How Muscle Cars defined High-Impact Colors

Ask any muscle car enthusiast what they love the most about their favorite cars from the late sixties and early seventies, and you’ll undoubtedly hear them obsess over classic lines and big block motors. But keep asking, and soon you’ll start to hear a chorus of opinions lauding the bold colors from back in the day. So popular have those wild shades become today that automakers have taken notice, and have been applying old-school hues to their new school models.

In the interest of shedding light on the subject, we have decided to give you a brief primer on the history of what has come to be known as “high-impact colors.”

Photography by Nicole Ellan James

The custom in the early years of the automobile industry was to offer cars, as Henry Ford once said, “in any color so long as its black.” The reasons for this were a desire to simplify the production line process that Ford had pioneered, and to reduce associated manufacturing costs.

As the industry developed, paint technology evolved along with it, and manufacturers began offering alternate shades to accommodate their customers who wished to stand out. By the early 1920s, General Motors offered cars in brown, red and blue in addition to black, and eventually even Ford acquiesced to consumer demand starting in 1926. By the late twenties, automakers such as Oldsmobile began offering two-tone paint jobs as well.

In the late 1950s, with the post-war baby boomer generation beginning to buy their very first rides, automakers rushed to meet the youthful desire for flashy colors. Bright red, baby blue and canary yellow cars began to sell like hotcakes, and the demand for dual color options such as those found on Corvettes and Bel Airs grew as the look became a super-chic automotive trend of the era.

But as with fashion and interior design, styles never stick around for long, and as the LSD-influenced, hippie counterculture look took hold in the late sixties, so did the era of wild-hued muscle cars.

Available in shockingly bright and bold hues such as day-glo greens, dazzling purples, and shocking oranges, automakers led by Dodge and Plymouth offered a dizzying array of these colors, giving them equally wild names like Plum Crazy Purple, Panther Pink, Lemon Twist and Vitamin-C Orange.

Soon other manufacturers followed the Pentastar lead, as Pontiac did with the GTO Judge, and American Motors Corporation did with the AMX. Both cars were available in a host of psychedelic, stand out hues.

The 1970s posed serious challenges for both consumers and automakers alike, as more stringent EPA regulations and the gas crisis changed the priorities of both. No longer were high output, low MPG big-block engines and wild color options on the mind of consumers. Suddenly, efficiency, affordability and functionality became the most important factors, and an era of drab, lackluster automobile offerings dominated the decade and beyond.

It wasn’t until the Vietnam-era babies began buying cars in the early nineties that tastes significantly changed. Remembering with great nostalgia the beloved high-impact colored muscle cars of their childhood, this so-called “Generation X” began demanding stand out hues and performance drivetrains again.

A new era of flashy, high-performance cars was upon us, and the trend reached its zenith with retro-styled offerings such the Dodge Challenger and Charger, the Ford Mustang and the reborn Chevy Camaro, all of which are now commonly seen in bold old-school colors. As far as we’re concerned, this is a very good thing.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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