Whatever the reason it appears that we have become a nation of conformists. Not only are most consumers avoiding purchasing colorful vehicles by preferring vehicles in tones of black and white, but also they seem to have been zapped by the Crossover Utility Zombie in recent times, and at the rate consumers are switching from sedans to utility wagons it won’t be too long before there will be no sedan choices left.
Happily, an announcement recently from Axalta Coating Systems made my day! In a column in The Herald-Palladium, the auto industry’s largest paint supplier (a paint company with DuPont roots) picked the coppery, bronze color Sahara as the color of the year. The company predicts that fashion-forward car shoppers are moving away from the white, black, silver and grey shades that have dominated the market of late. For me this shift in color preference (or rather lack of color) by consumers can’t happen fast enough.
I’m earnestly hoping that the Axalta color prediction holds true because I recall the glory days when cars could be bought in a wide spectrum of colors – from blues and greens, to browns and orange and all shades of red. I’ve noticed while recently accessioning old car catalogs that I donated to the Gilmore Car Museum, that back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, automakers often offered 15-20 color selections and very few were silver or gray. Most were various shades of primary colors of red, blue and yellow as well as pastel offerings of green, orange and purple. I don’t recall the exact brand but in a catalog of mid-priced car from the late ‘50s, when dealer literature featured exquisite paintings of the vehicles and not photographs, that the multiple choices of color would include three or four versions of brown, red and even blue. Surprisingly, the offerings in grey or silver were slim to none. How things have changed.
Now the only pigment picks other than varieties in black, white, grey and silver are an occasional dark red, dark blue and sometimes a dark tan offering. Let’s hope that Axalta’s Sahara coppery bronze color becomes a huge hit and many other paint choices of using red, blue and yellow colors will find their way on paint chips in car brochures and on auto websites.
Now let’s talk about my other big beef of late. Until recently automakers made sure we had a wide selection of models – from hardtops to convertibles, from sedans to station wagons. Since the decades of the ’50s and ’60s, consumer’s preferences have changed dramatically. I’m wondering why this big shift took place. We can’t blame the automakers. The limited model choices from automakers have occurred because we consumers have stopped purchasing sedans, convertibles, minivans and station wagons and instead are opting in record numbers for tall utility vehicles, like crossovers, SUVs and trucks. Simply put, automakers are losing money on these once-popular models. The irony of this big switch in consumer taste is that I recall back in the day when most vehicle buyers wouldn’t be caught dead in a station wagon like the one mom and dad drove. Yet who is fooling who? The crossovers of today are station wagons. The only difference is that they are slightly higher with a bit more utility. Can someone tell me why this titanic shift in consumer preferences for wagons took place?
So what prompted me to write a whole column about vehicle paint and model choices. Here’s why. A week before Christmas I happened to be passing by the Boulevard Inn in St. Joseph when I saw the entire parallel parking spaces on Lake Boulevard opposite the hotel filled with similar sized crossovers, but noted also that none of them had a hint of color in their paint. Of the eight vehicles, five were silver, one was dark gray and two were white. The utility vehicles came in several sizes but all were what I call crossovers regardless of size because all had car-like unibody construction. None were based on a truck platform.
Just a few days later in the YMCA parking lot I again noted a row of vehicles that were mostly crossover and vans, and nearly all were also colorless. Apparently vehicle consumers in the U.S. have really decided, once and for all, that they want a form of transportation that has utility features but be colorless and not too conspicuous. There has always been some interest by buyers for utility vehicles. Heck, in my 20s back in the 1960s, when I started my family, I only bought station wagons. The auto market has come a long way from first the modest interest in station wagons shown by me and others in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. In the 1980s the minivan fad took over and now truck-based SUVs and car-based crossovers are the utility vehicle of choice. The only difference in this comparison is that wagons and vans rarely took more than 10 percent of market. Now the SUV/crossover market is reaching the 80 percent level for some auto divisions – with no end in sight.
When Jeep’s nifty little four-door Cherokee hit the market in 1984 and was a sales success. It may be the one model that started the current utility boom. The Cherokee was the right size, it had great utility and certainly offering 4-wheel drive was a huge selling point in most markets. You know the rest of the story. Ford with Explorer and Chevy with the Blazer jumped in and sold well, and all the other automakers were forced to follow. We can thank Lincoln with the Navigator and Lexus with the RX crossover for pulling the SUV/crossover market up scale in the late 1980s. Today all automakers, even uber-luxury companies like Bentley and Rolls Royce, have joined the switch to utility vehicles. I think all the luxury automakers enter this market holding their nose but they had no choice if they wanted to find buyers. I read recently that even high performance sports car maker Ferrari is considering a crossover. Who knew!
Truck-registered vehicles are presently taking nearly 70 percent of the market and there is no end in sight when the swing to utility vehicles will end. There are offerings ranging from tiny mini crossover like the Chevy Trax, and mini SUVs like the Jeep Renegade at the bottom of the food chain, and huge luxury SUVs like the Lincoln Navigator and even luxurious pickups like the Ford Platinum at the top.
Here’s hoping my column reaches the desk of product planners at a couple of automakers and soon auto consumers will be regaled by a wide choice of paint colors for our vehicles, and not only will the sedan survive, but the convertible, the 2-door hardtop and the minivan, as well.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.