Custom Car Builders

May 29, 2016

Bumper mounted taillights




Bumper mounted taillights developed in a time when the trend was to shave and mold car bodies into a smooth sculptured piece of Automotive Art.

Removing the factory stock taillights from the fenders and creating new, usually smaller taillights units in or on the rear bumper is a Custom Restyling technique done a lot. Especially in the later part of the ’40 and early 1950’s this technique was very popular. It started very early in the history of Custom Restyling. The So Calif. Plating Co. trucks had very minimal taillights. Some cars only carried one single taillight. I’m not quite sure if this in fact was legal at the time or not, but running only one taillight was something several early cars had from the factory, so more than lickely this was legal at least in the 1930’s till a point. The So Calif Plating Truck was driven after dark for sure. A lot of the races where the car was used as pull truck happened during in the evenings, and the team needed to head home after the races. Of coarse the traffic was a lot lighter back then, but using only one taillight could not be called safe.

However the So Calif Plating Co. cars might have been an exception, most other early customs from the 1930’s and early 1940’s we have seen photos of use mostly stock taillights, or units swapped from other cars that looked better than the stock units. There are a few samples of customs from the early 1940’s that have the factory taillights shaved of completely, and new taillights created in modified bumper guards, but this style did not become very popular this early. Shortly after WWII the Custom Cars became smoother. Towards 1947-48 it became common to shave all the handles on the car, removed side trim and perhaps more important weld the fenders to the body and lead them in to create one smooth body shape. As part of this smoothing style the taillights were completely removed as well. So now the body shops had to find a good alternative for good looking taillights that did not interfere with the smooth body.

CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-socalplating-03A very early Custom Car, the 1935 Ford designed by George DuVall for the the So. Calif. Plating Co. had very minimal lights, both front and rear. The rear fenders were shaved of the original lights, and the large photo above shows the car with the unfinished rear bumper. The photo does not show any taillight at all. The inset photo shows most likely a single center mounted taillight in the center, just below the license plate.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-socalplating-01The other So. Calif. Plating Co. car based on a late 1936 Ford also has the stock taillights removed for that much smoother look designer George DuVall and the builder were after.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-socalplating-02I’m not 100% sure, but it does look like there is one, perhaps two (one on each side) motor cycle or other small lights mounted behind the tubular bumper, just below the left side of the license plate.


From the late 1930’s the bike aftermarket was offering small teardrop shaped chrome plated marker lights with orange, green, blue and red glass. Several different brands offered these lights. Dixie, and Guide created some that looked really good. Somebody, and we do not know who was the first one, tried to use these small teardrop shaped motorcycle lights on the rear of a car. The lights looked really good mounted on the rear bumper, on the splash pan, or on the sides of the bumper guards. The only problem was the motorcycle lights were marker lights with only one bulb. Memo Ortega remembered that to make them work with the car they would find the smallest car taillights they could find, take it apart and modify the double bulb set up to fit inside the motorcycle teardrop light. It was always a very tight fit, but it could be done, and this way they could convert the lights for running and brake light.

As far as we have found out the use of these Motorcycle marker lights as taillights on Custom Cars was never written about in the early Restyling publications. It was just one of those restyling techniques you saw on another car, loved the look of that super smooth rear and adapted it to your own car.

Memo Ortega Flashback
I do remember the motorcycle taillight becoming really popular around ’47-48. Some of the Vagabonds ran them, that the car club I was a member of in La Verne Ca. Some of the guys used them on the gravel pan, and some bolted them to the bumper guards. At the time this did not go to well with the law. The cops always came out with “they are to small“, “its not legal to run them“, “its not a factory taillight“, just to bust you. But guys still ran them cause they were so cool looking. It also depended which cop you ran into. My friend Papitas brother ran them in his ’41 Ford, and my cousin Panya on his ’41. and also Enchilada used them on his ’37 Chevy kustom. I think the Pep boys Vagabond ’40 Merc allso ran them in my home town.

At one time I ran four of them right under the rear end of my 37 Chevy. It looked really kool untill one night. I was going to my sisters house, and this cop followed me right into her drive way… red lite on! He tells me “I’m gonna give you a ticket for those lites under your car” he said they were illegal! I knew better at the time, since I was studying the California vehicle code book. You see I was thinking of joyining the California Highway Patrol, so I knew it was not illegal to run the motorcycle taillights. I told him to show me in the book where it said I could run these taillights. He looked, and looked… he could not find anything there! I told the cop… next time you better read your book before you stop somebody! For that he got really pissed… he got in his car and left.


