Why Are Our Cars Painted Such Boring Colors?

The way things look.
Oct. 21 2011 11:33 AM

Why Are Our Cars Painted Such Boring Colors?

They’re all white and silver. Cars used to be poppy red! Tangerine! Pea green!

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But as you move around this imaginary car, you’ll notice something else: The paint shimmers and sparkles, and its hue seems to change as you look at it from different angles. That iridescent quality is the result of the other major technological change that came about in the early 1980s: the development of mica-based effect paint. Metallics were available before the 1980s, but they were made by adding aluminum flakes to paint. These first-generation metallics gave a very flat and reflective surface. (For a good example, look at this 1957 Corvette convertible in Aztec Copper). "Mica,” says Jane Harrington, the manager of color styling at PPG, “gave colors a more of a luster or gem quality”—a pearlescence that is difficult to describe but obvious when you see it (check out this Toyota Highlander  for a good example). According to Harrington, these days a lot of colors are blended with aluminums and micas, with variously-sized flakes that add to the dimensional quality of the paint. These effect paints are applied over the pigmented base coat, and below the glossy clear coat. They add depth to the paint, but they also tend to diffuse color. In some form or another, they have become nearly omnipresent in modern paint jobs.

Why are we so into sparkly, iridescent cars? Michelle Killen, the lead exterior paint designer for GM North America, thinks it’s simple: These effect paints look expensive, and you can get them without paying more. “Especially today,” she says, “with the investment we’re putting into vehicles—less leasing, keeping them five to 10 years—we want a car that maintains a quality that looks expensive.” Effect paints, she maintains, are also better at highlighting the less-boxy, more-aerodynamic swoops of modern car shapes; the more high-tech cars look, the more high-tech their paint jobs must look as well.

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With the exception of an early ‘90s flirtation with the color purple, and a late ‘90s love affair with forest green, the past 20 to 30 years have represented a demure era in the world of automotive colors. Since the late-1990s, the best-selling paint colors have been black, gray, white, and silver (silver, in fact, was the best-selling color for a decade, until it was recently overtaken by white). George Iannuzzi, a board member of the Color Marketing Group (an international color-forecasting group that meets regularly to discuss the colors of the future) says that concerns about resale value have a tendency to conservatively shape buyer’s inclinations.* “If you’re going to buy a car, what you’re thinking is that in five to six years I’m going to sell my car. The buyer is more likely to buy a black, silver or white car.” This point hit home for me on a recent drive down Route 17 in northern New Jersey, where the road is lined on either side with car dealerships that stock only black, silver, and white models.

These days there is a tiny corner of the market reserved for flat, bright, uncomplicated hues. Killen says that GM is more likely to use a retro color on a small car or a performance car.  The smaller the car, in fact, the more likely a major manufacturer is to put a bright color on it. “When I think of a Volkswagen beetle,” says Harrington, “I can’t think of a color that wouldn’t look good on that car.” When it comes to paint jobs that don’t use effect paint, Harrington says you’re more likely to see whites, blacks, reds and yellows. “We have done some developments on the idea of a non-effect blue or green, but they only get so far in an automotive program before people say, we need something with a metal flake in it.” Nevertheless, there are some niche market vehicles that come in flat blues:  the 2010 Ford Mustang in Grabber Blue or the Toyota Scion in Voo Doo Blue, for example.

Even that ubiquitous high-gloss finish we’re so used to may one day lose its luster. Recent developments in clear coat technology allow for a clear-coat layer with a matte finish. “I can take any paint color I have,” says Killen, “and turn it low gloss with the clear coat. We’ve seen paints in high gloss for so long, the market wants something new.” The matte look, which you can see on this Mercedes Benz S Class, has become popular in the luxury market in Europe, and may eventually gain traction in North America. Let’s hope it does soon.

Correction, Oct. 26, 2011: This article originally misspelled George Ianuzzi's surname. (Return to corrected sentence.)

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