A few months ago, I came across a very cool-looking car. It was a 1970s-era Jeep Cherokee and it looked something like this. I’ve always been a fan of vintage Cherokees—their military-issue ruggedness appeals to the wannabe outdoorswoman in me. But this Cherokee charmed me more than most; its color was a deep, rich, super-saturated blood orange. It stood in bright contrast to the modern cars around it, whose paint jobs—pearlescent white, iridescent silver, high-gloss black—suddenly seemed to be variations on the same boring theme.
Why are cars today painted such lame colors? If you look at the cars of the 1970s and ‘80s—like this apple green BMW, or this sky blue Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60, or this tangerine Volvo 140, or this pea green Mercedes diesel station wagon—you find dazzlingly whimsical colors, bold hues that put a block’s worth of conservative modern rides to shame. Car colors today are often black, white, gray, or silver. And even when they are a color—say, red or blue—those colors tend to be murky and muted rather than bold. What happened?
The answer has something to do with our tastes, and a lot more to do with paint technology. Cars of yesteryear (if we accept yesteryear to mean the 1960s through the early 1980s) were often painted in bright, popping colors—supersaturated pigments in hues that don’t appear on most modern vehicles. But the appeal of these paint jobs has to do as much with the way the paint looks on the car as it does the color of the paint. Older paints sat flat on the surface of the car; there was no swirling iridescence to give an illusion of movement below the surface. And the finish, though not quite matte, was a lot less glossy than the finish on modern cars.
These vintage paint jobs were almost certainly the result of either acrylic lacquer or enamel paint technology. Acrylic lacquers dominated from the late 1940s until the 1960s. Lacquers were high solvent paints that dried very quickly, to a hard and shiny finish (though not nearly as glossy as we’ve become accustomed to). Lacquers were often highly pigmented, allowing for rich colors. But that hard, shiny finish became brittle with age and exposure; lacquer didn’t play well with water or UV rays, which tended to fade its vibrant colors. And, although this wasn’t a prevailing concern at the time, lacquer’s high solvent composition meant that these paints gave off a ton of environmentally unfriendly volatile organic compounds. Acrylic enamels, developed in the 1960s, were a lower solvent alternative; these paints took a bit longer to dry, but they were more durable and weather-resistant, and they gave off fewer VOCs. Best of all, acrylic enamels looked very similar to lacquers.
Because factory testing standards in the 1970s were less stringent than they are today, car companies were able to get away with using highly pigmented paints that were brittle and not very durable. To make matters worse, acrylic lacquers and enamels were single-stage paints, meaning that these paint jobs weren’t even protected by a clear top coat. They didn’t wear well. According to Jerry Koenigsmark, who has worked at PPG, one of the main automotive paint companies, for 30 years, a lot of the colors that were used back then simply wouldn’t pass muster today. “The saturation and depth of color was a lot better,” said Koenigsmark, “because they didn’t have a lot of the specs that we have now—adhesion testing, gravel chip testing, engineering tests. If I had the exact same pigmentation of a highly saturated color from the ’60s … that paint would be brittle.”
Picture a modern car: If you look at one in the daylight, it almost certainly has a gloss on it so shiny that the paint seems to swim under the surface. What you’re looking at is a polyurethane based clear-coating technology that accounts for much of the difference in appearance between cars of the 1960s and 70s and cars of today. Modern technology uses a base coat, which carries all the pigments, and a clear coat, which adds a deeply glossy layer on top. It creates an effect a bit like looking at a bright color underwater—the experience of the color is interrupted, and sometimes dulled, by the reflection off the surface of the paint.
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