Automotive Mileposts  
1960 Thunderbird
Back-Up Light Mystery
1960 Ford Thunderbird Hardtop ?     Does it have them?
!     Or not? 1960 Ford Thunderbird Hardtop
(Only Ford may know for sure.)

Fun fact: of the 92,843 Thunderbirds built in 1960, 11,141 (22%) of them didn't have back-up lights!

t first glance, you'd probably be inclined to say that the Thunderbird pictured above at top left is equipped with the optional back-up lights. And that would be a fairly safe assumption for you to make. And you would also probably say that the Thunderbird pictured above on the lower right certainly does not have the optional back-up lights. Obviously. But it's the same car, the same photo you say? You're correct, it is. We had our photo editor doctor the photo to prove a point: the fact is, you can't really be sure that the top left photo does have the optional back-up lights, because there is a question as to what really is correct on the 1960 Thunderbirds. But you say the Thunderbird never came equipped with three red taillights like the car on the lower right? Hmmm, well let's look into it a bit.

The majority of 1960 Thunderbirds came equipped with back-up lights when they were delivered. 1960 would be the last opportunity to order a new Thunderbird without them. By 1960, the Thunderbird was considered more of a luxury car than a sports car, and new owners were equipping them that way. The majority of the 1960 models came equipped with power steering and brakes, automatic transmission, radio, heater, rear fender shields, full wheel covers, back-up lights, and the like. Slightly over half were equipped with power windows and tinted glass. This makes the cars not equipped with these extras more difficult to find today.

Some long-time Thunderbird enthusiasts will tell you they've never seen a 1960 Thunderbird with the standard Ford hub caps on it. And we're talking about the small, just-cover-the-hub-and-lug-nuts hub caps. But that is the way all 1960 Thunderbirds left the factory unless the full wheel covers were checked off on the options list. Have you ever seen a 1960 Thunderbird without a radio? How about no heater? That is their standard form, and there were indeed cars that left the factory so equipped. So popular were the options however, that most people have never seen a 1960 Thunderbird in its true, standard form.

But we just want to concentrate on the back end of the car for now. Specifically, the two inner most lights with the clear centers that only come on when the car is in reverse gear. Otherwise known as back-up lights. Just what, exactly, is correct for a 1960 Thunderbird without the option? Our best educated answer is: we don't know!

There aren't many around without the back-up lights, as we've said, so there aren't a lot of original examples to compare. We've seen the lenses that look like they should have a back-up light in them, but they don't. Normally the area where the bulb would go is taped over on these cars to keep dust and dirt out, and to prevent any light from shining through. This doesn't really make sense though, as Ford had a policy at the time of providing blanking plates of some type or another to cover the back-up light openings on its cars without the option. In 1955 and 1956 a ribbed plate was installed in the area of the taillight on Thunderbirds where the back-up light option would be placed, if the car was delivered without back-up lights. In 1958 and 1959, the light was incorporated into the center design of the lens itself, so one couldn't tell one way or the other if the car were equipped with the lights, unless the car was spotted with them on. So, it wouldn't really make sense for Ford to break from standard practice at the time, and build Thunderbirds that looked like they had back-up lights when they did not. In fact, the presence of the clear lens on Fords around this time indicated they were equipped with back-up lights. Yet there are examples that exist with the inner tail light pod taped over on cars without back-up lights to prevent light from shining through them!

So why would Ford build 1960 Thunderbirds that all look like they have back-up lights, even if they didn't? And what about the owner of the car who took it in for repairs because the lights didn't work? That's where the trouble began. Apparently, at the beginning of production, all Thunderbirds came equipped with the clear center in the lens for back-up lights. But, after dealer complaints about owners bringing the cars in to repair the non-functioning lights, Ford decided to just add a third solid red lens in place of the clear center lens. It even came on when the lights were on, but it didn't function as a brake lamp or turn signal indicator. This change was never documented in printed form, which isn't surprising as it was a relatively minor change that didn't affect many cars. A major change to the convertible top relay setup, which did affect quite a few cars, wasn't documented until two days after production of the 1960 Thunderbirds ended! So, it's really not surprising that the running change in the back-up light lenses wasn't ever documented.

So, if that's the case, why aren't there any around? There are, but very few still exist in unmodified form. Considering the fact it was rare to find a car without them when new, and that over the years these cars have had a lot of alterations done to them, it's possible people may have just believed it wasn't correct that way, and changed them out to add the lens with the clear center, regardless of whether or not back-up lights were installed. This makes it difficult to determine what any car actually had when it left the factory, barring the presence of an original window sticker or Production Broadcast Ticket.

During our investigation of the mysterious and elusive details surrounding the correct configuration for the 1960 Thunderbird taillights, we came across a retired Ford mechanic who remembers customers bringing their cars in to the dealership to have the lights fixed. After taking the car apart, it was determined it wasn't supposed to have the lights. So there wasn't anything to repair. He reported this to his Service Manager, who in turn spoke to the dealer about it. A few weeks later, a supply of solid red lenses came in to replace the ones with the clear centers on cars without back-up lights. We can't say for certain if this was a standard practice at all dealerships, initiated by Ford so that replacements could be taken care of quickly in the field, or just one dealerships answer to their particular problem.

Meanwhile, across the country, there is a report from the original, now elderly owners of a 1960 Thunderbird Convertible that their car was indeed delivered to them with three solid red lenses on each side of the license plate. They ordered the car new, and didn't get the option because they would not be driving the car at night. Theirs was a late production car, with delivery in early August of 1960. One of the owner's children also clearly remembers the six solid red lenses on the back of the car.

So, there you have it. Perhaps it's as clear as muddy water to you, but this is what we've been able to turn up so far. You can file this away in the "for what it's worth" file, or disregard it as being incorrect if you like. There are those that will tell you we are incorrect, that there's no solid proof. We believe you have to accept eyewitness accounts for some of these things. The people who bought these cars, and the people who repaired them when they were new aren't going to be around forever to tell us what they clearly remember about them. We need to make reference to this information now, before it is forever lost to history. We'll continue to dig around, and we'll be sure to let you know if any more pop up with this configuration. Oh, and by the way, would you like to see a real photo of a 1960 Thunderbird without the clear center back-up light lenses? Well here you go:
1960 Thunderbird Convertible in standard form, without back-up lights ?
Did this car leave the factory this way? The owners say yes, many experts will say no. No one may ever know for sure.

Thanks to Herbert and Belva Reeves, Mike Reeves, and John DeSmith for contributing to this article.

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