Why Are Popular Car Colors So Boring? A Brief History of Car Paint

The most common car colors have gone from all the luminous colors of the rainbow to a mix of black, white and gray. Here's why.

Car colors have historically been dictated by current events, the national mood, technology and cultural influences, resulting in decades of brilliant shades. More recent times, however, have seen muted tones become the most popular car colors.

A look back in history shows us how we got to the common car colors we have today.

The History of Car Paint Begins

“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” —Henry Ford

Automobiles in the late 1800s and early 1900s were essentially motorized carriages, and so they were painted just like their transportation predecessors. This meant using oil-based paint applied by hand. Most cars were painted black because the color was durable, cheap and dried quickly.

But there were problems with both the color and the application of early car paint. Even though it provided a luxurious, brilliant finish, painting a car took weeks to complete. In addition, the black paint would often fade or yellow. Since the paint had no binding agent, when discoloration occurred, the car had to be repainted, which cost money.

Despite Henry Ford’s famous words, not all Model Ts were painted black. In fact, from 1908 to 1914, the car came in several different colors. But when Ford implemented the assembly line manufacturing process, he needed a paint that dried quickly, thus the switch to black.

duco paint

Duco Paint

A major milestone in the evolution of car paint history occurred in the 1920s when the DuPont company developed a new type of automotive coating. DuPont scientists modified nitrocellulose, a substance used to make explosives and motion picture film, to create a low-viscosity lacquer that could be sprayed onto automobiles. This new paint, dubbed Duco, had numerous benefits over previous versions of car paint.

According to the Science History Institute, “Traditional varnishes chipped, cracked, crazed and faded; Duco lacquer was almost invincible. It tolerated air, sun, rain, mud, dampness, heat, cold, salt water, bacteria, perspiration, dirt, soaps and detergents. Most low-end finishes came in few colors, while Duco made available a rainbow of hues.”

General Motors was the first manufacturer to adopt Duco (at the time, GM and DuPont were under the same leadership). GM’s Oakland Motor Car Company painted its cars with two different shades of blue and a red or orange racing stripe, and debuted them at the 1923 New York Auto Show. The colors were an immediate hit with the public and by the mid-1920s all GM divisions were using Duco.

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Car Color in the Roaring ’20s

The economic boom of the 1920s saw the rise of automobile ownership, which invited a broader spectrum of car colors and a variety in shades. Although the Great Depression reduced the abundance of colorful vehicles, it didn’t deter the evolution of car paint.

In the 1930s, newly created metallic paint gave vehicles an improved sheen. (Automobiles were also becoming less box-like, and the new paint helped enhance the curved forms.) Metallic paint was first made using real fish scales. It took 40,000 herring to make one kilo of paint, according to Consumer Reports. Less expensive versions of the paint used aluminum flakes instead.

Post-War Car Paint

The end of World War II saw a boom in consumption and style, with automobiles at the forefront. By this time nearly all the large automakers had color advisory panels that surveyed consumers’ tastes and studied color trends in fashion and culture. Cars became flashier with features like tail fins, curved windshields and, of course, bright colors. In addition to the copious amounts of chrome, automobiles were painted in all shades of the rainbow. Two-tone arrangements, where a car’s body and roof were painted different colors, also became popular.

The color trend continued well into the 1960s with the emergence of muscle cars. These cars have always been more about performance than pragmatism, lending themselves as better canvases for brightly colored paints.

The color trend came to a quick halt during the fuel shortage of the 1970s. During this time, car owners became more concerned with fuel efficiency and car color took a back seat. Earth tones like brown, tan and dark green became popular.

What Is the Most Popular Car Color Today?

German automaker Volkswagen recently described the current color situation on United States’ roadways: “If you drove down an American street and looked only at the new vehicles, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re in a black-and-white movie.”

