It is the first thing you see when you go to get in your car. It is the last thing you see when you leave your car. It is the most expensive part of the car. Most importantly, it was the single largest factor you used to select your car. Make, model, mileage and motor all take a back seat when it comes to the quality and color of the finish. As demanding consumers we buy with our eyes. So how did we get to the incredible colors and high gloss of today’s vehicle paints?
BACK TO THE EARLY 1900s — LET’S VARNISH IT BLACK
The history of automotive paint dates back to just after the turn of the century. It is true that
the process of coating metal, wood and stone surfaces dates back much further. However, we have to
acknowledge that a true vehicle related coating began about 1900. It came of age about 1910, roughly
6 years after Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company.
These coatings were products from the “varnish”
category. Most were a carry over from the horse and buggy days. Much like old wood coatings, they
were brushed on the surface and allowed to dry. The coating was then sanded smooth and refinished in
the same manner. When a desired thickness was achieved the surface was polished. In many cases the
process of painting a car took as long as 40 days. These products were not colorful.
always said, “You can have a car any color you like as long as it is “black.’”
This system was used
until the mid 1920s.
1930s — STOVING ENAMELS & A DENTIST INVENTS THE SPRAY GUN
During the early 30s the auto
industry started using “stoving enamels” based on alkyd resins. Initially the product was applied
much like the “varnish” used earlier. These enamels were originally selected because of a higher
gloss yield than varnish. They were also thicker and applied a little faster. Then somewhere between
1930 and 1940 a dentist developed the “spray gun.”
The spray gun application was much faster than
the brush method. It minimized sanding between coatings and applied the product evenly. Now, what
used to take over a month, could be done in a third of the time. This product and process was the
system of choice for most vehicle manufacturers until the 1950s.
1950s — NEW ACRYLICS & BAKE AT 360 FOR AN HOUR
In early 1955, General Motors started to work
with a new raw material supplier. In doing so they chose a different kind of enamel paint product.
Here instead of the early alkyd resins they chose to start using new acrylics. This product was used
in a process that GM called “reflow.”
The coating was applied to the vehicle surface with a spray
gun. At that point the product, still wet, contained a large amount of solvents. Baking the vehicle
in a large oven caused the solvents to evaporate and the product to flow to a uniform smooth finish.
There was some gloss, but not quite up to the level of stoving enamels.
Nevertheless, it was quick
and efficient. Saving time was a way to save money and build a product faster. So “reflow acrylics”
became the popular system until 1960.
1960s — FORD SAYS “THE EYES HAVE IT”
In 1960 the Ford
Motor Company went back to the stoving methods. They did this after realizing that consumers made a
vehicle purchase using their eyes and not their heads. There was no denying it — Americans liked a
Ford also decided that they liked many of the properties that the early acrylic resins
provided. They went to work with yet another new group of suppliers to create “acrylic stoving
enamels.” At this point Ford had the best method to offer the consumer and it wasn’t long before the
competition kept pace.
This product was also applied with a spray gun. It had a very high gloss, was
durable and was oven cured to produce a hard and colorful surface. This process was popular
throughout the industry into the early 70s.
1970s — IMPROVEMENTS GALORE – JAPAN AND EUROPE MAKE CONTRIBUTIONS
Japanese cars began to become
popular in the 1970s and so too were the paints that they used. Japanese and the Europeans had
begun application of two-coat acrylic painting systems too numerous to list here. They were also
successful at providing the consumer with metallics or metal flake paints. This was something unique
and different and Americans loved it.
Later in the decade manufacturers were looking for harder
paints. They wanted more resilient elements that could dry faster. The answers were found in
products that reacted with each other to enhance drying rather than wait for total solvent
evaporation. A “cross-linking” free radical additive is included in the formula. At the time of use,
a catalyst is added to the paint.
The product is sprayed on and the process of curing begins. This
process became more popular for larger vehicles like airplanes and fire engines. It is still in use
today in both Acrylic Enamels and newer Polyurethane products. However, it is cost prohibitive for
automotive applications. The most popular brand name in the industry is Du Pont™ Imron.
COMPETITION DRIVES DEVELOPMENT OF THE 5-YEAR CLEAR COAT
In the mid 70s the number of raw material
suppliers to the paint industry had grown. Names like BASF, Du Pont™, Ditzsler, PPG and hundreds
more. This enabled the manufacturer to pick the best process and product for the job. Today’s Base
Coat/Clear Coat, and BaseCoat/Tint Coat painting processes were experimental at the time. The goal
was to improve gloss and depth of color.
By the late 70s these processes were perfected. However
durability of the Clear Coat was poor. Not until the 80s would manufacturers have confidence in
these paint systems. The carmakers needed Clear Coats to last 5 years. This was a magic number
because that’s how long consumers usually kept new cars.
