Previously, it was easy to dismiss automotive exterior lights as largely uninteresting objects of pure purpose, especially back when they were all circular sealed-beam bulb units sitting near the outer edges of the car. In time, however – especially since the advent of LEDs and light diffuser panels and now laser lights – ever more intricate light clusters have become a critical part of a car’s graphics and a means of establishing a brand identity. Look at BMW’s ‘Angel Eyes’ or Audi’s string of LED daytime running lights or Jaguar’s ‘J-Blade signature’ for mainstream examples.
However, a much earlier example of lighting being a visual signature comes from Japan, in the form of four red rings.
The Nissan Skyline GT-R’s tail lights became such an iconic design detail over time (despite occasional mutterings about Ferrari influence), that when Nissan saw fit to separate the GT-R from its Skyline base to create a standalone global sports car, the red rings were the only styling cue that survived the transition and made a reference to the car’s heritage.
They haven’t quite been around as long as the GT-R has, though. While the seminal C10 generation of 1969 laid some foundations with a pair of rectangles housed in a single chrome frame on each side, the GT-R’s most famous detail comes from its least famous generation: the C110 ‘Kenmeri’ of 1973 only.
Designed by Shinichiro Sakurai as the C10 was, this Skyline’s rear lights featured the four rings, with reverse and indicator lights in the centres. While both sit inside their own circular lip, the outer ring is also surrounded by a grooved chrome bezel, which gives the illusion of it being larger than the inner ones.
In 1989, 16 years after the C110 version’s shelf life was cut short by the oil crisis, the GT-R badge returned on the mighty BNR32 generation Skyline, which had by then morphed into a crushing display of technological brute force monstrous enough to earn the nickname ‘Godzilla.’
Skylines had continued on during the GT-R drought, though, and the taillight graphic had evolved with it. The R32 thus had the correct four red circles, now with the indicators sat between them and the reversers flanking the licence plate below.
Through the ’90s the R32 evolved into the bigger R33, whose indicators and reversers migrated to a horizontal strip below larger, closer ‘afterburner’ rings.
The third iteration of this ‘RB26 era’ run of GT-Rs, the R34, had outer tail light rings larger than the inner ones, making the C110’s illusion into reality, while also putting the indicators back where they were situated in ’73. This continued into the 21st century reinvention of ‘Godzilla,’ starting with the 2001 GT-R Concept.
Makoto Yamane’s design made use of LEDs to create skinnier, larger and instantly recognisable tail lights that survived the development into the R35 production car unveiled at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show.
Intriguingly, the C110 still had some influence to give, as the 2017 facelift of the GT-R now has a lip around the outer ring which echoes that deceptive bezel…
By this decade, the iconic double-ring graphic was so strong that it even adorned Nissan’s ambitious but ill-fated LMP1 car, as a means of tying the GT-R branding together with an unrelated racing car. Sadly, they didn’t bring good luck…
Little is known about the inevitable replacement for the ageing R35. We don’t even know whether the ItalDesign GT-R50 or the 2020 Vision GT concept give any true clues to what it’ll look like… but we can say quite confidently that anyone who gets overtaken by one will see four red rings getting smaller and smaller.