Automotive History: Six Tail Light Corvettes

(first posted 7/12/2017)            I was at a car show last summer when I photographed the Corvette above with an unusual six tail light configuration. Now ordinarily I’m not a big fan of “modding” old cars, but something about this modification looks “right” to me.

When I asked the owner about it, he referred to it as a “California Conversion,” describing it as a popular period modification that supposedly originated in that state. After doing a little research, I’m not entirely sure about that story. But no matter what it is called or where it started, the six-lamp Corvette is an interesting look with an equally interesting history behind it.

But first a little ancient history in the use of tail lights, brake lights, and backup lights to create and reinforce a perceived vehicular hierarchy.

1958 Chevrolet Biscayne


In the beginning, all Chevrolets had the exact same number of tail lights: Two (one on each side). In 1958, this changed when Chevrolet introduced new tail light assemblies sporting two round lenses on each side for the Bel Air, Biscayne, and Delrey series.


1958 Chevrolet Impala


But as if this weren’t enough, the new-for-1958 range-topping Impala added a backup light between the two brake lights on each side, for a total of six bulbs and lenses. Instantly, a visual shorthand was created to differentiate the more expensive Impalas from the lesser Chevrolet models.

The true genius of this four-light/six-light hierarchy was in its simplicity. For the minuscule cost of a few extra bulbs, sockets, and lenses, Chevrolet was able to create a huge amount of perceived value. The four-lamp/six-lamp pecking order is so simple that even a child can pick it up.


1959 Chevrolet


So brilliant was this scheme that it seems surprising that Chevrolet walked away from it the following year, when Chevrolet made a switch to the odd segmented “cat eye” tail lights on the “bat wing” 1959 models.



Chevrolet must have realized what a mistake they made, as this change would prove to be short-lived. In 1960, Chevrolet would correct this error with the reintroduction of the round tail lights (and its associated four-lamp/six-lamp hierarchy) that remained a Chevrolet staple for decades to come.


Would she be smiling as much if she knew that only the low-series Chevies have four tail lights?


Against this backdrop, the Corvette, arguably Chevrolet’s most prestigious model, continued to sport two tail lights (one per side) until 1961. And when the Corvette was finally bestowed with multiple tail lamps, it was the four-lamp setup like you would see on the cheapest Biscayne, and not the six-lamp arrangement that had already come to demarcate the top-end Chevies. Was everything people thought they knew about the Chevy tail light pecking order wrong?


1959 Sting Ray Racer concept


Apparently, not even Chevrolet could agree on how many tail lights a Corvette was supposed to have, because some of the earliest concept Corvettes sport six tail lights, starting with the 1959 Sting Ray Racer (pictured above). This concept presaged the “duck tail” rear end that would eventually appear on the 1961 Corvette, albeit with six lights rather than the four on the production model. It is unclear why the two extra bulbs go lost on the way to production. I find it hard to believe that it was cost-related.


1966 Corvette Clay Model


By 1964, Chevrolet was working on a mid-cycle refresh of the C2 Corvette for the 1966 model year. The clay model above shows two different tail light treatments they were considering, one with a three-lamp arrangement of the 1963 setup on the left, and the traditional two-lamp setup moved up into the body crease on the right. As we all now know, the C2 mid-cycle refresh, with its updated front and rear ends, never came to pass.


Florence Knudsen’s 1964 Corvette, as manufactured


While the six-lamp tail was never offered to the public directly, there is evidence that Chevrolet did occasionally build some custom C2 Corvettes with six tail lamps for internal consumption. The 1964 Corvette pictured above was made custom-made for Florence Knudsen, wife of Chevrolet General Manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen. Everything you see, including the six tail lights, 1965-style fender vents, and custom pink and cranberry interior is as produced at the factory in St. Louis. Such are the perks of being the wife of the General Manager.


Bob Wingate Corvette, with factory custom six tail light treatment.


It also appears that Chevrolet occasionally produced six tail-lamp Corvettes for some top-level salespeople and dealerships. Like much of Corvette lore, a lot of these stories are anecdotal and hard to prove. However, contains the story of a factory custom 1967 Corvette produced for Bob Wingate, a salesperson who sold 160+ Corvettes in a single year, along with extensive documentation convincingly proving that this is a true factory custom.


What if you wanted a six-tail light Corvette, but we’re not connected enough to get a factory custom Corvette? Well, this is America: If Chevrolet won’t give you the correct number of tail lights on your Corvette, you can just do it yourself. Magazine articles, like the one pictured above, began appearing in various DIY and hot-rodding publications. All you needed was an extra set of tail lights from the parts counter of your local dealer, a hole saw, and nerves of steel. Extra points if you cut out openings for the exhaust under the bumper.


Apparently, you can have too much of a good thing


For some, even six tail lamps weren’t enough. So for the man who has everything, may I present the eight-tail light mod. The eight-tail lamp Corvette mod is nowhere near as popular as its six-lamp sibling, for obvious reasons.

Despite never being (officially) offered to the public from the factory, the six-tail light Corvette quickly became part of the zeitgeist in the mid ’60s. There is even a reference to it in the song Dead Man’s Curve by Jan and Dean, about an epic race between a Corvette and a Jaguar XKE:

I flew past La Brea, Schwab’s and Crescent Heights
And all the Jag could see were my six taillights


1968 Corvette. Four Taillights only.


Then, as quickly as it had burst upon the scene, the Corvette six (and eight) tail lamp mod was gone. As near as I can tell, Chevrolet never entertained using six tail lights on the third-generation Corvette, not even in concept form. The larger lamps employed by the C3, combined with the smaller tail panel, left no room for DIY-ers to install an extra set of lights. Plus, the introduction of the Camaro solidified the use of four tail lights on performance Chevrolets, so maybe people no longer felt that the Corvette was lacking in the tail light department.

As the values of C2 Corvettes shot up over the years, some (maybe even most) of the six-lamp Corvettes were later converted back to the original four-lamp configuration for maximum resale value (Good luck finding a 63 SWC that still has a period six-lamp mod). Little wonder that unless you were alive at the time, you may never have seen one before (like myself).


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