The Evolution of Color in the American Automotive Industry by Jithin R. Veer


Model T, red
Ford Model T, 1909, Red. The first Model Tís featured colors.

The concept of personal taste and a need to express oneís individuality is not new; it has arguably existed since the dawn of mankind. One of the ways people express themselves is through their possessions. Known as the "second-most expensive purchase" most Americans make today, the automobile is used by many people to express themselves. Apart from the type (sedan, convertible, minivan, sport utility vehicle, etc.) and the make of the car (Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, etc.), the most important factor used by individuals to determine their automotive purchase is the color or hue of the car. Often, customers hinge their final decision to purchase a certain vehicle based on the customerís reaction or perception about the color. Most car buyers will not have a problem finding a favorable color that matches their preferences. Aside from custom paint jobs available in the aftermarket automotive industry, most car manufacturers in the United States today offer a widespread selection of colors, covering practically every shade of the color spectrum. However, most car colors currently offered by manufacturers are darker shades of red, green, and blue, as well as silver, black, gray/silver, white, and beige/gold. A few sports cars and "youth-oriented" cars may offer less traditional colors such as yellow, violet, and bright orange. Due to large advances in the automotive painting process, different types of coating such as "clearcoat," "metallic," and "pearl coat" allow for more variances in color.

However, the current wide range in colors available to automotive consumers was likely not available to customers purchasing a car at the turn of the 20th century. Neither was the spectrum of colors offered to customers during the 1950s the same as the spectrum offered today. How, then has the automotive color palette changed in the decades following the advent of the automobile? And what are the possible reasons for its development over the last century? Simply put, the evolution of color in the American automobile in the last century has been determined by economic issues facing the automaker, the national mood reflected in consumers, and the consumersí tastes.






During the infancy of the automobile in the US, from the 1890s to the early 1900s, color was not an important issue to automakers. The automobile was in its earliest developmental stages, and the novelty of owning an automobile was distinctive enough for most wealthy customers who were able to afford a car. During this period, the Duryea Brothers developed the first car in the US, and Ransom Olds began to sell the first successful American automobile, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile. Henry Ford of Detroit, engineered his first car, the Quadricycle, and soon began developing production cars for his Ford Motor Company. The first cars were unpainted; if painted they were often painted dark gray or black. Black paint was used primarily because it was the least expensive. However, it is also likely black paint was used naturally because, during the gilded age, most machinery and objects of transportation, from carriages to steam railroads to iron-clad steamships were painted black. Black cars were also conspicuous. In the late 1890s and early years of the 1900s, laws in many American cities required cars or "motorized or horseless carriages" to travel no faster than 7 miles per hour and be escorted by a person walking in front with a flag, warning people of the approaching automobile.

Nevertheless, most production cars by the end of the first decade of the 1900s offered a selection of at least a few colors, such as red, green, gray, and black, mostly in the darker shades. However, as automobiles were still considered a "toy of the wealthy," automotive color did not hold much importance for the average consumer. It is common legend that Henry Ford once said something of this nature: "A customer may have a car in any color he desires, so long as its black." Today, many people have taken this quote to mean that every Model T Ford, the car which undoubtedly made the American automobile affordable and "put America on wheels," was painted black. This is not the case. From 1908 to 1914, Model T Fords were painted in a variety of 4 to 5 available colors. All colors of were of darker shades. Interestingly enough, black was not offered as a color initially. However, from 1914 to 1926, all Model T Fords were indeed painted black. The reason behind this color choice was purely economic: Ford wanted to produce the most number of automobiles in the least amount of time. Because black paint at the time was the least expensive and dried the fastest, black paint allowed Ford to produce a car in about 90 minutes Ė and satisfy the nationís hunger for personal transportation at a relatively inexpensive price.


later Model T
A ~1915 Model T Ford, Black. From 1914-1926, there were only Black Ford Model Tís.

