“Any Color as Long as it’s Black” A Brief History Of Car Colors — And Why Are We So Boring Now?

History of car colors

(Article reprinted from the Consumerist)


You don’t know their names, but you see them everywhere: countless shades of reds, greens, blues, grays, tans, taupes, whites, off-whites, charcoals, blacks, gold and silver. Really what you’re seeing is Vanilla Shake, Tahitian Pearl and Torched Penny. Cars are everywhere, and so are the colors they’re cruising around in, their own distinctive skins. Paint is one of the most important design aspects parts of a car — the right paint job can mean the difference between luxury and sport utility, can turn Grandpa’s jalopy into a teen dream machine, and forever change a car from a vehicle you use to get around to a statement on free love and drugs.



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This came up in the Consumerist newsroom we call a conference call — everyone remembers that one car with the special paint color — Polynesian Green, Clover Green Pearl, Deep Maroon 347 — perhaps more than any other aspect of the beloved former ride.


But when you look around on the road and in your neighbors’ driveways, not everyone is driving in the technicolor lane. It feels more like the Model T days, of which Henry Ford wrote in his autobiography: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” (more about that later).
In fact, if it feels like we’ve returned to our grayscale roots, we have: Last year for example, the most popular car color in North America was white, reports Forbes, followed by black, gray and silver.
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And yet in that same article, Forbes discusses how popular a color is doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best value, noting how a yellow car bought new will have a higher resale value down the road — pun completetly intended — than your more everyday tones.
As it turns out, during the recent recession, consumers were a bit shy of flashy things and tended to play it safe when and if they took the big step of buying a new car, and that trend has persisted over the years. Meaning the likelihood of a flood of yellow cars on the market is not great, hence, the rarer it is, the higher price tag it can command.
This effect also works for green cars (Polynesian Green!) and orange (Tangerine Scream!) as well as teal (Just Teal [not a real color but should be]).

The Bold And Bright Early Days

<a href="http://www.omnia-online.de" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Gundula Tutt, Omnia Restoration</a> So now that we know the reason for popular car colors now, we wanted to figure out why, if perhaps trends are always or often tied to current events like a recession or depression.
Back to Henry Ford and his “any color as long as it’s black” statement: To quote Jerry Seinfeld, “What was the deal?” Was it because everyone was just in a a really cranky mood and just didn’t feel like happy colors?
Not really — and as it turns out, there were some pretty spectacular car colors around the turn of the century, explains Gundula Tutt, an automotive color historian, conservationist and restorer living in Vörstetten, Germany. Her doctoral thesis is titled “History, development, materials and application of automobile coatings in the first half of the 20th century,” and she’s a member of the Society of Automotive Historians. So she knows her stuff, it’s safe to say.
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Back around 1900, Tutt says, cars were basically motorized carriages and thus, painting methods were derived from the oil-based coating formulations used for traditional horse drawn carriages.
It was a complicated, expensive procedure to to apply the paint, and the drying time took several weeks. The color was luxurious, providing for brilliant paint jobs, but the paints couldn’t stand up to time and would end up turning yellow. There was no binding medium, Tutt says, so every time a color would fade or yellow, it’d have to be repainted. It gets expensive.
That long, expensive process is what prompted Ford to develop asphalt-based baked enamels for his cars — dark colors lasted longer, it fit in with the assembly line process and didn’t take as long to dry.
“This marked a big step for industrial mass production of the Model T and other low cost automobiles, since it synchronized the painting action to the frequency of the assembly line,” Tutt writes in her thesis.
In other words, this change in how cars were painted might seem simple now, but think about it this way — without these kinds of innovations, cars would’ve proven too expensive for most people and thus, a whole lot more of us might be on bikes.
The asphalt enamel method wasn’t without its downsides, however, as it did require a large amount of space with nary a stray bit of lint or hair to mar an otherwise perfect paint job.
The painters would even paint naked, Tutt added with a chuckle.
“I think I would have liked to see that!” she said, and was immediately agreed with by yours truly.

Peacetime Is Paint Time
More innovations followed after World War I ended, when the world was at peace again and the automotive industry could turn its attention from tanks and wartime vehicles to civilian cars.
New methods using Chinese wood oil (or tung oil as it’s sometimes known) could be sprayed or painted on, and made for much faster drying times in 1918, at about one third the time compared to the oil-based paints, Tutt says. Drying tunnel ovens shortened time even more, and were worked into conveyor systems already in place on assembly lines.
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And to add to the bonus of a speedy dry job, these “spar-varnishes” and “spar-enamels,” as they were known then, allowed for colors for the first time. Like Dorothy stepping out of the house into Oz, manufacturers started to produce brilliant colors.
The early 1920s saw brilliant shades — the colors of the time were exotic, Tutt explains, with two, three and even four colors ont he same car, as well as painted birds and butterflies on some Lincoln models.

Lincoln ads from 1927 (first two from left) and 1928 advertising exotic color schemes.

Lincoln ads from 1927 (first two from left) and 1928 advertising exotic color schemes.

Fast forward to the 1920s, when General Motors worked with the Dupont chemical company to create something known as pyroxylin, a substance that could be mixed with pigments to come up with new automobile coatings in a rainbow of colors, was more durable than previous pigments, and even better — could dry in minutes instead of hours.
In 1923, the new Duco paint (as it was called) pyroxylin colors debuted at the New York Auto Show on GM’s Oakland Motor Car Company’s cars, known as the “True Blue Oakland Sixes.”

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“Alfred P. Sloan, who had become GM president in May 1923, believed that consumers buying lower-priced cars would appreciate a range of color choices, particularly if the paints lasted,” notes the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
All seven touring cars were painted with Duco, each receiving two different shades of blue and accented with racing stripes of red or orange.
“Blue is a complicated color,” adds Tutt,” because it yellowed easily before. Now there was much less yellowing and upkeep, it was a cheaper, garageless car,” which was nice for consumers, as you could have a car without the bothersome expensive of having a garage.
An attractive product more people could afford? We were off — color was the new thing.

"These colors were used to do stripings and detailed decoration on vehicles shortly after 1925 (pyroxilin base), often combining two bright colors on the body with another contrasting striping color," says Tutt.

“These colors were used to do stripings and detailed decoration on vehicles shortly after 1925 (pyroxilin base), often combining two bright colors on the body with another contrasting striping color,” says Tutt.

Try telling that to Henry Ford, however, as Tutt says he resisted the change because of the elaborate process he already had built for painting his cars. In fact, Tutt says, any Model Ts that were repainted in a different color other than black would have their warranties voided.
It was too late, now that the colors had been turned on, they couldn’t be turned off. Dorothy, meet Oz.

To rest the rest of the story visit Consumerreports.com