Light-up grille logos are the latest questionable automotive styling trend, popping up on vehicles ranging from Mercedes to Infiniti (and beyond). Many readers may not realize that this styling feature has far older origins. Let’s explore.
From my research, the granddaddy of light-up grille badges all is British carmaker Wolseley, who made somewhat of a trademark fitting an illuminated badge to the front of their vehicles, starting in 1932 and continuing all the way to their final vehicle in 1975. There is a closeup view of their illuminated badge in the hero image above, while one of their last models (a Wolseley Six) appears below.
Surprisingly, for most of the rest of the 20th century, few other automakers took advantage of this opportunity for illuminated automotive iconography.
There is one interesting outlier – the 1965 Chrysler 300L. By 1965, there was very little to differentiate the letter series 300L from the lesser 300 models. So for the final iteration of letter series of the 1960s, Chrysler decided to affix a light-up medallion to the grille (referred to in the brochure as a “center-grille running light”). With only 2,845 300L hardtops and convertibles produced, these would have been rare sights on the road even back in the day. Online photos of this badge are almost impossible to find: Interestingly (but not surprisingly) the best picture I was able to find came from this very site.
At this point, the trail for illuminated grilles goes dark (so to speak) for a decade or two, until Mercury revived the look with the illuminated grille of the 1986 Sable. I can remember how cool I thought these were when they first came out – they were easy and fun to spot at night. The grilleless look was very popular in the aerodynamic 1990s, and I thought this light-up panel was a nice alternative to the filler panels and hood extensions everyone else was using to fill the space between the headlights at the time. For one of the few times in its troubled existence, Mercury was as cool as the other side of the pillow.
Initially, the Sable’s panel only had two bulbs on either side of the Mercury logo (the logo itself did not light up). In 1989, Mercury doubled the bulb count to four, and now the entire panel lit up, badge included.
By 1992, the light-up panel look had spread to much of the rest of the Mercury lineup. While the lights on the Villager minivan grille (shown above) were functional, the light bars on the Topaz and Tracer were both fake, not actually lighting up.
And then, almost as quickly as they appeared, Mercury’s light-up grilles were gone. The redesigned 1996 Sable sported only turn signals in the grille, as sort of a cruel reminder of past light-up glories. By 2000, even the turn signals had moved to the headlight assemblies, leaving the grille completely unlit. The Topaz was gone after 1994, and by 1997 the Tracer had lost its fake light bar. Mercury, a brand forever chasing the fickle foibles of fashion, had deemed light up grilles passé.
If Mercury only knew how wrong they were. In 2013, Mercedes-Benz started offering an illuminated star as a dealer installed option. It quickly became a factory option due to rising popularity. Other manufacturers quickly followed suit, fueling the lit up grille badge renaissance that continues to this day.