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April 13, 2005

More Silver

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I noticed a while back that many -- and make that many -- of the cars featured in car ads these days are silver. Well, as far as I can tell, since my posting the trend has only continued to gather steam.

In my never-ending quest to provide a little substance for my otherwise content-free blogging, I took it upon myself to do some actual research, thumbing through the ads in the current issue of The New Yorker.

Final tally:

  • Total number of car ads: 10.
  • Number of cars in those ads that are silver: 6.5. (One of these silver cars has the faintest bit of brown mixed in with the silver.)

Given the number of colors that a car in a car ad might be painted, what are the odds that 2/3 of the cars in a magazine issue's car ads would be the exact same color?

Any theories about why we're seeing so much silver?



posted by Michael at April 13, 2005


Not a theory - but hifi is also going through a massive silver phase. As far as I can see, this started in Japan in the very late 1980s and slowly gathered steam through the 1990s.

There is also lots of brushed aluminium etc being used in homes at the moment (coincidentally with the hegemony of Christain Liaigre's wenge and brushed steel look).

Perhaps it is to do with the perceived value of metal for its solidity, and silver for its preciousness (you can't tastefully use gold for cars or hifi unless you are in Saudi Arabia or HK - cars - or Japan - hifi).

Posted by: Toby on April 13, 2005 7:54 PM

Silver is the new white, which was the new black. That is, it's the approved sarariman car color. (My guess, based on not much at all.)

It's also a color that I won't own: Silver (and platinum) cars pick up enough of the color of their surroundings to be hard to see, especially at twilight.

Worse yet is a silver car (actually any car, but silver is about the worst) with just its parking lights on. The parking lights actually make it much harder to see the car, acting to reduce contrast between the car and the sky and to break up the outline that signals "car" in your pattern-recognition wetware.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 13, 2005 7:59 PM

Why silver? I'll offer an hypothesis below, but first want to mention that fashions come and go regarding popularity of colors for cars. About ten years ago I bought a green Pontiac; a few years previously virtually no manufacturer was offering green. Green seems to be one of those marginal colors, like brown, that come and go whereas black, blue, and white "are forever".

Well, not actually forever. Historically, a factor in colors was paint technology. If I remember right, once upon a time it wasn't possible to make a decent white. And when I was a kid, blues had a tendency to fade over time. Check out car ads from the 30s and notice how muted the colors were -- technology played a part.

Okay, silver. My thought is that silver is a *prestige* color. Why? Back in the dark ages of car racing (the 1920s and perhaps before) each nation was assigned a color for its racing cars. All this pretty much disppeared when race cars became rolling billboards, but some readers might have heard or British Racing Green (a dark green that BTW was the color of that Pontiac I mentioned). Italy's color was red, France's was medium blue and Germany's was originally white, but later became silver.

After World War II -- around 1952 actually -- Mercedes came up with its gull-wing-door racing coupes that were painted silver and were successful on the race courses. When these cars were productionized as the 300SLR, they too were painted silver to remind buyers of the racing heritage. Later on, Mercedes painted sedans silver as a further prestige-extension. And I suspect that silver remains a prestige color, hence the New Yorker ad tally.

BTW, the color I HATE is white. This is because it doesn't reflect light and kills body highlights and therefore kills the perceived shape of the car. OTOH, if you want to buy a really ugly car, then be sure to order a white one.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 13, 2005 8:34 PM

For a while in the 1980's and into the 1990's, a dark gray color seemed the most prestigious - Mercedes called it "anthracite." Then the "in" color was a light brown - AKA "champagne." I guess it's now silver's turn, undoubtedly it'll be something else before long.
IIRC, green used to be regarded as an unlucky color for cars, at least in racing circles.

Posted by: Peter on April 13, 2005 10:12 PM

I don't know why cars today are silver, but a character in Sin City says they all look like electric razors.

Posted by: Brian on April 13, 2005 10:46 PM

Hey, a wicked thought? Lessee: ads are made by "creatives" .... "Creatives" use Macs, and feel mighty pleased with themselves for doing so. (I use a Mac too.) ... Mac OSX is all about brushed-silver and brushed aluminum ... I wonder if maybe the designers and ad people are taking their cue from OSX.

