would be equipped with these additional brake warning lamps. Statistics show that initially, the "third brake light" reduced the incidence of rear collisions, so they were obviously serving their intended purpose. However, over the years rear collisions have started to creep up again, indicating people are now used to the extra brake lamp, and don't pay special attention to it, as they once had.

Image: 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado

Above: 1972 Oldsmobile Toronado rear brake light detail. Upper light near window calls additional attention to braking and turning.

Image: 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado

Above: 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado retained high level lights despite its restyle the previous year which gave it vertical tail lamps to update its look.

Image: 1975 Buick Riviera

Above: 1975 Buick Riviera featured rear styling introduced in 1974, which featured high level tail lamps (click to see larger image in new window).