The Allure of Period Colours

by James Kraus

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Lord Brett Sinclair’s Bahama Yellow Aston Martin DBS in The Persuaders!, 1971

Ancient wisdom once held that in the vintage car market, red, white and black were the best colours for resale. However, as Bob Dylan once declared; The times they are a-changin’.

Early Porsche 911 collectors for example often seek out and pay a premium for the colours that made those cars unique to their time period: Signal Orange, Viper Green, Aubergine, Tangerine; even the more esoteric shades of Olive and Golden Green.

It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to choose out-of-the-mainstream colours. In the 60s, men had that self-confidence. Today, not so much. Nearly everyone buys contemporary automobiles in white, silver, grey, black, or if they are bit daring, dark blue. Of course, it does not help matters that few manufacturers offer much beyond this limited palette except for the ubiquitous red and the occasional highly saturated yellow. On a positive note, after an absence of nearly forty years, Porsche has just reintroduced Ivory to their roster, and the Fiat 500 and Mini occasionally exhibit interesting colouration.

The three decades from the 1950s through the 1970s each featured distinct automotive colours that succinctly captured the zeitgeist of their era. Sometimes the association occurred after the fact. I doubt that anyone in the 1950s for example would have suspected that pink cars (rare, even in-period) would come to be emblematic of the decade; nevertheless, that is what occurred. If a Hollywood director wants to evoke 1950s America, he invariably calls for a pink Cadillac or Edsel to grace the screen.

In the early 1950s, clear, crisp pastel colours were the order of the day. Pale green in particular was widely popular, being a favourite on Fiat 500’s and 600’s and the single most popular color in the U.S. in the early 1950s. Toward the later part of the decade, customers gravitated to more deeply saturated mid-tone colours including aqua, turquoise, salmon and coral red. These three shades, along with the aforementioned pink, became signature colours of the era.

Fiat 1100 103 in Verde Chiaro

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1955 Ford Sunliner in Aquatone Blue

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57 Dodge Custom Royal in Tropical Coral and Glacier White

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Renault Dauphine in Vert Claire

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Citroën ID 19 in Bleu Turquoise. Nuancier DS photo.

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Volkswagen 1200 in Coral Red

The 1960s were a multifaceted decade with the early years representing a fairly abrupt (particularly in the U.S) renunciation of the automotive excesses of the late fifties. Not only did tailfins quickly retreat, so did the brighter mid-tonal colours. Pale and medium shades of turquoise, blue and green maintained their popularity, joined by pale beiges and cool yellows.

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1962 Ford Thunderbird in Chalfonte Blue. Aqua blue was the defining colour of the late-50’s to mid-60′s period, frequently appearing in architecture, interior furnishings, apparel, automobiles and appliances. In a novel automotive application, the instrument panel of the Volvo P1800 featured aqua gauge faces from its inception in 1961 through 1969.

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Porsche 912 in Champagne Yellow

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1963 Studebaker Avanti R-1 in Green Mist Metallic

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Volkswagen 1300 in Panama Beige. Beige was a popular perennial with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and VW buyers.

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Volkswagen Type 34 Karmann Ghia in Pacific Blue. Note two-tone wheel with body-colour center used only on 1962-1963 models.

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Lancia Fulvia Coupé in Azzurro Ponsacco. This jewel-tone teal blue perfectly captures the flavor of the mid-1960’s

In the middle of the decade, rich jewel-like blues and greens grew in prominence, while greys and beiges remained strong, particularly in Europe. In the latter years, yellows, ochres and oranges became ascendant and metallic gold became a popular choice for the first time.

One colour associated with the late 1960s in the U.S. was a golden reddish-bronze metallic. It began with Ford’s Chestnut of 1962-1963 and subsequently appeared on the Chrysler Turbine car, all production models of which were painted Turbine Bronze (Ford styling chief Elwood Engle had just moved to Chrysler.)

This was followed by Ford’s mid-year 1965 introduction of Emberglo, followed a few months later by Oldsmobile’s Autumn Bronze for the new Toronado, and Cadillac’s Ember Firemist. In the spring of 1966, Chrysler began offering Turbine Bronze on standard production models.

1967 Pontiac GTO in Signet Gold Metallic

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Fiat 124 Spider in Giallo Colorado

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NSU 1000 TT in Targa Orange

1966 Mustang GT Fastback in Emberglo Metallic

1966 Oldsmobile Toronado in Autumn Bronze Metallic

In the 1970s, enthusiasm for saturated colours remained, and earth-toned colours became ascendant: apple greens, browns, burnt oranges, and intense warm ochre yellows. In contrast to the pure tones popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, many of these shades increasingly contained additions of ochre, sienna or umber adding a burnt, earthy or muddy effect.

Browns became quite pervasive in the mid-70s and remained so for the rest of the decade. While attempts have periodically been made to bring back brown, to date they have not succeeded.

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Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti in Verde Matese

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Peugeot 504 Coupé in Brun Métalisée

Renault 5 TL in Orange. This was a typical 70’s warm “burnt” orange. Notice how it differs from the clear, cool orange of the NSU above.

Volkswagen Passat LS in Panama Brown

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Audi 100 Coupé S in Corona Yellow. Note that this warm yellow contains a strong orangish brown component, marking it as a typical 70’s yellow in comparison to the cool 60’s yellows of the Porsche and Fiat shown above.