A puzzling thing is that silver on a car used to mean high-end German engineering. These days it seems to mean something else: flowy cyber-design, or something: something kind of "Terminator 2" and morph-y. I wonder how silver made the leap from mechanical-engineering over to microcircuits ...Is it just the color of high-tech generally?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 13, 2005 11:59 PM

It's a trend in design. When I think, "Clean/simple/elegant/uncluttered" design, I think of Apple-like brushed silver and whites.

Posted by: . on April 14, 2005 2:09 AM

Silver is the current in color. If you go to Dupont's website and look at its automotive paint divisions, you'll see discussion of whether or not people wll buy as many silver cars next year as this year, and if they stop buying silver what will they buy instead? Last I checked, Dupont thinks blue.

Posted by: z on April 14, 2005 10:26 AM

Living in Manhattan, and being a born and bred New Yorker too, I've never learned how to drive. But nevertheless I have thought over the years about what kind of car I would want to own, should I ever want to own a car in the first place (very unlikely).

Maybe, originally as a kid I favored bright red. But sometime in the mid-1970s I began thinking along the lines of white or silver. My thinking (correct or not) was that these colors would reflect the heat in hot weather (the mid-70s being an acutely energy conscious time) making it easier, for instance, to air condition the car when it got hot. And I think I also thought that it would be most easily seen at night (a safety feature). (Reading the above posts, I see that at least part of my reasoning was incorrect.)

The one wrinkle for me was that I too never liked white on cars. (And come to think of it I've never really like white for a number of things: marble interiors and marble exteriors are two others that come to mind immediately.)

I don't know exactly when it was, but somewhere along the line I happened to notice that cars came in silver and I thought: "How smart. The benefits of white without the ugliness!" Plus, silver looks "cool" -- very sleek, cutting edge modern (OK for a car, in my book, not necessarily OK in a city building), especially with the sharp edged modeling (I think auto designers have a name for it) that apparently replaced the more traditional soft edge with chrome trim in car design.

- - - - - - - -

But what really interests me about the original post and the subsequent posts is I think they help illustrate the appeal of the auto (vs. the mass transit) "culture." Car buyers (and would be buyers, like myself) get to choose their car color (among many, many, many other things). Public transit riders don't really get to think and talk about, let alone choose the color/design of their subway or bus.

The closest I can think of being able to "choose" a subway car is when I was a kid in Astoria, there used to be a train that pulled out of the Queensboro Plaza (elevated station) that was really spectacular. It had florescent lighting (when the incadescent I now prefer was ubiquitous), I believe, and round windows on the doors. It may have been painted red on the outside, but I'm not sure. I remember always wishing that we could get on that special train (at least once) instead of the regular one we always went on. Also, as a kid I remember being particularly happy when I could get one of the "new look" GM buses, with their tear drop front windows, sliding rounded side windows and formica (?) interiors. Each time I caught one, I fancied myself in one of the new Boeing 707s that had just made their debut.

I think people just naturally enjoy "shopping" for and choosing certain things (like cars, cereal) although, it's true they may also hate shopping for other things (like clothes). The reason I mention cereal is because I think that's one of the first things a modern American may get to actual choose or shop for. And I remember loving being able to choose my cereal as a kid.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 14, 2005 10:56 AM

I have always thought that silver was a cool, elegant color for a car, I think due to the Mercedes gullwing, plus to me it looks cool and futuristic. Oddly, I have never owned a silver car, due to always buying at yearend sales or getting a cheap used rig. But, if I ever win the lottery, I shall own a metallic silver car.

Posted by: John Cunningham on April 14, 2005 10:58 AM

Because few can afford the red Ferrarri?

As most commenters have mentioned, trend sets the stage, and usually whatever hot new model comes out and is originally displayed in at the shows, is what the rest of the manufacturers copy. There are certain cars that look good in certain colors--you would, if you could, buy your first Ferrarri in red, your Jag XKE in British racing green. I'm just having a hard time deciding which one I want first.

Posted by: susan on April 14, 2005 11:24 AM

Words like "Mercedes gullwing," "red Ferrari" and "Jag XKE in British racing green" are like music and poetry all together, aren't they? Talk about evocative.

Benjamin -- That's a lovely memoir as well as a shrewd set of musings. Many thanks for letting us read it.

Y'know, I'd never thought of the way white is a lousy color for a car -- the way it wipes out the car's shape and contours. But it is, and it does, now that y'all have pointed it out. Great to go on learning ...

