Give Us More Choice Than Silver Metallic

mercedes-benz-300seThe red 300SE is proof that the Germans weren’t always so color neutral.

By Gunnar Heinrich

RED in some cultures is the color of prosperity.

OK, principally it’s the Chinese who adore red and associate the color with the prospect of good fortune and plenty. Accordingly, many surround themselves with bright red belongings.

In the States, we seem to live in opposite land.

The high end of our own automotive market seems to have some unnatural aversion to color.  The palates for most mainstream sedans, SUVs, coupes, and convertibles seem to reflect this neutral disposition with a pallid cast of oatmeals and pearl metallics.

As I had mentioned in a recent rant article, if you want  a 2010 BMW 750Li, you had better like gray, off-gray, or off-off gray paint. Sad to say that if your alternative was to opt for an Audi A8, the most exciting exterior hue you could order from the factory is something called “Savannah-Beige”.

When exactly in the course of human events did we get so boring?

In West Hartford, Connecticut a suburb of the world’s insurance capital (kind of like what Barrington is to Providence; Scottsdale is to Phoenix; or Indian Hill is to Cincinatti), there’s a monotonous glut of pearlescent Japanese and German luxury cars.

If you were to drive through the town on any given day, were it not for the odd yellow Boxster, the streets would be an unending movement of gray and beige metal.

It’s a sad, painfully unimaginative motorscape.

And it wasn’t always this way.

True, we liked our rusted oranges and browns in the 70s. And in the 80s we even tried neon colors. But in the 1990s, we seemed to get things right. There was a balance of having the standard inoffensive hues but also having the choice of choosing a color that popped.

You could order a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 300SE, for instance, in red on cream. The color combination was rich and it showcased the W126 S-Class in a particularly regal light. Saab’s 900 Convertible was electric in Monte Carlo yellow on black. Even, the Cadillac DeVille came with a fire-engine red option that when set off against chrome rims looked really sharp.

The onset of  the year 2000 is plainly to blame. Silver metallics took over the American car spectrum because of their association with technological advancement. Silver, like all things technological, equals cool, washed, aseptic. A decade on and that’s all there seems to be in the mainstream automotive market – cool, washed, aseptic.

As people, we aren’t so uniform. Why should our cars be?

February 19, 2009

About the Author: Gunnar Heinrich is publisher of Automobiles De Luxe online and is executive producer of the Automobiles De Luxe Television series on PBS member station CPTV.

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  1. From a German perspective, the color silver really took off during the mid 1990s.

    Silver has always been the traditional racing color for Germany, but only in 1995 did Mercedes again paint their Formula 1 cars in silver and they started marketing it.

    Immediately, silver gained a lot in popularity and buyers of other marques followed suit. Although I have the impression, that BMWs are not as often in silver than their competitors from Stuttgart or Ingolstadt, probably because unlike Audi and Mercedes, BMW doesn’t have a silver racing history, so to me, there appear to be more blue BMWs.

    Today, silver is slowly losing ground though, at least according to my personal observations. It’s not replaced by color though. One (non-)color that is gaining ground (very slowly) over here is white. Only ten years ago, there were absolutely no white luxury cars. When I went to the US for the first time in 1998, I was surprised to see so many white luxury cars. Today, the Germans seem to appreciate white somewhat more.

    And then of course there’s the all time luxury classic: Black.

    Personally, I’d never buy a silver car. It’s just too common and not very exciting. However, I’d also never buy a colorful luxury car. I just don’t like it. If I’d buy a luxury car, it would either be black or white, probably white, because it’s less common.

    It’s somewhat different with sports cars, but even there, black and white are always safe choices. For example, a Ferrari looks great in red, but a red Porsche is awful. On the other hand, a Porsche might look awesome in orange, which I wouldn’t want to see on a Ferrari. But all of them look great in black or white.

    While I was typing this, I looked for some statistics and found one, based on the 2008 sales in Germany. I’ll give you some numbers:

    cars sold: 251,393
    white: 21,673
    yellow: 1,775
    orange: 344
    red: 5,249
    violet: 523
    blue: 20,682
    green: 1,564
    gray: 93,711
    brown: 343
    black: 103,833
    other: 1,696

    BMW (incl. MINI):
    cars sold: 284,767
    white: 30,840
    yellow: 664
    Orange: 85
    red: 8,340
    violet: 89
    blue: 24,029
    green: 5,000
    gray: 79,371
    brown: 6,535
    black: 129,363
    other: 451

    cars sold: 327,965
    white: 13,937
    yellow: 7,750
    orange: 125
    red: 5,652
    violet: 537
    blue: 21,802
    green: 1,977
    gray: 150,148
    brown: 2,294
    black: 120,643
    other: 3,100

    cars sold: 16,221
    white: 2,249
    yellow: 278
    orange: 47
    red: 545
    violet: 3
    blue: 707
    green: 267
    gray: 3,429
    brown: 685
    black: 7,881
    other: 130

  2. Thank you for that, Tom. Much obliged. Interesting to note that Mercedes-Benz sold more gray cars in Germany than black cars.

  3. Another factor is that even colors differ greatly. Let’s take the color red for example. I can appreciate the Italian red, but the German red is just awful.

    My ex-girlfriend used to drive a red Alfa 147 and it looked great. I still drive a red Opel Astra and I hate the color. Maybe it’s partly down to prejudice (because Italian cars are supposed to be red) but it’s true that the colors are different.

    I can remember that there were lots of discussions when Marlborough became main sponsor of the Ferrari F1 team in the mid 1990s and they changed their red from the typical Italian red to the mundane Marlborough red. They still use the Marlborough red, but their cars looked so much better before that.

    Anyway, when it comes to sedans, I think that even the Alfa 159 looks better in black/white than in red. Same goes for the Maserati Quattroporte.

    As for German cars, the last one that I think looked somewhat good in red was the W123. With their newer models, color just doesn’t work for me.

    The problem with black cars is the interior though. A black car with black interior looks boring. In a more sporty car, it’s not as bad. My dad once had a dark blue SLK with red leather interior, which was awesome. But in a sedan, a colorful interior is neither an option, nor would it look appealing. The only option is to have a bright gray interior which in return doesn’t work so well with wood applications. Unless you pay extra for the almost black wood. That’s another reason why I would choose a white car. It works well with a black interior.

    Actually, another option for a dark (black) car would be a bright brown interior, but that just feels like a retirement car. My dad had a black E-Class with a bright brown interior until shortly and it just seemed to be so OLD. He even admitted it himself and he surely won’t take that combination ever again.

    BTW, since I’m talking about brown, if you look at the latest press releases, it looks like brown is the next trend in exterior color. First the Porsche Panamera was presented in a dark brown, and then the new Mercedes E-Class. Personally, I’m not very excited about that. But at least the Panamera somewhat works in brown. It has this 1960s/1970s feel to it anyway, so the brown is only fitting. The brown E-Class just looked awful though.

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