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A History of Car Paint:
Understanding the Options for
Re-spraying your Classic

Article by: Hannah in General - 5 November

A car’s paintwork is one of the things that catches the eye of an admirer most immediately, and getting it right is one of the most important challenges in any restoration. A car that is in every other respect in beautiful condition can, all too easily, be let down by dull or shabby paint. Colour is emotive, and here at Fiennes Classics we have a team of paint craftsmen with world class skills, a library of colour records and charts, and years of experience ready and waiting to ensure that your pride and joy looks perfect.

But for beautiful classic vehicles heritage and authenticity are important, and getting the paint right is about far more than choosing a nice colour. Here we take a brief look at the history of automotive paint, to give you an idea of all of the issues our team will consider when advising you on how to paint your car.

Much of the history of automotive paint is the history of American automotive paint. Henry Ford’s famous statement about paint became one of the most beloved quotes of automotive history. Talking of his new Model T in 1908, he said the customer could get the car in ‘any colour he wants, so long as it’s black!’ This was a catchy quip, but really only reflected the realities of the day.

When the first motor vehicles appeared in the late 19th century the world was still in the era of the horse-drawn carriage, so the paint options were the same. Linseed oil-based paint was what was available, and it had to be applied in multiple layers by brush. Each layer took a long time to dry, causing major holdups on car production lines, and generally the only colour available was black.

The first real development in automotive paint terms came in the 1920s, when the DuPont company developed a nitrocellulose lacquer system called ‘Duco’. This was faster drying, harder wearing, and could be pigmented to offer considerably more colour choices. It could also be sprayed on, which cut down on labour time considerably, but multiple coats were still required to achieve a good finish and a good shine required polishing.

In the 1930s paint manufacturers were looking for a paint that dried with a better gloss finish, and Alkyd enamels began appearing. Some serious chemistry was going on in the development of these paints, which were the first major steps away from natural materials towards chemically synthesised paints. The advantages were ease of application and the resistant film that formed on the paintwork. The disadvantages were their tendency to oxidise and fade rapidly in sunlight. Nevertheless, much of the chemistry that created them still plays an important role in automotive paint production today.

Acrylic lacquers appeared in the 1950s that were much harder wearing, offered greater colour choice, and gave the possibility of a metallic finish. It is important to understand what was going on in society at this point, especially in the USA. Cars were becoming status symbols more than just utilitarian transport. People wanted vehicles that caught the eye and looked beautiful, so metallic paint was a game changer. The problem was that the early versions had short lifespans before a lot of polishing was needed to restore the shine.

The answer to this came in the 1970s with the two-pack base coat/clear coat system. A pigmented enamel base coat was applied first, followed by a clear enamel top coat. The system was expensive, but it had the advantage of allowing paint manufacturers to include UV inhibitors that protected the paint from oxidising.

In the 1980s increasing regulation of what materials could be used in paint caused some major problems for the automotive paint industry. Urethane and polyurethane paints were introduced that had a tendency to flake off and be damaged by standard waxes and polishes, but the industry worked hard to correct the problem. Then, as lead and other heavy metals used in paint were threatened with being banned, for a while the classic car restoration industry was concerned about how water-based paints would stand up by comparison, but happily it has turned out that there was no cause for alarm.

This then, very briefly, is an outline of the history of painting cars. It should be clear now that getting the paint right for your vehicle requires considerable expertise. Our team can advise you thoroughly on what paints were available for your vehicle originally, what types of paint are correct for its period, what you should look to avoid in any paint restoration or respray, and how best to care for the finished product.

Our paint team are masters of their craft. Whatever your vehicle, we have the knowledge, the skills and the resources to make it look as if it just rolled out of the factory where it was built.