The early Custom Car publications date back to around 1944. Dan Post’s publications describe a lot of different restyling techniques, but the bumper mounted taillight is a technique not mentioned until 1947. The motor cycle taillights which started to be used around 1947-48 is not mentioned in any of the Post publications. In 1947 the use of 1946-47 Olds bumper guard  lights is the first time this technique is mentioned. From the 1949 Blue book Dan Post includes an illustration of the Olds bumper guard set up to show how this technique can be adapted. The Motor Cycle lights are mentioned in the Trend Book Customs Cars No. 101 publication from July 1951. Only as photo caption, even though the caption mentioned the style was Popular, it was not revered to in the main text. The main text did mention the home made Bumper guard taillights, and the booklet showed photos of several good samples of the bumper guard taillights.

When the main Custom Car and Hot Rod magazine started their publications from 1951 the bumper guard taillights were shown and mentioned quite frequently. In the September 1951 issue of Hop Up magazine George Barris did a nice How To article showing how these great looking bumper guard taillights could be fabricated. Of course he hoped that the people would rather come to the Barris shop to have the shops expertise do them with much better quality.

CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-post-manual-47Dan Post Master Custom – Restyling Manual published in 1947.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-post-blue-bookDan Post Blue Book of Custom Restyling published in 1949. (this scan comes from the 1951 edition.)


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-trend-book-101From the Trend Book No. 101 Custom Cars first published in July 1951.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-hop-up-9-51In the September 1951  issue of Hop Up magazine, George Barris showed in a two page article how the Bumper guard taillights were created. Most likely this article helped a lot of home customizers to create a set of bumper guard taillights for their own cars in the early 1950’s


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-summers-merc-01Jimmy summers used an 1941 Lincoln rear bumper on his famous dark maroon 1940 Mercury. He removed the center section of the bumper and created his own which would incorporate the license plate and two ’41 Ford taillights mounted next to the plate in ’46.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-summers-merc-02In 1949 Jimmy still used the same set up on his car which was now painted green.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-guide-R8-50-1The GUIDE R8-50-1 was a very popular motorcycle marker light amongst car customizers. The shape was just perfect for the custom, and even mimic the shape of the Appleton Spotlights up front!


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-catalogThese marker lights were advertised in the motorcycle brochures from the late 1930’s and 1940’s (this sample is a little less old) The marker lights only came with a single light bulb, and needed to be modified to work as driver and brake light.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-eastern-1951The teardrop taillights could also be bought from the car accessory shops. The 1951 Eastern Auto Supply Co. listed a set of chrome plated teardrop lights in their catalog. Sorry, but I was only able to find a very poor copy, the text reads; TEARDROP LIGHTS A real gem for use as tail light, back up light or exterior ligh. Rich chrome finish. Available with red or white lens. Specify color. 3″ long, 21/4″ diam. $3.95 pr.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-sam-barris-01Early photo of the Sam Barris 1940 Mercury shows that Sam used only one single motorcycle taillight on the driver side only.


Sam Barris 1940 MercurySam Barris later removed the bumper guards, located the license plate behind the bumper, and mounted two motorcycle taillights on the bumper. Perhaps Sam had been ticketed for running only one taillight?


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-johnny-zaro-M02Johnny Zaro’s 1940 Mercury in 1948 uses two teardrop shaped motorcycle lights. Looks at the clean lines without the factory fender mounted taillights.



CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-johnny-zaro-M01Close up of the Johnny Zaro 1940 Mercury taillight set-up.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-zaro-41-02In 1948 Johnny Zaro used motor cycle taillights on his George Barris created 1941 Ford convertible. The car was super smooth and everything was shaved and molded in. To keep these smooth lines they had decided to move the taillights to the bumpers. And to make them look as good as possible, they were mounted as low as possible. Later Johnny changed the taillights on his car, scroll down to see the update.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-40-ford-sedanWhile most of the cars used the motor cycle taillights close to the bumper guards, there are also some who preferred them more towards the outside of the bumper, in line with the fenders. Like we can see on his nicely smoothed and molded 1940 Ford sedan. 


