Why Cars Are Not Only Available In Black

In the 1920’s auto manufacturers had a problem.  The only practical laquer or enamel that was usable was black in what was called the Japanning process. While varnishes in other colors were available the long application times and drying times precluded using them in mass production.  In fact even the use of black was creating a production bottleneck for Ford.


Customers, though wanted more color in cars.  Attempts though to use colors from woodworking and other uses just didn’t last.  One customer complained that the finish peeled off in 90 days.  That was a real problem when a brush painted finish could take longer than that to apply when drying time and sanding between coats is considered.

The problem is that unlike furniture which is not exposed to sunlight and weather or a railroad car which was essentially only painted on the car sides, an automobile is left out in the weather for long periods of time. Also, unlike a piece of furniture or railroad car, an automobile is made from thin sheet metal that is flexible. More flexible than varnish.  This wasn’t as large a problem for luxury cars with their custom wooden coachwork, but for the mass production car to be colorful a new kind of paint was going to be needed.

Fortunately the paint manufacturers were ready to supply one.


The DuPont company came up with a nitrocellulose based lacquers that was more durable than the lacquers used before, held tint and most importantly for the auto industry dried fairly quickly.

Click to access 3527309713_c01.pdf

Click to access 3527309713_c01.pdf


Click to access Classic_Cars_Automotive_painting_history.pdf





DuPont began producing nitrocellulose-based pyroxylin lacquers after acquiring the International Smokeless Powder & Solvents Company in 1905. The purchase of the Arlington Company 10 years later deepened the company’s involvement. Although they were quick-drying and widely used on brass fixtures, conventional lacquers were too brittle for more demanding uses. By the 1920s, however, the automotive industry had become a huge potential market. Although mass production had vastly increased output, finishing remained a bottleneck because conventional paints took up to two weeks to dry.

In 1920, chemists working with film at DuPont’s Redpath Laboratory in Parlin, N.J., produced a thick pyroxylin lacquer which was quick-drying but durable and could be colored. DuPont marketed it under the name Viscolac in 1921. Assisted by General Motors (GM) engineers, DuPont refined the product further and renamed it Duco. The success of Duco led to further experimentation with finishes and late in the 1920s, DuPont developed Dulux, an even more effective alkyd finish. Duco retained a niche market, however, and DuPont continued to produce it at Parlin until the late 1960s.


DuPont has been using Dulux enamel in automotive coatings since 1926. Dulux actually owes its existence to a flaw in its more famous cousin, Duco. This nitrocellulose lacquer first brought color to automobiles when General Motors (GM) used it in 1923. It was thick and quick-drying, which pleased carmakers, but frustrating for consumers who couldn’t apply it like the oil-based paints they were used to. So DuPont researchers tried mixing synthetic alkyd resins with oil and found that the resulting enamel’s drying time was slower than Duco but faster than that of traditional oil paint. Dulux alkyd resin, named in 1926, also had a pleasing high-gloss look. By the early 1930s it won over consumers under the label Dulux “Brush” Duco.

Dulux high-gloss enamels were also used widely in the 1930s on refrigerators and washing machines, outdoor signs, gasoline service stations and pumps, and railroad cars. Once tried as an undercoating for Duco auto paint, Dulux also found a niche as a low-cost alternative to Duco auto finishes. In 1954 some automobile manufacturers chose an improved Dulux alkyd enamel over Duco, and over DuPont’s new water-based Lucite acrylic lacquer. However, Lucite soon pulled ahead in household sales, and after DuPont developed a new acrylic polymer in 1957, Lucite also outshone Dulux in the appliance and industrial markets. DuPont sold its consumer paint business in 1983.

The other issue was actually getting the paint on the car.  The answer to that was the spraygun.  The spraygun was first used at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago where the painter needed to paint a lot of walls very quickly.  It’s amazing how little the basic spraygun has changed over the years. For the auto companies the spraygun allowed finishes that were even, could be applied in controlled conditions and dried quickly.   The difference in cars was immediate.  Suddenly, in the 1920’s  the roads became rainbows.






Since the 1920’s car finishes have become permanent and durable as car makers worked to finishes that provided ever greater protection from the elements. Where cars used to rust out in three to five years, these days it’s likely that a car will last a decade or more and it will be the powertrain, not the body or the finish that gives out.

Of course that durable finish may be one of the reasons that you can now just about buy any color you want on a car so long as it’s grey, white or black.

PS. Here’s an excellent reference on how color changed as technologies and styles developed.




  1. Pingback: Instapundit » Blog Archive » WHICH IS A GOOD THING: Why Cars Are Not Only Available In Black….
  2. John Pierce · December 27, 2015

    That Comlunbian Exhibition was pretty amazin’ Even better if the author of this piece hadn’t had a brain fart when he should have typed ‘Columbian Exhibition’.


    • jccarlton · December 27, 2015

      Oops, fixed. I don’t know why the spell check didn’t pick that up.


  3. bgarrett · December 27, 2015

    This article is so wrong its hard to know where to start. It starts: “In the 1920s auto manufacturers had a problem. The only practical laquer enamel that was usable was black.”
    Ignoring the incorrect spelling of ‘lacquer’, the article uses the term ‘lacquer enamel’. NOPE.
    First: automobile paint had not yet been invented in the 1920s.
    Second: lacquer and enamel are two totally different things that do not mix.
    Third: enamels werent invented until the Model T was history. Ford started out coating, (not painting) his early Ford cars with a product based on asphalt. This info comes from the first link. The Model T parts were dipped in vats. Some of these early Fords were colors other than black. Henry Ford had red, blue and green Model Ts in the beginning and again near the end of the Model T era.


    • jccarlton · December 27, 2015

      The problem I had was that the references I could find were more than a little fuzzy about the formulations used for auto paints before DuPont and the use of a nitrocellulose body for paints, which was the main point of the story. As for lacquer and enamels not mixing I have an entire box of enamel paint that use lacquer as a base. Enamel refers to the hardness and gloss of the finish, not the formulation. I imagine that the Ford company used a bunch of different paint applications methods for the Model as production techniques evolved, which they did significantly over the life of the car’s manufacture. The model T restoration people seem to confirm what I was saying about varnishes:http://modelt.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=21:paint-colors&catid=26:paint&Itemid=88
      As for Automobile paints not being invented in the 1920s, what do you think the post, with all those links to articles about Dupont inventing auto paint was about?


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