Automotive History: The Long Road To The White Car (Part 2)


When we left off in Part 1, it was the early 1920’s, when DuPont had begun to develop a compound called  titanium dioxide as a pigment suitable for modern automotive (and other kinds of) white paints. DuPont’s work was necessary because by the time its Duco nitrocellulose lacquer paint was introduced, there was still no suitable pigment for sprayed-on white automotive paint.  All of the other white pigments (lead, lithopone and zinc, being the main ones) brought traits that made them poor choices for automotive finishes on mass production vehicles.  But things were about to change.

The trick with any compound (titanium dioxide being no different) is getting it in quantity.  The chemical processes necessary to get the stuff from raw materials were cumbersome and expensive.  The compound was available in small amounts from the turn of the century, and it was no doubt used in some applications where white paint was necessary or strongly desired.

For example, the Indiana State Police painted several of its earliest cars, including a 1937 Cord 812, in what appears to have been real white.  A Cord because it is best to stick with cars from the home state, of course.  White because – well, I have no idea.

Custom paint jobs on one or a handful of vehicles seemed to be the only way most people ever saw a white vehicle in the period after the introduction of DuPont’s Duco lacquer in 1924, up to about 1950.  One rare exception was the “Ginger Rogers Duesenberg” that got a finish of dazzling white paint.  When a car cost around $20,000 in 1929 (around $300k today), how much could anyone care about the cost of a paint made with expensive titanium dioxide?  But for the George Babbitts of the world, Henry Ford’s expression was turned on its head: “You can have any color you want so long as it isn’t white.”

Titanium dioxide pigment would not be available in the quantities and at at the price level for the mass market until DuPont made a technical breakthrough in the late 1940’s which allowed large scale production of the compound at its plant in Wilmington, Delaware starting about 1951, where its Krebs Company subsidiary had begun producing the pigment in the early 1930’s.

By 1950, manufacturers’ color palettes continued to offer more lighter shades, and those shades could be quite light – like this 1950 Mercury in Coventry Green . . .

or this very similar 1951 Buick color called Barton Gray.    It is likely that titanium dioxide white was used in small quantities in order to make those extra-light colors possible.

It is difficult to pick the exact moment when white cars first began their long forward march through the industry, but if we had to plant a flag somewhere, that year would very likely be 1951.  Before we begin our walk through the first modern white cars offered in the U.S., we must acknowledge that there is a gray area (sorry) between a white paint that is creamy and a not-white paint that approaches creamy from the other direction.  There is also a no-man’s land between white and certain light grays, like this Surf Gray used by Studebaker in 1952.  Automotive color is a spectrum rather than black and white (yes, I did it again) and those with really good color perception may quibble with some of the examples that follow – are they real white or are they not.  (Only their paint mixer knows for sure).

And as noted last time, we must deal with the variations inherent in aged originals and in resprays using paint mixes in a range of closeness to an original look.  Not to mention the simple questions of faithfulness in photography.  The above two shots are of the exact same car at roughly the same time in history, and the shades of white shown could hardly be more different.  In choosing the shot to accompany a discussion of it, I ignored both of these and chose one more or less in the middle – an exercise that was applied to just about every picture that follows.  In any event, that is what comment sections are for.

Firsts of anything are notoriously difficult to come up with, given that a trend can pick up steam anywhere.  Sports and foreign cars seem to have led the way towards the U.S. flowering into a white car nation. And while perhaps not yet mass production, there is some evidence that some of the earliest Jaguar XK-120s were painted something called Old English White, which was likely more cream than white, but we have to start somewhere.  One source says that one of the first three aluminum-bodied cars in 1948 was painted thus, and the color was applied more frequently once the steel-bodied versions started to be built in some volume by 1950 (like this example).  As was typical with sports cars from England, most of early XK production was destined for the U.S.

There is no doubt that Volkswagen was a mass produced car by 1950, which was the year the company introduced something called Pearl White – a choice that it continued to offer through 1969.  This 1963 example shows that it was not yet the bright white that we would come to know and love (at least some of us) but like the Jaguar, it was getting closer.

