Fifty Shades of Grey
You can have any car color you like, as long as it's colorless.
Many years ago, not long after the extinction of the dinosaurs and the invention of the automobile that turned those dinos' carbon into miles per gallon, I wrote a column lamenting the vanishing of green cars. This was at the newspaper in Dubuque, Iowa, the town whose little old ladies the New Yorker was famously not written for. Those little old ladies needed something to read, nonetheless, and so I churned out four columns a week. Dipping deep into my well of creativity, I noticed that green was no longer an automotive option, and crafted this insight into some profound psycho-socio-economic 850 words.
Some decades later, schlepping into an auto dealership with my wife to get a frammistat or doohickey fixed on her car (she brings me along, obviously, for my automotive expertise), I recently realized that it's not just green that's gone extinct on the showroom floor. Except for a smattering of small cars that are allowed to look snazzy, color in general has been drained from the exterior of the 21st century automobile.
Audi, for example (weirdly, the high-end models have been most ruthless in paring down the spectrum), offers Ibis White, Glacier White, Monsoon Gray, Ice Silver, Daytona Gray and Lava Gray, all of which look, well, off-white in varying degrees of off-ness. There's one blue (Scuba Blue) and a lone Volcano Red, plus a few browns and brownish-golds and Brilliant Black. No greens, of course, but also no yellows, oranges or even purples. If this were a riot of color, one septugenarian WalMart security guard could shut it down with a nighstick.
This, however, represents a veritable rainbow compared to the choices for Infiniti "crossover" cars: Moonlight White, Liquid Platinum and Graphite Shadow — basically all shades of white to gray — plus two blacks (Malbec Black and Black Obsidian — I defy you to tell the difference) and a lone hue that could not be reproduced in black and white, Midnight Garnet. Not even blue!
Domestic models, at least those large enough to carry more than one bag of groceries, are no more vibrant. The Chrysler 300, which someone once claimed was the most popular car in Silver City, doesn't even bother offering a white, but does come in two silver-grays (Billet Silver, whatever "billet" means in this context — a typo for bullet?, and Pewter Gray) and, again, not one but two blacks (Gloss Black and Granite Crystal, which despite the flouncy name looks pretty much just black). Jazz Blue and Deep Cherry Red are the only choices from an actual color wheel.
Henry Ford, who once boasted you could buy a Model T in any color you liked as long as it was black, would be proud.
But you don't have to venture into an automotive showroom and tempt the clutches of Car Salesmanus Americanus to see what I mean. Take a gander at the Wally World parking lot on any given day: It's a vast expanse of silver, gray, white, gray-white and silver-gray, peppered with the occasional black car whose owner is now regretting his choice as the Southwest sun turns it into an Oven GX50. Here and there you might spot someone who went wild and bought a faintly golden car, and the stray red-hued rebel. That yellow Corvette is your neighbor's midlife crisis, and his wife is about to make him trade it in for a nice Emasculated Pewter minivan.
In that parking lot, my wife's car would be the Citrus Fire — kind of a metallic orange — that looks like it's been beamed down from another planet. A much more lively planet, where not all the automakers are color blind.
Or just study the traffic some day zooming along I-10. (This works much better if you're not the person driving your own gray-white vehicle, but rather a passenger who can observe without endangering life and limb.) Discounting the RVs fleeing frozen places like Ontario and Iowa and the semis, you'll see one vaguely grayish vehicle after another. Even the white cars, carrying a Southwestern load of dust, appear off-white. Similarly, a dusty makeover transforms passing black vehicles into what the showrooms would probably call Desert Gray.
That little red sports car that stands out like a zit on prom night? Well, he stands out to the highway patrol cruiser lurking under the overpass, too, and will soon learn the error of his color-crazed ways.
Perhaps that's the explanation for the drabification of the American automobile. Except on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds (themselves a sort of conformity to the rule of carefully minimized idiosyncracies), Americans no longer wish to stand out. We have heeded all too well the dictum that the one who stands out gets squashed, and have no desire for our cars to be Whack-a-Mole targets. Pewter Gray and Monsoon Gray seem safer than Dragonfly Green or Tangerine-Slice Orange.
Even the names of these car colors — who comes up with these? Does somebody just throw words into a hat and pull out two or three at random, like naming subdivisions? (Sierra Ridge… Shadow Mountain Vista… Quail Meadows… you know what I mean.)
The work of developing all those labels for gray alone must be exhausting: Silver Sky, Predawn Gray, Silver Ice, Cyber Gray, Maximum Steel, Quick Silver, Sterling Gray, Ingot Silver… it goes on and on. (All those are actual car colors from various automakers, if you can call them "colors.") What is "Cyber Gray," anyway? Is that the color your face turns when you realize cyberspace has gifted you with a virus and all your PC's data has gone bye-bye? And "Maximum Steel" sounds like some sort of action movie ("Hugh Jackman shows nothing is tougher than… MAXIMUM STEEL!"). I'm pretty sure Silver Ice is a brand of vodka, isn't it?
Can you imagine this stunted spectrum trying to tempt car buyers back in the wild and colorful 1960s? "Does this model come in day-glo orange?" "Uh, no, sir, but we do offer both Midnight Black and Dark of the Moon Black." "Man, you're harshing my mellow. How about blue, like, you know, the color of the sky?" "Er, it does come in Twilight Gray — that's a sky color." "Yellow, man, at least you've gotta have yellow. My old VW van was yellow and I loved that car until the transmission fell out." "Did I mention it comes in Midnight Black?"
Maybe this is progress, or perhaps such cultural changes are simply cyclical. Remember how that novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, captured the conformity of the 1950s? Today's version would have to be titled, The Man in the Pewter Gray Car.
I'm pretty sure, though, that the man in the gray flannel suit drove a green car.