Automotive History: The Long Road To The White Car (Part 1)

There is no doubt that automotive paint colors have come and gone through the years, and that the modern selection is not what it once was.  The modern staples of black, gray and (often) red have all been around for a really long time, and have been offered on almost every model, year in and year out from the beginning of the automobile. But what about white?  As common as white painted cars are now, this was not always the case.  Join me for a 2 part look at the long, meandering path the automotive industry took before finally embracing white paint.

We all know that Henry Ford once said of his Model T that “you can have any color you want, so long as it is black.”  But what do we know about white cars down through the ages?  I got to wondering about this and was surprised to find that there does not seem to have been much information on the subject.  Is it because the topic is so boring?  You can be the judge.  But did you know that the white car as we know it did not exist as a mass-produced item until the 1950s?  Let’s take a look at how it came about.

To talk about car color pretty much requires that we touch on paint technology through the ages.  At the dawn of the automobile, “horseless carriages” were painted the same way any other carriages were painted.  An early advertisement for Studebaker carriages bragged of a twenty-two stage finishing process that required fifty-two days to complete.  Paints of that era were simple linseed oil as a binder with pigments mixed in for color.  They were brushed on, were very slow to dry and required multiple coats because most colors did not cover particularly well.  The whole job was often finished with several coats of varnish added on top of the color.

The most common pigment for white paint at the turn of the twentieth century was lead white, something that was used by wagon painters as well as painters of about anything else.  A pigment that went back to European artists of the renaissance era, lead white had become ubiquitous in house paint by the early twentieth century.  As the automobile began to supplant the carriage, the painting process carried over pretty much intact, including the occasional white-painted vehicle.

White cars were not common during the brass era, but they were not unheard of, either.  Some were pretty well known – like the 1907 Thomas Flyer that won the New York to Paris race of 1908.  At least we think it was painted white.  Paint on brass era cars – OK, all old cars – is hard to identify accurately.  Original cars (especially white-painted ones) don’t always age gracefully.  And depending on the era when a restoration was done, there were different kinds of white and near-white paints to choose from.  Finally, there is the problem of accurate reproduction, both in paint mixing and in lighting and photography.  For almost every example of a white car depicted in this article, there were several photos found online, with a wide range in how the color appears.  I have tried for accuracy but when dealing with old paint colors in photos, that can be a fool’s errand.  Oh well, we will do the best we can.

One early car that was definitely white was the 1908-10 Buick Model 10, a small car that was relatively competitive with the early Ford Model T.

The Buick Model 10 was powerful for its size and earned the nickname “the white streak.”

In early Grand Prix racing, each country was assigned a color and Germany’s racing color was white as shown on this 1914 Mercedes racer.  There is an apocryphal story that German racers switched from white to silver in 1934 by removing all of the paint from an overweight racer, resulting in a shiny aluminum race car (thus claiming silver as a second racing color) but there appears to be no proof that the story is actually true.  And there is also no information on what German race car painters used for their Deutche Weiss – at least not online and in English.  Perhaps our German-speaking audience can find more on this.

What we do know is that Henry Ford pioneered mass production in painting in the mid teens by the use of an enamel paint that was then called “black Japan” or “Japan black”.  Lore is that it was the only paint that could dry quickly enough to eliminate the production bottlenecks that painting had caused.  One very informed Model T research source claims that the dry time story is bunkum because Ford’s paint dried no faster or slower than other oven-dry paints.  Its benefit was that it was inexpensive, durable and required very little surface prep because any oils on the metal would absorb into the resins in the paint in the baking ovens.  In either case, that paint came in – you guessed it – one color.  One other aside, Fords were painted with brushes or by  dipping until spray guns were developed in the early 1920’s.

The next big advance in auto paint came from DuPont.  That company, with experience in nitro (things that go boom) and cellulose (think early motion picture film) found a way to make a nitrocellulose lacquer binder that allowed all kinds of colors to be sprayed on in the mass production process.  This new paint (called Duco – Latin for “I lead” – as in “people follow me” kind of lead rather than the white pigment kind of lead we have been discussing) was put to use by General Motors in 1924 and was used by them for several decades.  By the mid 1920’s virtually every auto manufacturer not named Ford was spraying Duco or something like it.  DuPont (followed by its competitors) completely revolutionized automotive paint finishes.

Duco was the first of the modern paint finishes that required three things – a binder/base, pigments and a solvent.  The binder provides the film that sticks to the surface being coated.  The pigment intersperses with the binder to provide the color and the solvent was what allowed it to be thinned and sprayed, and that would evaporate away during the drying process.  The paint’s ability to handle colors was matched by its quick dry-time, making everyone happy.

The range of colors that became possible with this process was almost limitless.  At first there was a wild west atmosphere, where hundreds, then thousands of colors were offered in any given year.  There was, however, no ability to standardize colors between paint manufacturers.  This was soon resolved by adoption of a color standardization system and an industry choice to throttle back on color varieties, mostly sticking to the most popular shades in apparel and décor.

Curiously, the shade that seemed to be missing from the burst of color brought about by Duco was – yes, white. This gap is a bit of a mystery, and almost certainly relates to paint chemistry again.  Lead white, as a pigment, was known for its dangers even before WWI.  It stayed in house paint for decades, but house paint was never thinned and sprayed the way modern auto paint was from the 1920s on.

The first widespread attempt to get the lead out was lithopone white.  This pigment, that dated from 1870s, was a mix of zinc sulfide and barium sulfate.  Lithopone as a white pigment peaked around 1920, but had never been a great solution for automobiles due to a tendency to degrade and darken over time. Zinc or zinc oxide was another that was better suited to industrial use, but it still had drawbacks like drying to a brittle, crack-prone finish.

Paint tech forged ahead with alkyd-based enamel finishes, starting with DuPont’s DuLux brand,  introduced in 1931 – a product quickly adopted by Ford and Chrysler, among others, while GM would stick with lacquer for its ease of application and great look in a showroom.  There were also innovations with metallic additives in the 1930s when aluminum or other fine metal powders replaced the fish scales that had pioneered the look.  None of those advances, however, were helpful  for the large-scale production of white cars.

From the beginnings of Duco until well after WWII, the white mass-produced car was simply not a thing.  Those who wanted lighter shades had plenty of choices – there were many light grays and creamy yellows to satisfy those in sunny climes.  The light colors that were offered were those like this 1929 Chrysler in a paint color called “Cigarette”.

Or this 1929 Lincoln in one called “Silver Gray”.

Light grays and creams would remain a staple of US cars into the early 1950s, like this 1949 Packard Ivory shade . . .

or this French Gray 1950 Cadillac.  But actual white was reserved for those rare applications where either cost or the ability to withstand weather was not a primary concern.

Although it is likely that car buyers failed to understand its importance at the time, it was around 1920 that DuPont (through its Krebs subsidiary) began commercial development of the pigment that made modern white automotive paint possible: titanium dioxide.  In Part 2 we will examine this reworking of raw titanium ore and the  beginnings of the modern, mass-produced white car.

Continue to Part 2