The person ultimately responsible for choosing colors for BMW cars, Sandy McGill, the other day attributed today’s popularity of white cars to the influence of Apple on consumers and designers.
Prior to Apple, white was associated with things like refrigerators or the tiles in your bathroom. Apple made white valuable.
McGill’s claims at first glance seem to be backed up by DuPont’s annual Color Popularity Report for 2011 that shows that 22% of new cars sold in the world were white, tied with silver. However, if you look at the historical data, white and lighter colors have been increasing in popularity for decades, long before Apple embraced white as their primary (no pun intended) design color.
I have, perhaps, a unique perspective on the topic. From 1982 to 2002, I worked in DuPont Automotive’s main car paint R&D laboratory in Troy, Michigan, originally as a technician but ultimately doing IT support. I’ve worked with the people who prepare those color popularity reports. I also worked with a lot of Apple computers. When I came into the IT department at the lab, DuPont at the time was the largest corporate user of Macintosh computers. Before the introduction of the iMac in 1998, Apple computers were a kind of off-white grey with maybe a hint of beige.
It seems to me that Apple didn’t embrace pure white as a design color until the introduction of the iPod in 2001. According to DuPont, though, by the year 2000 white was already the most popular car color. It’s entirely possible that Apple’s design ethos has influenced car color choices since then, and the Jaguar XF Supercharged on my driveway for a review is indeed Polaris White, but as I said, the trend towards white cars began a long time ago.
Just to be sure, I checked with a couple of experts, Gregg Schmidt at DuPont and Steve Klein of Your Mac Expert. Klein says that Apple first started using white as a design color with the iMac G3, released in 1998. Most people think of the original iMac as being mainly translucent blue, but it was actually available in 13 colors, one of them called Snow was white. However, Snow wasn’t the bright white that we now associate with Apple, it was translucent. According to my Mac expert (disclaimer: Steve is a first cousin of mine), the first bright white Mac was the iMac G4, introduced in 2002. The all white early iPod was introduced in 2001.
Schmidt, at DuPont, sent me the following chart showing the top two colors for selected years going back to 1960.
As you can see, white was the second most popular color not just in 1990, when Apples weren’t white, but it was also the second most popular color in 1960, when Steve Wozniak was in grade school and Steve Jobs was in kindergarten. As you can see from the timeline below, white’s popularity in 1960 may have been an outlier, but those 1990 statistics were part of a general trend towards lighter colors, with silver or grey being about as popular as white. Today over half of cars sold are one of those three light colors. By 2000, before Apple embraced white in a big way, white was already the most popular color on trucks, vans, SUVs and luxury cars.
1953 – DuPont starts recording automotive color popularity. Popular colors were medium blues, dark greens, and aqua colors. Solid black, Ivory White, light beige and light gray were the neutral color spaces.
1960 – Metallic finishes are gaining popularity as medium brown and medium blue are popular.
1970 – Browns, golds and olive greens are popular.
1980 – Light brown, gold, and beiges were popular. Light blue was popular on full size and compact cars, dark blue was popular on trucks.
1990 – Trending towards lighter colors.
2000 – White pearl gaining popularity on luxury vehicles. Silver is the most popular on full and intermediate and white is most popular on Trucks, Vans, SUV’s, and luxury vehicles.
2010 – White is most popular overall in North America but Silver is #1 Global color. Black is used to support a luxurious look in all segments.
Since white has been a popular color choice since the 1950s, it’s acceptance is really nothing new. What is new, at least in recent years, is a greater appreciation of brown cars. Worldwide, 5% of new cars last year were brown or beige. My fellow BCAS members rejoice. Apparently, what was formerly considered boring and reflective of malaise is now considered to be ‘authentic’. Jane Harrington, who manages color for DuPont’s competitor PPG, says that now brown is associated with luxury: “Think of the experience of good coffee, good chocolate, great pieces of wood. You’re seeing it across the crafts industry: more genuine materials, something that has longevity. The handmade quality people are looking for in luxury.”
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS