Brown cars. For the better part of three decades those two words elicited rolled eyes, conjured images of gas-guzzling boats, and spelled certain failure for any carmaker that dared go there. No more. “Brown is the new black,” says Michelle Killen, head of external paint design at GM North America. This year, brown-coloured vehicles will account for eight per cent of all sales in North America, says Killen, up from 5.5 per cent last year, and virtually nothing three years ago. The reigning colours of the car industry—white, silver and black—are at no risk of being knocked off the podium, but brown’s popularity is rising fast.
Automakers are moving to capitalize on the trend. At this year’s Geneva motor show, Mercedes-Benz debuted its new E-Class with a “cuprite brown” model. Toyota introduced two new shades of brown for the 2009 Venza. Audi introduced a special-order “Ipanema brown” Audi R8 Spyder for 2010. Meanwhile, when GM debuted the Buick Enclave crossover in cocoa metallic this year, buyers rushed to snap them up. The colour accounted for nearly 20 per cent of all Enclave sales, and the company is readying brown versions of other Buick models.
There are any number of explanations for brown’s comeback. Some point to the rise of the coffee culture—hence caffeine-themed paint names like mocha, cocoa and java. Brown was also dismissed for decades by car buyers as the colour of dirt, but now Mother Earth is back in style, so it’s okay to get down with natural tones.
In many ways, carmakers are just following a trend seen in other areas like clothing and handbags—women have warmed to brown. “Whenever a colour is becoming popular in interior design, fashion and architecture, women usually start selecting those same colour spaces on their vehicle,” says Killen, who says women were largely behind the success of the cocoa-flavoured Enclave. “They’re used to it, it’s stylish, fashion forward, and very comforting.” It comes down to the hue of brown, she says. Today’s browns are deep, rich and convey luxury.
Perhaps, but Audi chief designer Stefan Sielaff offered a “psychological explanation” to reporters earlier this year: “In times of economic crisis, people seek warm colours again—because everybody feels so cold after losing so much money. So the colours of the 1970s are back again.” Such is the enigma of the modern brown car: luxurious, fashionable, earthy and frugal.
But maybe it’s simply that, like most things from the ’70s, there exists an element of nostalgia for those old brown cars. At least, that’s how Ben Kraal, a research fellow at the Queensland University of Technology’s School of Design in Australia, sees it. Kraal knows brown cars—he also writes the Brown Car Blog. “Brown is so identified with the ’70s,” he told Maclean’s. “Some of us are just tragic fans of the hopeless, and not hopeless, cars of that era.”