Colour by Numbers

car colours

Today’s new cars offer unrivalled options and exciting technology but all of it is increasingly wrapped up in a seemingly limitless spectrum of wintery greys and charcoals when it comes to the choice of colours on the dealer’s floor. Not so when it comes to classic cars which offer a range of exciting hues that were ‘so of their time’ when the models were new. SentiMETAL takes a look at some of the most inspiring period shades.

By: Graeme Hurst 

‘Any colour as long as it’s black.’ It’s a famous quote made by Henry Ford – the man who pioneered mass car production with the advent of his iconic Model T – to his sales staff.  The reason? It was the quickest drying colour and time was money in Henry’s world. A world where the customer was so grateful for a car to be within his financial reach, the colour didn’t matter one iota.

Of course, 15 million Model Ts had old Henry enjoying the last laugh but, fast-forward to the 1960s, and cars were prolific. And the same customer had plenty of car showrooms vying to take his cash. Ford Motor Co was the first to appreciate the value of colour options as a personalised marketing offering with the launch of the Mustang – the brainchild of Lee Iacocca who coined the Stang’s catchy ‘designed to be designed by you’ strapline.

And with 23 colour choices such as Prairie Bronze and Twilight Turquoise – along with nearly 50 different interior trim colour and configuration options he wasn’t far off the mark; dealers used to joke that no two of the nearly half a million sold in the first year were alike!


Ford didn’t have carte blanche, mind: the other members of the Big Three weren’t far behind and for the same model year as the Stang you could get the keys to a Corvette in Nassau Blue or Riverside Red – both colours inspired by the race circuits that helped fill Chevrolet’s trophy cabinet – while one of Chrysler’s mighty Buick Rivieras (surely one of the coolest cars ever?) could be ordered in the exotic-sounding hues of Seafoam Green or Midnight Blue. 

Across the pond the British car scene had a similar awakening with Jaguar’s sexy new E-type available in a variety of metallic shades such as Opalescent Blue and Golden Sand….both perfect for making a statement while cruising down London’s fashionable Kings Road in the Swinging Sixties. The colours – which were in addition to the famous BRG (British Racing Green) were rather daring in comparison to the olive-hued Suede Green and restrained Cotswold Blue of the company’s offerings just a decade before.

Jaguar E-Type

The famous Coventry carmaker got even braver in the 1970s when it added Serise – a slightly dusty version of bright pink – to its colour palette for the V12 E-type while the Jaguar XJS of Simon Templar (of the TV series The Saint fame) was available in Squadron Blue or Carriage Brown – the latter an ever-so-70s mid-brown metallic shade.

Not to be outdone, European carmakers had plenty to offer the man-about-town after a continental-crossing Gran Turismo such as Alfa Romeo’s gorgeous Montreal (a must in Orange AR 601) or one of the Maserati-engined Citroën SMs which – let’s face it – simply sound extra sexy in French, as the names Vert des Tropiques (Tropical Green) or Feuille Dorée (Lemon Yellow) attest.

Rival marque Mercedes-Benz wasn’t far behind with the iconic Thistle Green available for its R107 ‘SL’ series while the mighty 6.9-litre 450SEL ‘Q car’ could be yours in Cayenne Orange or Topaz Brown among others.

Mercedes-Benz 6.9

Porsche came to the ’70s party too with the likes of its Casablanca Beige and Tobacco (both in metallic) for its radical and European Car of the Year-winning 928 while the Stuttgart favourite, the ageing 911, sported similar finishes with Cashmere Beige and Kupfer Diamant (Copper Brown).

It might surprise Ferrari fans to know that the famous Maranello marque –seemingly de rigueur in Rosso Corsa (red) and Giallo Fly (yellow) – was quite into browns too: its iconic 246 GTS ‘Dino’ was available in Marrone Metallizzato while Marrone Colorado was a similar choice for those with pockets deep enough for a 365 GTC/4.

Ferrari Dino

Not to be outdone, Rolls-Royce – the pinnacle of automotive luxury – enjoyed a surprisingly wide palette for its Shadow which was available in some eye-catching bright hues including Peacock Blue, Regency Bronze and Onyx (a sort of mid-green metallic) for celebrity owners happy to be seen. More restrained, long-standing colours were available for ‘old money’ types too, including Smoke Green and Shell Grey, while the Royal-family’s favourite, Claret, was an option.


Fast-forward to the 1980s and those colours gave way to whites and reds for performance car manufacturers in the era of conspicuous consumption that reflected the excess of the time. The massive tea-tray rear spoiler and wide arches on Porsche’s 911 Turbo were fitting for its popular Guards Red finish while the other icon of excess, Lamborghini’s Countach, was on offer in vibrant shades such as Blue Tahiti Metallic.

Mercedes ad

Luxury car makers like Mercedes-Benz were understandably more restrained on the colour front but the choice of names back then was intriguing: remember the print ad run that suggested an owner could enjoy as much as 500,000km from 6-litres of Petrol. Or Champagne. Not a reference to fuel or a nod to the driver’s drinking habit but two of the subtle 14 colours on offer for the discerning owner of one of the world’s finest automobiles.

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