No one can argue with the truth. A 2019 study by iSeeCars, which looked at 9.4 million vehicles ranging from 2014 to 2018 model years, found that 23.9% of the vehicles were white and 23.2% were black. Even more sobering if you’re a fan of colorful hues is that the next two most popular paint colors, at 15.5% and 14.5%, were gray and silver. This isn’t an anomaly: These have been the most common car colors for a decade.

Why Are Muted Tones the Most Popular Car Colors?

It wasn’t too long ago, from the 1950s through the 1970s, when U.S. roadways were filled with automobiles of all shades of the color spectrum. So why the change? “Color is always shifting, and our color perception is always evolving depending on what we see, what we observe and what we live with,” said Volkswagen Senior Color and Trim Designer Jung Lim “Limmy” Park. “Color preferences really reflect the unique social and cultural trends and even geography [of a region].”

There are a number of social and cultural theories as to the prevalence of more somber car colors in America. We are currently living through the second significant recession in about a decade. During times of economic uncertainty people tend to be conservative with their money. And while a different color on your car may not increase its cost, the mindset of keeping things simple and avoiding anything flashy has been known to carry over. A similar trend occurred following the Great Depression nearly a century ago.

As for cultural influences, there are some that suggest our car color choices are defined by our obsession with technology. Apple is the world’s most valuable company and its muted-color logo is recognized around the world. “Prior to Apple, white was associated with things like refrigerators or the tiles in your bathroom,” Sandy McGill, chief designer for BMW DesignWorks told Motoramic.com. “Apple made white valuable.”

duco paint

The Right Car Color for the Right Car

There’s also always been a belief that certain colors are right for certain cars. Pickup trucks are more utilitarian and don’t need a neon coating. Luxury sports car, meanwhile, are made to get people’s attention and are likely a more acceptable place for a bright-yellow coat of paint.

But sports cars haven’t been immune to the colorless trend. The Ford Mustang is a perfect example. In 1967, the muscle car was available nine shades of blue and two shades of pink. In the 1970s, brown was consistently among the top three most popular Mustang colors, but hasn’t been offered since 2000. Black, on the other hand, didn’t break into the top three until 1994 but has remained there ever since.

What Will Be the Most Popular Car Colors Moving Forward?

No one can predict the future, but we do know that trends change. As long as the demand for new colors is there, the supply will come with it.

There’s another reason to be hopeful for more vivid roadways. We view so much of our lives through the sharp, brightly colored images on our electric devices that it wouldn’t be surprising to see other shades pop up on cars in the near future. “We are all so impacted by our digital life through the pandemic, and the colors you mainly see are [on] your screen more than actual physical objects,” said Volkswagen’s Park. “The future is getting colorful, for sure.”

What color is your car? What colors would you like to see brought back? Let us know in the comments below!

If you want to try cars in all the colors of the rainbow, you can use your AAA membership to get a discount on Hertz car rentals.

For more automotive history, visit AAA.com.


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243 Thoughts on “Why Are Popular Car Colors So Boring? A Brief History of Car Paint

  1. We used to talk about safety colors. That seems to have disappeared. Also, at least 8 years ago, colors in the Northeast all seemed to be in the gray tones, but as soon as one went south of Philly, bright colors appeared.

  2. I have a medium metallic blue small suv. I picked it because I wanted it to stand out
    a bit in a parking lot. As per your article, all the cars were White, Black, Silver, Gray. My
    previous cars were white and I was often trying to get into the wrong car in a lot

  3. Car dealers rarely have anything but the most boring colors in stock. Most people have to settle for the available colors as nicer ones cost more and have to be custom ordered.
    I have a red Prius V that just happened to be in stock after searching at numerous dealerships.

  4. I never buy brand new cars, I always go with a car that’s a year or two old and just off a lease because leases typically force the lessee to keep up on maintenance. Because of this I have to take the color that’s available but if given a choice I usually go with an unusual color. I currently drive a Dodge Charger and black was the only real option plus the car looks very good in black. My last car was a 4Runner and I had my choice of several certified pre-owned, I went with a dark maroon color because it was unusual and stood out. That’s always my choice when I have a choice. Black and white is boring in most cars.

