VW Beetle rear light units come in all shapes and sizes, with all manner of nicknames. This is hardcore buffing matter but it will assist you when buying a Beetle or looking for a replacement light housing.
Just like Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, nearly all components of the VW Beetle evolved over the years to out-perform the parts they superceded. Sometimes changes were made to improve safety, sometimes parts suppliers changed, other times it was to take advantage of technological advancements, but when it comes to lighting on a car, it has almost always been an area where bigger means better, or at least brighter, but not necessarily better looking. In this, the first of our online ‘What’s the difference buyers guides’, we look in detail at how the tail lights of the Volkswagen Beetle changed over the years of production.
We have concentrated almost exclusively here on the UK and European market, where almost all tail light lenses you will come across will have been made by Hella. However, they were not an exclusive supplier to VW. Hassia was also an OEM to Volkswagen, and made many lamp and lens assemblies found on US market cars, while countries that assembled CKD (complete knock down) kits, such as Australia, Ireland and some African countries often sourced plastic and glass components locally.
So, if you think you know your hearts from your tombstones, read on as there’s sure to be some nuggets of information in here that will surprise you.
1938-1941 – VW Beetle rear lights
The earliest incarnation of tail light was made for the V303 and VW38/VW39 prototype models in 1938/’39. These lights consisted of two parts – a pressed metal base and a bulb holder with lens and aluminium bezel in one piece. The bulb holder / lens part slotted into the metal base and was held together from inside the assembly by a spring clip. The unit was then bolted to the car, locating in a depression in the rear wing.
With the war well under way, Kdf-Wagen production started in 1941. Very small numbers of these cars were produced between 1941 and 1944 and detailed photographic evidence from this period is sketchy at best. It would appear that sometime during early Kdf production, the tail lights changed a little, retaining the original style metal base, but adopting a fatter, rounder, aluminium bezel encircling the lens. These fatter bezels were stamped with the wartime cog logo VW symbol and were either painted or polished.
With the end of wartime Kdf-Wagen production in 1944, and the British taking control of the factory at Wolfsburg, supplies of raw materials in war-torn Germany were running low. Beetle production re-commenced in low volumes during late 1945 and, for a very short period of time, tail lights were manufactured with a frosted lens and a flatter bezel. These are the rarest of all the Beetle tail lights today.
As production ramped up at the factory, tail light units, like everything else, started to be mass produced. The same design as the later Kdf-Wagen lamp with the fat aluminium bezel became the standard rear light for three years of production. The bezels were now stamped with the new, plain VW logo and were usually painted, though some later export models received polished aluminium bezels.
From July 1949, a completely new design of tail light was introduced. It retained the same general shape, but now the metal housing and lens were one single part, with a separate bulb holder / bracket. These so-called ‘late ’49’ lights are easily identified as there is a very thin aluminium bezel pressed into place between the metal shell and lens. The outer shell is secured to the bracket by two screws, visible externally.
Note, if you own one of these, do not try to prise these pieces apart! They are pressed in very tightly and you are likely to cause damage (here speaks the voice
April 1950 saw a re-designed shell without the aluminium bezel, but now with a removable lens. This version was used for the next two and a half years until the end of regular Split Window Beetle production in September 1952. These are the more common or garden (but nowadays, quite rare and expensive) Split Beetle tail lights, and still turn up from time to time at swapmeets.
On October 1 1952, the new model Beetle arrived. Known as the ‘Zwitter’, most of the car had been updated, although it still retained the earlier model’s split rear window. One of the many re-modelled elements was the tail lights. The new lights were larger and now had two lenses – an oval-shaped
one for the tail light and an upward-facing, heart-shaped one above it acting as a separate brake light. These stylish lights are referred to as ‘heart’ lights, for obvious reasons.
The bulb holder / mounting bracket now had to house two separate bulbs (previously, the brake light bulb had been located in the number plate light housing). It used four studs in a diamond shape to mount onto the wing, which no longer had an indented pressing to accept the light units.
Due to American automotive lighting regs specifying that flashing turn signals be mandatory on all new cars, a new style of light was introduced for the US market in late 1954. It used the same housing as the European heart light, but without the heart-shaped cut out, and with a dark red, convex ‘bubble’ lens. A dual filament bulb holder meant the unit served as tail, brake and indicator, with the brake light element flashing as the indicator.
Half-way through Oval Window production, in August 1955 (for the 1956 model year) the Beetle had another re-design, with many subtle new features being introduced. The new ‘snowflake’ tail light was part of this re-styling package. With a larger metal housing and lens with a snowflake-style reflector pattern, these units were designed for use with dual filament bulbs (tail light / brake light) with additional integrated flashing turn signal functionality for the American market. They comprise a shell and lens /reflector assembly and a small bulb holder that inserted into the rear of the reflector. The whole assembly sat on a basic bracket mounted on the wing, using a single screw on the top of the metal shell.
1956 – ’61 lenses
When illuminated, the so-called snowflake pattern on the lens (shown below middle) is obvious, but a number of variations of this period lens are out there. The lenses below left were produced for the Swedish market only and the ones on the right have come to be referred to as chevrons.
In late 1960, Australian legislation was introduced that said all vehicle tail lights had to incorporate amber flashing indicators. To answer this, VW Australia introduced this dual-section tail light for one year only. Today, these are referred to as 50/50 lights.
Increasing in size again, a much bigger dual-section light cluster was introduced part-way through through the ’61 model year. This lasted until 1967 on all models (and to 1973 on 1200 base models). These are now commonly referred to as ‘1200’ tail lights, and were the first Beetle lights that allowed you to change a bulb in seconds! Consisting of an oval-shaped steel base mounted on the wing, a dual section bulb holder / reflector that slotted into the base and a plastic lens that screwed into the metal base they were pretty, and simple. Most countries used the red / amber lenses shown above, but the American market continued with all-red lenses.
Larger, yet again, is the ‘tombstone’ tail light, first seen in August 1967 for the ’68 model year. Beetles now had 12v electrics and the new lights were significantly brighter than their predecessors. The lenses featured separate sections for a turn signal (amber or red), tail light, a reflector, and on some units a clear reversing lamp. With a squared-off lower edge very much in-keeping with the lines of the 1970’s Beetle, it is evident that these lights were designed with practicality rather than elegance in mind. US versions of the tombstone light gained an additional chunky reflector on the outer edge of the metal housing to doubly ensure they didn’t win any beauty prizes!
Lastly, in the emerging era of increased vehicle safety, the final incarnation of tail light appeared on the 1973 model 1303 Super Beetle, and by 1974 was used on 1200 and 1300 flat ’screen Beetles. This design would remain until the end of production of the final few Karmann Cabriolets in 1980. The new lights were large, round and chunky, earning them the nickname ‘elephant’s feet’. Their rotund dimensions necessitated a complete re-design of the Beetle’s rear wing, which for the first time had a cut out behind the light. The bulb holder / base section was now made from moulded plastic, which slotted neatly into the aperture in these new wings.
For more technical help, facts and figures about the air-cooled VW, check out the previous posts in the VolksWorld technical section.