CLEANER PAINT — CLEANER ENVIRONMENT
Also, somewhere between the years of 1975 and 1985 the
government got curious and concerned about paint content. Just what were the ingredients in paint
systems? How did those ingredients affect people, the planet and our atmosphere? In response, the
industry went to work on lowering the amount of Volatile Organic Compounds (solvents).
began experiments with paint using water-based systems. These products were not very successful and
were produced and tested mainly to help California with their smog problem.
1980’S — IMPROVEMENTS AND GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT BRINGS CHANGES
The late 1980s saw major changes
for makers of painting systems. All were hoping to capture market share with the big three
automakers. Two and three stage “clear coat” and “tint coat” systems were popular on cars. However,
for their rugged durability, the old standby acrylic enamels and polyurethanes were still in wide
use on trucks and SUV’s.
The late 80s and early 90s brought about rapid, extreme changes in the
industry. New laws were enacted that governed the content and application of paints. Auto
manufacturers were scrutinized due to the large volume of product they used. With the assistance of
suppliers, the painting processes were changed.
The amounts of “volatile organic compounds” were
lowered once again by government mandate. “Urethane” and “polyurethane” blends, along with custom
hybrids were the order of the day. All of this presented a unique set of challenges for the
manufacturers, car owners, wax companies, body shops and detailers.
Initially, these new paint
systems began flaking away and were being damaged by ordinary waxes and polishes. This created huge
repair or replacement bills and much controversy. The paint industry worked furiously and was able
to solve most of the problems early in the decade.
POWDER COATING FOR DURABILITY
As a point of interest, the process of powder coating has been
around for a long time. Recently it has seen a bit of a renaissance. This product is almost always
applied to metal. It delivers a powder composed of resin and color pigments to a surface without the
use of a liquid carrier. The powder is placed in an electrically charged container that is hooked to
The same electric loop is then attached to the part. As the part is sprayed, the charged
particles adhere tightly to the metal part. The part is then baked, melting the powder and forming a
uniform protective film. This process is popular on undercar parts and restorations that require
extremes in durability but not a perfectly smooth finish.
1990’S — PRODUCT, PROCESS AND ENVIRONMENT COME TOGETHER
Fast-forward just a few years. Today’s
paint systems, mostly base coat/clear coats and base coat/tint coats, are better than ever.
Extraordinary colors, vivid depth and clarity, dramatically high gloss and remarkable durability if
These products are applied in three stages.
- The vehicle is primer sprayed, or E-coated.
- A color coat is applied.
- Then lastly a very thin coat of clear product is applied.
vehicle is then washed and baked through this process to make it almost flawless.
All automotive paint
systems are now well within V.O.C. limits. They also comply with all E.P.A. standards for emissions
at time of application. Some carmakers have begun utilization of the now-perfected waterborne
paints. Today, an automotive paint, even in poor environmental conditions, can last for many years
if properly cared for. So what’s in store for the future?
Futuristic applications for “color systems” are in use on some cars. Water borne systems
are used by Volvo. M.I.C. or color impregnated systems are in use at Saturn. Pontiac also employed
them during the Fiero project.
These systems use color mixed in with the plastic that makes the
final body or frame part. This makes the color very durable. Just on the horizon is “heat bonding”
or “vacuum film shrinking.” Film is glued or draped over the body panel. It is then vacuumed or
heated into place. The process is simple and quick. These films are also very strong. However, they
are costly and less widely used.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS DEPENDS ON HOW YOU LOOK AT IT
What happens from here on is anyone’s guess.
However, vehicle manufacturers are now very confident in the fact that new car buyers make a
purchase with their eyes and heart, not their head. This explains why fully three quarters of the
cost involved in building a car plant, is put into the painting system.
Carmakers want you to be
delighted with the look of your car. They have worked very hard to perfect the gleaming finish on
your car. Simply put, they know that happy customers make more happy customers. 2015 brings us to
“Smart Coatings”. Smart Coatings are coming and will open the way to more dynamic, higher performing
While today’s coatings provide protection, new technology makes them smart, that is, able
to change in response to their environment. Most are hydrophobic (water-hating) and will repel most
water based liquids and some are oleophobic (hydrocarbon-hating), repelling even some oil based
These coatings are being created and designed for all kinds of industries. Sometimes to
protect the finish on your car, sometimes to make the ketchup not cling to the sides of the bottle,
but glide out completely. Some companies like Nissan are experimenting with liquid-infused coatings
for what they call self cleaning cars. Some say they will eventually have coatings or films that
exhibit ultra-liquid repellency, self-healing (scratches), optically transparency, pressure
stability, and self cleaning.
Even insects will simply slip off. We have seen some of these come to
pass in the newer technologies we offer. But they still have a way to go when it comes to infusing
this into your paint.
How soon, if ever, we will see liquid infused or self cleaning, self healing
paint or clear coatings is uncertain. What we can be certain of is that automobile paint finishes
will continue to evolve and you can be sure as your car care experts, we will too!