The Case Of The $25,000 Taillights

kind of like these ’54 Chevy taillights, but more complicated and a lot more expensive


During the course of my 35+ years as a court-recognized expert in transportation matters, one of my more interesting cases involved a very rare 1950s British car with a custom bespoke Parisian body, one of only four manufactured with this type of body design. I’m not going to disclose the make, model and year of the car, because it might be possible to trace the car’s owner, and I promised him I would not include him in this story, for privacy reasons.

The owner kept the car in a garage along with several other vintage cars. One afternoon, after telling the next door neighbor’s teenage son to stay out of his garage again, he heard the sound of breaking glass coming from the garage. Each time the young man was found in the garage, the owner could smell “Pot” in the air. Seems this young man came back with a baseball bat, and in a fit of anger, used it to demolish the taillight assemblies on this rare car.

Yes, the police came and did what police do in these matters, and the car’s owner turned the matter over to his insurance company. Problem was, the correct taillights were not available, and the original ones were completely destroyed. The insurance company came up with similar taillight assemblies, but this car was far too valuable to use substitutions, and their use would devalue the car substantially.

The car owner’s attorney contacted me for help. In my opinion, the substitutions were not even close, and would require making body changes and a repaint of the areas. But I also knew the chances of finding another set of taillights was impossible, as only 8 taillights had been made for the 4 cars.

The car in question had a rather flamboyant body design, one that made people stop and stare at it. The taillights on this car made a real statement in keeping with the car’s overall styling. The two-part taillight bases were chrome plated cast bronze, with additional chrome plated ribs of bronze across the glass lenses. The 2 base parts when assembled, held the glass inserts & ribs in place. This meant there were a total of 5 metal pieces, plus 2 identical glass lenses per taillight, the lenses placed side to side to create a single taillight.

After hours of research, I explained to the attorney & the owner, I could arrange to borrow a single taillight from one of the other 3 cars [in England], take it apart and have it copied. This entailed creating actual blueprints with specifications for all the cast metal parts and the taillight glass. We could then arrange for a foundry to cast the pieces, but there was a catch; The foundry insisted in casting a minimum of 5 sets, explaining that the cost of 2 sets would be the same as for 5 sets.

I knew this was common, and besides, the person allowing us to borrow his taillight was asking for a pair of newly created taillights as his “reward” for risking his irreplaceable taillight. I suggested they create 6 sets, as the cost was not much more than making 5 sets, due to multiple set-up fees. This would give the owner of the car a set he needed, a set for the “donor” car’s owner, and an extra set as a “Murphy’s law” set. [Murphy’s law says you won’t need the extra set as long as you have them, but if you don’t have that extra set, in the near future you will need them.]

The drawings would be done in the USA, the foundry work would be done in England, the glass lenses made in France. The cork gaskets for mounting the lenses, and the rubber gaskets for mounting taillight assemblies to body, would all be made by a gasket maker in the USA.

The estimated costs in US Dollars, to make the 6 taillight sets was as follows:

Engineering drawings for bronze parts: 850.00

Engineering drawings for taillight glass inserts: 280.00

Foundry casting base part A [6 pieces]: 2,400.00

Foundry casting base part B [6 pieces]: 1,800.00

Foundry casting ribs [18 pieces]: 3,150.00

Machining surfaces, drill & tap 84 holes: 1,680.00

Labor to mirror-polish all castings for plating: 3,800.00

Electro-plating 30 pieces [nickel to copper to chrome]: 3,500.00

Assorted mounting studs & machine screws, in stainless steel: 225.00

Tooling & hot casting 12 red glass lens assemblies, polished: 1,950.00

Assembling 6 complete taillight sets, inspection and testing: 750.00

Multiple insured shipping costs, importation taxes to USA: 500.00

Estimated grand total, ready for installation to automobile: $20,885.00

Wouldn’t you know it – the insurance company hit the roof! “20 Grand for taillights! Are you nuts? We’ll pay for the value to install the lights we found, nothing more.”

So the owner’s attorney filed suit in court. Meanwhile during the wait for the case to come up and be scheduled, the owner didn’t have the use of his car, as it had no taillights. I was retained as an expert witness in the case, and deposed by the insurance company’s law firm handling the case.

As I was answering the questions put forth to me, I, ahem, sort of let it slip, that if the car repair used the taillights the insurance company was advising, or ANY taillight that was NOT the original type, doing so would cause a diminution of value in excess of $50,000 for the car’s current retail value.

That caused the lead attorney to change his focus to how I could make that claim. He brought out a very well-known brand of automotive value guides, the one with the orange covers. He asked me to show him in the guide where the car’s value was shown, and I replied that it was so rare that it was impossible to publish an accurate value for a specific car when there had not been a comparable car sold in 30 years.

He speculated that I was simply guessing, and asked me how I could possibly know what the value guide publishers used as their decision making process in selecting cars to list. I asked the attorney to open the value guide to the front area, and locate page B-16. I asked him what it said at the top of page B-16, and he replied “Advisory board members”. I asked him to scroll down to the next to last name on the right side of the page, and read the name aloud. And of course he said my name, and the name of my restoration shop.

I simply stated that I’m one of the people who make the decisions as to what is listed, along with the values, in the largest antique & classic vehicle value guide in the country. At that point they chose to stop the deposition!

A few weeks later the car owner’s attorney sent me a letter, with a nice check to cover my expenses, and explained that the insurance company had settled the case for $25,000. He also asked me how much money we would need to begin the engineering drawings for the taillights. It took another 2 years, but the new taillights looked wonderful!