This shot shows the contrast a little better, comparing it to both a real gray (Rock Gray, 1960) and a real white (Lotus White, 1966-70). Germany had been a leader in pigments and dyes before WWII and it would be interesting to know what pigments VW used to get this color.

The 1951 Nash-Healey was among the first to enter that borderline area between cream and white a shade they called Champagne Ivory as one of its two original color choices – and in doing so may have helped jumpstart one of the hottest design trends of the next few years.  Or at least kept it building among the driving gloves set.

When Pinin Farina began building the cars in 1952 another off-ish shade of white (but with an unknown formula) was one of the choices, according to a Nash-Healy club publication from 2012.

Oldsmobile seems to have been the first to bring real, genuine white to the masses with a 1952-only color called Swan White.  Was Oldsmobile (known as GM’s experimental Division) being given the job of testing a modern white automobile paint before wider application?  In truth, this paint may have been a bit more of a really, really light gray than a true white, made noticeable by the yellowed whitewalls and the more “normal” white on the adjacent ’59 Impala.  If so, this was still as close as anyone was going to a white mass market car of 1952.

Or does this alternate view (contrasted with a genuine gray car) make the case that this may have been GM’s attempt at a dazzling refrigerator-under-flourescent-lights white?  The single-year availability of Swan White suggests that GM’s stylists decided that there really was such a thing as too white when it comes to painting a car.  It does not appear that this was a very popular body-color choice on 1952 Oldsmobiles, at least if online photos of surviving cars is any guide.

As another photo shows, the color looked much more like a pure, clean antiseptic white when paired with a different body color – a common optical phenomenon, and a much more typical use of white paint on ’52 Oldsmobiles.  Ditzler literature indicates that white was only used as a roof color on two-tones like this car, and never as the lower color with a contrasting roof.  This slow rollout of white paint must have been a technical success because the following year several really, truly white cars (albeit not quite this white) would burst into multiple GM showrooms.

Echoing the disarray of the early Duco era, Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac each offered its own uniquely formulated white paint on their new 1953 models, including Majestic White from Buick.

There was also Cadillac’s Alpine White (which it shared with Olds) and . . .

Oldsmobile’s slightly softer Polar White.  These three new white paint colors each debuted with those Divisions’ new halo cars: the Buick Skylark, Cadillac Eldorado and the Oldsmobile Fiesta.  We often think of 1953 cars as being as dull as K. T. Keller in a gray flannel suit, but these sparkling white chariots should put that generalization to bed.  And perhaps putting the new white paint on flashy high-end and low-production cars was what was needed to really kick off what was probably seen as a fad.  That Fiesta, by the way, seems to have kicked off another fad in the two-tone paint treatment that went beyond a simple contrasting roof.

Then of course there was the REAL opening volley of the all-American, all-white car – the iconic Polo White, a fourth unique shade found exclusively on the 1953 Corvette.

Other manufacturers must have sensed the trend and offered some paints they called white but were really not, (like Studebaker’s Salem White) . . .

and others came close (Ford’s Sungate Ivory as used on Indy Pace Cars).  Those shades were moving in the right direction, but they were not the bright whites coming out of GM’s paint booths.

Nothing succeeds like success, and 1954 saw more U.S. manufactures join the Great White Way – like the Kaiser Darrin’s Champagne White and . . .

and the bright, clean Ermine White offered on the ’54 Lincoln.  It is interesting that none of the really high-volume brands had gone with the new white-whites up to this time – whether this was due to considerations of cost or a desire to milk a new trend with higher-end cars.

Unlike Cadillac and Oldsmobile (who used their new 1953 whites through 1955) Buick was unwilling to leave well enough alone and tried a new formula for its 1954 Artic White.

The 1954 Ford Sandstone White was closer to a real white, but it was nothing at all like the dazzling whites offered on Lincoln or by the GM Divisions.

And between them both was Mercury’s Arctic White, a different color yet (and different from the Buick paint of the same name).

Pontiac offered Winter White, but apparently only as a roof color to complement the body.  The contrast to the colorful lower body makes this roof look whiter than it really is.

And Chrysler finally joined the trend mid-year with a pair of new spring colors: Sarasota White offered by Dodge . . .

and a 1954-only color called Snow Crest that graced a small number of Chryslers.

