Counting Blue Cars

  John Eichberger |  December 2019

Powertrain. Performance. Safety. Efficiency. Price. These are the things we most often discuss when we try to unravel why people buy one vehicle over another – they are measurable, comparable, rational. But – are car buyers always rational? I argue probably not. They can be swayed by many factors – coolness; comparability with a neighbor; status. I also suggest that color has a lot to do with it. And what color vehicle do most of us drive? Our childhood selves would probably make fun of us.

This month we bring back to life the band Dishwalla and their one main hit, Counting Blue Cars. This is for several reason. Partially because the song is set during my favorite time of day -“late afternoon.” You know, when the sun is starting to drop, shadows begin to stretch and you try to capture every remaining moment possible. Also, there is some nostalgia for me - the song came out in 1995 right before I graduated from UC Santa Barbara, which happens to be their home town.

Must have been late afternoon
On our way, the sun broke free of the clouds
We count only blue cars skip the cracks in the street
And ask many questions like children often do.

With the end of the year and holidays upon us, I have a few questions that children may ask: 

  • What color vehicle to people most often buy?
  • Who actually buys cars as Christmas gifts? (Commercials make me think it happens all the time – if you are one of those people, can I be your friend?) 

But really, just how pervasive is the relationship between desirable vehicles and the color of their paint? How many of you will walk from a deal if the color you want is not available? Think about it – you have to sit in this thing, which may cost $30,000 or more, every single day for years – you gotta like whatcha got. 

Kelley Blue Book reports a Yankelovich Partners study found 39% of customers would change brands in order to get the color they want. That is a pretty significant number – would you?

The connection to vehicles and their color is well engrained in pop culture. Consider the idolatry associated with certain vehicles and their iconic colors: 

  • Prince and his Little Red Corvette
  • Aretha and her Pink Cadillac on that Freeway of Love
  • Bandit with his Black Trans Am Firebird
  • Bond and his tricked out silver Aston Martin 

When we dreamed of sports cars as kids, we envisioned Red or Yellow or something bold! Something our parents would never drive. Then we grew up…and what color vehicle are we buying now? Would Dishwalla spend a lot of time counting if they only counted blue cars? What if they added red? Even with the expansion, it would not take much time.

According to Kelley Blue Book, in 2018 blue paint adorned only 11% of light trucks, SUVs and minivans, 9% of luxury vehicles and 10% of other cars. And this outranked the number of blue vehicles reported by WardsAuto, which put blue light trucks at 7%, luxury cars at 7% and cars at 10%.

So if Dishwalla wanted to count cars until the sun set, what colors should they have focused on? Well, quite frankly, they should look for more non-descript vehicles…what our younger selves may characterize as boring.

Kelley Blue Book reports that the most popular light duty vehicle colors of 2018 were silver at 23% of all vehicles, white at 15% and black at 12%. WardsAuto found white to be the dominant color across four different vehicle categories with market share ranging from 21% of compact sports cars to 33% of light trucks. And black ranked as the second most popular color in every category.

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So is there room in the market for more a colorful transportation system? As a kid, I went to Disneyland a lot and rode the Autotopia ride in which I could drive a car on a Disney-safe track. Not one of those cars was white, black, gray or silver. Have we lost our imagination?

For full disclosure, I currently drive a gray SUV. My prior vehicles include a white sedan, a gray SUV and two black convertibles. I have had a blue truck and a bright red truck, but neither was ever my daily driver. So I am definitely part of the problem. And earlier this year when I bought my sports car, it was….wait for it…silver. Yeah, I am part of the problem.

December is commercially characterized in terms of green and red for Christmas and blue and silver for Hannukah, each bright and cheery. So why do we spend so much of our time sitting in non-colorful, drab, almost communist-Russia-colored cars? Yes, there are beautiful black, white, gray and silver cars out there – but would Dishwalla have had a hit if they sang about Counting Drab Cars?

Little Red Corvette
Baby you’re much too fast
Little red Corvette
You need a love that’s gonna last

Happy New Year everyone – here is hoping for a year that is replete with exciting news about the transportation market, with new vehicle models that make us drool and technology that pushes the envelope. And maybe a little more color to boot. Hopefully we can spend a little more time admiring blue, red, green, orange, yellow and a myriad of other colors that currently seem to adorn only extreme brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini, or non-real cars like those at Disneyland.

We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
Wind’s against our backs
We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
In my pink Cadillac

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