"What we're finding is that the '80s was a period of color, the '90s was an era of absolute neutrals and that colors are coming back now," reports Christopher Webb, exterior color and trend designer for GM North America and the man who develops all the exterior car colors for all seven of GM's North American brands and 72 vehicle models. "We work further out on color than any other thing," he continues. "Fashion looks for the next color, while in automotive we look for the next hot color family because of our product life cycles."
Webb obsesses over the colors of GM's cars in almost exactly the same way that Miuccia Prada obsesses over whether a jacket in her couture line should be Slate Gray, Anthracite Gray, Cloud Gray or Granite Gray. And just as Prada can't afford to ship her clothes out in colors no one wants, GM has to put the right car colors out there or suffer the consequences. Color adds wallop to a vehicle's visual impact and defines the vehicle's character, and its choice obviously gives the car buyer a chance to tailor a car to his or her personality. If a vehicle isn't available in the right color, potential customers won't buy it. According to a Yankelovich Omniplus survey commissioned by Dupont back in 1997, fully 91 percent of car buyers consider color when they purchase a new car. And 39 percent of them were either "very likely" or "extremely likely" to change the car brands they were considering if the paint color they wanted wasn't available.
Like everything else about cars, automotive paint finishes have been revolutionized during the past few decades. Scratch resistance has radically improved, the palette of available colors has vastly expanded and there's a natural luster to today's cars' paint that used to take hours of weekend buffing to achieve. Not only are today's cars the quickest, best-handling, most fuel-efficient and most reliable ever, but they look better, too.
And the automotive world is about to get more colorful.
Rembrandt never had no nano particles
Paint's flexibility and durability means it's still the near universal choice for automotive finishes over alternatives like, say, film coatings. Exterior car paint is, and has always been, "a combination of resin, pigments, stabilizers and other additives for durability and scratch resistance," explains Terry Cressy, automotive marketing manager for Dupont Automotive, the largest paint supplier to carmakers worldwide. The difference today is that resin is a waterborne polymer engineered at the molecular level. This works to lower air-polluting emissions when it's sprayed on, and it produces a long-lasting, UV-, tree sap- and bird-dropping-resistant finish. "Everything is done at a nano level," Cressy explains further. "There is new spraying equipment that atomizes the paint much more productively without overspray. And the paint often has an electric charge so it adheres better to the [oppositely charged] body. The technology around paint has changed more in the last 10 years than it had in the previous 60."
Virtually all new vehicles are covered by paint systems that apply a "clearcoat" over the pigment-carrying color layer for protection. And painting systems that place a third tinted layer of paint between a colored base coat and the clearcoat are working their way down from the luxury market to the mainstream. Metallic paints that include small particles of aluminum or other reflective substances have also become increasingly common and sought out by consumers.
Mercedes-Benz's state-of-the-art exterior car paint is called "nano-particle clearcoat." Inside the clearcoat, the molecular structure of the binding resin has been engineered to integrate with agonizingly tiny ceramic particles (each less than 20 nanometers in diameter — and a nanometer is 1 1-billionth of a meter). While the particles float in the paint as it's applied, they cross-link into a dense shell as it dries in the paint oven. All that results in, Mercedes claims, a greater luster in the paint and an amazing resistance to scratches.
All of which is important, because a silver Mercedes S550 — no matter if that silver is Andorite Grey Metallic, Flint Grey Metallic, Iridium Silver Metallic or Pewter Metallic — ought to look silver for decades.
Every car color a company like Dupont develops has to be tested, and there's no way to compress that into a short period of time. GM is already working on its color palette for the 2010 model year and doing its best to determine what buyers will want in that not-so-far-off future. And GM's bet is that consumers will want more color in their cars.
According to Dupont, for the last six years the most popular color for North American new vehicles has been silver. Fully 18 percent of new vehicles sold in America during 2005 were painted silver, coming in just a tick ahead of white. Coming up fast is gray (not much different from silver), which saw its market share leap to 15 percent during 2005 from 10 percent during 2004. In a computerized age, silver evokes precision and high technology, and with the addition of color-shifting metallic elements, silver doesn't always look like silver from every angle.
Three new car colors go into each of GM's plants every year, and three old colors come out — 10 colors are offered on mainstream models and 14 on luxury machines. It's Christopher Webb's job to track what's going on in the culture at large and with fashion in particular, to determine which car colors the company should bet on. (He develops 22 new colors each year.) "Blue is coming back as a color," he explains. "The Chevy SS models have a color, Laser Blue, which is their feature color. And if blues are rising, greens are fading. Blue is the big story across all our brands."
Alongside those blues, Webb has also placed orange hues in three-quarters of GM's plants and orange may just be hitting its stride when the new Camaro arrives. He's even predicting that brown — that staple of the earth-tone '70s — will soon find its way back onto 21st-century luxury cars. "Brown is the color synonymous with high-end names," he says.
Lease me, love me
In North America most Mercedes are bought out of the dealerships' inventories; only about 12 percent of the cars are custom ordered. That means dealers must carry a large inventory of expensive cars and can't have cars sitting around in unpopular colors that don't sell. So they stock a lot of silvers, grays, whites and blacks in various shades and metallic treatments and in a couple of years when those cars and SUVs return to the dealerships off lease (half of all Mercedes will be leased this year), they quickly find new buyers. "This whole system favors conservative colors," says Patrik Borenius, manager of advanced product planning for Mercedes-Benz USA. "Dealers order cars they know they can sell."
As exclusive as Mercedes-Benz products are, they're absolutely common compared to those of Britain's Bentley. Sure, the company maintains 16 standard colors for its highest-volume models, the Continental GT, Continental GTC and Continental Flying Spur, but virtually all of its Arnage and Azure models sell on a "bespoke" basis ‐ that is, built to order. And when those orders start at almost $215,000, the bespeakers get exactly what they bespoke. "We have clients who have previous Bentleys and want their new one to match that car exactly," says Melinda-June Jenkins, Bentley's manager of color and trim at the company's legendary Crewe facility. "Our dealers can invite customers to Crewe and, though they may arrive with some idea, once they get here and see the possibilities, the majority change their minds." It's not rare for Bentley clients to send Jenkins samples of colors they like and then have the builder match that hue. "An American customer wanted a particular cream color and he sent us a vintage shirt as an example and we matched our paint to the shirt. We showed him a painted panel with three colors that were very close and his car should go into production next week."
Bentley is the couture of the automotive world — and most of us will be buying off-the-rack. Take a look at the fashion magazines where even once-muted Prada is selling brighter, more daringly colorful garments and you get a glimpse into the near future of automotive paint. There'll be more blues, more oranges and maybe even some brilliant variations on yellow in production catalogs. But don't expect Mercedes dealers to suddenly start ordering a lot of pastel E350s or retina-burning red GL550s — because conservative car colors are still the safe play in their market.