I recently found myself, inexplicably, in a fashionable nightclub. Or as fashionable a nightclub as Birmingham allows. I was the oldest person there, but what struck me about all the bright young things bopping around middle-aged me – in those rare moments when they weren’t taking selfies with their smartphones to post on Facebook – was how boringly dressed they were. Almost everyone was wearing white and black. It was like a catering after-party.
Or, indeed, like the M6 that had brought me there earlier. White, you see, is now the UK’s ‘favourite’ new car ‘colour’, accounting for 22 per cent of sales last year – 550,000 new ghost cars – followed by black at 19 per cent. Grey is in third place with 14 per cent, silver in fourth with 13 per cent.
I put ‘favourite’ and ‘colour’ in quotes because, of course, white is not anyone’s favourite colour. It’s not even a colour. Nor is black. They are an absence of colour. Grey/silver is an achromatic mix of both absences. Which is precisely why people choose them. You can go wrong with colours. Glaringly wrong.
Today everyone, like the youngsters in the nightclub, is terrified of being tasteless. Or not being ‘cool’. Of giving too much away. So everyone is being drearily sensible. Which isn’t actually very cool at all. This may also explain why the UK’s top selling car models last year were Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, Vauxhall Corsa, VW Golf and Vauxhall Astra. Want a portrait of the UK today? Here’s a white Ford Fiesta.
White cars, precisely because they have no colour, are better at disguising dings and chips and dirt – their blandness blinds you to their imperfections. They also reportedly hold about five per cent more of their value from new than the market average for used cars; which can be several hundred pounds after three years. In austerity Britain this seems to be a ‘primary’ factor in new car purchases.
But then, everyone is now living in a house with white walls, white bathrooms, white kitchens and white bed linen. It seems we’ve all been visited by one of those bossy TV ‘house doctors’ that tell you to dump your personality in a skip.
People choose a white car because it ‘doesn’t clash’ with their white lives. Forget White Van Man, here comes White Goods Man.
Some have suggested that the phenomenal rise in popularity of white cars – back in 2007 they accounted for just 1.1 per cent of sales – is down to Apple and the minimalist whiteness of their ‘cool’ products which have invaded our lives over the last decade. Perhaps a generation has been brainwashed into believing that white is ‘cool’ (rather than just cold). But it represents much more than this – a changing attitude towards cars themselves. They’re now accessory-gadgets rather than vehicles. ‘Mobiles’ rather than motors. Their Bluetooth functionality more important than their engine capacity.
While at least silver, last decade’s favourite ‘colour’, recognised and celebrated cars as machines, white cars seem to suggest digital boxes with wheels.
True, ‘neutral’ colours are kind of where we began with our love affair with the mass-market motor car. Henry T Ford famously dictated you could have any colour so long as it was black. But he only made that stipulation after discovering black took less time to dry – and, in the earlier part of the 20th Century, car painting/varnishing techniques were laborious, taking many coats and even more days. Less time meant less costs which meant cheaper cars which meant more sales.
But even Mr Ford only made this monochromatic stipulation from 1915 until 1926, when demand and also increasing competition saw him reintroduce colour to his cars. The 1920s were a flamboyant, flapper time for car colours. Depression and then war painted the 1930s and 1940s dull. The rocking 1950s saw the introduction of pastels and two and three tone colours.
The swinging 1960s wore shiny metallic paints, including groovy gold. The glam 1970s were verdant with greens, browns and, er, mustard orange. The power-mad 1980s were signal red, metallic black and cobalt blue. The raving 1990s were metallic teal. Which may help explain why, by the Noughties, sensible silver had become dominant.
Today’s paint technology, having evolved spectacularly from the horse and carriage varnishing techniques employed on early cars, is able to deliver breath-taking, vivid colours of hypnotic depth and clarity, along with impressive durability and affordability. Which makes it bitterly ironic that colour has apparently become something you can only afford to risk if you’re an Oligarch, a professional footballer or Katie Price.
But perhaps penny-pinching economics, and safety concerns, will change the colour of cars again – or rather, reintroduce colour. And what a colour! Light yellow-green is the most visible tint for vehicles in all-weather conditions, particularly for that vital WHAT-THE-BLAZES?! peripheral vision. Cars in this ‘wincesome’ hue are, unsurprisingly, much less likely to be overlooked.
People willing to endure it may end up with lower insurance premiums. Or maybe a future government, looking for further reductions in road accidents and having noted that the public has given up on choosing colours for their new cars, might offer drivers VED reductions for adopting it. In which case, the future might be chartreuse.
And everything is going to clash with it. If not actually crash into it.
But it’s still better than white.
- Guest Blogger: Mark Simpson. Journalist, Writer and Broadcaster