What Popular Car Colors Tell Us About the World
‘Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.’
– Henry Ford
That’s quite a curmudgeonly quote, isn’t it? It turns out that Ford, one of the pioneers of the automobile industry, actually offered four different colors with the Model A, which was produced from 1903-1904, and again in 1927. The earliest Model A vehicle was available in Andalusite Blue, Balsam Green, Bonnie Gray, and black. It is true that from 1914 to 1926, all Model T Fords were painted black; however, it was a purely economic choice. Consumer demand was soaring. Black paint was the cheapest and dried the fastest, so Ford’s innovative production line could turn out a car in about 90 minutes. The color black was also indicative of the age. Most machinery and transportation – from carriages to trains to steamships – were black.
Today, around 60 percent of car buyers consider color as an important factor in their vehicle choice. According to Kelly Blue Book, in 2018, the top colors for all vehicle categories were silver (23 percent), white (15 percent), and black (12 percent). Color preference also depends on the type of vehicle you buy and drive. For instance, SUV, Minivan, and Light Truck drivers prefer white, silver, then black. These three achromatic colors account for around 80 percent of cars produced worldwide. After those, we see dark gray (surprise!), light gray, blue, then red, beige, yellow, and green.
Trends, by definition, will change, and so will consumer preferences. However, car companies tend to stick to colors that they know will sell in big numbers (black, white, and silver) rather than risk splashing out on a range of cars in colors that consumers might end up hating, and not buying. It’s a safe business decision.
That being said, some sports cars, along with models targeted towards younger demographics, offer less traditional colors, but for different reasons. Certain sports and muscle cars scream LOOK AT ME, so that Candy Apple Red, Vibrant Violet, or Blazing Orange makes perfect sense where it wouldn’t work on a minivan. Younger people are used to having choices that suit their ‘personal brand’ and style, so trend colors resonate with them more than they do with older demographics.
In short, body styles come and go, but car colors remain basically the same. Different types of coating such as clear coat, metallic, and pearl coat allow for variances in the base colors, but they’re still black, white, and silver, no matter how fancy the name. Until recently. Breaking away from the oh-so-boring norm suddenly seems more mainstream. And we’re not talking about Grandpa bucking tradition by buying a ‘Buckskin Beige’ Buick in a black and white world. Over the past couple of years, there has been a decided uptick in the number of unusual colors and finishes we see in cars on the road. Some are bold and striking, others utterly bland, a few vaguely nauseating due to being strikingly close to the colors of bile, baby poo, or Bandaids. They stand out sheerly because we’re not used to seeing these colors on cars.
What Drives Our Choices for Car Colors
People see and use color as an expression of their personalities and personal style. While millennials and younger generations may be the newer target market for car manufacturers, all markets have to be considered to provide appropriate color options. So what’s going on? Where did all these strange new colors come from?
Color trends reflect our society, habits, and current events, and it’s no different for cars. Color in the American automotive industry has always been determined by the economy, the national mood, and consumer taste. During a recession, colors tend to be neutral and muted. When times are good, color makes a comeback.
Car manufacturers have color development teams that work with the designers and suppliers to gather research and look at trends to develop the company’s car color palette and the names that go with them. It takes 2-3 years for a new automotive pigment to be implemented on a production car, so today’s hottest color trends are a reflection of what auto designers chose for their future ‘collections.’ Those strange new colors and finishes are reflecting the advancing digital age we live in and the preferences of younger buyers, and it looks like there’s no going back.
That’s because car color trends – that’s anything other than the big three – are a lot like the trend colors in the home, fashion, and apparel industries. Anyone who has ever seen The Devil Wears Prada will remember Miranda Priestley’s epic monologue on cerulean blue. The point? Popular chromatic colors will gradually trickle down through different products, eventually reaching the masses.
Speaking of blue, PPG Industries’ Automotive Trends Collection suggests that blue is poised to give white, black, and silver/gray a big run for the money soon. And according to a BASF Color Report for Automotive OEM Coatings, North Americans buying a car in the 2022 model year will be choosing a deep blue hue called ‘Atomium Sky’ that pays homage to our ever-increasing interest in science and space travel.
While it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to customizable, made-to-order colors and hundreds of color options with cars, innovations in topcoat finishes can make any color look darker from one angle and brighter from another, so it keeps things interesting. Arizonans and other warm-climate dwellers will be thrilled to know that and advances in paint technologies and finishes that prevent heat buildup and increase energy efficiency are expected to become more prevalent.
Hues of silver, blue, and gray reflect our fascination with technology and consumer electronics such as cell phones, laptops, and tablets, and the blue-ish light associated with the screens. Dark matte or flat paint and dark windows have become increasingly popular among younger male car enthusiasts simply because vehicles painted in this style have a stealthy, futuristic look that’s different from anything else on the road.
Earth tones like coppers, browns, tans, and greens are ideal for those who favor the real world over virtual reality. Vehicles marketed towards adventurous, ‘let’s get off the beaten path’ people might feature bright blues, reds, oranges, and yellows. Colors are also becoming less gendered, in the sense that fewer people automatically relegate colors into pink/girl and blue/boy categories.
Bottom line? If a car color resonates with you, and you love it, go for it unless it’s the color of bile, baby poo, or Bandaids. Those are just WRONG. And finally, if this much thought and process goes into creating paint colors for cars, imagine all the elements that go into designing, naming, and building a strong brand that stands out and resonates with the target market. We do. Every day. It’s what drives US.