    1. In South Africa, most cars are white, next often silver. Makes sense, reflects the sunlight – psychologically, too.

      1. Surprised that no one else has mentioned this. Here in Florida, white (or metallic silver or light gray or yellow) are best defense against the strong prevailing sunlight, while black (or dark colors) make the least sense, increasing the wear and tear on passengers, air conditioning, paint and upholstery all at once.

  5. I have been starting to look at buying a new car but I have been very turned off by the colors that are presently available. There are so few nowadays and they are generally black, white, silver, or a very very limited number of other dark colors. And the available interior color combinations is also horrible. For example, if I choose an Acura TLX with an exterior color that I like, it actually forces me into a black or red interior neither of which I want. It has actually caused me to want to keep my present car.

    1. Yes, i agree, poor color selections & bad INTERIOR color choices make us just keep the car we have, and we should if at all possible. The lack of lighter interior choices is a big hold up for us. We have had black interiors and we will never get black interiors ever again. It’s too difficult finding things like your phone or wallet against the black interior, and at night, forget it. Plus, the black interiors always look dirty and dusty.

    2. I feel the same. I had a silver Camry that I loved (it hid the dirt well) but have noticed the current “silvers” are really more grey than silver and I really hate the color grey. Also hate the choices for interior colors which on the cars I am looking at are black and grey. Yuck! Will be sticking with my current 2005 Camry for a while longer.

    3. Same issue, I have a 2013 Murano in white with a beige interior. I like the comfort of the vehicle but need a new care, transmission is going. I hate the limited color choices and feel today’s cars are drag and pretty uniformly ugly and boring. I am actuallly considering a mercedes glb in rose gold, literally jsut because of the color.

  6. Interesting article 40000 fish scales? For metallic paint?
    Surprisingly no mention of red cars ???? as a popular choice I’ve had 2 red cars and one black car , a color I really was not fond of , long term

    1. we have a 2019 Mazda cx5. It is Soul Red, Crystal Metallic. we think Mazda hit a “home run” with this color. Have enjoyed a lot of positive comments. Needless to say we like red!

  7. I truly miss the varied colors and designs that used to be on our roads. What a sad sign of our culture to see the monotonous shapes and colors out there today. As youngsters we loved guessing what brand the car was and the colors made it even more fun. It was certainly a lot easier to find one’s car in the parking lot!

  8. The color of my car would be GREEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    And why is that,
    I am IRISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    My Motorcycle is also GREEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      1. I’m Irish but no matter where I was born Green is my favorite.Once I had a beautiful green Cadillac with beige roof My all time favorite car

  9. I remember the early seventies having bright yellow, orange and lime green. Volkswagen had a special edition in 1974 of only orange or lime green with black bumpers. Had one of those!

  10. Over the years I have had navy blue, light blue, white, and since 2004 I have chosen dark red cars that remind me of my favorite color and fruit – cranberry. The trim on my home is the same color.

  11. I believe many of the cars on the road are white because a titanium white or a carbon black pigment is about the cheapest that a car manufacturer can use, so they make more of these cars available for purchase. You want a fancy color for your car? You will pay a lot more money!

        1. Safety comes with high visibility car paint color! Consumer Reports reported on this fact some years ago. Let’s report this again.

          1. And yet, I believe that drivers of red cars have the highest number of accidents and the highest insurance rates. Red appeals to the extroverted, risk-taking, more reckless personality type, which is reflected in their driving habits. (I taught a college course in color theory and application, which included “Color Preference as an Indicator of Personality Type”. There have been many studies published on the subject.
            As the article says, general cultural preferences for certain colors (or rejection of color) can reflect the public mood at any point in time. Look at the lack of color in the clothes we wear today compared to, say the Woodstock or Disco eras. Relatively speaking, we now live in a colorless time. Contemporary car colors are just another aspect of that.

        2. I special ordered my Audi S4 Avant in Imola Yellow in ’08 and love it. You rarely see another one like it even though the yellow was a “signature” S color. I have no intention of parting with this car for the foreseeable future.

