BBC Autos

Evolution of Design

The colours that make the car

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. (Fiat Group)

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. (Fiat Group)

In its latest survey of automotive trends, Axalta, a US-based coatings manufacturer formerly related to DuPont, notes that white paint maintains a vise grip on the global car market, enrobing 29% of all new cars sold worldwide in 2013. A pie chart, however, relates little about colour's transformative powers. Which car showcases a particular colour best? Conversely, which colour gives ultimate expression to an already-superlative car? They are questions we are only tickled pink to entertain. Herewith, find 10 colours in order of global popularity, worn by their 10 greatest ambassadors.

White: 1976 Lotus Esprit S1

White: 1976 Lotus Esprit S1. (Newspress)

White is the world's most popular paint colour, and it's not hard to imagine the Lotus Esprit S1 having something to do with that. Yes, the production Esprit sprang from Giorgetto Giugiaro's ravishing silver-painted concept, unveiled at the 1972 Turin motor show, but the Italian designer's perfect wedge didn't really achieve star status until Lotus convinced producer Albert R Broccoli to include a Monaco White S1 with red tartan seats in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. To quote that film's memorable theme song, nobody does it better.

Black: 1987 Buick GNX

Black: 1987 Buick GNX. (General Motors)

The black car, like the black cowboy hat, has universally understood symbolic value. Rebels, renegades, loners and undiluted villains drive black cars. Mad Max, the Bandit, Professor Fate, Crockett and Tubbs – bad boys all, and all suitably outfitted with bad-boy black cars. But of all the black cars that ever were, none has quite embodied the darker nature of its inky colour quite like Buick's GNX, the last and most fearsome version of the General Motors division's Grand National models. The company built just 547 GNXs during a single model year – every last one of them painted gloss black. And true to its hue, the car was the very model of a natural born killer – a killer of Buick stereotypes, a killer of rear tires and a killer of Corvette drivers' egos.

Silver: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing

Silver: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing. (Pictured: 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Transaxle Prototype; Daimler)

There have been silver-painted German cars almost as long as there have been German cars (the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen was green). But no car – even the splendid Silver Arrow streamliners of the 1930s – wore the metallic hue quite as naturally, or as evocatively, as the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe, which debuted in production form in 1954. The colour perfectly captures the original SL's cutting-edge specs, which included a radical tube-frame structure, a fuel-injected engine that was canted 45 degrees to the left to give the car a lower centre of gravity, and, of course, those wondrous gull-wing doors. It was as much a vision of the future as Space Cadet Tom Corbett's rocket ship, the Polaris – which, no surprise, was also silver.

Gray: Aston Martin DB5

Gray: Aston Martin DB5. (Newspress)

There is a reason "gunmetal gray" is such an evocative car colour, and it has everything to do with a certain secret agent. This fellow, who happened to carry a Walther PPK, also drove a gray 1964 Aston Martin DB5 that offered machine guns behind brake lights and tire-slashers inside wheel hubs. When one such example became available in 2010, it was auctioned for £2.6m, roughly $4.6m. The agent has driven many cars in many shades over his multi-decade career, but that original DB5 casts the entire lot under a thick London fog.

Red: Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione

Red: Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. (Fiat Group)

Being pretty has always come easily for the Italians, and nothing accentuates the loveliness like a dip in a scalding bath of rosso. But where many crimson crushes revolve around mid-century Ferrari Testa Rossas and GTOs, a more sinuous, modern machine leaves the most indelible red mark. The Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione carried many shades of red, each beguiling. The car itself saluted the Tipo 33 Stradale of the late 1960s, whose predatory nature the 8C evoked without coming across like a retrofuturist pastiche. Driving the 8C, Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson found plenty to fault, but not enough to prevent him from declaring it "quite simply, the best-looking car ever made." And his model was black.

Blue: Renault Alpine A110

Blue: Renault Alpine A110. (Renault)

The Alpine A110 you see here, drifting through a curve somewhere in its namesake mountain range, is blue. But this is not just any blue: It's called bleu de France, a shade that has adorned the bodies of French racing cars, the uniforms of French sports teams and the heraldry of bygone French monarchs as far back as the 12th Century. And while Louis XVI doubtless wore it well, on the lithe A110, Renault's rear-engined rally hero of the 1960s and '70s, that special bleu looks positively magnifique.

Brown: Ferrari 250 GT Lusso

Brown: Ferrari 250 GT Lusso. (Christie's)

Steve McQueen was a womaniser, a raconteur, a racecar driver and, the record notes, an actor. He was also a contrarian, specifying brown on the order sheet for at least two of his Ferraris rather than the customary rosso scuderia. For this, the motoring world owes him a debt, as he created – perhaps inadvertently – some of the most alluring Ferraris in history. The McQueen provenance doesn't hurt, either. A 250 GT Lusso might have otherwise sold at auction in 2011 for around $600,000, but the mahogany model above brought a staggering $2.3m. Number one with a Bullitt.

Yellow: Toyota 2000GT

Yellow: Toyota 2000GT. (RM Auctions)

Above, the most expensive Japanese car ever sold at auction, having moved at a final price of $1.15m in 2013. Its Bendix Yellow paint might not have contributed much to the record price – being a left-hand-drive model was of far greater value – but the creamy coat certainly did not hurt its prospects. Co-developed by Yamaha, Toyota's 2000GT has never shaken the backhanded compliment that it was "the Japanese Jaguar E-Type". Yet that British icon, which Enzo Ferrari called the most beautiful car ever made, has never transacted at even half the GT's record price. The coupe was powered by a 150-horsepower in-line six-cylinder engine that helped it achieve a 135mph top speed. Not so mellow, this yellow.

Green: 1966 Jaguar XJ13

Green: 1966 Jaguar XJ13. (Jaguar Cars)

A 1970 Plymouth Superbird in Limelight is a genuine spectacle, and it's tough to fault a Viper Green '73 Porsche 911 Carrera RS. But, if we're being completely honest, it must be said that the most beautiful green car there ever was came from Coventry: Jaguar's singularly sensational XJ13. Penned to perfection by Malcolm Sayer – designer of Jag's C-, D- and E-types, along with the late XJS – the XJ13 featured a howling quad-cam V12 mounted behind the driver. And of course, it was green for a reason: The car was created to represent Britain at Le Mans. Unfortunately, by the time the XJ13 prototype was completed (subsequent to the debut of the fearsome Ford GT40), Jaguar's green dream was considered obsolete; it never raced.

Others: BMW M3 GT2 by Jeff Koons

Others: BMW M3 GT2 by Jeff Koons. (BMW Group)

Axalta noted that a mere 3% of new cars sold worldwide in 2013 deviated from the aforementioned colours. We salute this nonconformist fringe with the most distinctive multicoloured car ever made (with apologies to John Lennon's custom 1965 Rolls-Royce Phantom V). Produced in 2010 as part of BMW's Art Car series, the M3 GT2 racing car was painted by polarising US pop artist Jeff Koons. Koons' vivid vision did not help the GT2 avoid an early retirement at the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race, but given recent auction prices for the artist's work – Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for a record $58.4m in November 2013 – BMW can consider its Koons gambit an unalloyed victory, with flying colours.

Do you take issue with any of these selections? Was your favourite yellow car inexplicably overlooked? Sound off on our Facebook page, or message us on Twitter.