Last Call: You Light Up My Life Edition

When the Feds announced that center high-mounted stop lamps (CHMSLs) would be mandated for the 1986 model year, everybody and their brother suddenly wanted a third brake light for their older car, either to get a piece of that Federally-mandated safety for themselves, or simply to look like they had a more modern car than they actually owned. Knowing that the window for selling retrofit third brake lights was limited, the aftermarket tooled up quickly, and by mid 1986, over four million CHMSL retrofit kits had been sold to American consumers.
Image: Peterson Mfg. Co.
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34 responses to “Last Call: You Light Up My Life Edition”

  1. Fred Avatar

    In the classic car market, many folks install after market accessories to doll up their cars for more value. Will late 80s car have these things put in? We will see in about 50 years.

    1. 0A5599 Avatar

      You mean early 80’s cars or late 80’s trucks? Late 80’s cars already had them from the factory, per US law.

    2. salguod Avatar

      It’s already not uncommon to see a 3rd brake light in some customs, even on cars way too old to need them.

  2. outback_ute Avatar

    I couldn’t find a picture, but the best one to get had the word STOP, plus an amber arrow on each side.
    * I didn’t bother to get one for my car.

        1. I_Borgward Avatar

          Oh yeah. I remember when that was one of the coolest things you could add onto your Sting Ray. Anything to make it one step closer to something with a motor in it.

  3. P161911 Avatar

    One of the many incidents involving Atlanta ex mayor and convicted felon Bill Campbell was when the cops ran the plate on a car dropping off his son and found out the car was stolen. The tip off was the center brake light. Can’t remember the details but either the car came back and didn’t match up to the year with or without the center brake light.

  4. Batshitbox Avatar

    “This is what lead Turtle to seize fate by the boobs. If his car didn’t come equipped with a CHMSL, then he’ll add one! Turtle carefully observed other cars and took a few things into consideration…”

    A comatose blog about a guy and his Corolla.

    1. HuntRhymesWith Avatar

      That was the weirdest thing I’ve read all week

  5. Tank Avatar

    I remember my dad doing this to our 1982 Cutlass Supreme at the time. I don’t remember the reasoning… but it was probably on my moms insistence

  6. I_Borgward Avatar

    These days, of course, a CHMSL is integrated into a car’s design from the start, but I recall a few 80’s era cars from my herd where they were certainly an afterthought. One was stupidly oversized, broken and fouled my rear view, another was broken and, worse, an aesthetic abomination of a package shelf wart that I just couldn’t abide. Both got removed and $#&%canned in short order. Safety schmafety!

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      On the other hand a friend added one to his Bristol 401, because the standard brake lights are smaller than a playing card and mounted very low. After spending 10 years restoring the car he didn’t want some dozy idiot rear-ending it!

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        My dad and I considered the same thing after restoring his ’50 Chevy Coupe, but couldn’t find a way to do it discreetly that didn’t ruin the aesthetics.

  7. neight428 Avatar

    It makes intuitive sense, but did anyone go back and check to see if the rates or severity of rear-ending accidents declined in the US after 1986?

    1. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar

      According to a 1995 IIHS study, 1986 MY cars had about 5% fewer rear-end collisions than 1980-84 cars not equipped with a CHMSL.

  8. smalleyxb122 Avatar

    I was a wee lad when the CHMSL became a thing. Riding around one day, my dad pointed one out, and told me that it was a new car, and you could tell because it had the third brake light. In my childlike innocence, thinking that meant the third brake light was an indication of “new”, I queried “How old does a car have to be before you take it off?”

  9. Manxman Avatar

    Citroen had them in the first DS in 50’s.

  10. Sjalabais Avatar

    There are always one-uppers out there. I found this Hella set with not one, but two extra stop lights at a second hand store. Grabbed it, whistled myself out the door, and sold it for ten times what I had paid to some nostalgic dude online.

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      Sadly, given the opportunity I could see myself paying too much for one of those.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        When I say “ten times” as much, that is mostly due to the original price set by cakeselling grannies…it was cheap. I’m not much of an accessory man, but had to realize that my next classic is still a bit off.

        1. mdharrell Avatar

          That baseline is also consistent with my definition of “paying too much.”

      1. JayP Avatar


    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Quite literal middlefinger to aerodynamics.

    2. Vairship Avatar

      I really hope someone makes an electric kit car version of the 911 and puts a solar panel where the air intake is on the whale tail.

  11. mdharrell Avatar

    The correct aftermarket solution is the STADCO Life Saver, with red as a third brake light, yellow for the moment the brake pedal is lightly depressed, and green otherwise. Wiring included.

    1. I_Borgward Avatar

      Yes! I recall as a tyke asking my Dad why cars have red and yellow lights, but no green.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        Here in Washington green lights on private vehicles have a specific legal purpose for identifying firefighters and such lights supposed to be confined to the front of the vehicle. The practice seems to have fallen out of fashion, however, as I haven’t seen a green light actually used this way in years:

  12. Tiberiuswise Avatar

    As a kid I recall how my father used to bemoan that a Ford Model A with a second tail lamp was “ruined.”
    Good times.

    1. JayP Avatar

      Dude… how old are you?

      1. Tiberiuswise Avatar

        50. This was mostly at car shows.