        3. I have a yellow Honda Fit. I refused to buy a car unless it was yellow. 1) it is easily seen all times of the day (sunrise and dusk) and weather. 2) can get picked out of crowded parking area, and 3) it is fun and happy!

  12. My 1956 Studebaker is painted in a metallic pine green on top and a mint green on the bottom. Everyone who sees it remarks how much they love the colors.

  13. The colors are to make it cheaper and easier for the manufacturers.
    Who are they kidding!.?
    If all they offer aredead colors how do they know what anyone wants when there is no choice?? Duh!

    1. Exactly! Unless you buy right at the start of the model year your choices are pretty much black or white. My last car was white and I never really liked it. My present car is blue/grey and I love it. Color certainly wasn’t the only reason for my feelings about both cars but definitely was a factor.

    2. You’re exactly correct. Same with SUV’s. Auto manufacturers (Ford / GM) claim no one wants cars – only SUV’s. But that’s because that’s all they make and that’s all people can buy. These guys most definitely control the market. Clearly evident now with open dealer lots. They will tell consumers what they need to buy – and at a 4% annual increase in MSRP for the last 15 years! Really makes you rethink the wisdom of the bailout.

      1. I like sedans. Having been in several severe accidents where I have been hit in the head by flying objects, I like having a trunk to secure things I’m not using. Also I don’t like having my purchases out in full view. And frankly, I think SUVs are ugly.

    3. I agree with you! It costs a lot extra to custom order a blue, red or gold car. My new Nissan Murano is “Gun metallic gray” yuck!

    4. Totally agree with Jan. I am a fan of color and have been stuck with an ugly Granite Gray (looks brown to me) Toyota for 8 years. I have the same issue with the interior colors being black – which shows every crumb and speck of dirt – and gray, a color I detest. Toyota had a nice subtle green on their Corollas about 2005 that I’d love to see come back along with beige interiors.

  14. I’m still loving the subtly sparkling Deep Ocean Blue metallic on my trusty 2008 Kia Optima EX. It’s one of the reasons that I’m reluctant to trade the car in (in addition to the marvelous six CD changer in the dashboard). Current car colors, for the most part, are really drab and uninspiring; I plan to stick with dark blue whenever I do get a new car, just to put some color on the road.

  15. I have a an ‘orange burst metallic” colored car — with an emphasis on the orange. In the old days, I secured a plastic daisy to the antennae of my VW Bug to find it in a crowded parking lot; now all i have to do is scan the horizon (in pre-pandemic days of course) and I can pick out my car from among a sea of boring blacks, whites, and other dull colors!

    1. I loved my Orange RAV 4. Could find it anywhere. I now have a Red one but it is too dark for me. My other choices were the boring WBG colors or a hideous bright non metallic Blue.

      1. I also had an orange RAV4 Sport with black accents. Gorgeous. Same as you could find it in any lot. Now I have silver Nissan Rogue. It’s a fine car but hard to find????

      2. These colors are horrible and you can find your car in a parking lot they’re all the same color do you only color I see that’s different is this ugly orange metallic horrible who came up with that I mean give me a green give me something different then this other Lee horrible dry am collars that around they are the only thing that’s good is made me the rent for god sake Let’s perk up this country put some color back into life

      3. These colors are horrible and you can find your car in a parking lot they’re all the same color do you only color I see that’s different is this ugly orange metallic horrible who came up with that I mean give me a green give me something different then this other Lee horrible dry am collars that around they are the only thing that’s good is made me the rent for god sake Let’s perk up this country put some color back into life

    2. I love brightly colored cars! My current car is gold (well, tan with golden flakes in the paint) but only because there were limited choices when I bought it.
      I would love a bright red or lime-green car, though.

    3. I’d love to see more beautiful blues, more British greens and different shades of red, depending on the size and shape of the car and orange can be great in SUV like Range Rovers….rich purples as striking in larger cars like RR Bentley’s and even large Cadillac (where did this disappear to?) Lambo’s and certain sports car can get away with bright yellow, shocking lime greens and vivid oranges.