The 1920ís saw the first use of color to reflect personal taste. The economic boom of the period (the "Roaring Twenties") following World War I, increased the demand for automobiles. With cars becoming a common sight on roads, buyers began to fatigue of the black-colored car. While Ford maintained selling its black Model Tís for most of the decade, other manufacturers such as General Motors began to introduce competitive affordable cars that included the availability of different colors; the average consumer was able to afford to personalize his car for the first time. Most colors were still very traditional, and darker maroons, blue, and greens were popular with lower priced cars such as Chevrolets. More expensive cars such as Buick, Cadillac, or Packard began to offer cream or tan colored cars. Ford, at the risk of appearing backward, rushed to reintroduce colors into its Model T and subsequent models, when its sales plummeted in the 1920s. Nevertheless, the mass introduction of traditional color into automobiles during the 1920s was a result of the acceptance of the automobile into American society and the beginning of the interest in personalizing oneís car.

1926 Mod. T
A 1926 brown Model T Ford.
Colors were offered again by Ford in 1926 due to competition and a more efficient painting process.

The 1930s and 1940s saw dramatic change in automotive style, and an expansion in colors that accompanied it. During this period, more cars became more streamlined and cars began to look less like horseless carriages. Accompanying this change was a greater expansion in colors, with more variance in shades available. For the first time, buyers could find cars with several different shades of blue, green, or red. Colors also became brighter and less associated with darker, black-like colors. However, the 1930s in particular were marked with greater economic troubles for both the automobile companies and the buying public, due to the fallout from the Crash of 1929 and the economic downtown, or Great Depression, that followed. It was during this period that the greatest number of automobile manufacturers were forced to liquidate their assets and close shop. Many of the smaller companies catering to a small group of wealthy clientele were devastated, and with their disappearance the abundance of colors such as cream and tan slightly decreased.


A 1930 tan/brown LaSalle.
An example of cream-colored, more expensive automobile of the time.
1939 LaSalle
A 1939 white LaSalle. White was always an automotive color staple.
The mid-1940s saw a change in the automobile industry to mobilize for war. During Americaís involvement in World War II, for a couple year period, civilian American automobile production completely ceased. Car companies switched to producing military vehicles or producing engines for planes or other equipment. However, immediately before the war, when fuel rations were imposed on the public, most American automobile manufacturers sold "blackout" models in the face of the impending war. These cars were black, and were very stark and conservative; they lacked any chrome or aesthetic ornamental embellishment.

1953 Cadillac
1953 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, Blue/White.
New types of paint based on trends and fashion became popular during the Fifties.
Two-tone paint was common.

During the 1950s, there was a return to an interest in automotive style. Automotive design was a reflection of adventure, success, a post World War II feeling of euphoria, and for the first time, fashion. Features such as the curve-around windshields and the tailfins were monikers of this renaissance in design. Colors offered to buyers in this period reflect these design sentiments. Along with generous amounts of chrome, colors included bright colors in many shades of blue, red, green, gold, as well as white and black. Many colors were also arranged in two-tone arrangements for the first time; the body of the car and the roof were painted different colors, or one part of the bottom was painted a different color than another part of the body. In most cases, one color was dark and the other color was a light color such as white, or synthetic faux wood. The effects of fashion played an important role for car colors as well. Manufacturers were inspired to match colors for a car based on ivory, or jewels, for example. Cadillac advertisements from the 1950s commonly drew on this automotive-fashion link. However, some attempts to follow fashion greatly failed. One such example was the Dodge "LaFemme," a model supposedly marketed as a "womenís car" with pink paint, and special umbrella and lipstick holders. Pink-colored cars have rarely been offered since.

~1969 Plymouth Roadrunner, Yellow.
More extreme colors such as yellow and purple became common during the "Muscle Car era"

The 1960s were characterized by an enhanced interest in performance. Known as the muscle car era, every automaker in the US tried to produce cars with the most powerful engines possible. While more traditional cars such as family sedans and wagons continued to use shades of colors commonly seen in the 1950s, many sports cars and coupes featured more exuberant, less conventional shades of colors such as red, green, and blue. In addition, colors such as bright yellow, and violet found their first mainstream automotive applications during this decade. Models such as the Ford Mustang, Pontiac GTO, and the Plymouth Barracuda are examples of colors featuring some more nontraditional colors. Two-toned paint decreased in prominence during the 1960s.

