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Ford's Approach To Color

Yes, there’s black.

Yes, there’s black. But there’s a whole lot more. And with good reason.
According to two researchers from Cardiff University, Paul Nieuwehuis and Peter Wells, there is something to the famous attributed line of Henry Ford about being able to have a Model T of any color as long as that color was black. In a study of the auto industry published in Industrial and Corporate Change (http://icc.oxfordjournals.org/), “The All-Steel Body As A Corner Stone to the Foundations of the Mass Production Car Industry,” they point out that prior to 1914, there were some other colors available for the Ts, such as red, green, and gray in 1909; in 1910 “all the cars were painted a very dark ‘Brewster Green’” and followed in 1911 by “very dark blue with a few special orders in red or green, while for 1912 only blue was still offered.” One of the conclusions that the researchers come to is that because Ford was using a “wood-framed body skeleton,” and that the wood would not be able to withstand the heat of drying ovens for the metal bodies: “the darker the paint the quicker it dried because of the higher pigment and lower volatile content in the dark paint.” Thus, the black.

Nowadays, Ford still offers black. According to Susan Lampinen, group chief designer, Color & Materials Program Interiors, “We always have a black, a white, a red, and a silver,” and she goes on to explain that that is due, in part, to the fact that those colors tend to be sufficiently safe. That is, purchasers who are thinking of resale or who are going to be hanging on to those vehicles for a sufficiently long time go for the safer colors, rather than something trendy and transient.

Lampinen and her staff are responsible for coming up with colors beyond those she listed. Jon Hall, the senior color/paint designer on her staff, says that there are multitudinous influences that are taken into account by this group, from fashion to interior design. What’s more, he continues, “It could be things like war, the changing economy, the shifting dynamics of world population. . . .” All of these things have an effect on people’s moods, so this is something that has an effect on the color vehicles they’ll buy. In addition to which, Lampinen says, “When we are designing colors, we are always thinking about customers’ values. A customer who buys a truck is going to have different values than a person who buys a B-car or a large sedan. We look at where these colors are going to filter into products, always keeping in mind our DNA”—as in what Ford wants to be in the market. Hall uses an example from the past where a company didn’t get this right: back in the late 1970s, early ‘80s Pontiac tried to appeal to the women’s market with the “Sky Bird” and the “Yellow Bird” versions of the Firebird. “Who wanted a performance car in pastel blue or yellow?” Hall asks, rhetorically.

The Ford Color & Materials personnel work three years ahead of the release of a vehicle. Then, the selections of what colors will actually appear on the cars and trucks are made about a year-and-a-half prior to the start of production. Hall explains that this isn’t a matter of just coming up with a pallet and presenting it to management as some sort of fait accompli: “When we go to Alan Mulally or Mark Fields and say, ‘This is it,’ they’re going to start asking us questions.” Questions about why the color pallet is relevant to the vehicles in question. Sometimes they develop a color that they design for a specific, somewhat limited application, such as the Dark Amethyst that was developed for the Ford Fusion. Lampinen says that it was designed to be a “one-year color,” a color that would have a targeted appeal. That is, she says the take rate is on the order of 5% or so, and that’s what they were hoping for as it is what she describes as a “trend color.” It won’t go away entirely, but will be maintained for special vehicles or packages.

Interiors are another area of interest. According to Hall, “We’re heading in a big way to different materials”—which, for competitive reasons, he chooses not to reveal—and he suggests that when it comes to traditional materials, like leather, they’re working to distinguish it. He cites, for example, the leather in the F-Series King Ranch trim: “Instead of making plasticy leather”—very monotonous in execution—“it’s very variable”: it looks like, well, leather.

Another factor that he cites is the changes of interior materials in forthcoming Ford products is the Ford Sync technology that the vehicle manufacturer has based on Microsoft Auto software. While this is nominally a factory-installed in-car communications and entertainment system for facilitating the use of mobile phones and digital media players like the Apple iPod, this new technology may lead customers to think about vehicles in a different way, such that the use of alternative materials will be perceived as appropriate and necessary, not fad-like and fleeting. That is, just as car and truck buyers are somewhat leery purchasing off-the-wall colors when it comes to the considerations of resale or having to live with it, they tend to be traditionalists when it comes to interiors (which explains the continued existence of wood and leather). A tech trend may change that.

One more thing. Lampinen enthuses, “We have a great black coming that no one in the industry has. We’re going to have the number-one black. We looked back at our history and. . . .”