Car Culture / Cars / History

The Color Wheel Of Race Car Liveries

What’s in a color? For racers of early automobiles their national pride was closely tied to the hue of paint sprayed on their car. In the early years of motorcar racing it was difficult to tell one car from the next… even with numbers, spectators had a hard time cheering for the right racer because the cars looked too similar.

When we say early we mean it. There’s a saying that the first race took place soon after the second car came across the first at some crossroads.

Going International

In 1900 there were enough cars racing at the Gordon Bennett Cup international race that identification became an issue. The race was run in France but competitors from the world over took part. The solution was to assign each country a color and paint the cars accordingly.

This 1903 Napier is the oldest surviving complete British racing car. The car features a 50-horsepower, 7,700cc four-cylinder engine and it is the actual car that competed in the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup.

For 1900 blue went to France, yellow to Belgium, white to Germany and red to the U.S.A. The race was held in Ireland in 1903 and to celebrate, the British cars were painted a distinct hue of green and the color evolved into what we know as British Racing Green.

Oh wait… Bugatti is an Italian name. True, and Ettore Bugatti was born in Milan, Italy… But the automaker was based in Molsheim, France, hence the Bleu de France hue.

As Grand Prix racing got its foothold after World War I its color palette expanded. France’s Bleu de France stuck, and thanks to Alfa Romeo, Italy took over red.

In the 1930s Germany rocked the motorsports world with the Mercedes Benz/Auto Union Silver Arrows, made famous by none other than Juan Manuel Fangio. The cars were not painted for weight considerations… you have to love the thinking, it’s very German… the body panels were polished metal so Germany was assigned silver as its official national racing color.

Post World War II

Whether it was the trickle-down theory where advancements in military might found their way to the automobile or not, the years after World War II saw technology and terminal speed rise… not to mention the passion and popularity of racing.

In the 1950s the racing color came to represent the nationality of the racing team, not the car manufacturer or driver’s nationality. American teams wore Imperial Blue and white, the accent color usually in the form of a stripe and as the sport grew some of the color schemes all included complimentary colors. Mexico was gold, Brazil yellow, Spain red and yellow, and Argentina blue and yellow. Honda’s entrance into motorsports in the 1960s earned it white racing colors with a red accent. But there was no Formula 1 color wheel at work… Just ask Bruce McLaren and his signature orange cars of the mid ’60s.

The Advertising Age

The mandate of national colors came to an end in the late ’60… pushed aside by the mighty advertising dollar. As sponsorship interest grew the national color scheme took a back seat and race car liveries became more singular. The John Player Special Lotus in black and gold, the white-and-blue scheme of the Parmalat Brabham, the six-wheeled elf-sponsored Tyrrell P34s, the distinctive red and white Marlboro livery on Alfa Romeos, McLarens, Hondas, and Ferraris, and the Lucky Strike Honda entries from British Auto Racing. Sure, today’s Scuderia Ferraris are still red but flexing one’s national racing color is more a retro cool old school move.


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