There are some automotive fads that we can liken to the leather jacket; a contemporary piece of clothing that has endured the test of time to become a staple of one’s wardrobe. The Hoffmeister kink may be the best example of an aesthetic detail that’s achieved this sort of ubiquity and acceptance. On the other hand, certain things, like denim shirts for men and a certain style of empire waist tops that were once labeled “tit curtains” by an old lady friend of mine ( due to their unflattering drape on her trim figure) have faded away after a few seasons in the department stores. The automotive equivalent of these unfortunate footnotes may be the “Altezza” or clear lens tail lights that were all the rage a decade ago.
The Altezza tail lights originated on the Toyota Altezza, also known as the Lexus IS in markets outside of Japan. Despite being sold as a Lexus, the Altezza was designed in part by members of the hachi-roku’s development team – the original, Corolla AE86, that is. Numerous boy-racer touches, like the chronograph style gauge cluster, the drilled aluminum pedals and the oversized wheels lent the IS a youthful sensibility that may have explained why the car never really did well. As a pubescent boy with a subscription to Super Street magazine, I thought it was the coolest luxury car money could buy and promptly bugged my father to buy one. All it took was one trip to the Lexus dealer, with him in the front seat and me in the back directly behind him, to convince me that I didn’t want to spend a second longer than necessary in the unbearably cramped rear seat.
Of course, none of that stopped the aftermarket from cranking out Altezza lights by the trawler-load. All of a sudden, everything from the usual Honda Civics to dubbed-out SUVs to the awful GM J-Bodies with egregiously oxidized rear quarter panels sported these dreadful contraptions in place of the stock lamps. Even though my idea of a chick magnet was an old Nissan 240SX spray painted rattle can black with a fartcan muffler and a whistling blow-off valve, I knew that Altezza lights were a step too far, an undeniable sign of poor breeding and limited economic prospects. If only I knew that the most nubile women in my cohort were attracted to precisely that kind of guy, and not somebody who read Tom Wolfe and still bought their clothes at Old Navy.
It wasn’t long before Altezza lights began to appear on other cars. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution’s first U.S. bound iteration was the first to feature clear tail lights, and even Mazda’s timeless MX-5 roadster succumbed to this awful trend, a problem which was mercifully rectified during the mid-cycle refresh of 2009. By that time, the whole “Import 2NR” crowd had died off thanks to the recession, the “Fast & Furious” movies morphed into generic action/car-chase flicks and the Lexus IS had become a rather staid option in the sports sedan segment.
As of now, only one car comes to mind when clear tail lights are mentioned; the Scion FR-S. Despite my complaints about certain aspects of the car, I love the way it looks – save for those damn clear lights. Though I suppose, given the car’s lineage, it is a rather appropriate choice.