Car Style Chronicles

The Eighties Called: They Want their Lights Back

Design trend which used to represent elegance for sedans has been reinterpreted using the best of modern-day technology

Danillo Almeida
5 min readMar 27, 2021


  • Full-width tail lights used to be very popular among sedans in the 1980s
  • Over time, the trend was overused and slowly disappeared from the market
  • Nowadays, LEDs have cleared the path for a reinvention of the design trend
The Volkswagen Group is one of the biggest enthusiasts of this trend

Design trends come and go when it comes to cars just like in any other type of industry. Station wagons, for instance, were almost pushed to an early grave but now are getting popular again; electric propulsion spent decades in ostracism until coming back as the solution for the modern times; and so on. One of those trends once characterized many high-end sedans up to the 1980s and now is being reinvented.

Full-width tail lights get that name from being designed to go from one side to the other horizontally. They were often applied to sedans in a variety of styles, sizes and positions but ended up succumbing to the modernist changes of the 1990s and especially the 2000s. Over the past few years, this style component was brought back by some automakers using all the latest technologies, which gives them a brand new look.

The 1981 Chevrolet Caprice had each light in a separate region

Why did they become popular?

Beauty is subjective, so the biggest reason is that customers simply liked them. Another one is that the rigid differences from one body style to another which were common decades ago gave sedans a rear end short enough to forbid any vertical visual elements from yielding positive visual results — station wagons, on the other hand, were forced to use vertical lights in order to maximize the rear door’s width.

Besides all that, the technology available in pre-LED times used to reduce the options available for designers. Lamps require a minimum area around them, so it was possible to create large divisions, which are easy to look unbalanced, or stack smaller ones vertically or horizontally according to the model’s body style. When it comes to sedans, visually integrating the lights with the license place was a matter of time.

The Rover Sterling connects regular lights with a plastic addition to make them look full-width

Does that design have variations?

Having lights from one side to the other is only one of them. Some models use one for each function stacked horizontally; others use multiple lamps to make larger brake lights; and there are cars that use regular lights on the sides and a decorative part to visually connect them. There are many styles, positions and sizes, but the license plate is placed between the lights in most cases to reduce the excessive area in red color.

Over the years, the last example turned out to become a rule. Too many lights increase production cost, especially those on the trunk lid, so makers resorted to ideas like a full-height spot for the license plate on the 1987 Toyota Corona, a black plastic strip on the 1992 Volkswagen Passat, a short reflexive strip on the 1993 Ford Crown Victoria, and the innovative, two-part layout used by the 1987 Citroën XM in notchback body.

The 1987 Peugeot 405 uses regular lights connected by a plastic strip

What happened next?

This design only looking good on sedans limits the possibilities to share parts with other body styles. The lights forming that thick, horizontal line limits the possibilities to design the rear end. Too many lamps increases production and maintenance costs. Besides all that, so many appearances made the full-width lose appeal over the years: even traditional makers, like Chrysler, abandoned the trend at some point.

Separate tail lights went back in fashion in the 1990s and especially the 2000s around the world. This new trend cleared the way for the sporty 2000 BMW 3 Series, the innovative 2004 Citroën C5, or the fancy 2006 Cadillac DTS. Since it consists of basically having no trend at all, automakers became free to create rear styles as they pleased. And this is exactly what they did until deciding to change things one more time.

Rear designs like the 2019 Hyundai Sonata’s could only be made possible by LED technologies

Full-width appears once again

Connected lights appeared in the late 2010s as quickly as they did thirty years ago, but in a very different way. The massive use of LEDs enabled automakers to create lights in general much more freely, from thin lines to complex shapes of all sorts. With that new technology and the experience accumulated over so many years, the full-width style has gotten back into the toolbox of commonly used design resources.

The 2021 Chrysler Pacifica uses a C-shaped design which highlights the logo; the 2022 Kia Stinger uses the opposite shape and adds short side extensions; the 2019 Volkswagen T-Cross uses small lights connected by a long and thick plastic strip; and so on. This style has become the go-to solution for those cars whose rear looks simpler than it should — and that is no longer exclusive of sedans, as the links above show.

Renault’s latest design identity interrupts the full-width design right on the logo

After becoming famous especially in the 1980s, full-width tail lights spent some years out of fashion and now came back with a modern interpretation. What do you think of them? Do you believe they are a valid design solution to use with the latest trends and identities or would you rather leave them in the past? Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions below as well as any other examples of cars with those lights!



Danillo Almeida

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.