DETROIT - In Henry Ford's day you could get a car in any color you chose - as long as it was black. Today, however, you can pick from virtually any color in the rainbow. In fact, some of the latest high-tech paint jobs will change colors depending on the light and your viewing angle.
It wasn't because of some morbid sense of decorum that automotive pioneer Ford preferred black for his Model T's, explains Robert F. Daily, the resident color "czar" for DuPont Automotive, one of the industry's leading suppliers of paints and finishes.
"The reason Ford liked black was because it dried faster than any other color (using then state-of-the-art technology) and so he could build more cars," Daily explains.
But by the 1920s the folks at General Motors Corp. were hot on Ford's tail. They realized that Ford's stubbornness made him a vulnerable target. Alfred Sloane, the legendary businessman who turned a collection of small auto divisions into a world giant, hired away one of Ford's top nuts-and-bolts men, William Knudsen, and made him head of the Chevrolet division.
"Knudsen and Sloane realized the market was changing and people were getting weary of the plain-Jane cars Ford was turning out," says David Crippen, automotive curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. The two men came up with some radical ideas. One was the annual model changeover. The other was to offer customers a wide selection of colors.
By the time Ford got the message in 1926 and began offering choices of color, GM was already well on its way to becoming the dominant U.S. automaker.
Today, offering the right color choices is still a key to success in the highly competitive new car market.
But picking the right color "palette" is no easy matter, because color tastes change on a regular basis.
"Color over the years is cyclical, though not predictable," Daily ex- plains. No longer deemed "funereal," black was re-popularized by the television show Knight Rider and has become a frequent choice for sporty cars as well as for more classic luxury models.
"A lot of (our color preference) is driven by what we see in the world of high fashion, especially what's coming out of Europe, New York and, to some degree, California," says Daily.
Every year DuPont comes up with 200 to 300 new color choices, so Daily's team must keep up with the fashion trends of the world. But that can get tricky. Some highly popular styles and color trends can come and go in a single season.
Don Schwarz, an executive designer with GM, notes that color trends in the automotive market tend to run several years behind fashion wear. Consumers, he says, have to become acclimated to changing colors "before they're willing to plunk down $20,000 on a big-ticket item such as a new car."
Picking out the colors with longevity is essential but risky because automotive designers typically make their color choices as much as four years ahead of time.
Of the 200 to 300 new colors DuPont, for example, will offer this year, only about 20 percent will actually make it into production.
Even a company as big as GM might have a palette of only 45 colors extending across all its various model lines. Schwarz says there are typically no more than 10 colors available for any individual vehicle.
Some experts have also theorized a link between color choices and the state of the nation. In recession years or when the country is at war motorists seem to prefer gray or dark colors. When the economy is strong or when consumer confidence is high - as it is now - people opt for brighter colors.
No matter where the economy goes, certain colors such as the patriotic shades of red, white and blue seem to remain popular year after year. (Red is so popular in all consumer categories that experts warn there is a mounting undersupply of the needed pigments that could lead to a shortage of red paint in a few years.) Certain colors just seem natural when it comes to specific product niches. Red is an especially popular choice for sporty cars, and blue is the biggest hit among light truck owners. Gray metallics are favored by import and domestic luxury cars.
Some colors have their taboos. You won't find many canary yellow luxury cars, and green is a no-no for economy models.
No matter what the influence of the economy, fashion trends or what car you plan to buy, whether you choose a pearlescent white or a Brentwood brown ultimately depends on a lot of personal factors.
Where you live may play a role. Dark colors are most popular in the North, and lighter, cooler colors tend to be more common in the Sun Belt.
What colors will be hot or not in the future?
With '50s nostalgia already having brought back the poodle skirt and the hula hoop, the flamboyant pastels of the Cold War years are also making a comeback. At last year's Chicago Auto Show many of Detroit's concept cars were painted in rich metallic greens. Hot pinks, pastel corals, aquas and bright purples are also expected to re-emerge in the early 1990s.
But you'll notice some big differences when you're comparing the next generation of pastels with those that graced the finned dinosaurs of the '50s.
Even the old standbys - red, white and blue - are becoming "cleaner, brighter and lighter," says Schwarz.
In part, that's because American consumers are becoming much more
comfortable and confident with bolder colors. But it's also a reflection of new technologies.
Thirty years ago most carmakers relied on the monocoat system.
Painting was a one-step process. Today, however, most manufacturers begin by applying two layers of base coat, which contains the actual color, followed by two layers of clear coat, which gives the finish its shine.
To achieve a metallic finish, paints may contain tiny particles of
aluminum. In recent years new "pearlescent" paints have begun to catch on. These contain finely ground particles of mica.
Because of environmental problems, DuPont and other paint suppliers have been looking for ways to eliminate hydrocarbon solvents used in spray paints. Daily thinks new waterborne paint systems will become the standard of the '90s.
1989 Paul A. Eisenstein. Distributed by Special Features/Syndication Sales