Even Willys and Jeep got into the action with Artic White, offered on both the Aero line and on Jeeps as well.

1955 would be the explosion, otherwise known as “Year Of The White Car” as the color became offered almost universally.  There was DeSoto (Surf White) . . .

and Plymouth (Orlando Ivory) that both adopted (and re-named) the Sarasota White paint Dodge had debuted the previous year.

Apparently not content to share, Dodge used a new formulation which it called Sapphire White.

Buick being Buick, it simply would not do to put a carryover white on its new 1955 cars, so for the third time in as many years it offered a new one it called Dover White.  Buick must have liked this one because it was used through 1957.

Ford finally joined the party with its Snowshoe White, which was the first really white white from Ford.  At least by Ford standards.  Ford would become known as the main purveyors of really creamy whites for the next fifteen years with its Colonial and Wimbledon whites.

Mercury must have considered its 1954 Artic White to be white enough for 1955 because they kept it and renamed it Alaska White.

Lincoln did the opposite for 1955 – this paint kept the name of Ermine White, but changed the formula.  If you like trivia, you will be interested to know that this formula was eventually used as a fleet white for Greyhound, Coca-Cola, 7-Up and Mobil Oil.

The rest of the independents came around to the new white trend as well.  Kaiser inherited Arctic White from Willys . . .

and Studebaker joined the party with Shasta White.

Packard was there too with the luxurious sounding but nonsensically named White Jade . . .

as was Nash and Hudson which shared what AMC called Snowberry White.  Many of the ’55 models used the white paints to great effect with more colorful shades in brilliant two-tone treatments – and it is difficult to find all-white examples of most 1955 models.

But then there was the occasional exception of a pure white model that really stood out and was popular – one of the best known being the 1955 Chrysler C-300 (offered only in Black, Tango Red and this 1955 Chrysler/Imperial-exclusive white called Platinum).

This list is not exhaustive because beginning in 1954-55 the number and variety of white color formulas exploded.  By 1955 the ready availability of titanium dioxide and the emerging science of synthetic polymers for use as a more durable binder/base made the odds of finding a new American car that was not offered in white mighty slim.  A color that had been almost nonexistent three years earlier had become nearly universal.  The new color’s popularity could almost be described as white-hot.

As a kind of postscript, note how other than on the Corvette, Chevrolet had been absent from the white car binge, with colors like 1952’s decidedly peachy Beach White . . .

and the well-known Indian/India Ivory of 1954-57.

But this would change with a 1956 Spring color at Chevrolet – Imperial Ivory, used (and most often seen as an accent color) in 1956-57.  This paint would finally be in the family of whites that would take over the world.  By 1960, white would become the most popular color choice on Chevrolets, a status the color would hold through the entire decade of the 1960’s until gold temporarily muscled it out of the way in 1970.  As an example of how the Wild White West would soon settle down, two formulations of white would serve Chevrolet for thirty years: Ermine White (1960-68) and a corporate white known under several names at Chevrolet, including Dover White, Antique White and just plain White (1969-90).

Pontiac would hold out even longer, sticking with a kinda sorta white with its decidedly ivory-ish 1955 White Mist and different (though similar ivories) in 1956-57 . . .

until coming around with Greystone White for 1958 – making Pontiac perhaps the last U.S. nameplate to really embrace white paint.

By 1955 the light, whitish grays like this 1955 Cadillac Alabaster Gray were so last year, and they rapidly disappeared from manufacturer color offerings.

Thus did white cars go from zero to sixty in just a few short years in the first half of the 1950’s, a trend that shows no sign of abating almost seventy years on.  Titanium dioxide is still the stuff that whitens the white that is sprayed onto cars (and most anything else).  And DuPont still churns it out in great quantities through a process that remains as secret as the recipes for Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken (and which has been the subject of a modern story involving Chinese spies).  Now you know who to thank (or curse) for the thousands of varieties of white-painted cars that have clogged the world’s streets.  It took a long time for white paint to join the list of favorites, but once it got there it made up for lost time.  It would take another few decades before silver, gray and black could catch up and define our modern, largely color-free auto paint palette.