by James Kraus
Since the dawn of the first horseless carriages, automobiles have been accented by shimmering metallic highlights. The earliest period of motoring is in fact popularly known as the Brass Era due to early radiators, acetylene headlamps and other accoutrements being constructed of brass, or protected by brass plating to resist high temperatures and corrosion. Brass was largely superseded by polished nickel plating in the early 1920s, producing a more durable surface and increased tarnish resistance. Finally, nickel was replaced by chromium which offered the advantages of being nearly tarnish and maintenance free.
Chrome (or visually similar stainless steel and clear-anodised aluminium) remained the unchallenged exterior trim finish of choice until 1951. While playwright George S. Kaufman was putting the final touches on what was to become the hit Broadway show The Solid Gold Cadillac, Cadillac executives decided to celebrate the firm’s golden anniversary by fitting all their upcoming 1952 models with gold-plated “V”s front and rear and gold-winged Cadillac crests to stand sentry at each side of the front grille.
Originally intended for just the 1952 50th anniversary models, the gold trim proved so popular that the golden “V”s remained a feature of Cadillacs for seven years.
By 1954, gold enlivened model name scripts at Cadillac and made an appearance on the new Mercury Sun Valley. Across the ocean, Ford announced the new Zodiac, a top-line version of the Zephyr. It was distinguishable from its lesser brethren by gold badging on the front, back and sides.
Buick, Lincoln, Packard, Pontiac and Studebaker utilized gold scripting to differentiate their premium 1955 models, and in Europe, Porsche and Alfa Romeo began employing gold model badging.
1956 proved to be a watershed year for gold.
Cadillac decided to go all in on their 1956 lineup with expanded use of gold detailing and an optional gold-anodized aluminium grille and available gold-anodized Sabre-Spoke alloy wheels.
Plymouth introduced a new limited-edition Fury, which was made available only in white with contrasting gold wheel cover trim and grille mesh. In Sweden, Volvo launched their new 122 featuring gold badging.
In the fall of ’56, the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 debuted and the Plymouth Fury was restyled. Both cars incorporated large chrome-framed side accent panels of textured gold-anodised aluminium.
The 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air was differentiated from lower-line siblings by golden trim elements and grille mesh. By this time most high-end versions of U.S. cars employed at least a touch of gold with usage peaking in 1958 and 1959. The swan song was the ’59 De Soto Adventurer.
As the 1959 Cadillac marked the peak of tail fins, the 1959 Adventurer marked the pinnacle of gold decorative elements. American manufacturers began scaling back extravagant use of gold in 1960, coincident with the rapid de-escalation of tail fins. As a result, gold finishes returned to being featured primarily on badging.
By mid-decade only a few traces of gold trim and badging remained. The last American car to be embellished with gold scripting during the era was the Chrysler New Yorker.
In Europe; where gold was used with more discretion, it enjoyed continuing popularity. By the dawn of the decade, Fiat, Lancia, NSU, Renault, Simca and Vauxhall had all embraced gold badging, most often as an exclusive garnish for high-end models or top-of-the-range versions.
Alfa Romeo discontinued gold in 1962 when the Giulia replaced the Giulietta; but new applications appeared on the NSU Wankel Spider and Porsche 911 in 1964, the same year Goldfinger premiered starring a memorable villain who loved only gold.
The latter half of the sixties saw a number of manufacturers begin reducing the role of gold badging as a stylish design flourish with the exception of Citroën, who adopted the imperious metal in 1966 for the DS 21. The new model heralded its presence by proudly brandishing gold chevrons and nomenclature.
Citroën and Porsche would be the last Continental manufacturers to showcase the noble colour.
Porsche continued the use gold throughout the 1960s but switched all model identification to black-anodized aluminium in the fall of 1971 (except for North American-bound VW-Porsche 914’s) just two weeks after the United States announced the end of international convertibility of the dollar to gold bullion. Citroën reverted to chrome badging in 1973.
The seductive glow of gold was not limited to interior and exterior use during the golden years; the brilliant colour also manifested itself in the engine bay.
In the early 1970s, gold trim all but disappeared, only to enjoy a brief resurgence in the form of gold-finished alloy wheels, a trend initiated by the Lamborghini Miura S (with matching sills) and Lancia Stratos.
This is gold, Mr. Bond. All my life I’ve been in love with its colour… its brilliance… its divine heaviness… - Auric Goldfinger