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The Four-Color Problem

A year or so ago, a stray thought popped into my head as I crossed a large parking lot to get to one of the few remaining indoor malls in the Phoenix area. I stopped. I looked around. I looked around again. And damn, that stray thought was right:

Cars appear to be made almost entirely in four colors: black, white, silver, and red.

Up and down my row it was almost a physical law. I raised my gaze and did a 360. Ah–way over there, a flash of blue! On the opposite edge of the lot was something that looked brown. Or maybe it was just dirty.

There was no yellow. There was no green. Lord knows, there was no purple or pink. (Is Mary Kay still a thing?) It was black, white, silver, and red plus debris.

I first assumed it was a fluke. Or maybe selective vision. Carol and I have a silver car and a red car. Up and down our street it’s pretty much black and white. So there you have it: We notice what we’re used to noticing. But as days and then months passed, the pattern played true: black, white, silver, and red, with an occasional green or blue rounding error. It’s persisted to this day. When I see two blue cars at the same time it startles the hell out of me. And a few days ago I saw the first yellow vehicle I’d seen in over a month. It was a big honking pickup truck. (Could it be a custom, er, bespoke paint job?) Yes, I would be able to see that one coming.

Ok. You who know me know this: Stray thoughts enter my head so often my head might be considered a sort of thought pound. Most of them don’t stand up to close examination. This one has.

Time was, mall parking lots were rainbows. When I was growing up, our family owned cars in blue, various shades of green (including two-toned green), gold, and yellow. In fact, at one point we owned two bright yellow cars at the same time. For a little while, we had a two-toner in gray and maroon. And that was before I left home. Later on, red, white, and brown cars finally entered the Duntemann homestead. I do recall seeing a few purple cars back in the day, though not in front of our house. (As best I know I have never seen an orange car.)

No more. So what happened? My guess is that car manufacturers are shaving costs by limiting available colors. They may keep one paint machine open for special-order colors, and I’ll bet they make customers pay big for the privilege. I don’t know anyone in the car industry or I’d just ask.

It doesn’t matter in any important way. But a little bit of weird urban beauty has passed out of this world. I wonder if I’m the only one who’s noticed.

32 Comments

  1. Terry Ward says:

    As always wikipedia comes through (complete with a parking lot photo from 1973 showing more color variety.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Car_colour_popularity

    1. Huh. I wouldn’t have expected to find any commentary on car color popularity, so I didn’t look. My bad. I also question stats putting blue cars over red cars. Maybe it’s a regional difference, but blue cars here are a rarity, as are green cars. Red cars are all over the place. Yellow cars are all but nonexistent. White, black, and silver each outnumber red.

      Crazy world.

      1. TRX says:

        The CarFleet currently stands at:

        red
        white
        beige
        beige

        Pretty bland.

        I did once own a Kawasaki painted “Da-Glo Lime Green” that someone asserted “looked like radioactive vomit”, but it definitely stood out in traffic. I was wondering what happened to Da-Glo paints the other day, but I wasn’t near the keyboard and so avoided going down that rabbit hole.

        I’ve owned two cars and one motorcycle that came from the factory in brown, which would not be something I would deliberately choose for a new vehicle.

  2. Criticas says:

    https://blog.consumerguide.com/boring-car-colors/
    tl;dr – Car dealers are reluctant to stock colors that won’t sell quickly.

    1. Yes. Great article, by the way. Thanks! This quote from it is especially apt:

      “We sell a lot of black, white, and silver cars. We sell some red Escapes and Fusions, and occasionally a blue one. Our F-150 and Expedition customers are especially conservative, color-wise. Those trucks are almost always black, white, or silver.”

      1. Bill Buhler says:

        My reading has the blue percentages below red, but for some reason listed first… Bad editing?

        For the record, my family fleet is a dark red minivan and a dark blue sedan. Yes, I paid a premium for the sedan, but that was because it had a manual transmission. Those are becoming a rare as hen’s teeth.

      2. TRX says:

        “Almost all of our sales are of those four colors, so we’ll only order those four colors, so we’ll keep selling cars in those four colors…”

        FWIW, dealers generally don’t get a choice as to what colors, options, or even truck/SUV/car mix. The transporter shows up and unloads what the manufacturer thinks they should have. There’s a whole industry of specialist truckers who shuttle cars between dealers, so they can swap not-likely-to-sell vehicles for ones more desirable in their area. Those are the guys with the two-story trailers full of cars.

