Echoes Dispatches From Economic History
How Auto Shows Sparked a Color Revolution: Echoes
It was a spectacle that made people's eyes pop. The "dazzling colors" and "smart bodies" of the 1925 New York Automobile Show drew record crowds.
In the midst of a wicked Nor'easter, 8,000 motor enthusiasts flocked to the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, New York, on Jan. 3, 1925. An additional 6,000 men in the auto business -- dealers, salesmen, jobbers -- toured the show during special trade days.
Many people came to study the new engineering features -- and many came to gawk at the new colors.
Since the first national automobile show opened in 1900, at Madison Square Garden in New York, these expos had gotten bigger and more extravagant every year, as cars replaced buggies and automakers vied for a share of the growing consumer market.
By 1925, auto shows were a permanent part of American culture, with dozens of models being shown by dozens of automakers from coast to coast.
This was the year of the "closed car," a new type of body that had a metal roof and glass windows rather than a cloth cover and clear plastic windows. Large producers such as Buick, Cadillac, Essex, Hudson, Marmon, Nash, Overland, Paige and Willys-Knight all exhibited closed cars.
But the new models still looked like boxy carriages on rubber wheels. Coachbuilders tried to enliven the old-fashioned look by using camouflage tricks -- colored paint was their favorite tool.
For many years, show cars had been painted in bright, fancy colors with carriage varnishes. But painting by hand was expensive, and automakers couldn't afford to mass-produce models this way.
Henry Ford famously overcame this problem when he found an inexpensive black enamel for his Model T. Contrary to myth, the Model T didn't just come in black. Ford used several shades, including dark green and dark grey -- all durable and all somber.
In 1923, General Motors hooked up with the DuPont Company to create Duco automotive paint. Duco was a quick-drying enamel made from the same cellulosic material as DuPont hair brushes and Kodak camera film. It was durable, cheap and easy to apply.
Most important, it could be made in brilliant colors.
GM applied Duco to models made by one of its divisions, the Oakland Motor Car Company. The "True Blue" color was the sensation of the auto shows that year.
The magazine Motor Vehicle Monthly explained why colorful cars had become such a hit: "Milady is gaily marching into the field of color selection and her selective faculty must be catered to; she knows colors, and, for the most part, quite intimately enough to give her views in selection and designing authority."
GM head Alfred P. Sloan Jr. took note. In addition to being a brilliant organizational man, Sloan was a "clothes horse" who appreciated style. The fashion preferences of female consumers were not lost on him. Within a few years, all cars made by GM were painted with colorful Duco lacquers.
By mid-decade, rival paintmakers, such as the Ditzler Color Company, were taking note and capitalizing on color. "The closed-car shows being held in New York and elsewhere show the trend unmistakably -- a number of the big producers are getting away from somber blacks and are using color," said a Ditzler advertisement in the magazine Automotive Industries. "A car finished in suitable colors catches the eye of the man in the street and sets him talking among his acquaintances. Color reaches everyone -- makes an appeal to all."
American automakers realized that color might be a winning weapon in the battle for consumer dollars. Detroit advertising agencies offered art direction to auto manufacturers who needed color advice.
DuPont hired H. Ledyard Towle, an Army veteran who learned about visual chicanery from French camoufleurs on the Western Front, to direct its color-planning division. Every year, Towle sailed to Europe to study the artistic paint jobs on display at the Olympia Auto Show in London and the Auto Salon in Paris.
Back in the U.S., Towle tutored Duco customers in French tastes. He showed coachbuilders and automakers how paint could make a boxy car look longer and a fat car look slimmer.
By 1925, brilliant paint jobs were the rage. At the New York Automobile Show, there were two-color, three-color and four-color vehicles. Different colors were used on the bodies, the moldings, the stripes, the trims, the roofs and the wheels.
Unfortunately, none of this was documented for posterity by the camera. Extant black-and-white pictures suggest only funereal shades, like those on the Model T.
Color film was still in the experimental stages.
(Regina Lee Blaszczyk is a historian affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and the author or editor of seven books, including the forthcoming "The Color Revolution." The opinions expressed are her own.)
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