MOTORING / Wheels of fashion - What a difference a shade makes: Classic Ferrari red, brief-lived Fifties lemon popsicle: car colours have always carried a cultural charge, says Jonathan Glancey.

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The Independent Culture
HENRY Ford held fixed ideas about the colour of cars; of his Model T, the world's first mass-produced car, he said 'people can have it in any colour - so long as it's black'. To Ford, the Model T was a mechanical workhorse. It needed no fancy paintwork to hide its basic and functional character. In Henry's day, black was the colour of machines - water pumps, freight locomotives, steam-hammers - and that is what the mass-market car was, a machine for fetching and carrying.

Yet within five years of the Model T going into production, a whole new wave of simple family cars were being painted in a rainbow of colours to give them showroom appeal and to reflect the values of a mass market that already saw the car as a consumer luxury and a source of pride rather than a workaday tool.

In the 1920s and 1930s, black was the colour of limousines, of bankers, doctors and undertakers. If it became widely used again in Europe during the five years following the Second World War, this was only because austerity meant that colourful paints were in short supply and the motoring public had to make do with Henry Ford's favourite colour.

The consumer boom of the mid to late 1950s sent black into the shadows, and the motor industry - heavily influenced, like popular culture at the time, by the US - went in for lurid, two-tone, lemon-popsicle cars, as circumspect as Elvis Presley's trousers. By the 1970s, black was so unpopular that Ford dealers were able to supply the colour only by special order and at extra cost. A common or B-road Ford might, in fact, be any colour, no matter how vulgar, as long as it was not black.

Henry Ford would have been amazed at this. He would have been equally surprised by the fact that in the 1980s black did not so much make a comeback as become the single most fashionable colour for clothes, furniture and cars. It was the colour, for example, of nearly every VW GTi sold in the 1980s. In the 1990s, black has again been relegated, this time in favour of the muted greys which suit the political and recession culture of our times. 'We do sell red cars and white cars,' says a BMW dealer, 'but there is no doubt that corporate buyers tend to go for the safe bet - various shades of grey; it means that the cars are very discreet and few people want to flaunt their wealth or even their car at the moment.'

If black has gone in and out of motoring fashion during the century, other colours are intimately connected with specific eras or particular decades. It is not difficult to guess when orange, brown and purple were among the most popular colours for cars. Think of an orange Bond Bug, a brown Morris Marina or a purple Austin Allegro and it is hard not to think at the same time of Gary Glitter, Sweet, 10cc, Saturday Night Fever, chest medallions and flared velvet jackets.

Yet there are also colours that stuck, or continue to stick, because they have had little to do with fashion and everything to do with the way in which we perceive certain types and makes of car. A Ferrari, for example, is red almost by definition. Red was the old national colour of Italian racing cars and also the colour which symbolises blood, muscle, energy, danger and sex.

Red remains the colour of most Italian sports cars. It suits them, yet looks brash and vulgar on the necessarily bulky bodywork of family saloons. Perhaps this is because red is among the most eye-catching of all colours; it is a perfect match for the dramatic lines of Alfa Romeo Spiders and Ferrari GTOs. It is also, as editors in the motoring press know, the colour that sells their magazines month-in, month-out. Stick a red sports car on the front of any motoring magazine from Car to Classic and Sportscar and sales climb; try a blue or a green or a grey car and sales fall. This is partly because a cover with a red car leaps out of the news-stand and partly because the colour creates excitement.

Other essential car colours include silver, white (or cream) and British racing green. These are the colours of the national motor-racing teams that were part and parcel of the view from the tracksides at Silverstone, Monza and Monte Carlo until the need for sponsorship meant that the cars - as well as the drivers - all but disappeared under a welter of advertising slogans.

Until the mid-Sixties, British cars were racing green, German cars silver, French cars blue and Italian cars red. In many ways these colours summed up national attitudes to motor racing, cars and life. What other colour could a racing Mercedes- Benz be but silver? Silver has associations not just with Mercury (winged messenger and god of speed), but with technology at the cutting edge, with purist imagery and design. Small wonder silver has endured as the colour of so many of the Audis, BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes- Benzes that, like a charge of mechanical Valkyries, volley and thunder along the outer lane of German Autobahnen at 150mph.

British racing green is altogether more restrained and gentlemanly, the colour of leather-upholstered clubroom sofas, of country pursuits, of the opulent locomotives of the Great Western Railway (a GWR locomotive, City Of Truro, was the first in the world to top 100mph, in 1904 when no car could possibly catch it). The great Le Mans-winning Bentleys of the 1920s were not only painted racing green, they even looked like miniature Great Western locomotives adapted for road racing.

Bentleys took Britain to victory at Le Mans four times in the 1920s and took the first four places in 1929. Thirty years later, racing green C and D-Type Jaguars repeated the success of the Bentleys. Today racing green is still the most appropriate colour for the magnificent new Aston-Martin Vantage, for Bentley Turbos, Morgans, Caterhams and TVRs.

If black and the old racing colours transcend style trends, why are colours such as purple and orange, pistachio and lemon associated with very specific times? The answer must be because these are the colours car manufacturers have used when they have tried to be overtly fashionable. Orange was a lemon of a colour; it looks great on oranges, but vile on cars. BMW was an early and prodigious user of orange paint in the 1970s, particularly in its Touring and 2002 models.

Orange was also the colour of Morgans, Porsches and Ford Capris in the 1970s. And it was a stock favourite of contemporary architects, designers and decorators. Twenty years on, using orange as a colour for cars or hotel bedrooms seems funny to those under 25 and just plain embarrassing to anyone older. The same applies to purple and that vile cow-pat brown.

Given that the production life of cars is something like five to seven years, it seems daft to paint them colours that go out of vogue in one. The craze for psychedelia - which lasted no more than a year or two in the late 1960s - was particularly silly when applied to cars. John Lennon had his Rolls-Royce painted in rainbow swirls and fantastic flowers and George Harrison gave the same treatment to his Mini. Such ephemeral fashion-mongering made sense when cars had a one-year life expectancy (as they did in the United States until the 'oil crisis' and defeat in Vietnam made the American way of life a little less gung-ho), but no sense at all for cars such as the Porsche 911, which has been in production for about 30 years.

Short of sticking to colours such as black, white and red, it is difficult for manufacturers to come up with timeless ones. Market research is generally useless, as most people say they like colours because they are fashionable and have little long-term feeling for colour. This is partly why manufacturers go for the safe bet and paint so many of their cars various neutral shades of grey.

In the Nineties, however, colours have become so muted that, like the shape of most new cars, they are as dull as MPs' suits. Given the fact that cars are now seen as wheeled avengers hellbent on the destruction of the global environment rather than tools, means of transport, status symbols, symbols of freedom or just plain fun, it may be that manufacturers and owners are trying to make their chariots disappear in a grey haze. Or perhaps people are so used to cars that they no longer care what colour they are.

But things are changing; the car of the immediate future - the sophisticated super-mini capable of cruising quietly on the motorway, sipping unleaded petrol and parking in tiny gaps - will be available in unashamedly bright colours. Because these vehicles, which include the Fiat 500 and Renault Twingo as well as some of the new Japanese retro-cars, are more like grown-up toys than the executive saloons that crawl around the M25 at walking pace every morning and evening, they are perceived as fun. Rather like those gaily painted chugalong cars that followed Henry Ford's austere black Model T-

(Photographs omitted)

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