Wednesday, 5 October, 2022
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White, green, blue but not orange or purple — How your car finds its colour

When carmakers get the colour wrong, cars can often lie in stockyards, both at dealers and at the manufacturer for months.

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You can have any colour as long as it is black”, is one of the most famous quotes attributed to Henry Ford, the man who perfected the mass production of automobiles. This was said in context of the Ford Model T, the best-selling car of the time, that was available in just one colour. We have come a long, long way from that era, cars today are available in a plethora of colours with different shades of whites, greens and blues.

But colour planning remains one of the most challenging tasks for carmakers and their marketers. There is a reason you don’t see too many cars painted orange or purple, even bright green for that matter. If you do, those are usually supercars like Lamborghinis on which a customer would be happy to shell out a few lakhs for a custom paint job. Or cars like the Mercedes-Benz AMG GT-R, the self-styled ‘Beast of the Green Hell’, for which a bright green paint job is the signature colour.

Amit Dhandiyal, general manager, product planning, Hyundai India tells me: “Until the 2010s, 75-85 per cent of cars sold were either silver or white. And while white remains an extremely popular colour, the number of people choosing to buy other colours has definitely gone up.” On Hyundai’s best-selling i10 Nios, a vehicle that moves between 8,000-10,000 units every month, only half the sales are white and demand for silver has fallen off a cliff across models. “Silver is less than ten percent of sales now on any model,” Dhaundiyal says.

Myung-sik Sohn, chief sales officer, Kia India, points out that the automotive industry has the advantage of experience and market research. “While it may not be 100 per cent accurate, it helps us to plan things.” But what about new trends? Kia India themselves have seen a healthy demand for the Seltos in black and wine-red colours that were not very common for passenger cars until the last decade in India. The SUV is even offered in grey with a matt finish. Gone are the times that carmakers charged extra for ‘metallic’ colours. Nowadays, the premium is for dual-tone finishes, where the roof and the body are in different colours. This feature, once the preserve of high-end vehicles, is now offered even on entry-level vehicles such as the new Citroen C3 hatchback I reviewed a couple of months ago.

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The challenge

All this also brings to the fore the dramatic evolution of paint technology over the past few decades. Henry Ford was right back in his time — black was not only one of the cheapest colours to produce but also the one that faded the least. Ford realised that unlike the ‘coach-built’ cars, where the manufacturer just built the engine and transmission, and the bodies were made by specialist coach builders, if cars were to be adopted by the masses, they needed to be affordable. Not just to own but also to repaint, whether it was an accident or plain simple fading.

The sun’s ultraviolet rays cause colours to fade, and white fades the least. This, alongside the fact that white cars do not show minor scrapes and dents, was the major reason white and silver were so popular. However, the evolution of paint and paint shops have made sure the coating is protected from ultraviolet light. Nowadays, colours are applied layer by layer through electrostatic deposition. The top gets a clear coat layer. Paint shops in car factories are usually no-go areas during tours. This is not just to protect visitors from the chemicals but also to prevent any dust from entering the paint shop. Some factories might have large windows to help visitors see a part of the process, but paint shops are as clean as most operation theatres.

And carmakers also spend years researching new types of paints and application techniques. A few years ago, I visited Hyundai Motor Company’s test facilities near the fabled Area 51 on the California-Nevada border and saw rows of panels painted in different colours exposed to the sun for years on end to study how the paint wore down. The reason for the location isn’t so much because carmakers are using alien technology to develop new paints, but because the United States tests much of their warplanes there, meaning that rival carmakers can’t fly drones over the area. What also helps is that this is one of the driest parts on the planet with virtually no precipitation, meaning carmakers can enjoy over 360 days of sunlight in a given year. Incidentally, wet weather testing takes place elsewhere, including often in India’s western ghats.

Market research, trend-watching and extensive testing might cover most bases but that does not mean that carmakers do not goof up sometimes. While the older among you might remember the sky-blue shade offered on the original Maruti 800 (the SS80), the mid-1980s was a time people bought what they got. When Hyundai tried launching a light blue shade on the second-generation Verna, they discovered that even their best dealers couldn’t move the car. In fact, some colours might work well only in the showroom and for media shoots, something that Dhandiyal admits.

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Young buyers, young colours

However, Hyundai and other carmakers have observed an interesting trend. “Younger buyers want to stand out, on the i20 N-Line for example. We have seen very good demand for blue, not a colour that customers liked in the 2000s,” Dhaundiyal says. In fact, Maruti’s creation of Nexa Blue, a colour that is offered on all their products from the Nexa range, has made blue, particularly darker shades, extremely popular among new buyers. However, all carmakers admit that they can get it wrong. Bright red, for example, is a colour associated with speed and Italian supercars. It does not necessarily work all that well on large sports-utility vehicles, although darker shades of red, wine reds are an increasingly popular colour choice.

When carmakers get it wrong, cars can often lie in stockyards, both at dealers and at the manufacturer for months on end. Even on a car in demand and with long waitlists, if you are willing to compromise on the colour, you could get a faster delivery and maybe even a sweet discount. However, manufacturing is flexible. Most carmakers have software systems to analyse demand and use artificial intelligence as well as a bit of human experience to predict which colours to produce in the coming week, as colour choices are usually decided 7-10 days ahead of production.

The car buyer of today is spoiled for colour choice. Almost every car on the market is available in six to eight colours of various hues, all with exotic names such as ‘Forest Green’, ‘Polar White’, ‘Amazon Grey’ and ‘Phantom Black’. How the carmakers come up with those names is a story for another time. But much like the multicolour world we live in, cars themselves are not black and white anymore.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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