Taillight Modifications

For All 1983-88 Cougars

Page Revised: 10 May 2019


Article by
Eric Dess

Cougars are great for doing taillight modifications. No matter what year Cougar you have between 1983 and 1988, there's always something that can be done.

But first we have to dispel some rumors. Smoked taillight covers don't exist for these cars. Never have, probably never will. There are a number of reasons why, but most of all because the cars are so old now. Besides, the 1985-86 cars had factory smoked taillights. Do not expect to ever find smoked covers unless somebody has made a set out of their garage. We've tried before and it's not easy to do because of the compound curved surfaces.

Also, it is not possible to swap 1983-86 taillights for 1987-88, and vice versa. And you cannot use Thunderbird lights in your Cougar. Nothing between all of these lights is common besides the light socket locations, and even those vary greatly. The shapes, angles and mounting points all vary between cars and body styles. The only way to get any of these to work would be to do some major welding and bodywork. Really, because of the metal taillight mounting panel differences, it's not even easy to swap 1983-84 taillights into 1985-86 cars (and vice versa). It can be done but it's not pretty and it's definitely not simple.

So you're kind of stuck with what you've got...but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as you'll see below.


These taillights got the short end of the deal as far as customizing goes. They do look sort of trick as they are, and they fit the lines of the car nicely. Still, if you want to be different, there's not a whole lot you can do besides blacking them out (see 1987-88 section below). You can also paint the cat head in the backing light a different color, as well as the stripes between the tiers. Wax and grease remover will take off the chrome from those areas quite nicely, leaving a clean look. Unfortunately there's not much else that can be easily done.


Now these taillights are much better for customizing because of their flat surface. If you're looking for something other than a straight blacked-out look (see 1987-88 section below), here are some cool tricks.

1985-86 Thunderbird-Style Taillights

How about some cool 1987-88 Thunderbird-style round taillights for your Cougar? All you need to do is create a mask that's sandwiched between the outer lens and the housing. To remove the lens simply pull on it gently; take your time because you can easily crack the lens if you're too rough or impatient. Once the lens is off, cut some material to use as the mask. Thin black foam found at craft stores works great because it's water resistant and easy to cut. Find the center of each square in the housing, then mark that center on the foam. All you need to use to cut the circles is tracing around a roll of masking tape or similar sized object. After the mask is completed, simply use black electrical tape to attach it to the lens, then put the lens back on the housing. Can't be simpler, and the effect is so similar to the cool round T-Bird taillights that people will do a double take. Imagine this effect with sequential turn signals.

1985-86 Cougar Custom Painted Taillights

This is about as tricked out as we've seen for 1985-86 lenses, painted with the early 1990s Mercury signature "laser stripe" motif. Essentially this gave the lenses a retro look, similar to the original Cougars in the 1960s. In addition, the backup light area was painted with the Cougar logo, resembling 1987-88 Cougar taillights. Then the nomenclature was removed from the bottom reflectors, their indents filled in, and the reflectors painted body color. Everything was then clearcoated with automotive urethane clear for a nice, bright finish and durability. Now you don't have to be a painter to emulate this...the basic striping can be done with vinyl, which also makes removal a possibility if you don't like them anymore. A body shop could help with the taillight reflectors and clearcoating. The possibilities are endless...use your imagination.


With the new body style came new taillights, and these are pretty cool to modify.

1987-88 Cougar Clear Red Taillight Lenses

Ever been jealous of 1996-2004 Mustang owners because of their clear red taillight lenses with clear bulbs? Well, envy no more because you can emulate this look very easily on your 1987-88 Cougar. Best of all, this trick is free of charge. All you need to do is remove the factory reflector inside each lens. This is okay because there will still be a reflector around the backing light when finished, so you will stay legal. At left is the stock taillamp.

1987-88 Cougar Clear Red Taillight Lenses

Start by gently pulling on the lens until it comes off, leaving the housing on the car. You may want to do this in warm/hot weather, or in a well heated garage, so you don't risk cracking the lenses.

1987-88 Cougar Clear Red Taillight Lenses

Here is the lens off the car. You'll notice that the whitish-colored reflector is attached to the lens. It's not glued on but rather attached at several points with heat, which melted the two parts together. The "welds" are strong enough for daily driving, but gentle enough to allow the lens to come off. Firmly pull the reflector off, one weld at a time, using constant pressure.

1987-88 Cougar Clear Red Taillight Lenses

When the lens pops completely off, this is what you'll end up with. We recommend saving the reflectors in case you ever need to reinstall them.

1987-88 Cougar Clear Red Taillight Lenses

Lo and behold, upon reassembly you have a clear red lens, just like the newer Mustangs.

1987-88 Cougar Clear Red Taillight Lenses

This is a before-and-after shot. The left lens has had the reflector removed; the right one is still stock. During the daytime there isn't a dramatic difference from a distance but you will notice it up close. At night, the stock clear bulbs are really, really, REALLY bright without the reflector in there. You may want to consider using red-colored bulbs or doing something to tone down the light a bit, so that you don't have any unwanted law-enforcement attention.

1987-88 Cougar Clear Red Taillight Lenses1987-88 Cougar Clear Red Taillight Lenses

sarjxxx has provided photos of this mod on his own car. Note the absence of black in the center section.

By far this is one of the most requested taillight mods for any 1983-88 Cougar. Before you start, consider that a blacked-out lens is illegal in some places. This is because of reduced light transmission and a general dark lighting situation. Do this mod at your own risk.

The usual product used to create this effect is called Niteshades. You can find it at your local parts stores or online. It's a liquid that you spray onto the outside of the lens for a permanent smoked look. It will take about 5-7 thin coats per lens to get the desired effect.

Cougar Blacked-Out Taillight Lenses

Start by removing the lenses. Wipe the lenses down with rubbing alcohol or wax/grease remover and let air dry. Then run a tack cloth over the surface to get any debris off. You're now ready to spray away. This stuff is pretty tricky because if you put too thick of a coat on, or if the previous coat hasn't dried enough, it will sort of push the previous stuff away and generally look nasty. Or it can run down and make a real mess. Take your time and put thin coats on. When finished, they should look similar to the car at left.

Cougar Blacked-Out Taillight Lenses

Here's the same car with the lights on at dusk. In this photo they look pretty red. In reality these are darker, and in the full darkness of night they will appeared smoked.