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-hal-baud-oldsHal Baud’s 1950 looked super slick from behind, with molded fenders, shaved trunk and the taillights removed. However it was very unique to still use the motorcycle taillights on this brand new car in 1950. Especially since the big trend was bumper guard lights.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-ohanesianNot all bumper mounted taillights were of the small motorcycle type. We have found a few samples of Custom Cars that used some largerversions of a round, most likely teardrop shaped taillights. Perhaps pirated from a late ’30’s car or something similar. The Buddy Ohanesian Westergard/bertolucci 1940 Mercury is a good ample of these larger bumper mounted taillights.


There are also a couple of samples known where other small or thin type taillights are being used on the bumpers of Custom Cars. From the amount of photos we have been able to find this never became a real popular Custom Restyling Trick though. For this some factory stock taillights, ’46-48 Chevy and Ford units were used mostly for this, were mounted on the bumpers. Holed were  drilled in the bumper to allow the light fixtures to sit inside the bumper. The taillight would then mount nicely on top of the bumper. One of the best know sample of this style is the set up of the ’46 Chevy taillights mounted close to the bumper guards of the ’47 Buick rear bumper of the Anne De Valle ’42 Barris built Ford Coupe. This car was originally created for Marcia Campbell.

CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-anne-devalle-01Anne De Valle ’42 Ford (Originally owned by Marcia Campbell) was restyled with an ’47 Buick Special rear bumper. A set of ’46 Chevy taillights was mounted on the top portion of the new bumper. 


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-anne-devalle-02The only close up photo I was able to find to showing the Anne De Valle / Marcia Campbell taillight set up was this side view. This set up sure cleaned of the rear fenders, but it lacked the finesse of a custom made bumper guard set up.


Bumper Guard Taillights

Around 1947-48 there is a shift in Custom taillight design. The motorcycle teardrop taillights are still being used. But if you wanted the latest trend you needed to create custom made bumper guard taillight. The ’46 Oldsmobile front bumper guards had integrated parking lights. This set up had clear glass, but everything else was already there from the factory. Somebody came with the idea to use this whole unit as bumper guard on the rear of a car, replace the clear glass with red glass and modify the lights for running and brake lights. This set up most likely was the first bumper guard taillight set up. We have no idea who was the first to do this, but 1940’s photos show many cars using this set up, so it became very popular.

CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-skonzakes-01Jim Street was a very creative Custom Car enthusiast from Dayton Ohio. In 1948 Jim used 1946-48 Oldsmobile front bumper guards on his ’41 Ford convertible custom. Jim replaced the stock white glass with clear red plastic cut and shaped to fit, to create his first set of bumper guard taillights.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-skonzakes-02Jim Street’s 1941 Ford was a very nice ride in 1948. Californian style in Dayton Ohio.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-nicholas_schlouchNicholas Schlouch 1939 Ford was created in the late 1940’s. We do not have very good photos of the car from that period. But this photo taken in 1956 shows how the sluts in the bumper guards were cut out and filled with shaped clear red lucite. A light fixture was installed inside the guard. The orange bumper mounted lights are a later addition.


The first real bumper guard taillights

In 1948 Jesse Lopez develops what we now see as the first ever Custom made bumper guard taillight. Together with Sam Barris he had customized his 1941 Ford long door coupe including a very smooth chop, shave trunk and molded in smoothed fenders. They had also removed the taillights and Jesse came up with the idea to incorporate the taillights in the 1946 Ford bumper guards they had just installed on the car. Jesse and Sam were very familiar with the motorcycle taillights and liked the look of them, but Jesse wanted the rear of his car to be even smoother than done ever before.

Jesse Lopez on Taillights
“Yes, I was the first to build the taillights into the bumper guards, “I was good at doing plastic work and I got the bright idea to set them in the indentation of the bumper guard, about 1 3/4” x 3 3/4”, a small light fit into the back of the guard. I made the plastic formed and recessed to the shape with 1/8” grooves cut inside with a triangle file to reflect. It’s easier working with plastic than metal.”