        A friend did that for more than ten years. He paid $30,000 for a lightly-used Freightliner, but the trailer cost $75,000, also used.

        Special orders from Detroit are *possible*, but there are discounts at every step, and special orders don’t get that, so it’s full sticker price. Plus three to six months of waiting, and for some carlines, the actual production run is only a few months before they retool for some other model, so if you don’t hit the production window, you’re out of luck.

  3. When I bought my first new car, a ’94 Dodge Neon, it came in those same colors, plus Nitro Yellow-Green. (It was the 90s. Eye-bleeding neon colors were a thing.) I swiftly discovered that my girlfriend, now wife, was completely unwilling to ride in the nitro-yellow-green car, so I picked red. This must have been a common scenario, because toward the end of that model year, you could get the nitro-yello-green version at enough of a discount to warrant repainting the car. So what Criticas said. Just as nobody ever lost their job buying IBM, nobody ever had to sell cars at a discount because they are Black, White, Silver, Red, or Blue. There was, in 2015ish, a purple Hyundai Sonata, but even M, my wife who loves all things purple, didn’t buy it.

    1. Gold cars quietly faded away toward the end of the 70s. My godmother had a gold 1961 Pontiac, and later bought a 1968 gold Chevelle. That Chevelle became my first car when I bought it from her in 1970. I barely see gold cars now, even the classics from the era.

  4. Jason Kaczor says:

    Hehe… You have independently discovered one of our families little idiosyncrasies while driving … especially during long road-trips.

    Whomever spots and shouts out “Yellow Car!” before everyone else, wins an imaginary point… (No one really keeps tally and there are no prizes…)

  5. Keith says:

    When I bought my new 2014 Yaris, the only bright color even offered by Toyota on special order was red. My preference was for a bright yellow, but that wasn’t even a possibility. The other half dozen were very boring white, black, or other darker colors. I settled for the red, reluctantly.

    On the dealer’s lot, there was a wonderful bright orange car, and if I could have gotten the Yaris in that color, I would have ordered it, but that orange was only available on a model I did not want to buy.

    I don’t know why the car buying public has pushed the manufacturers and dealers into such boring colors for cars.

    1. I don’t know either. My point is that people used to like brightly colored cars. Now they don’t. (Click through to the two links posted by other commenters above. They agree but don’t completely explain.) I think it’s more a matter of a least-common-denominator for colors. You only want to stock what the customer will buy. And for most customers that appears to be white, black, silver, and red.

    2. TRX says:

      The Pontiac Aztek SUV was horrendously ugly and customers wanted nothing to do with them. Pontiac dumped unsold inventory at rock-bottom prices. My area once swarmed with them… all bright yellow, with brown/green camouflage-pattern interior upholstery.

      No, I am not making that up. Yes, it was about as ugly as you might imagine.

      I occasionally see a “New Beetle” in yellow, but it’s not a common color here, either.

      1. Oh, I remember that one. Probably the ugliest car ever to appear from one of the Big 3. And I vaguely recall that a lot of them were yellow

      2. Rich Shealer says:

        The Aztek was Walter White’s vehicle on Breaking Bad.

  6. Jason Bucata says:

    When I was a toddler my mom had an orange Chevy Nova, not sure the model year. I don’t have a good way to tell if it was a factory or aftermarket paint job; if I still have a picture of it somewhere I don’t know that I could tell today, and I certainly didn’t know when I was a kid.

    1. Jonathan O'Neal says:

      I don’t know the era of your toddlerhood, but you can find most of the Chevy paint colors here: https://hdpaintcode.com/chevrolet/
      (Back up a level to see more car manufacturers than you ever thought existed.)

      Skimming that site (and others like it), you can see the color selection dwindle and darken over time, at least for dull family cars – the more “exciting” models, such as Camaro and Corvette, still have some interesting choices. The 1963-1964 palette looks like it could have come from Crayola, while each of the handful of 1996 Monte Carlo selections seems to involve some amount of mud.

      The 1972 complete chart (including Nova) contains both “Orange Flame Irid(escent)” and “Ontario Orange Irid(escent)”; perhaps your mom’s car was coated with one of those.

      1. Jason Bucata says:

        It was either a late ’60s or early ’70s vintage, most likely. From my memory it actually did look a lot like that Ontario Orange, although I seem to remember it being a bit brighter. Did car paint colors lighten with age during that era?

        Also possible that the answer is “both”: Could have been originally that orange, then repainted orange after weathering, but the new coat was a bit lighter.

