When Turn Signals Switched From White To Amber ‘Unexpected Turmoil’ Gripped The Nation

When Turn Signals Switched From White To Amber ‘Unexpected Turmoil’ Gripped The Nation

Being alive often means living through some genuinely horrific or at least incredibly dramatic events. Events like 9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pearl Harbour, all of these irrevocably changed the world when they happened. If you were alive in 1963, you might be able to include the transition from clear turn indicators to amber ones, at least if you go by what the March 23, 1963 Reading Eagle newspaper has to say about it.

New Amber Turn Signals Causing Unexpected Turmoil reads the headline, evoking images of blinking orange lights as people run around in ragged circles, clutching their heads and shrieking like banshees, brains on the verge of slipping into the flashing amber chasm of madness irretrievably.

The reality is a little less exciting. Just a little.

There’s some good history of turn indicators revealed here: it seems that in the late 1950s it was decided that the flashing turn indicators that had been standard on cars for at least a decade—at least in America—weren’t really adequate because their white light was too easy to be visually confused or lost in the glare of white headlights, or even reflections of any number of white lights on the voluptuously chromed cars of the era.

After careful consideration and testing, including observers from Europe, likely standing around in lab coats and scribbling on clipboards, a particular amber colour was selected by 1958. Since 25 states had laws specifying white turn indicator light, it took until January of 1962 to get everyone on board.

So, by 1963, it was required for all new cars to have amber turn indicators up front. The article also reveals a fascinating bit of trivia as well—it seems Checker was the first carmaker to implement the amber indicators, because they ran out of clear lenses first, which sort of makes sense, seeing as how they were a comparatively low-volume and niche automaker.

If you look at ads for 1962 cars, the year before the switch, you can see this story checks out—here’s a 1962 Ford Fairlane brochure, and a 1962 Checker Marathon brochure:

The “unexpected turmoil” that the article refers to is about how, after they became required in 1963, a whole subcategory of aftermarket parts began to show up to let people update their sadly archaic white indicators to fresh, modern, world-of-tomorrow orange/amber indicators.

Some used replacement amber lenses, some used new bulbs coated in amber film or paint, some had amber filters, and so on. You wouldn’t think this would be that tragic, but the law had other ideas. According to the article:

“It is illegal,” said a bulletin issued to Virginia State Police and official inspection stations. “to operate a motor vehicle with a turn signal that has been changed, unless the new parts are identical to those used when the lamp was first approved…”

It gets even better. Check out what Philadelphia law had to say (emphasis mine):

“Police say any person who installs amber bulbs or lenses or who uses sprays or paint to coat signals in amber colour is subject to arrest. The person or business firm which sells this illegal equipment or paint also can be prosecuted…

Holy shit, right? You could be arrested for giving your car amber turn signals? And your dealer of that sweet, sweet amber colour arrested, too? Why was this such a big deal? Were streets full of amber-indicator junkies, mugging people for paint money, just to get a glimpse of that sweet orange flash one more time?

Somehow, though, our nation made it through this troubling time of civil unrest, and now we live in a world full of glorious, blinking amber light. One day we will have a memorial for those who were so bold as to attempt to bring the amber light early, even though it meant certain arrest and mistreatment by the law, who did not even try to understand their struggle.

And now, as a little palette cleanser, I’d like to show you this incredibly weird-arse comic strip from the same paper about what I think is a…goat? named Nubbin who eats clothing:

I just looked it up, and it seems it’s not always about a goat? In fact, this strip is strangely predictive of our current issues with texting and driving:

Not many modern comics include little girls involved in pretty horrible car wrecks as daily content, so, you know, enjoy that.

This article was originally published in February 2020.

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