The 1998 Lincoln Town Car

Every Lincoln Town Car manufactured from 1981 to 1997 has a functionless red strip running the length just above its rear bumper. On a highway at night, this strip is dull, unreflective and visible. In the 18 years of this strip’s presence, its bracketing taillights grew more and more rectangular: in 1981 they were too three-dimensional to be square, stretched out over stubborn vestigial fins; in 1986, the fins had shrunk to two tiny ridges, and the taillights had been given a silver boxy frame; by 1997, they sat flat on the rear and were marred with an off-center Lincoln logo, which I would call “drunkenly off-center” were it not perfectly sober, in accordance with some alternative design philosophy, lost to time or the recesses of the specialized studio, that proclaims upper-inner superior to center. Both Lincoln and Oldsmobile are known for including their extremely similar logos on their taillights. You can differentiate between them by remembering that the Lincoln logo is a stretched window and the Oldsmobile logo is a mod abstract airplane placed in a box. Also, Oldsmobile no longer exists.

The Town Car’s big, dull lip became smaller until finally, in 1998, it disappeared. It is in this or an even more recent model that you have been chauffeured at some point in your life. In the black standard model you were driven by black, Hispanic or Arab men, whom you paid with cash; in the white limousine model you were driven by Greek or Italian men, whom you paid with a check from your father, who had in turn been paid with the pooled cash contributions of your eight closest friends (not their dates; dates don’t pay, they reciprocate). This generation had conventionally contained taillights, without the red strip to connect them. Their flair was their peculiar triangularity, curving upwards with the trunk but coming nevertheless to a sharp point. The fins had ceased to exist, except for the slightly raised strip of taillight on which the logo sits — centered, at least until it was phased out in 2003, and more elongated than usual by the ascending angle.

After 1998, the Town Car is a strictly professional automobile. You are driven in a Town Car when you need to be driven and you have time to schedule a driver in advance; you aren’t hailing a cab, you are scheduling a “car service,” part of the venerable service industry on the relative strength of which the American economy continues to exist. You enjoy the ample legroom in the back seat as a subject for discussion on the way to the bar and a space in which to sprawl out on the way back. It was not always this way. In a promotional photograph for the 1981 Lincoln Town Car, a 30-something couple in beige businesswear walks out to their beige vehicle. It is somewhat less spacious than it is today, and somewhat more livable. Its latter half has a humble cloth top, and its trunk has that garish red strip of conservative, achievable plastic. The couple carry luggage: two business trips, a businessman and a businesswoman, a long-term parking space in LAX or SAN. They are leaving a leafy bungalow with a stucco roof and a sliding-glass front door. There is no crime.

This middle-class comfort is now something for occasions: weddings, proms, trips to the airport, first or second dates, house parties. Its exterior is no longer quite so hideous, quite so mundane and familiar, in that its newfound respectability is more indebted to the smooth operation of the corporate than the kitschy staidness of the familial. The logo on the taillights would be laughably retrograde, except it is tastefully reminiscent of a hood ornament. The curvature and triangularity will seem awkwardly modern until every taillight outdoes itself in the early 2000s. All in all, it’s a material improvement over the blank red trim that, still but with more rarity, comes floating out of the highway dark. A clarity of form, refined past ownership.

The 2002 Nissan Altima

The Nissan Altima has meandered back and forth in design in the fifteen years since its introduction. In the second (1998-2002) and fourth generations (2007-2009), the car has been saddled with a uniquely apathetic, sloping trunk; Mickey Kaus, in his only instance of rightness, called it “sad sack” and “droopy-assed.” During the first (1993-1998) and third generations (2002-2007) the trunk had a relatively vivacious angle to it, a “high butt” often optionally topped with a jaunty wing. Even within this single feature, the model has, over the course of its unusually frequent design overhauls, failed to adhere to a normal aesthetic progression, instead vacillating with feverish corporate indecision or amnesia.

There is one radical design decision that Nissan has stood by, and that’s the Altima’s taillights. From 2002 onward, the Altima has had standout rear lamps, two aspirational pieces of exposed machinery encased in glass. It’s been the only notable addition to a model that, in every other respect — poise, finish, sculpting — has advanced as incrementally as the times. A commercial aired early in the third generation featured the Altima in an empty white room, and brought the focus dramatically on its taillights, stopping there first in its whirlwind tour of the car’s new features. We see three solid steel tubes: a thick red brake light, a smaller yellow turn indicator perched above, and an even smaller white reverse light tucked away in the inner corner. Each tube is sliced off at an angle more acute than that of the car’s trunk. The camera zooms in far enough for us to make out small notches cut into each tube.

In a five-second, hovering snapshot, the taillights are a breathtaking achievement, but from the long, lingering perspective of one car behind, they become remarkable in their dishonesty. Initially, they seem like the first step towards the transparent automobile: two chips torn out of the rear end to expose the inner workings. Function has supplanted form, and all to the good: the thick muddling plastic of the 1980s and ’90s has cleared, and the lights can shine as particular, intentional objects, liberated from their previously indistinct solidity.

Or, this is how it would be, were it not for the taillights’ profound ostentation. Each lamp is circular, for one thing, a twist both rare and common in modern car design — which is to say, a cheap trick. These fat tubes are sheathed in gleaming steel, the gaudiest texture possible. It’s a bold and dumb audacity, hardly befitting a Nissan Altima; after watching a spaceship’s turn indicators blink for two unmade rights, you remember that they’ve been shoved into a midrange sedan. By 2009, the taillights, in keeping with the haziness of their intentions, have melted and blurred. The brake light is less a tube than nicely ringed spot and the turn indicator has exploded all over the glass — a mess that, at zero miles an hour, begs you to pretend speed.