Next time you’re on the road, take note of the car colors you see. Chances are, you’ll find yourself swimming in a pool of grayscale and neutral. According to an iSeeCars.com study of more than 6.1 million cars, over 75% are white, black, grey, or silver (in order of popularity). Now here’s the million-color question — why are grayscale and neutral tones the most popular car colors? From ease of production to color psychology and symbolism, explanations abound. So, grab a beverage, sit back, and let’s delve into the (not so?) colorful world of cars.
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It Wasn’t Always This Way — A Brief History of the Most Popular Car Colors
Henry Ford wrote in his autobiography: “Any customer can have a car painted any color… so long as it is black.”
When the first cars appeared, the same paints used for horse carriages made their way into the auto industry. They just had one teeny tiny issue: They yellowed and fell apart quickly. Well, two tiny issues: Any discoloration also required a full re-paint since binding medium didn’t exist yet. Needless to say, not super sustainable. So Ford and his team developed dark, asphalt-based baked enamel paints, which did hold up — and were, needless to say, rather drab.
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Bye, bye, bright cars
After World War I and the Great Depression ended and the roaring ’20s began, things got a little — well, a lot — brighter in the world of car colors. As new paint technologies emerged and the economic situation of your average consumer improved, exotic, vibrant colors became all the rage. The ’30s and ’40s brought chrome trims, single-colored cars, and pearlescent and metallic sheens.
Brighter car colors maintained their popularity until fairly recently — it wasn’t until the 2000s that grayscale, monochromatic and neutral tones started dominating the auto industry. But why?
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Ease of Production and Sales Volume: The Great Motivators
There’s a lot that goes into car colors. Mass-produced car colors can cost around $200 a gallon, while supercar paints can easily 10x that, going up to $2,000 a gallon.
Let’s be honest: Colors like white, black, grey, silver, and neutral earth tones are “safe.” They match pretty much everything. It’s also easy for manufacturers to create variations on them — sure, you could get “midnight” black, or you could opt for “ebony” black, or you could get the metallic black, or pearlescent, or matte, or… you get the idea.
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The monochromatic egg
Monochromatic tones made up three-quarters of worldwide new-car sales in 2015, and according to newer studies — like this 2021 research from Edmunds that names those same colors as the most popular — nothing’s changed. Given that 60% of customers report car color playing a major role in their purchases, it’s easy to see why automakers prize monochromatic and neutral tones — not only do they avoid requiring expensive pigments, they also sell the best.
Of course, there’s a bit of “chicken or the egg?” at play. Grayscale and neutral car colors could simply sell the best because they have the most inventory, and convenience is priceless. They may also be the cheapest — Tesla, for example, charges customers more for non-standard colors. Automakers may also have a more self-serving motive behind keeping most cars low-key: It helps brightly-colored luxury and sports cars stand out more, acting as subliminal marketing for pricier models.
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Color Theory: The Psychology Behind Car Colors
Of course, there’s more to the most popular car colors than bookkeeping and sales figures. After all, there’s a reason the consumer waffling between black and white chooses one over another.
Color psychology plays an important role in what car colors we choose. Let’s look at some explorations of color psychology for the six most popular car colors — white, black, gray, silver, blue and red — and how it may relate to car color preferences. We’ll let those with know-how take a turn behind the wheel.
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“White often symbolizes cleanliness, purity, and safety in Western culture… The color can also represent neutrality or space. In fact, white creates “breathing room” between two or more elements.” – Treefrog Marketing
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“Black’s color meaning is symbolic of mystery, power, elegance, and sophistication.” – Oberlo
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“The color of architecture, commerce and theory is both gothic and industrial. The cold influence of this neutral color keeps it foreign, remote and distant.” – ColorPsychology.org
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“The color of affluence and modernism. Like gold, silver symbolizes wealth, but it’s also a trendy and dynamic color representing modern advancements in technology.” – ColorMeanings.com
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“Blue… is calming, relaxing, and it gives the soothing impression of peace, but also the impression of authority.” – ColorsExplained.com
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“Red… the universal color to signify strength, power, courage, and danger… red is energizing and exciting, motivating us to act. It can also give confidence to those who are shy.” – London Image Institute
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Cultural car clashes
Cultural and societal views can also impact what different colors mean to different people. For example, in China, many associated red with prosperity and good fortune. In some Western cultures, bright colors are considered attention-grabbing — for better and/or worse. Regardless, the takeaway is the same: For many car buyers, color psychology plays a role in the vehicle they choose and why.
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Crashing the Rumor Mill: Do Bright Car Colors Cause Higher Insurance Rates and Lower Resale Value?
If you spend much time online, you’ll find all sorts of claims that brightly-colored cars are more likely to get pulled over, depreciate faster, and have higher insurance premiums. But is any of that true? Well… no.
Let’s start with resale value. yellow, orange, purple, red, green, and blue cars actually depreciate slower than gray, beige, silver, or white cars. According to Karl Brauer, Executive Analyst for iSeeCars, “because yellow vehicles are so novel in the secondhand marketplace, people are willing to pay a premium for them.” That may explain why yellow cars only depreciate 4.5% on average over three years of ownership, as opposed to 15.5% for white cars. The same may also apply to other uncommon colors such as orange and purple.
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Insurance premiums & car colors
Alright, so… what about insurance premiums? Well, myths that brightly-colored cars have it worse are just that. According to the Insurance Information Institute, factors such as driving record, make, model, age, and location may factor into your insurance premiums — but color isn’t a factor at all.
Also contrary to popular opinion, red cars don’t get pulled over the most — it’s actually white cars. Red cars do claim the second spot, but it probably has more to do with make, model, and driving behavior than car factors.
In short, if that brightly-colored yellow Corvette is calling your name, go for it — you may even benefit if you sell it down the road.
Image Credit: Chevrolet.
Trends: The Nail in the Car Color Coffin
Take a minute and think about all the grayscale and neutral outfits you see on runways and the timelines of fashion influencers. Check the default color of your smartphone and laptop. Scroll through every interior design featuring black, white, earth tones and — maybe as a spicy treat — some red accents.
Bright colors are not, as the kids say, “in” right now. Monochromatic and neutral tones have always been “timeless” and evoked “sophistication” to some degree, but recent trends relying on those spectrums in art and tech push their prevalence further. It should come as no surprise that the most popular car colors reflect how we dress and where we live.
Image Credit: MBUSA.com.
We’ve been on quite a journey — now, it’s time to close it out. There are myriad reasons why grayscale and neutral colors are the most popular, from ease of production, to availability, to color psychology and trends. But, there are fewer reasons to shy away from brightly-colored cars than many think. So listen to your heart, your head, and your budget next time you buy a car — pick the color that resonates most with you.
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