Call it whatever you want. Paul Czornij calls it validation. Four years ago, the automotive color expert predicted this blend of browns, reds and oranges would become a popular one in the auto industry. Look around the floor of the Detroit Auto Show, and variations of the color, which resembles earthy mud from the bottom of a red-rock canyon, are everywhere. Buick has painted a muted version called "Copper Red Metallic" on its Regal, while Ford has developed a second version, "Copper Flame," that mixes more orange in the paint blend. Not to be outdone, Nissan has its own bold version on the Sport Sedan Concept (shown above) that draws inspiration from the shades of a Stradivarius violin.
Car enthusiasts may view an auto show through the lens of concept cars, fenders and horsepower. Czornij, officially the technical manager of the color excellence department at BASF, sees it through a spectrum of hues, sparkles and flecks of paint. Through those details, he detects trends in color and style, but more importantly, he can figure out what's going on in the world.
"Edward Snowden is going to have a big effect in the coming years on paint colors," Czornij says
Turns out, the color of your car says a lot about you. And collectively, the colors we choose as Americans say a lot about our country. "Edward Snowden is going to have a big effect in the coming years on paint colors," Czornij says, referencing the former computer programmer who leaked classified National Security Agency documents that showed how the government amassed records on thousands of private citizens. No, Czornij is not kidding. He predicts Americans will react to erosions in privacy in subconscious-yet-powerful ways. They'll select colors that carry trustworthy connotations, like blues and greens.
Events like Sept. 11 and the Great Recession also carried powerful implications for car colors, he said. Car shoppers stayed away from bold colors that might connote ostentatiousness or wealth, clearing the way for a rise in whites and silvers over the past decade.
White has been the most popular car color for three consecutive years, accounting for 25 percent of the North American market, according to an annual survey conducted by PPG Industries, a leading supplier of automotive paint. Silver and black claim 19 percent of the market, followed by gray at 12 percent.
It takes approximately four years for a new paint color to go from conception to finished product, Czornij says, so there's a lag time in colors catching up with the times. For example, even though the national economy stopped contracting in June 2009, according the National Bureau of Economic Research, it's not a surprise that bold colors are only now returning.
So what's next? In Detroit, examples are on display everywhere. In addition to the rusty red combinations popping up in Cobo Hall, Infiniti captured attention and the imagination of many at the show by displaying a new burgundy color on its Q50 Eau Rouge Concept (above). The average car gets about four coats of paint, each thinner than a human hair. On the Eau Rouge, dozens are required. The extra coats helps the vehicle achieve the appearance of a swirling glass of red wine.
Elsewhere, Czornij spots a Ford Taurus SHO on the floor that sports a nuanced coat of emerald green. Up close, he sees coarse flecks of yellow in the paint that project brightness. From a few feet away, the paint seems to change colors across curves in the hood, at once morphing from bright green to a deeper emerald to almost black. Green, he predicts, is making a comeback. It had been painted on nearly a quarter of all cars in the mid 1990s as consumers sought a way to promote environmental friendliness, but now accounts for only five percent of all car colors. He thinks it will rise again around 2018, because, like blue, it symbolizes stability and trust.
"Colors are very personal," says Czornij, who has a background in chemistry. "They can be overt or subliminal. ... Color is very subjective. If I showed you a Coke can and then took it away and asked you to select a paint chip that resembled that red, we'd all pick different chips. Maybe 20 different people would pick 20 different chips. It affects you differently than how it affects me."
White will remain popular. It signifies both eco-friendliness and technologic advancement, largely thanks to Apple's ascension, Czornij says. Affluent customers typically like to promote both qualities, he says, so many luxury car brands rely heavily on white cars. Indeed, on the floor in Detroit, Lexus and Lincoln both have displays comprised almost entirely of white cars. Both cars on the Tesla stand are white.
White signifies both eco-friendliness and technologic advancement, largely thanks to Apple's ascension
Czornij and his crew at BASF create about 65 new colors every year for automakers to evaluate. He travels the world for inspiration, eyeing cities like Shanghai and Paris. He walks Fifth Avenue in New York and the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Despite the trips that get his creative energy flowing, he knows there's always a practical consideration that looms at the crux of the decision-making process when it comes to new colors.
"Do you know what the primary factor is that affects a customer's purchase?" Czornij asks. "It's resale value. Which is why we're all so conservative with the color. You get something that's too trendy, and you're a nerd in a year."
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.