The History of Car Colors

history of car colors blog by NWMS

Why and How Color Options for Cars Changed Over Time

Buying a car is an involved process; there are so many factors you have to weigh! One aspect that sometimes gets overlooked, though, is the color of the car. Why do we like some colors more than others? What does the color of a car or truck say about us? 

When you start thinking about car color options and what they mean, you might start wondering why popular car colors have changed so much over time. Unsurprisingly, the history of car colors are closely tied to the history of the car itself, as well as some larger events that shaped the 20th century. 

As cars evolved with the times, different colors came in and out of popularity. These changes reflected current events, the state of the economy, and new developments in American culture. If you’re as curious as we are, check out the timeline we put together to illustrate how the history of the car color landscape became what it is today.

The History of Car Colors from the 1890s to the 1910s

In the early history of car colors, it wasn’t much of a priority. The technology was still developing, and owning an automobile was limited to the very wealthy. At first, cars were regarded as motorized, horseless “carriages,” since a horse-drawn carriage was the closest comparison at the time. 

Because of that, the first cars were painted like the carriages of their day. If the cars were painted at all, they were painted dark gray or black. Black was the most inexpensive option, but it was still pretty expensive to do. There was no binding medium for the paint used for cars, so paint jobs didn’t last all that long.

By 1910, the process had been streamlined enough that there were a few more options for consumers to pick from. These options included dark shades of green, red, and gray. However, cars were still unattainable unless you had serious wealth.

the history of car colors starts with the Model T Ford

Henry Ford was producing vehicles in these few colors, up until 1914. As part of his innovative approach to mass production, he eventually ditched all color choices and only produced his Model T Fords in black. Black was cheap, and his choice paid off. Ford, not without a sense of humor, was quoted as saying, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

The assembly line helped Ford make cars accessible for people from all economic backgrounds, and eventually paved the way for people using cars as a form of expression.

The “Roaring” 1920s

In the economic prosperity following WW1 (1914 – 1918), cars were highly in demand. More car buyers meant consumers wanted more colors to choose from. With more affordable cars on the market from the likes of General Motors, Ford, and Chevrolet, a broad color palette was finally available.

The spirit of “the roaring twenties” was reflected in the cars on the road. The automotive industry recognized car buyers wanted to express themselves with their cars, and they had the means to do it. Dark green, maroon, and blue became popular colors. Cream-colored cars were in style for higher-end cars like Cadillacs and Buicks. Ford continued to only sell cars in black, and their sales suffered as a result. 

The 1930s

The stock market crashed in 1929, and many of the smaller car companies folded as a result. Fortunately for Ford, black made a huge comeback.

As the decade wore on, the process of car production continued to evolve. Soon cars were available in not just a variety of colors, but in a variety of shades, too. The shades were brighter than ever, as brighter paint colors became more affordable in the production process.

The 1940s

With the arrival of World War II (1939 – 1945), the history of car colors was put on pause. The automotive industry halted the production of vehicles for civilians in order to devote its resources entirely to the war effort. Of course, for the wealthy, the history of car colors carried on for luxury cars in the ’40s.

Just before this shift in production, many car companies sold “blackout” cars, which were significantly marked down in price. These models were black, simple, and unembellished.

The 1950s

After the war, the country saw unprecedented prosperity. The technology was making leaps and bounds, jobs were in abundant supply, and wages were up. This was true toward the end of the 1940s, but especially so during the 1950s. 

When people think of cars of the 1950s, they think chrome, bright colors, and two-tone color designs, which were available for the first time. With these cars, one color was typically darker in bright contrast. 

Cars also made a splash in popular culture. Advertisements featured beautiful, brightly colored new cars as a symbol of the American Dream. Car color and design began to coordinate with the fashion world, taking inspiration from changes in clothing styles.

The 1960s

At this point, car color as a means of personal expression was at its height. The history of car colors was absolutely flourishing. Hippies had their VW Buses, and sporty, performance-centered cars also became all the rage. This was the era of the muscle car, and cars like the Ford Mustang showed off bright coats that would be out of place on a sedan or station wagon. 

Think about it… have you ever seen a lime green Corolla?

The 1970s

Car color was more modest in this decade, the history of car colors in the 1970s

Car color was more modest in this decade. The energy crisis dealt a severe blow to the automotive industry. And cars manufactured during this period started becoming more compact and fuel-efficient. This modesty also helped make muted, earthy tones become quite popular. Anything loud like two-tone designs became less popular too.

The 1980s

Black and red were the most popular colors for cars in the 80's

The pendulum swung, so the popular exuberance the ’70s saw a transition into more simple, traditional designs. Black and red were the most popular colors for cars. Prince didn’t write a song about a Little Red Corvette for nothing!

The History of Car Colors in the 1990s to Present Day

the history of car colors from the 1900's to the 1990's

Simplicity in the history of car colors continued to trend from the 1990s into the present, with some changes along the way. In the 1990s, green was the most popular color. This might be because people became more environmentally conscious, or it could be the continuation of the earth-tone trend of the ‘70s.

Silver was the most popular car color in the 2000s and continues to be among them to this day. The current most popular car colors are white, black, and gray. Some attribute this to the growing popularity of personal tech devices such as smartphones, which tend to have similar color schemes.

The Bright History of Car Colors

The Bright History of Car Colors

As history changes, so do the colors of our cars. The economy is perhaps the biggest factor at work, but who knows what the future holds? Maybe the bright, flashy colors of bygone eras will make a comeback when we move beyond the age of black, gray, white, and silver. 

There are so many color choices for cars now, it can make your head spin. If you at least know what color you’re looking for, you can start your car buying journey in our inventory. We have tons of handy filters to help you find exactly what you’re looking for, right down to the color!

 If you at least know what color you’re looking for, you can start your car buying journey on our website