So next year will be all about blue, eh? I love following color trends. God only knows where and why they come along the way they do.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2005 11:46 AM

DuPont must have reformulated its auto paint if it believes that blue will be the next trendy auto color. Blue cars used to be notorious for fading, especially if you were in an area that had a lot of sunny days.
People who tend to drive at high speeds sometimes avoid buying red cars, as police are said to notice that color more than duller ones (or at least the drivers think they do). Come to think of it, the visibility-to-police factor many account to some extent for the popularity of silver cars, for as was noted earlier they can be somewhat less visible than other colors, especially after dark.
Probably the worst color I've seen is one that's popular on Nissan Xterra SUV's. It's a medium-to-dark yellow, maybe a couple shades darker than the standard taxi color.

Posted by: Peter on April 14, 2005 1:20 PM

Benjamin -
The subway cars with the round windows on the doors were from the R-15 series, in service from 1950 to 1984.

Posted by: Peter on April 14, 2005 1:27 PM

Wasn't the Delorean in "Back to the Future" brushed aluminum? Maybe it was more influential than I thought...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 14, 2005 2:22 PM

All that being said, there is a huge amount of psychology behind color choice.
"Look at my silver, cutting edge Machine..."

What if cities (ie. public transit - buses, trams, trolleys?) choose this futuristic/progressive "quick silver" look?
Would more people see public transit as more "time efficient = faster"? There by increasing use/volume.

Along the brushed aluminum hardware/faucets for the home thought-line:
How did brass (ie. gold) get such a bad wrap?
Most people I know younger than 50 or so, won't select a brass door knob or sink faucet over their dead body. Polished brass = uncool. why?

Posted by: Chris on April 14, 2005 2:26 PM

When John C. wins the lottery he's gonna buy a "METALIC silver car". Isn't that it right there? Silver = metal in our minds, and since cars are made of metal, having a silver one is more honest and real. Painted metal looks like more of the plastic that is everywhere in our modern world. In times of emotional crisis we want real, solid, substantial things: gold money and silver cars. Yes?

Posted by: johnny on April 14, 2005 5:01 PM

may be because inexpensive brass-finish plumbing fixtures and hardware look really cheap?
Stainless steel and brushed Al aren't applied finishes, the color is inherent to material; finishing (as in "brushed", "polished", matte, etc) only changes the reflective qualities of the surface.
Brass/bronze/gold on fixtures is an applied finish; you don't expect your faucet to be actually made of gold, are you? So it's expected to be worn off eventually, in uneven chunks. Appearance-wise: when "brass" finish doesn't have enough copper in its composition, it looks really, really lemon-yellow, equals "fake".
When you discover the price of that decorative Kohler faucet is the same in brushed stainless or fake gold, it's a no-brainer, no matter what design concept you fancied for your powder rm.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 14, 2005 5:20 PM

From Silver cars are the safest on the road:

Silver cars are much less likely to be involved in a serious crash than cars of other colours, suggests a new study of over 1000 cars.
People driving in silver cars were 50 per cent less likely to suffer serious injury in a crash compared with drivers of white cars, the research in New Zealand found.
White, yellow, grey, red and blue cars carried about the same risk of injury. But those taking to the roads in black, brown or green cars were twice as likely to suffer a crash with serious injury.

Posted by: Matt Madsen on April 14, 2005 5:54 PM

I bought a silver car so it wouldn't turn into (as much of) an oven when the air conditioning inevitably dies. Ditto for cloth seats.

Posted by: Daniel Newby on April 14, 2005 7:18 PM

I know for a fact based on a recent trade-in that silver has a higher re-sale value than white. Why? Because it shows dirt and scratches less than white, or black.

Posted by: annette on April 15, 2005 11:19 AM

The DeLorean was actually brushed stainless steel, or more correctly a plastic laminate containing a layer of brushed stainless steel. There was one in Chicago which had been painted "candy" (translucent) red thru which the stainless could reflect; really striking.

Hotrodders with expensively restored bodywork (think Eric Clapton's perfect '40 Ford with Mercedes headlights) favor black paint. Because black shows imperfections it is a way to show how smooth the car is.

Posted by: triticale on April 18, 2005 9:13 PM

The current in colour in South Africa, acountry obsessed with the car, is also silver or a kind of shiny grey which is perhaps supposed to be silver. So someone in the design departments must decree these things.

But the enduringly popular car colours in SA are white and ... black. Of course.

Seriously, the traffic theory is that light or bright colour cars have fewer accidents because they are more visible.

Posted by: Dave F on April 22, 2005 5:19 PM

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