Jesse was already experimenting with working with plastics during that time, and he knew the materials that were available at the time very well. He used clear red lucite and laminated several layers together to create one block. He cut out a section of the bumper guards that he wanted to become the actual light. He cleaned up the guard with files and and paper. He then carved the block of lucite in the same stepped art-deco shape as the Ford guard, and made it to fit flush with the metal guard. With the two parts not fitting perfect, he created a light fixture to fit inside the guard from behind.

He made a set up for running and brake lights, then the back side of the red lucite was cut, and cross hatch marking filed into it to make sure it would reflect the light from the bulbs better. Once ready the plastic was glued into the guard, and the lights installed from behind and the whole unit added the bumper. The whole set up looks dynamite, and soon the Barris shop would create dozens of custom made bumper guard taillights for their clients. The style would be used nation wide soon after the first cars had appeared in the magazine with this taillight set up.

CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-jesse-lopez-02Jesse Lopez 1941 Ford (the car belonged to Danny Lares when this photo was take) shows a wonderfully cleaned up body with molded fenders and removal of all handles and most of the trim. This photo shows how super smooth the rear end looks with the clean trunk and taillight less fenders. 


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-jesse-lopez-01Close up photo of the Jesse Lopez bumper guard taillights taken in 1950. It shows how the shape of the plastic follows the original stepped shape of the metal guard. This is a detail that is often overlooked when the style is replicated. Jesse really did a wonderful job on these back in 1948.


The bumper guard taillights did become one of the Barris Kustom Shop trademarks. As far as I know none of the Ayala Customs that I’m aware of used this type of taillight set up. But there were other shops in California, and across the Country who would create this type of taillight. Over the years the texhnique developed and more and more different style of guards were used for this set up.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-zaro-41-03In 1949 Johnny Zaro had removed the motor cycle taillights from his car and the crew at BarrisKustoms had created a set of bumper guard taillights for his ’41 Ford. The style is slightly different than what was done on the Lopez Ford. The lights were slightly wider using the whole width of the guard, and they started more towards the top. This created a very nice stepped art-deco look.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-g-barris-caddy-49George Barris cut off the tips of the 1947 Cadillac bumper guards used on his 1942 Cadillac and replaced them with bullet shaped clear red lucite sections with light bulbs inside the guards. This photo from the Bill Gaylord collection was taken in 1949. More of George his Cadillac can be seen in the CCC-Article.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-matranga-mercAnother very famous custom with bumper guard taillight was Nick Matranga’s ’40 Mercury. The Barrises used ’46 Ford bumpers and guards on Nick’s Mercury and created similar taillights as those on the Jesse Lopez 1941 Ford.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-barris-hocker-01George Barris took step by step photos of Sam Barris and Frank Sonzogni creating the bumper guard taillights for Tom Hocker’s 1940 Ford. How they cut the guards, the clear and red lucite, make the fixtures and install the units in the bumper. The photos above show the work done on the clear front units, the ones at the rear were done in clear red lucite.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-barris-hocker-02Although this photo of the Tom Hocker bumper guard taillights was taken after 1956, the set up was created a few years prior. Tom’s ’40 Ford had a similar set up on the front, but then using a hand shaped clear lucite insert.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-ogden-buickThese taillights were created using ’50 Chevy guards on a Lincoln bumper on the Pisano/Barris Herb Ogden 1941 Buick.


CCC-bumper-mounted-taillights-ogden-buick-02When Barry Mazza and friends redid/restored the Ogden Buick the original bumper guard taillights were long gone. Barry recreated the Barris look using sectioned ’50 guards and clear red plexiglass hand shaped just like it was done in the ’50’s.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-barris-listIn the Barris Hollywood Accessories Catalog from around ’53 the bumper guard taillight could be ordered as a kit. Since the note mentions that the price of the guard is extra we assume that the client either send in his own guards, or asked Barris to find a set specific for the clients car.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-barris-quesnel-01Before Jerry Quesnel started to chop the top together with Sam Barris he already had started to customize his 1949 Mercury. One of the things he had done was removing the stock rear fender mounted taillights and create new units in the bumper guards.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-barris-quesnel-02Jerry Quesnel’s 1949 Mercury in white primer after Sam Barris and Jerry had finished the chop. Notice how super clean the rear looks with no handles, emblem nor taillights on the body.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-pete-brockA totally unique taillight treatment was created by the Olive Hill Garage on Peter Brock’s 1941 Ford. A bumper created from Oldsmobile and Buick components had a set of small taillight tunneled into the license plate guard. The work was done in the early 1950’s


