Ghost fleet

Cars come in nearly any color we can imagine. So why do we buy them in white?

Does any citizen on this planet enjoy a wider array of choice than the American picking the color of a new car? To browse a dealership is to be confronted with a spectrum of bewildering creativity, from Mitsubishi’s Labrador black pearl, through Chrysler’s inferno red crystal, detonator yellow, and snakeskin green, to Cadillac’s soothing Tuscan bronze. 

With this rainbow of opportunity, it might be a bit of a surprise to learn that the most popular color among American car buyers right now — the color that has evidently captured the eye of a nation — is plain old white. 

Since 2007, when white ended silver’s long run as the most popular color, Americans have consistently bought more white cars than anything else, according to the yearly DuPont Color Popularity Survey. 

This may seem incomprehensible to anyone who was alive in the 1990s, when red and green took their turns atop the color charts, and white was the color of ambulances, rental sedans, and Grandma’s Ford Taurus. In the 2000s, the ubiquity of silver cars became almost a running sight gag. 

So why is white on the ascendant now? One might think this question had already been answered: After all, a multibillion dollar industry hangs on it. Car dealers, manufacturers, and paint developers all depend on their ability to read the psyche of the consumer and understand what cars we’ll want to buy next. And a whole color-forecasting industry exists to help them. 

For all that expertise, it remains one of the great mysteries of civilization why color trends shift the way they do. White has had periods of popularity before — it had a long reign in the 1960s and ’80s. But its recurrence is a mystery. 

In philosophy, this is called “the privacy of the first-person perspective.” In the car industry, it means we just don’t know what people are thinking when they buy white cars. Nonetheless, some experts do have a few theories to explain the current blizzard of white on our streets. 

1. It’s the economy, stupid!

More than any other reason, experts called for this story cited the current economic downturn as a reason for preferring white. 

Car buyers “think more practically in a crisis,” says Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute and author of seven books on color. “In a crisis, people plan on keeping their cars for a longer time, so they choose a more classic color that allows them to resell their car at a later point in time.” 

Dr. Kathleen Gajdos, a psychologist from Pennsylvania, also connects the color trend to the economy, but on a psychological level. “White is very neutral,” she says. “It’s about not making a statement.” 

It’s true that a white car is a smart move on the resale market, but it’s no better than black or silver, according to the Kelley Blue Book, a resource for the value of used cars. “White, black, and silver cars are altogether easier to sell and more desirable by larger groups of people than say red, green, or gold,” says Robyn Eckard, director of public relations at Kelley Blue Book. “But I would hesitate to say that white cars retain their value better than any other color.” 

How about historical evidence? It is easy to correlate the popularity of white to economic downturns: White was popular during the early ’90s recession, and also in 1974 and 1975, after the 1973 oil crisis. On the other hand, white was also popular in the 1960s, when the economy was in great shape. And there was no economic downturn significant enough to explain the popularity of white during the 1980s. Looking back further, to the Great Depression, is tricky business — there were white cars at the time, but DuPont’s color records don’t start until 1950. 

2. White cars are cooler

Anyone who has worn a black suit on a sunny day knows the effect of heat absorption: White reflects the whole spectrum of sunlight, keeping out heat; black absorbs most of the spectrum, and acts like a heat sponge. 

“I think people just buy a white car because it doesn’t heat up as much in the summer,” says Dr. Gajdos. 

The last decade was the warmest on record, and according to the National Climatic Data Center, the temperature was 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit above the local average in most regions of the United States in the years leading up to 2007, when white took over as the top car color. 

So do people turn toward white cars because of rising temperatures and a growing concern about climate change? Maybe. After all, Saudi sheiks are famous for their white Mercedes limousines. It would also explain why in colder parts of the world — for example, Europe — white cars are nowhere near as popular. According to DuPont, only 10 percent of European cars were white in 2009. In Europe, the most popular car color is black, followed by silver. 

If this is true, you’d expect to find white cars wildly popular in Florida, but much less so in Vermont. Unfortunately, DuPont doesn’t collect that kind of state-by-state data. 

3. It’s that religious thing

In general, when color theorists talk about white, they talk about religion. White is a very important color for Christians — liturgically speaking, it’s the color of joy and celebration; in the Catholic Church, it’s the color worn by the pope. Psychologists at the University of Virginia and North Dakota State University have shown in a study that Christians link it to purity, innocence, and joy. It’s not unreasonable to expect that, however subtly, churchgoers would be influenced by their belief to think favorably of white and white things. Buddhists and Hindus associate white with truth and immortality. 

So does the high rate of religious belief in the United States influence choice of car color? To be sure, in Europe, where there are far fewer churchgoers, people are less likely to buy white cars. The same goes for China. Unfortunately, as with the state data, there are no reliable numbers to connect the dots on car-ownership and personal faith. 

4. Safety first

White really is the safest color. Scientists from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, analyzed more than 850,000 car accidents in their country and showed that of all cars, white ones were least likely to be involved in an accident. 

Is this because conservative drivers like white cars, while reckless people are more likely to buy inferno red or detonator yellow? Apparently not: Another study from Stephen Solomon and James King, who analyzed firetruck accidents in Texas in the 1980s, showed that red or red-and-white firetrucks had a greater probability of crashing than lime-yellow-and-white trucks, though they were driven by the same set of people. In other words, it was the visibility that made them safer, not the drivers. 

But with the safety profile of white known for at least 30 years, why would it ever have fallen out of favor? And safety in car buying can manifest itself in different ways — the first, and more important choice for most safety-minded people is buying an especially safe car, the kind of family tank with a dozen side airbags. Compared to that, color is a minor consideration. 

5. Don’t look at me!

In 1975, the German art professor Karl-Otto Götz published a color-theoretical survey in which he asked art students for their favorite colors. As it turned out, the more extroverted students showed a greater preference for red, blue, yellow, violet, and pink. The introverted ones, by contrast, preferred white, beige, black, and grey. 

So white is a color for people who don’t want to stand out — who feel, for whatever reason, insecure. And has there ever been a less secure time in America? Peter Weil, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, says white is a way for people frightened by the changes in their world to express the transitional character of their time. “I would link white to a certain ambivalence. People today are ambivalent about everything. They don’t know what’s going to happen. They worry a lot.” 

The association between white and fear was noted as far back as 1528, when the Italian professor Antonio Tellosi made the link in his book “On Color.” 

As fear of terrorism slowly fades, and the economy eventually picks up, one might expect to see another shift in Americans’ cars, and color forecasters think they have a bead on it. 

“The future will definitely be more colorful,” said Leatrice Eiseman at Pantone. 

“We will surely see a reaction to the white soon,” she said, and then raised the prospect of a very different future: “There is a renaissance of neon colors already starting.” 

Justus Bender, an editor and reporter with Die Zeit in Hamburg, is a visiting journalist at the Globe.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/05/ghost_fleet/