      1. Boy am I with you Chris!! I have Red, we need more sharp colors out there, and I love the suggestion of the British greens, various reds! I’m a child of the 60’s and I love color on cars.

    4. I have a 2006 Prius with the classic Prius blue of the time. I still love the color and can easily recognize the car. I loved this article because I have been complaining for years about how boring car colors have become. I just could not fathom why car manufactures would only produce such boring colors, not to mention how the current styling has often become what I can only call pretty ugly. I have often mentioned that, if you looked at any 30 or so cars that passed you going the opposite way, it would be unusual if you saw more than one with any notable color, something other than black, white, gray except for possibly a very, very muted color.

    5. After years of Grey and white cats, I just bought a Lava Orange Porsche Cayenne Coupe… and love it!

    6. I have not purchased a needed car because I am sick of grey white and black. I want a sedan which is light blue like my the first very mature Acura TSX which I still have. My most recent car is a “champagne” Soda Accord. I will not buy another car until I get my color and it will be a major choosing point!

    7. The reason everyone has boring colors has nothing to do with economic hardship it is because of “cancel culture”. Nobody wants to stand out and be noticed. Our society has done a good job of telling everyone “non-conformity” is bad, so we can see the true effect. We all want to blend in.

    8. I loved my Harvest Moon Beige VW convertible beetle! I wish I still owned that car. It was always a blast to drive and people treated me so nice.

    9. I sadly had to turn my Lime Hyper Green 2017 Jeep Renegade lease in; it was up for renewal and the mechanics weren’t like my previous Hondas. It just didn’t feel as mechanically solid. I literally leased this car for THE COLOR! I ‘bought’ a new car, a Honda CRV EXL but it is white :(, they didn’t have Lime Green. In a “heart beat”, as soon as Toyota or Honda make a New SUV in that color, I will trade my car in. It makes me feel Happy, while I’m driving, when I look for it, when I see it in my driveway…. even when I see another fellow quirky Lime Green lover on the road, we wave to one another. It’s UNIQUE, CRAZY, BRIGHT… it’s what I LOVE… and WISH my New awesome CVR was! PLEASE, car manufacturers, give us COLOR LOVERS the option of choosing a color of our liking. It’s like buying eye glasses, you need to love them, they become part of your persona, truly!

    10. I chose the color of my 2007 VW Passat based on the name of the paint color “Arctic Blue Silver”. I am an artist and created a piece with that title. Still love the color and love driving the car. VW, please hear this and be more creative in your paint colors. I will need a new car someday–simply can’t buy black, white or silver/gray.

    11. I loved the Blue 1969 Volvo my Dad bought and I got to learn to drive with. It stood out cheerfully but not gaudy. There seemed to be so many other color choices and my wife and I recently were talking about how limited and boring the color choices were in today’s cars. We bought a 2020 Chevy Equinox LT last August and the only 3 on the Dealers Lot that met our criteria as our Salesman said were “White, White, or White”.My Dad also bought two Gold/Sandlewood Chevys in 1966 and 1972 and later I too bought a Chevy Venture in 2003 with a Sandlewood Metalic Light Gold/Brown that was soothing to the eye and pleasant. So I’d love to see more Blues, Tans. Golds and Greens to liven up the driving world! Whaday Say GM, Ford and Chrysler?! Toyota, Honda, VW have also produced some cheerful colors over the years so lets get back to that. The Worlds been dreary enough lately and it will help to brighten our days with some Colors!

    12. When walking into a Honda dealership several years ago with my husband, the first question directed specifically to me by the salesman was, “What color are you looking for?” I did not take the bait. He assumed that #1 color was my first concern, #2 being a woman assumed that my color preference would trump my or my husband’s vehicle choice, and #3 that by addressing this question from the get go, he had an automatic sale. It was a no go for us!
      Still an issue? Look at the ratio of male:female responses here.

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