Current State

The bumper guard and bumper mounted taillights had their peak in popularity in the later part of the 1940’s and first couple of years in the 1950’s. The increasing interest in period customs from the 1940’s in the last decade, has made this Custom Restyling technique popular once again. People all over the world are duplicating the bumper guard taillights. The most popular bumper are still the ’46-48 Ford bumpers with their wonderful art-deco style guards. They are perhaps the “easiest” to be converted to this great looking taillight. But we do see many more guards being used, both to duplicate what we have seen from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, and  new very creative solutions.

CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-recent-01A few samples from recent created bumper guard taillights from left to right: Bob Creasman 1940 Ford (restoration), Snooky Janich 1941 Ford (restoration), Jesse Lopez 1941 Ford (clone), Jeff Neppl 1950 Mercury.

The “modern” technique of creating new taillights using resin casting from silicon rubber based molds has made it possible to create some very creative and beautiful new bumper guard taillight designs. The method is pretty simple in theory. You basically make a rubber mold of the outside portion of the bumper guard, cast a duplicate in clear red resin, cut a desired taillight shape hole in the metal guard, cut the clear red resin copy to shape and the basic lights are there. Of course the resin needs to be shaped on the inside and reflective material needs to be added, and the light fixture needs to be fabricated just like in the old days. But the resin, rubber mold technique makes it possible to be much more creative. And if needed you can cast replacement taillight lenses as well. Matt Townsend did a really great how to on this technique on the HAMBPalle Johansen created a beautiful set of home made bumper guard taillights for his 1947 Cadillac Custom Convertible and explained how he did it here on the CCC-Forum.

CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-recent-matt-01Matt Townsend from Townsends Customs & Hot Rods Riverside Ca has specialized himself in custom casted bumper guard taillights. A few samples of his work.


CCC-bumper-guard-taillights-stardustBumper guard taillights at night (Stardust 1940 Mercury)


Resources and more info

  • Barris Kustom Technique of the 50’s, books, (especially No.3)
  • Master Custom – Restyling Manual, Dan Post book, 1947
  • Blue Book of Custom Restyling, Dan Post, 1944-52
  • Custom Cars, Tend book published in 1951
  • Hop Up, magazine September 1951



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About the Author

Rik Hoving
Rik is the CCC editor in chief. As a custom car historian he is researching custom car history for many years. In 2004 he started the Custom Car Photo Archive that has become a place of joy for many custom car enthousiasts. Here at CCC Rik will bring you inspiring articles on the history of custom cars and builders. Like a true photo detective he will show us what's going on in all those amazing photos. He will write stories about everything you want to know in the realm of customizing. In daily life Rik is a Graphic Designer. He is married to the CCC webmaster and the father of a 10 year old son (they are both very happy with his excellent cooking skills)



  1. Thanks Rik !
    You spoil us with another fantastic “in depth” article on the intricate subject of bumper mounted custom taillights , another detail that takes the custom car building craft to a higher level , beautiful !

  2. WOW!!! Each time Rik stuns us with a comprehensive coverage of an element of traditional custom car design and development through the years, it seems he can’t possibly top THIS one. And then here comes another one, better it seems than the last. With help from Memo and Jesse, and others then and now, Rik, you are creating an awesome body of work and filling in a gap in history. As the icons of our past are leaving us, we are realizing more and more, just how critically important your contributions are, Rik, and how unique and priceless the CCC has become.

    THANK YOU! (Drum roll, please.)

  3. Rik your articles continue to be so outstanding! My ’41 Merc convertible had the guide motorcycle lights mounted next to the ’49 Chev license plate guard. They had clear lenses with red bulbs in them. I always like this style on early customs because, as you said, they matched the Appleton spotlights..

  4. This is the reason why CCC is so addictive. Thanks for yet another outstanding article.

  5. yep u allways out do yourself rik,

  6. Great article Rik. This is what hardcore custom people want to read about not another bare metal 32. Current publications need to take notes. Chill out on all the Artsy photography and get into some real Custom material. I could only see Kustom Illustrated printing this material. Great article.

  7. cant get enought of looking at this great article with all the great looking kustoms in here, again thanks rik,

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