The Colourful World of Mid-Century Motive Power

James Kraus

1964 Buick Riviera with optional 425 (7.0 litre) twin-carb Super Wildcat Nailhead V8 in aqua with black air cleaner accented in red. “465” was the torque output in ft/lbs.

Recently, Corvette fans have been excited by the appearance of red-painted valve covers on the new C8 Sting Ray; the first dash of colour in the Corvette engine compartment since the red plastic beauty covers of the 2013 C6 Z06. Unfortunately, GM chose a rather Ferrari-esque red rather than the traditional red-orange used on Chevrolet V8s since 1955 including such renowned versions as the fuel-injected 327, the 409, 396 and 427.

Their enthusiasm is no doubt due to the fact that a gaze into contemporary engine bays will generally reward the onlooker with little more excitement than a stylized black and silver moulded-plastic beauty cover with maybe some raw cast-aluminium parts poking through.

In stark contrast, mid-20th century engine compartments displayed a rainbow of colour. Brightly coloured engines in fact date back to the very first car, the 1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen with its powerplant finished in gleaming red enamel with polished brass ancillaries.

The most flamboyantly coloured automotive engines appeared from the mid-fifties through the mid-sixties. Let’s have a look:

1954 Lincoln Capri 317 (5.2 litre) V8 in green and gold.

1955 Ford Fairlane powered by optional 292 (4.8 litre) Thunderbird Y-Block V8 in red, silver and black.

Same engine as above in a 1955 Mercury Sun Valley, this time finished in mustard-yellow and white and marketed as a 292 Super-Torque V8.

1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III with massive green and ivory Ford MEL 430 (7.0 litre) V8, the largest passenger car engine in the world at the time.

1959 Studebaker Lark VIII Regal with 259 (4.2 litre) V8 in silver and red.

1959 Ford Fairlane 500 with optional  332 (5.4 litre) Thunderbird Special V8 in black with aqua valve covers and air cleaner. A pop of red is provided by the Ford See Clear windscreen-washer reservoir bag.

1960 Cadillac with 390 (6.4 litre) V8 in navy blue. The large gold air cleaner hides the triple carburetors of the optional Eldorado engine.

1960 Ford Thunderbird with optional MEL 430 (7.0 litre) Thunderbird Special V8 in black with yellow valve covers and white air cleaner.

1960 Chrysler 300F 413 (6.8 litre) cross-ram V8 in black with red intake manifolds and gold air cleaners.

Jaguar XK-150 S 3.8 litre twin-cam six in black with Pumpkin Orange cylinder head.

1961 Ford Starliner with optional 390 (6.4 litre) Thunderbird Super V8 in black with raw aluminium intake manifold and pale gold valve covers and air cleaner cover.

1962 Chevrolet Impala with optional high-output dual quad 409 (6.7 litre) V8 in traditional Chevrolet V8 red-orange with raw aluminum intake manifold and nickel-colored valve covers. As immortalized in song by The Beach Boys.

1966 Dodge Charger with optional 383 (6.3 litre) V8 in aqua.

MGB powered by a 1.8 BMC 18GB-Series engine in classic MG Maroon. Replaced with generic black on ’72 models.

1966 Oldsmobile 442 with 400 (6.6 litre) V8 in bronze with chrome-plated air cleaner.

1966 Oldsmobile Toronado with 425 (7 litre) Rocket V8 in metallic silver-blue with blue-accented air cleaner.

1968 Lancia Fulvia Rallye Coupé powered by a 1.3 litre 12-degree V4 in black with distinctive HF-spec two-tone yellow and blue cam cover.

One of the biggest moves away from colour occurred in the fall of 1965 when Ford dropped their rainbow of engines in favour of an across-the-board switch to Ford Corporate Blue on ’66 U.S. models for every single engine regardless of displacement or power output, and no matter whether it was installed in a Ford, Mercury or Lincoln.

1965 Ford Mustang with 289 4V A-Code V8 in black with metallic gold valve covers and air cleaner as compared to 1966 version finished entirely in Ford Blue.

Prior to the monotonous ubiquity of Ford Blue, Mustang engines all featured gloss-black block and heads differentiated by coloured valve covers and air cleaner housings. In 1965 for example, the 200 (3.3 litre) six featured red accents, the 289 (4.7 litre) 2V, blue, and the 289 4V gold.

In common with automotive exteriors of the last few decades, internal-combustion engine compartments have largely become uniformly monochromatic; and the only colour generally seen in electric car propulsion systems is the orange protective covering used to sheath their high-voltage cables.

4 thoughts on “The Colourful World of Mid-Century Motive Power

  1. Here is an interesting straight-six on a 1954 Citroēn Traction Avant 15/6 H. The 11 also had green engines.

    Same on this Renault 4cv. which was similar on the Dauphine.

    Green seems to have been popular in Europe at that time.

    But the latest fad today is to have coloured wires or even better, pipes, preferably same colour as the car.

  2. Don’t forget about the beautiful Pontiac engines of the 1960s in metallic blue.

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