It seems that every other car you see today is some shade of gray: Either black, gray, silver, or white. How much truth is there to this, and how far back does the trend of achromatization of our cars actually go? Let’s take a look.
Detailed historical automotive production data are notoriously difficult to come by. Luckily, New York is one of the few states that publishes its entire vehicle registration database (11.5 million total records). This data is de-identified, of course (no owner information is included). However, it does include VIN, year, make, model, and critically for my purpose, color. In other words, a perfect data set for analyzing short and long term trends in vehicle colors.
A few words on my methodology before I jump into the results. For starters, this data represents just a single state (New York), and not the entire US. While New York is one of the most populous states and therefore is fairly representative of the country as a whole, there could be regional differences (such as the southern preference for lighter cars due to their better heat-rejecting characteristics) that might get missed in this analysis.
More pressingly, since this data only represents vehicles that are still registered as of 2020, there may be some survivorship bias hidden in the data. The farther back in time we go, the smaller the sample of survivors gets, as well the increased possibility that the car may have since been repainted in a color other than its original color. Prior to 1946, the data gets jumpy as the sample sizes get down to double and even single digits, so I have excluded pre-war models from my analysis.
Next, there is also some degree of wonkiness in how New York records vehicle registration color, mostly because the system dates back decades. They don’t distinguish between gray and silver, for example, but they do recognize red and maroon as two different colors (as well as yellow and gold, the latter color being virtually extinct on modern cars).
Lastly, many cars prior to about 1960 were available in dual- or even tri-tone paint jobs. For vehicles like this, the State of New York records both a primary and a secondary (but no tertiary) color for vehicle registration purposes. For the purposes of my analysis, I have used the primary color when there are multiple colors specified.
With that out of the way, let’s jump in. For starters, it is not your imagination: Vehicles are getting more achromatic and less colorful, and have been for some time, as shown in the chart above. What may surprise you is the extent of this trend, and how long it has been going on. After varying between 25% and 40% for decades, colorful cars started increasing in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with peak color hitting in 1973. In that year, a whopping 80% of all cars were sold in an actual color, not just a shade of black, white, or gray. Since then, however, there has been a steady rise of the grayscale cars, with only a brief pause in the ’80s and ’90s. Since 1996 the take rate of grayscale cars has risen from 39% to 75% for the current year. In other words, almost a complete reversal from 1973.
Let’s take a closer look at your choices in 1973, picking a car that was on sale then and is still sold today: the Lincoln Continental. According to the brochure, in 1973 Lincoln offered 15 standard colors, 9 optional “Moondust” metallic colors, and two extra-cost “Diamond Fire” colors, for a total of 26 shades, only five of which are achromatic (two whites, and one each of gray, black, and silver). You also had your choice of nine different accent stripe colors and seven different vinyl top colors. There were also a whopping eleven(!) different interior colors (a topic for another day), giving a total of 25,740 interior and exterior combinations, meaning that any given color combination may be one of only a handful produced. When you factor in all the other option combinations, it is quite possible that Lincoln produced no two identical cars in 1973.
Now compare the 2020 Lincoln Continental, which is available in only 10 colors, a full 50% of which are shades of black, silver, white, or gray. It is also available in only three interior colors (A vinyl roof is alas no longer available). With at most 30 possible interior and exterior combinations, it is conceivable that a single dealer could have every possible color combination sitting on their lot at one time.
So what can we blame for this graying trend? As with most things, the answers are subtle, complex, and varied. My Google research surfaced many theories: Increasing income inequality and decreased consumer buying power is cited as one factor, under the theory that the bright cars of the ’50s reflected the post-war economic optimism of the time, while today’s drab cars reflect our drab economic outlook. Another theory points to Apple’s white and gray iDevices as influencing consumer tastes towards monochrome over the past several decades. Perhaps.
My favorite theory: The rise of utilitarian colors roughly tracks with the rise of utilitarian body styles (starting with minivans in the ’80s, followed pickup trucks and SUVs of today). Couple this with the increase in transaction costs relative to the buying power of middle-class consumers (which peaked around 1970), cars are now representing a correspondingly larger size purchase for most people. People are also holding on to their cars much longer as a result of both increased longevity and longer finance terms. This means that owners are more likely to be looking at the same car for six or seven years, instead of the three or four years of decades past. When you add all this up, buyers are going to be more conservative and cautious about their color choices, since a car now represents a much bigger investment (in terms of both dollars and time). This, by the way, is the same thinking that drives people to choose neutral color schemes in home decor.
So which brands sell the most achromatic cars? Anecdotally, Audi frequently comes up, the brand being so associated with the color silver that its rental business is called (only semi-ironically) Silvercar. In reality, Audi is only midpack, with 79% of its cars being a shade of gray. No, the grayest brands are Lexus and Acura, with an astonishing 88% of their cars sold bereft of color. Not surprisingly, the most colorful cars come from brands known for fun cars, like Fiat, Mazda, and Mini. Fiat is by far the most colorful brand, with almost half (45%) of their cars being registered in a non-gray color.
Let me leave you with one final chart before I go, which shows the percentage share of each color over the past 74 years. Black as a percentage of share has remained relatively steady over the decades (hovering between 10 and 20 percent), as has blue. The big winners are white and gray (the latter of which also includes silver). White’s growth across the decades is pretty steady, starting from almost nothing: When was the last time you saw a white pre-1960 car? Gray and silver’s growth was slower until the late ’90s, after which it exploded.
Obviously, the big losers are yellow (which peaked in 1973), gold (1971), orange (1972) along with red and green. You can see tan peaking in the late ’90s, as anyone who was alive at that time can attest to. You can also see the brief resurgence of brown in the early 2010s, which appears to have already run its course.
So what do you think? Why do you think we keep buying more and more grayscale-colored cars? Are colored cars poised to make a comeback, or will the graying of America’s cars continue?