The Mysteries of Turn Signals

Search for “clear corners” or “altezza lights” on eBay or any internet message board for car geeks and you’ll turn up thousands and thousands of posts. The sheer amount of money spent replacing orange-colored turn signal lenses with white-colored lenses that flash orange, or or turning red blinkers into orange likely surpasses the economic output of any number of developing countries.
At the core, it’s just like most of the modifications people make to their cars; it’s not ultimately about performance, but about making their car different from everything else around them on the highway.
So what kinds of changes do people make, and why?
Make red lights flash orange, and vice versa
In most of the world, brake lights are red and turn signals are orange. It’s fairly sensible — drivers in traffic are often making instantaneous decisions based on what these lights are telling them, so it’s best to minimize any possible confusion. Not so in the US, where turn signals have historically flashed red, often using the same bulb as the brake light. If you’re braking and signaling a turn, one side stays on, and the other side flashes.
For much of the early nineties, Audis sold in the USA were largely similar to their counterparts in the rest of the world, but with three exceptions: bigger bumpers, inferior headlights and turn signals that blinked red instead of orange. US government regulations and safety standards were responsible for the first two; but the color of the turn signal was Audi’s choice. Upon taking delivery of their new car, many serious Audi geeks diligently set about replacing their headlights, turn signals and sometimes even the whole bumper to make their steed look like the cars they saw in the dog-eared back issues of EVO lying on their nightstand.
BMWs of similar vintage didn’t have this problem; they blinked orange from the factory. On the other hand, one of the popular aesthetic modifications to E30-class (eighties 3-series) BMWs was to replace the entire light cluster with an all-red lens, making the turn signals blink… red.
On the other hand, the new 2006 BMW 3-series comes with turn signals that blink red. This has already caused a flood of BMW enthusiasts scurrying to the parts counter at their local dealer, paying to replace a perfectly good turn signal lens with one of a different color.
The Germans are a model of logic when compared to American auto companies, who would often specify different turn signal colors for different trim levels within the same model. The Ford Taurus, Escort and Mustang all blinked red in their base models, and orange for the more premium versions. Did they think potential customers would spend more for a higher trim package just because of the color of the turn signals?
Clear Corners
The two entities most responsible for this craze: BMW, and the US Department of Transportation. Of the two, BMW’s influence is the easiest to explain. For roughly 20 years, BMW’s Motorsport division has produced a limited number of high-performance cars, usually derived from BMW’s ordinary cars. The first two, called the M1 and the M3, wore dramatically different sheetmetal than anything else BMW made. As more and more cars received the M treatment, the sheetmetal stayed largely the same, but were distinguished from the ordinary versions with special turn signals, which looked white, but blinked orange.
Car geeks with more plebeian machinery aspired to the M cars. Sometimes, this went as far as putting fake M badging on their cars; but more often, it led them to just replace their orange turn signals with clear ones and bask in the mystique.
Compare the nose of a recent Audi sold in the US with an Audi sold anywhere else in the world, and you’ll see evidence of one of the many hoops through which foreign auto companies must jump at the behest of the Department of Transportation. The little orange reflector, which lets approaching from the side, so incenses many people who buy Audis that they often replace their entire headlight cluster to rid themselves of it. The same holds true for many drivers of Hondas, Fords and Saabs.
Altezza lights
An “altezza light” is essentially a lens cluster with a transparent cover enclosing round, separately articulated brake, turning and reverse lights. They originally appeared on the Toyota Altezza, a japanese-market version of the Lexus IS250 sold in the USA. The aftermarket siezed on the idea, and started producing “Altezza” lights for everything from Hondas to Ford trucks.

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