John Kelly’s Washington: The automotive rainbow


A Saab convertible is displayed at the Washington Auto Show in January 2011. In the foreground, models display the vast array of colors in which the car may be purchased. (Mark Gail/WASHINGTON POST)
John Kelly
Columnist May 1, 2012

Henry Ford reportedly said of his Model T that customers could have it any color so long as it was black.

Apocryphal? Well, black-only was certainly the case from 1914 to 1926. But before and after that Ford’s best-selling car came in such colors as red, green, blue and gray. When demand was at its highest for the Model T, using just one color allowed Ford to keep his costs down.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The story came to mind after my column last week about car colors — how boring today’s most popular colors are (white, black, silver, gray), along with how creative some of the names are. (Ultrasonic Blue Mica, anyone?)

Many readers wrote in to explain why they had chosen a particular color. Alexandria’s Dan O’Day wrote: “There is a perfectly mundane reason to stick with silver, as we learned from living in the New Mexico desert for four years; of all car colors, silver shows dirt and dust the least.”

Jeff Miller of Mechanicsville, Va., claimed to have empirical evidence to back up his preference for white cars. When he was in high school, he washed and waxed the hearse for a funeral home, a black 1959 Cadillac with massive fins and a painted top. “It took all day and an hour later would be dusty looking,” he wrote. “Next they bought a sedan that was black with a white top. Then they ordered a station wagon that was supposed to be like the sedan, but by mistake came in white with a black top. White was so easy to care for and literally can be quite dirty before it really looks so. So, they started buying all white vehicles. While I haven’t worked for them in over 40 years, I learned my lesson and still buy white.”

Some people said they would like to add some color to their driveway but had a tough time doing so. In 2005, Springfield’s Steve Beste went looking for a dark red Honda Civic. The salesman took him to the back lot, where there were more than 100 Civics.

“Not one of them was anything but drab,” Steve wrote. “Certainly none were red. I had to go to Hagerstown to find one. I put it down to everyone here being too buttoned-down. But your DuPont statistics were national, so maybe it’s not just us. The salesman said he thought that Honda kept red in the Civic line merely so they’d have something catchy for the brochures.”

Things were different 40 years ago. The first car that Ellen Parke of Fairfax had was a 1970 Ford Maverick. The color was Hulla Blue, named after the “Hullabaloo” TV music show. How “with it” were the colors back then? Here are some other unusually Maverick options that year: Anti-Establish Mint, Original Cinnamon, Freudian Gilt and Thanks Vermilion.

Ted Bojanowski of Seabrook said that in 1972, all VW Beetles were painted an unimpressive solid white, blue or brown. “I had just lost my job and my marriage,” Ted wrote. “In order to start a new life, where I lived in southeast Florida, I painted my white 1969 VW Bug with super bright Dodge Sassafras Green paint, and then re-painted the rims ruby red. I felt conspicuous for a while until, a few months later, I started to see VW bugs with fresh paint in all colors of the rainbow. It just takes one extra snowflake to start the landslide.”

Thanks, Ted.

Is there a color that’s safer than others? Well, a 2007 Australian study said that white is the safest color and that black cars were involved in a statistically high number of accidents. Silver wasn’t much safer than black.

“Even in good conditions, silver has low contrast with the road environment,” said the study’s lead author, Stuart Newstead of Monash University in Melbourne. “That lack of visibility is even worse in fading light or cloudy and wet conditions. Less visibility means less time for other drivers to react to an impending accident situation, which leads to more crashes and higher severity crashes for drivers of silver cars.”

But a 2003 study in the British Journal of Medicine claimed that silver cars are 50 percent less likely to be involved in an accident.

Peter Gilbert of Chevy Chase in the District writes: “My grandfather was certain that a bright car color would get you a ticket faster than anything else.”

Law enforcement officials insist that is not the case. Perhaps Peter can tell us in a few months. He just bought his first red car this year.

To read more columns by John Kelly, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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