Sequential Rear Turn Signals

Automotive Mileposts
Image: 1969 Imperial sequential signals

Chrysler's new 1969 Imperial offered sequential turn signals as a one year feature

Sequential turn signals mark the direction you want to go—a way for others to follow.

Three lights in each taillight flash, in sequence, in the direction of your turn. All lights extinguish at the same time, and the sequence is repeated.

This distinctive ripple of light demands attention from drivers behind.

First introduced as a standard feature on the 1965 Ford Thunderbird, sequential rear turn signals were originally planned to appear on the newly designed 1964 Thunderbirds, but were delayed for one year while the governing bodies of a few locales passed legislation making them legal, coast to coast.

The sequential signals were unique in their rippling light effect, clearly pointing the direction of the turn. Three light bulbs in separate compartments were utilized, for a total of six bulbs. To indicate a turn, first the inboard light would come on and remain on. Then, the middle light would illuminate and remain on. This was followed by the outboard bulb, which remains on for a second or so before extinguishing at the same time as the other two bulbs. This cycle is repeated until the turn indicator is cancelled.

A very cool effect, and a reason for entire blocks to gather when a new Thunderbird was brought home. People driving new Thunderbirds reported being followed around town, apparently by those wanting to see more of the sequential light display.

The brake lights worked the same as normal vehicles, with all bulbs illuminating and extinguishing at the same time. The person following behind could hardly miss all the commotion up front as the Thunderbird driver slowed or signaled a turn.

In 1966, the Thunderbird became even more distinctive by adding additional lights in the middle that served as running lights. While not involved in the braking or signaling process, they did result in wall to wall taillamps at night, very striking (and unusual) at the time. New concealed back-up lights were hidden within the wings of the Thunderbird emblem, visible only when lit.

When Mercury introduced the Cougar in 1967, it was an instant smash hit, with Motor Trend Magazine awarding it Car of the Year honors for 1967. Built on the Ford Mustang platform, the Cougar was a step above the Mustang, with upgraded interiors, concealed front head lights, bucket seats, and of course, sequential rear turn signals. The Thunderbird and Cougar were joined in 1969 by the Chrysler Imperial, making three separate models equipped with factory-installed sequential turn signals in 1969.

For 1969, a new solid state transistorized sequencer was utilized on the Cougar, and was a mid-year production change for the Thunderbird as well. This was done due to issues with the interior dash-mounted turn signal indicator failing to flash under certain circumstances, normally a heavy electrical load. This caused customers to bring their cars in for service, when in fact all the exterior lights were functioning properly. The transistorized sequencer addressed this issue, but created another.

Image: 1960 Ford Thunderbird Fordor Landau rear taillightsShortly after introduction, cars with the transistorized unit began to experience dim brake and rear signal lights. Ford had received complaints about the 1964-1966 Thunderbirds having blinding brake and rear signals, so for the 1967 restyle, the bulbs on the Thunderbird were placed behind a center strip that ran horizontally down the center of the taillight unit. This made the taillights "glow" around the center trim piece. The effect was that of an afterburner on a jet airplane. This blocked some of the direct illumination from the bulbs, and eliminated the blinding effect of earlier models. But when the transistors began to fade due to the heavy load the lights created, the result was brake and signal lights that weren't bright enough to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

The answer was to add four relays during early 1970 production. These relays reduced the load on the transistors, and allowed the brake and signal bulbs to illuminate to their full capacity. This design was used through the end of production.

1969 would be the only year for this feature on the Imperial, leaving just the Thunderbird and Cougar through 1971. With the redesign of the Thunderbird in 1972, Ford wanted to market it to a more upscale clientele, and decided the sequential signals were too youthful for such a sophisticated market. This meant the Mercury Cougar would be the last factory production car to come equipped with sequential signals through 1973, after which they would disappear for several decades.

Why they were dropped is anyone's guess. They certainly added additional costs to the manufacturer, but these were likely passed on to the consumer anyway. They can be complicated to diagnose if they are malfunctioning, but overall they are surprisingly reliable and trouble free.

Sequential signals are certainly more distinctive than today's turn signals, and definitely stand out to the person behind that a turn is imminent. Unfortunately, they are now a symbol of another era, even though kits are now available to convert modern cars to sequential signals. You will see them on recent editions of the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Impala SS, and even on late eighties Cougars, where they really do seem to fit.

Automotive Mileposts is happy to report that sequential turn signals have returned to the automotive scene as a standard equipment item on the 2010 Ford Mustang. They will no doubt improve sales of this already very popular car. No one can say it isn't 100% American, and the Mustang is certainly representative of the American automobile industry, as it remains one of the most popular cars of all time. And. this feature just might convert a few foreign car buyers back to American car buyers.

Cars factory-equipped with sequential rear turn signals:

1965-1971 Ford Thunderbird

1967-1973 Mercury Cougar

1969 (Chrysler) Imperial

2010 Ford Mustang

Image: 1966 Ford Thunderbird sequential turn signal

Above: The 1966 Thunderbird really put on a show for drivers following behind: the taillights ran full width and featured a large Thunderbird emblem at the center. Within the halo surrounding the Bird emblem, a clear lens allowed the back-up lights to shine. Three red domes covering the bulbs allowed this area to glow red through the clear section of the lens when the parking or headlamps were on.

Six combination brake and turn signal lights were mounted at the outboard sections, three on each side. These lights are large and bright, and when coupled with the sequential turn signals, they really communicate the T-bird driver's intentions to those following.

Contemporary road test articles wondered how the lights got approved, they were so bright. It's generally accepted that the Thunderbird at the time had the largest brake light surface in the industry.