  7. Paul Woods says:

    This is in interesting thread, and something that I have actually wondered at times in the last 5-10 years. I know for a fact that Tesla, being a smaller mfg, has limited colors to simplify production. On their sites the two base colors are pearl white and silver metallic, their blue and black are an extra $1000, and the metallic red is $2000. I know GM has to charged extra for a Pearl paint on their trucks.

    I think the linked article and your comments are both on point though, it is low risk for dealers to stock conservative colors, they will sell. An aside, some of the ‘other’ colors I’ve seen lately, i.e. Green, are so dark that they in some light appear to be black. Interesting topic!

  8. Jon Barrett says:

    True – we liked Volvo’s “Power Blue” for our V60. They searched the entire eastern US but we ended up with a bespoke car, shipped direct to us from Götenburg.

  9. Well. I tempted fate, and fate didn’t disappoint. Until half an hour ago, I don’t recall ever seeing a bright orange car. Then when I was on my way to the Post Office and was stopped at the light at Redfield and Hayden, what looked like a Dodge Challenger roared past us on Hayden, probably doing 70 in a 45…in bright, non-metallic orange.

    They exist, then. But like bright yellow or purple, I suspect the oranges are a rounding error among car buyers.

  10. Alex says:

    I think there might be a bit more variety here in the UK. Looking out my window I can see a burgundy, a grey, and four of various shades of blue.

  11. Donald R Doerres says:

    I’ve seeing flat navy gray and flat army olive drab on a lot of cars and light trucks of late. I have a friend who paid $500 extra to Honda for Piper Cub Yellow on a new Civic. My wife’s car is metallic copper.

  12. Lee Hart says:

    It may be due to the tyranny of mass production, and the high cost of paint.

    It’s cheaper for the manufacturers to minimize the number of different colors. Like Henry Ford once said, “You can have any color, as long as it’s black.”

    Paint has also gone high-tech and gotten expensive. Remember when Earl Sheib would paint any car, any color for $99.95? That’s long gone; today it will cost you $2000 and up to get your car painted.

  13. Bob Halloran says:

    Back in ’08, my wife fell in love with an orange Honda Fit, which made finding it in parking lots remarkably simple :-). [As a side note, it’s held up well enough that we handed it down to our oldest grandchild to take to college this past fall..]

    1. TRX says:

      In the 1970s my Dad had a white VW Beetle. I rode with him to the mall once; he had to exchange a tool at Sears. We came out one of the too-many doors, looked out at the lot, and I could see at least a dozen white VW Beetles from where I was standing. The mall was in the middle of a huge 360-degree parking lot, and we weren’t even sure if we were exiting through the same door we entered…

      As I remember, we walked a looong way, checking license plates, before we found his particular white VW Beetle.

  14. James P Fuerstenberg says:

    this is a current trend for cars…those colors are most popular. There are a lot of other colors offered, but you mainly see them on sporty or more pricey cars. Most people’s commuters are those 4 colors. I have one Grey car and two that are different shades of orange….nowhere near red.

    I see quite a few of the special colors around here, but most are those 4 colors.

  15. Jim Tubman says:

    Two days ago my wife and I ordered a new Hyundai Tucson plug-in hybrid. We won’t be seeing it until May(!) but since it was a factory order we got to choose the colour. But the choices on offer were pretty much as you have pointed out: black, white, three shades of silver/grey, red, and a very dark blue. I went with red, since it was the least boring one on offer. (Bob Halloran makes an excellent point about an unusual colour making it easier to find your vehicle in a parking lot.)

    Other models had more interesting choices available, though. In the showroom and on the lot, I saw a Santa Cruz in a cream colour, and a sedan in a very nice British racing green. If that green had been on offer for the Tucson, I might have picked that.

    1. James P Fuerstenberg says:

      My Santa Fe is “copper canyon” …easy to find in a lot.

      1. I had a ’96 Saturn SL-1, bought new, that was copper — just like a brand-new penny. When it came time to replace it in ’03, they didn’t offer that color any more.

      2. I saw a pickup truck in what I would describe as “copper” a couple of weeks ago, and it was startling how it stood out in the Fry’s parking lot. And while you’re here, what do you think of the Santa Fe? Our 4Runner is now 20 years old. One of these days…

        1. Jim Tubman says:

          I have had two used Santa Fes () in the past and on the whole, they were very good vehicles. The new 2022 Tucson is significantly larger than the old model and is about the same size as my old 2004 Santa Fe. You might want to look at that model, if you are buying new.

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