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 (I only reluctantly upgraded the A/C on my Mark III to R-134a, and I refuse to install electronic ignition because I apparently like the stalling and hesitation that comes along with points and condensers). But something about this modification looks “right.”
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 interesting history behind it.
But first a little ancient history in the use of tail lights, brake lights, and backup lights to create an reinforce a perceived vehicular hierarchy.
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.
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 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.
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 of the round tail lights (and its associated four-lamp/six-lamp hierarchy) that remained a Chevrolet staple for decades to come.
Against this backdrop, the Corvette, arguably Chevrolet’s most prestigious model, continued to sport single 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?
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.
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.
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 above was made custom made for Florence Knudson, 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.
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, 67fso.com 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.
For some, even six tail lamps wasn’t enough. So for the man who has everything, may I present the eight tail light mod. The eight tail lamp 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 60’s. 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
Then, as quickly as it burst upon the scene, the 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.
For whatever reason, by the end of the 60’s the six (and eight) tail lamp Corvettes were gone. Little wonder that unless you were alive at the time, you may never have seen one before (like myself).