In 1909, Henry Ford famously said of the Model T: a consumer can have any paint colour, as long as it's black. After the Second World War, two-tone vehicles gained popularity, and tri-tones hit the market in the mid-1950s. Manufacturers had lots of sheet metal to play with on the enormous vehicles of the era.
In the 1960s, metallic hues ignited the marketplace with a colour explosion – but there were also plenty of neutrals on 1970s vehicles.
"In the eighties, white was the top vehicle choice, and then you started seeing red and black – especially in the compact market," says Jane Harrington-Durst, a manager of colour styling at PPG Industries, one of the world's largest producers of automotive, architectural and industrial paint. "The nineties were really interesting: it started with white being the strong colour and in the mid-nineties, dark hunter green – like the Ralph Lauren green – became very popular across vehicle segments. Through 2000 to 2010 silver was dominant. That was when all the new technology began in electronics and everything silver was kind of a futuristic colour. For the last couple years it's been white, which is also connected with futurism."
It is standard for different models and styles to have different colour offerings. "I like to look at it across vehicle segments because that's where you start to see more variety," says Harrington-Durst. "Obviously, on sports cars it's reds, yellows and black. If you think of the luxury market, if you went to a dealership and looked at Mercedes or Lincoln, they might have two greys, they'll have a dark blue, a dark burgundy, a silver, a white pearl – and so, obviously, they won't offer lime green or something on that vehicle."
How we respond to colour and our colour preferences are tied to geographic, cultural, social and economic influences. These factors help determine how colour professionals decide on product colours.
"A physiological thing happens in our brain when we see colour, it starts to send signals, it starts to fire in different places," says Leslie Harrington, executive director of the Color Association of the United States. "For one, it can raise your blood pressure, it can get you excited, but at the same time it triggers a psychological response – which is you remember that colour and associate it with different things. Those associations are what makes colour something that can be leveraged by companies."
Because of the lead time required for automotive parts manufacturing and the extensive testing conducted on automotive paint, vehicle colours are typically selected up to to three years in advance.
Each automotive company has a colour and materials group that strategizes on which colours should be offered on certain vehicle styles. Most vehicles offer between eight and 12 options.
"Four of those colours are called core colours; that would be white, black, silver, grey," says Harrington-Durst. "The other colours are more the iconic type colours – they might have a special red on a sport vehicle and more of a burgundy red on a luxury model. Those decisions are also made by the marketing brand groups, because they have a certain idea about what that vehicle should represent, and part of the way to translate that is the type of colour used."
Every year, Harrington-Durst and her colleagues present a pallet of 60 new colours to their automotive colour and materials design customers around the world. "Because the industry is so specific, they might take the blue we've developed and for their specific brand strategy they might want that blue to be darker or lighter, or the metallic flake to be larger or smaller. So we may have the starting point and then they would ask us to customize it. Once a colour gets signed off specifically for that particular automotive manufacturer, we begin all the testing – including exposure to elements, and then all the other colour match work."
So what is the lifespan of a colour?
"If a company has a black solid or a black metallic they really like, they might keep it for several years but they might introduce a brighter red or a unique green," says Harrington-Durst. "For example, if you think of the Ford Focus, a few years ago they had changed the styling and it came out in a colour called lime squeeze, which was a very bright yellow-shade green. You noticed it right away in the marketplace. A lot of smaller cars were becoming more widely available in North America then, but you saw that bright green and it really made you look at that vehicle style. So, often if they've done a character line change, a body change or a styling change on the exterior of a car, they'll couple that with a unique colour so it gets noticed."
White has been the most popular colour, globally, for the past three years. This is in part because it's clean and neutral, says Harrington-Durst, and looks good on every vehicle style. But consumers also become chroma-phobic when approaching a major purchase.
"When somebody buys a car – they may have seen and liked the great lime squeeze or the groovy red, but by the time they get to the dealership, they realize it's a major purchase and they might be a little conservative when it comes down to what they actually purchase. Or sometimes they may have seen an orange, but when they get to the dealership they're told, 'Oh gee, we have to order that colour, but we have a white, silver and black here on the lot.' And for many people that's the day they reserved to buy their car, and they don't want to wait."
Click here for a list of the most popular car colours in North America.
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