The 1970s saw the involvement of the US government in automotive affairs. Due to the dual energy crises of the 1970s, most automobiles sold in the American market became more compact and fuel efficient. With a post-Vietnam world view and environmental issues coming to the fore, many American consumers became more health and environment-conscious. There was a greater popularity of "Earth tones" during this period, which included shades of olive green, brown, and tan or cream. The prominence of the Earth tone colors for automobiles was in great contrast to the less restrained colors available during the 1960s.

1988 Chevrolet Beretta, Black. Black was a very popular color during the 1980ís.

The 1980s and 1990s were marked by great changes. The 1980s was marked by the rise of a more traditional approach in regards to color, with black and bright red being the most favored colors of the period. The period also saw the rise of the minivan as the favored vehicle of family transport and the last major use of two-toned paint with synthetic faux external wood panels. The 1990s was a period of growth for the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV). At the same time, it was also a decade of renewed environmental consciousness. During this decade, green (of all shades) was the most popular color, most likely due to the greater environmental or natural interest. Fusion colors, such as aqua, the fusion of blue and green, became common and popular as well. In addition, two-tone paint reemerged on some SUVs.

1996 Ford Explorer SUV, Green with beige.
Green was the most popular color the 1990s, and two-tone paint was again popular with SUVs.

Even though the first decade of the 21st century is still in progress, silver has been the most favored color, for family sedans, sports cars, and SUVs, according to the 2003 DuPont Automotive Color Popularity Report. An increased interest in technology has been partially attributed to this lighter-color preference. Furthermore, there has been an increased interest in red colors, with bluish hues, as well as white pearl metallic, and black metallic. Interestingly enough, the same color that was the only color available for 12 years on the Ford Model T Ė Black Ė is now the 3rd most popular color for cars today, especially luxury models. Analysts believe buyers choose black today especially for their luxury cars and SUVs because they give a feeling of mystery and intrigue. According to BASF: The Chemical Company, in the next few years, the basic colors of white, black, blue, teal, green, brown, red, and silver will continue to predominate in automotive color, but the blues will become darker and more jewel-like, and the browns will become more copper-like. Color trends in the near future can reported because it takes about 3-4 years from the time a new automotive pigment is introduced to the time it is implemented on a production car.

2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class, Silver.
Silver has become the most popular color of the first few years of the 21st century,
with silver metallic and black metallic the favorite for luxury cars.

The evolution of color in the American automotive industry has been determined by economic issues facing the manufacturer, the national mood, and consumer taste. These three factors have affected the colors available at any point in time in the last century. These factors also explain the divergence from the initial 4 to 5 colors available in cars (including black), to the current diversity of color. While color trends may help predict the immediate future, these three factors can also help track the evolution of automotive color preferences in the long-term future. In a way, the three factors described are not exclusive to just the evolution of colors in the American automotive industry. Outside events and factors, coupled with peopleís own tastes and beliefs, will always affect their preferences and the evolution of choices they make throughout life.

Works Cited

"2003 DuPont Automotive Color Popularity Report Shows Gray Gaining as New Color Options Emerge." 8 Dec 2003. DuPont. 28 Sep 2004. Pdf file. <>
Alvarado, Rudolph, and Sonya Alvarado. Drawing Conclusions on Henry Ford. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.
"BASF auto color experts predict rich, bold colors and glittery, holographic effects." 12 Nov 2003. BASF. 28 Sep 2004 <>.
Daut, Marshall V. "Ahooga's Ford History Page." 20 May 2003. Ahooga. 28 Sep 2004 <>.
Kuhn, Arthur. GM Passes Ford, 1918-1938. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.
Rochard, Stephanie. "The Power of Color." Automotive Finishing Winter 2000: 16.
Rubenstein, James M. Making and Selling Cars. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Note: Photos from Photo section taken from "Model T Ford Club of America" website ( and some automobiles from MotorCities website,
( Mercedes-Benz from (

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