Buying a vintage car in a period-specific colour greatly heightens the nostalgic appeal of driving a piece of history. Below is a table of selected colours that are particularly evocative of their period, and often quite rare. It is by no means exhaustive.

Manufacturer Decade Model Colour
Alfa Romeo 1950s-60s Giulietta Celeste Blue
BMC 1960s Various Fiesta Yellow
Chrysler (U.S.) 1967 Various Medium Copper
1967-68 Various Turbine Bronze
1969 Various Bahama Yellow
1970s Various Sub Lime
Butterscotch/Bahama Yellow
Panther Pink/Moulin Rouge
Plum Crazy
Citroën 1950s DS Capucine
Ecaille Blonde
Bleu Turquoise
Fiat 1960s-70s Various Positano Yellow
Ford (U.S.) 1950s Various Coral Sand
1962-63 Various Peacock Blue
1963 Various Heritage Burgundy
1964 Various Samoan Coral
1965-66 Various Emberglo
1967 Various Burnt Amber
1970s Various Grabber Blue
General Motors 1964 Buick Coral Mist
1964 Pontiac Sunfire Red
1965 Cadillac Samoan Bronze
1965-69 Various WA3313 Yellow
1965-70 Various WA3307 Burgundy
1966-67 Cadillac Ember Firemist
1968 Chevrolet Corvette Bronze
Lamborghini 1960s-70s Miura Miura Green
Miura Orange
Miura Blue
Lincoln 1965-66 All Russet
1967 All Aegean Bronze
Mercedes-Benz 1960s All DB270 Blue Green
DB304 Horizon Blue
DB140 Silver Grey
DB463 Copper Metallic
DB226 Moss Green
1970s All DB504 English Red
DB581 Inca Red
DB406 Cayenne Orange
Porsche 1957-59 All Glacier White (pale green)
1960s 911-912 Bahama Yellow
Golden Green
1960s-70s 911-912 Burgundy
911-912 Signal Yellow
911-912-914 Tangerine
1970s 911 Aubergine
911-912 Lilac
911-912-914 Signal Orange
911 Rose Red
911 Viper Green
911 Leaf Green
911 Jade Green
Saab 1970s All Amber Yellow
Burnt Orange
Volkswagen 1960s Beetle Beryl Green
Bahama Blue
Sea Blue
Java Green
Beetle Cabrio Yukon Yellow
1968 1/2 Microbus Arizona Yellow
1970s Beetle Yukon Yellow
1970s Various Clementine
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9 thoughts on “The Allure of Period Colours

  1. Great commentary. I took the following photo of a Montreal at an “oldtimer” fest in Zug where every car wore period color. I was reminded of it when reading your section on the metallic bronzes of the late 60’s.

    alfa montreal

  2. I’ve conversed with many a poor soul trying to get their Alfa Romeo back to Graphite Grey, Celeste, Bluette Metallic, Olive or many others from the one-time ubiquitous Alfa Red. Well done as usual Mr. K.

    Matt

  3. To what you ascribe the decline in tolerance for rich shades? It seemed to happen after 1979 and was complete by 1985. The classic example is the way the Citroen CX had only grey and black interiors plus beige and pale blue by 1984 or thereabouts.

    • It is tough to say; perhaps it was an overreaction to the excesses of the 1970s. It seems by the end of the 1980s; and still today on many lower-priced models, that black (or worse, near-black/charcoal), beige and grey are all that is offered.

      The best of days were the mid-1960s when, for example; the Chevrolet Impala offered 15 exterior colours and 8 interior shades. Mercedes had far fewer exterior options, but even more interior colours. Lincoln offered 20 exterior shades, and 12 interior colours, all with a choice of two pleating styles!

      • My feeling is to do with sociology and economy. I think it’s to do with a swing towards conservatism which began in the mid 70s and is still ongoing. In the 1900s there was a similar general mood which Reyner Banham felt was marked by a preference for brown.

        • Brown actually declined markedly in popularity by the end of the 1980s in both automotive and architectural sectors. Brown car interiors all but disappeared until the dawn of the 21st Century.

          They were all but extinct by the end of the reign of the W126 Mercedes S-Classe for example, and they were not offered on the W140 S-Classe (1991-1998.) The closest shade to brown they made available was a taupe. Until BMW reintroduced brown leather in fall 2001, it had been decades since they offered it as a standard colour. There is a good post on brown interior nostalgia here: https://mickricereto.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/car-design-classic-brown-interiors/

          It has been the same with automotive exterior paint. Occasionally, manufacturers will tentatively offer a brown colour, but since its heyday in the 1970s, sightings of brown cars remain few and far between. In 2014 the percentage of brown cars sold in Europe accounted for around 3%, and 2% in the U.S. The cool colours of black/grey/silver and white continue to dominate.

          I don’t recall Reyner Banham’s commentary on brown; in which book was it? Given your feelings on modernism, I think you would enjoy Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus To Our House (1981.)

          • Thanks for the reference. I have worshipped Jane Jacobs so I hope that’s enough anti-Modernism for me (I have form on this topic).
            Brown was the last warm or rich colour after bordeaux, orange, green and navy were deleted from the interior colour schemes. I think Peugeot offered the 406 with a tan interior in 1995. The designers want to offer more colour but uptake is not sufficient. For a change it’s the public who drive this disappointing trend.

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