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Fifty Shades of Grey


About six weeks ago, I replaced my car. I like to buy used cars that are coming off two-year leases on the theory that they have been reasonably well cared for, still have low mileage and because their prices have already dropped precipitously (more than 10 percent depreciation the day they are first driven off the lot and more than 20 percent by the end of the first 12 months).

It’s a theory that has worked well for me over the years but it does have one significant drawback—you cannot pick the color you prefer. If the price is right and the car is sound, I buy it. The car I traded in was silver; the one I bought was grey.

In reality, the car I bought is blah—boring! The shape of its body is almost identical to every other sedan on the road. Its color is complex enough—I think it looks like the rich gray coat on my Russian Blue kitten—but that is the best I can say for it. I have done what I can with seat covers to make it mine but the fact remains that I cannot pick it out in a parking lot without flashing its lights or getting close enough to see the license plate.

As I rode home from the dealership, I watched other cars on the road and realized that I was far from being alone. A steady cavalcade of grey, silver, white and black vehicles passed me. Occasionally, a red truck would stand out but even the blue cars I saw tended to be of a dark—almost black—hue. Indeed, almost 86 percent of the cars on the road today are somewhere on the spectrum from white to black and my family has not been able to avoid the syndrome: my husband’s last two vans have been black, my nephew’s pickup is silver, my sister and brother-in-law drive gray vehicles and my brother’s car is, what else, grey. We just gave our granddaughter a little gray Hyundai.

Why, I wondered, when cars are marketed as magic carpets designed to carry us off on wonderful adventures, driving over terrain where no reasonable car owner would ever go, why, then, are they so nondescript? Why so monochromatic? The answer Kelly Blue Book gives us is that we are attracted to silver and grey tones because of our affinity for technology (as in the brushed chrome of laptop computers) and because “silver and techno-gray seem to accentuate the angular, ‘new-edge design’ of the latest luxury sport vehicles.”

That white has also made a comeback—particularly for SUV’s—is partly attributed to Apple, according to Barb Whalen, designer manager of color and materials at Ford Motor Company. She writes that, though you might think white is a boring color, Apple “helped that trend move on.”

Those who think personalities play a role in color choices argue that white is chosen by people who like to present “a fresh, young, modern face to the outside world.” That’s not what I think when I see a white vehicle, probably because many appear very grungy all winter. White is also supposed to suggest that you have taste and elegance, according to Marcie Cooperman, a professor of color theory at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City.

Experts contend that black—long the number-one color for luxury vehicles—is the sophisticate’s color, “declaring itself as important, classic and in control”; silver signifies “high status”; gray is for the driver “who doesn’t want to stand out” but still wants to denote dignity, tradition and maturity; red projects action, power and masculinity (confidence and fun in women); while blue speaks of “stability, truthfulness and serenity.” Brown or beige—well, they speak for themselves. The buyer presumably wants “value and long-life in his purchases and doesn’t care about trends or fads.”

Yellow is seen as a “happy” color and is attractive to men (men preferred yellow cars 34 percent more often than women did). “In a 2016 study, men also liked orange vehicles more than women, by 33 percent.” Read this last sentence literally and we may have a clue as to why America’s birth rate is at its lowest level in 32 years.

Okay, that’s what the experts say. I think there are other factors at work, most of them economic. The rest, I believe, can be found in the stress Americans feel in today’s world.

I suspect it is cheaper to paint large numbers of cars in the same neutral colors and customers have been persuaded that they are easier to trade in. Bright colors can feel risky for drivers and if your vehicle is, say, bright purple, you might have a harder time selling it.

Henry Ford famously said that buyers could have his Model T in any color they wanted—as long as it was black. Ford, not a very pleasant chap, was not just projecting his sour disposition however. He was reflecting the reality of paints in his day. He developed asphalt-based enamels in dark colors that lasted longer, fit in with his assembly line process and shortened drying times.

As paint technology progressed, color blossomed on cars but Ford’s monochromatic approach to car color was hard to shake off entirely. Then came the Great Depression, followed by World War II, and the nation’s mood plunged. Colors got dimmer, more depressing, turning to somber greens and grays.

That moods can affect one’s affinity for color was demonstrated in a recent experiment. When asked what color they were drawn to, about 30 percent of people with anxiety picked a shade of gray, as did more than half of depressed volunteers. In comparison, healthy volunteers chose a shade of gray only about 10 percent of the time. Look at the roadways and it is easy to believe we are an anxious, depressed people in this time of strife, division and environmental peril.

Relief from stress can bring an explosion of color as in the wake of World War II (remember pink Cadillacs?). Although the shades toned down a bit over the years that followed, a taste for color in cars didn't entirely disappear. In 1976, the year of America's bicentennial and a pretty hopeful time, the most popular car colors were red, white and blue.

Colors again faded with the Great Recession of 2008 and here we are, flooded with blah-colored cars that marketers want us to believe evoke feelings of luxury and sophistication. I am ready for a change. I want our cars to reflect the rainbow that is our society. I want freedom of choice, of gay colors and different styles, not just a “thin gray line” of cars that all look alike.

My very first car was a tiny sedan imported from Germany. It was called a DKW (Das Kleine Wunder), and was lime-green with bug-eyed headlights and a two-stroke engine that loved to go at full throttle. I called it “The Frog” because, with its short-wheel base, it hopped down the road scaring my future husband to death.

It was such a one-of-a-kind in this country that my father had to create the parts needed to repair it. It often needed his tender ministrations. One time, when my brother was driving it, he was stopped for speeding and the officer inquired, “Is this a Triumph?” “No,” my brother replied, “It’s a disaster.”

Indeed, it was. But, oh, was it fun!