History of Automobile Paints


  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?


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. Remember, Henry 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.


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.


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.


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 shiny car. 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.


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.


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.


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). They also 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.


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.


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 a sprayer. 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.


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 properly maintained. These products are applied in three stages.
  1. The vehicle is primer sprayed, or E-coated.
  2. A color coat is applied.
  3. Then lastly a very thin coat of clear product is applied.
The 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 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 products. 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 liquids. 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!