The latter half of the 1950s was a jubilant, optimistic era when life was comfortable and the future looked bright. In Britain, post-war food rationing was gone, France was enjoying the height of Les Trente Glorieuses and Germany was celebrating its Wirtschaftswunder. In the U.S., Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Abstract Expressionism, Modernist architecture and Cool Jazz catapulted New York to the global epicentre of the intersecting worlds of art and commerce.
Not surprisingly, the colour black was not widely embraced. Morose and funereal, it had little place in popular culture of the day. With the exception of artists and beatniks, men generally avoided black attire excepting their dinner suit and possibly a grenadine or knitted tie à la James Bond.
While many classic Modernist furniture pieces by Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Eames, Jacobsen, Noguchi, Nelson and others were offered in black, the colour failed to garner favour among the masses.
In the automotive sphere black was likewise a hard sell. It tended to surface mainly on the upholstery of cabriolets, convertibles and roadsters. Open cockpits were magnets for dirt and debris, and black interiors could hide a multitude of sins.
Otherwise there was little enthusiasm for black upholstery even in overtly sporting machinery. Porsche never offered a black interior in the 356 Coupé until September of 1959. Mercedes-Benz offered black leather on their 190 SL Coupé, but only in combination with white, ivory or light green bodywork.
As an exterior finish, black paint was most commonly seen sharing the spotlight in a mutli-colour scheme.
In the 1960s, black as an automotive colour began rising in popularity, but not where you might expect. At the dawn of the decade the use of black as an automotive accent colour took hold. It began inauspiciously as a trim element symbolizing enhanced performance with the debut of the 1960 Chrysler 300-F.
The new 300 featured a black grill, described by Chrysler as sports-bred (in homage to the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL perhaps), to distinguish the muscular F from the more sedate Saratoga, Windsor and New Yorker. The grill of the previous 300-E was red, a bit flamboyant for conservative Chrysler aficionados.
Two years later, the 1962 Corvette sported a new black anodized aluminium grill, and Pontiac introduced the Grand Prix, a sporting version of their Catalina. Along with a variety of performance and aesthetic embellishments, the G/P featured a pair of blacked-out front grilles. In the autumn of ’62, a new sport version of the Pontiac Tempest; the Le Mans, was introduced. It too received the black grill treatment.
In 1963, as a number of rallyists began experimenting with glare-reducing black-painted windscreen wipers and bonnets/hoods, the Ford Consul Cortina developed by Lotus made its debut, with a black-painted grille to differentiate it from standard Cortinas.
General Motors began embellishing more performance offerings with touches of black paint. Chevrolet bestowed the 1965 Chevelle Malibu SS with a black front grille and black-accented rear cove trim, and added a black trim strip across the stern of the Impala SS.
With the release of 1966 models, the use of black accents to differentiate performance versions from lesser stablemates was becoming a definite trend, now appearing on the Buick Skylark Gran Sport, Ford Fairlane GT, Mercury Cyclone, NSU 1000 TT; and S, SR and Rallye versions of the Opel Kadett.
The Kadett Rallye also emulated the matte-black hood of rally cars, leading to a host of imitators.
The idea of black as a metaphor for enhanced performance gained significant momentum in March of 1966 at the Salon International de l’Auto in Geneva with the debut of the Lamborghini Miura. Except for the silver painted sills, every exterior detail on the Miura was black in lieu of the usual chrome: grills, bumpers, window frames, lamp bezels and windscreen wipers; even badging.
By the end of the decade, more sporting variants gained black accoutrements: the Dodge Coronet R/T, Plymouth GTX and Road Runner all received a myriad of black appliqués. In Germany the BMW 2002 and 2800 CS and Opel Commodore GS received the now de rigueur black grill treatment. Even mainstream models began embracing the black grille look with the Audi 72 and Opel Rekord leading the charge.
Meanwhile, a similar black trend was manifesting itself in the cockpit. Jaguar’s E-Type, which began life with an instrument panel graced with a centre-section of silver dot-textured aluminium, went the matte black route in 1963.
Oldsmobile’s Jetstar I and Starfire traditionally shared the brushed-aluminium instrument panel trim of the standard 88 models. For 1965, these sporting variants received special matte black leather-grained trim.
Black-upholstered interiors began gaining in popularity. In the U.S. black was usually paired with a contrasting colour in the early years of the decade to avoid the somewhat dreary ambiance of an all-black environment.
In sync with the popularity of black exterior embellishments, the all-black interior was often introduced via sporting models. In 1964 for example, a full-black interior was available for the Dodge Dart, but only in GT models. Likewise the Chevrolet Chevelle offered black in 1964 and 1965 for SS versions only.
Beginning with 1966 models, black upholstery was available for the first time in the VW Beetle and Citroën DS. Two years later, the BMC Mini Cooper received its first black interior.
By decade’s end, most vehicles offered the increasingly popular option of black upholstery, but it was not until 1969 that one could order a black interior in the Cadillac Fleetwood 75. In prior years, black was available in the 75 only for the chauffeur’s section up front; the cheap seats.
While black was finding increasing popularity in the form of exterior accents and interior furnishings, it was still eschewed as an exterior paint colour. For the 1966 model year, only 3.0% of Porsches received a coating of black kunstharz enamel. Two years later a mere 2.5% of Corvettes left the factory dressed in black. In both cases it was the least popular colour offered.
Ian Fleming’s Studebaker Avanti and Jay Sebring’s Porsche 911 notwithstanding, black cars in the 1960s were largely the preserve of funeral directors, clergymen, livery vehicles, London taxis, French government officials and Old Order Mennonites.
Black as night, black as coal – Mick Jagger/Keith Richards
In the following decades, the incorporation of black took a darker turn. Exterior accents suggesting high performance in the 1960s gave way to wholesale slathering of black paint and black plastic on cars of every sort while the sober colour simultaneously became ubiquitous on home audio and photographic equipment.
Black exterior trim increasingly outgrew its sporting connotations, morphing out of control as an increasing number of manufacturers eventually made everything attached to the car black, resulting in the colour often accounting for a good 15% of exterior tonality.
Worse sins were committed in the interior as door hardware, control knobs and instrument bezels were all transitioned to black. In many cases, the only relief in a black interior came via instrument panel graphics, gauge needles and seat belt release buttons.
We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness – Joseph Conrad
Here is how the black interior of the VW Beetle devolved in just five years from 1967 to 1972:
Another example; the BMW 2002/3-Series from 1967 to 1998.
Simultaneous with increasingly sombre interiors was a growing demand for black paint. Black slowly rose from the bottom of the pack in the 1960s to the second most popular exterior colour in the 1990s.
While black paint remains popular in the 21st Century, drivers have grown weary of interiors recalling the bowels of a Wehrmacht pillbox.
Volkswagen initially brought back some interior highlights with nickel-coloured trim on the Golf LS MkI to relieve the gloom, but then later backslid into the abyss until the arrival of the MkV of 2003 that reintroduced bright accents last seen in 1960s Beetles.
BMW offered a return to sixties elegance with the introduction of the E46 (1998-2006) 3-Series. Matte chrome gauge rings were available, as were interior trims of metallic paint or brushed aluminium.
Luckily both designers and consumers have rekindled an appreciation of the stylish aesthetics of the mid-1960s, and cars with non-accented all-black interiors are generally saleable only at the lowest end of the price scale.
On the other hand; black paint still hangs in at second place in global popularity, often resulting in some streets occasionally calling to mind the melancholic monochromaticity of a Ford dealer showroom circa 1920.