In the early days of the automobile, color was a luxury — one that Henry Ford was famously unwilling to indulge in his efforts to simplify his vaunted Model T assembly line. “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black,” Ford legendarily informed his fellow company executives.
A century later, the automobile industry still has a color problem, but for entirely different reasons. If you’ve ever been in a long-term parking lot at an airport, there’s something that will immediately strike you: You are surrounded by a sea of cars overwhelmingly sporting what the industry blandly calls “neutrals” — the colors gray, silver, black and white. Indeed, according to a recent survey by Axalta Coating Systems, an automotive paint supplier, those four colors now make up a whopping 77 percent of new vehicles sold across the globe. So why, in a world no longer limited by the monochromatic edicts of Henry Ford, are we driving such boring cars? It’s time to buy a more colorful car.
Then … car owners seemed to suddenly go collectively colorblind.
While there was a period in which the Model T was only black, it soon became available in a number of other colors, including red, brown, green and dark blue. During the 1920s, colorful cars started to explode. Some Lincolns even came with butterflies and birds painted on them. By the 1970s, we had pea green Mercedes station wagons, tangerine Volvo 140s and, of course, the rainbow variability of the Volkswagen Beetles and Buses. Even as recently as the 1990s, when forest green was all the rage, car buyers’ color palettes still came in more varied hues.
Then … car owners seemed to suddenly go collectively colorblind. The rise of the neutral-colored cars starts around the turn of the century, says Nancy Lockhart, global color marketing manager at Axalta, when silver quickly rose in popularity and dominated the streets from 2000 to 2005. White, gray and black then surged forward as well with white dominating the top spot since 2006.
How did our parking lots turn into a black-and-white movie? Part of it has to do with changing paint technology. The colorful vintage paint jobs of the past century were largely acrylic lacquer or enamel-based, allowing for rich colors but paints that tended to be brittle and not very durable. The polyurethane-based clear-coating technology that dominates today creates a brilliant iridescence but a less striking color range.
Largely, though, it comes down to what consumers want, which is disappointingly narrow for a range of reasons. One is impatience, with buyers wanting to drive a new car off the lot rather than wait for a different-colored one to be ordered. Another is risk-aversion: They want to pick a safe color that will have a better chance of reselling. Such popular wisdom, however, may be flawed. According to a recent study of 1.6 million used cars by iSeeCars, less popular car colors like yellow, orange and green showed lower depreciation rates in the first three years of ownership than white, silver and black, largely because they are so much harder to find. White, at least, does appear to be a safe color for another reason: automotive safety. A 2007 study by Monash University in Victoria, Australia, found that white was safer than every other color.
There may be broader trends at work too. The popularity of neutral colors has also coincided with the rise of silver, black and white laptops, tablets and smartphones during the past two decades. And, while some solid colors like blue-shade grays and soft pastels are becoming more popular, says Lockhart, neutral colors are still expanding in popularity and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Another tech development could also help ensure the neutrals’ continued dominance: self-driving cars. Such cars depend upon light-mapping systems called LiDAR to “see” other vehicles on the road, and because light-colored cars are more easily detected by that technology, automakers have favored those colors so far in the production of self-driving vehicles.
So, sadly, just as 1950s America descended into a sea of gray flannel suits and bland conformity, our streets today are being overrun by neutral-colored cars in all of their safe, iridescent glory. The good news for the more colorful among us is that there has never been a better time to showcase your independence and iconoclasm through the paint color of your car. Plus, think how much damn easier it will be to find it in the parking lot.