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HISTORY OF AUTOMOTIVE PAINT

AUTOMOTIVE FINISH TECHNOLOGY

The history of Automotive innovation encompasses more than power steering, cruise control and disc brakes. 

People with backgrounds from chemical polymer engineering to backstreet garage mechanic have been experimenting with different paint and finish ideas over the years.  They’ve tried everything from natural plant pigments to toxic chemical derivatives that are now illegal. 

If you’ve ever wondered what type of finish is on your vehicle, keep reading to discover paint through the decades. 

Equipped with the year, make, and model of your vehicle that still has it’s original paint job, you’ve got most of the knowledge you need to narrow down the type of finish. 

If you are unsure, our guide through the decades may help you better understand the options. 

It’s important to understand the makeup of your paint finish in order to purchase the correct products and maintain a healthy coat. Ultimately, if you can not determine the makeup on your own, always consult with an automotive paint expert. 

And of course we’ll let you in on a polish that’s been a trade secret for decades that was specifically designed to solve issues with ever changing paint technology. 

AUTOMOTIVE PAINT THROUGH THE DECADES

Early 20th Century: Truly a blast from the past, automobiles were originally hand-painted with a combination of natural ingredients like linseed oils and plant based pigments. Talk about cumbersome! This process took several coats, several days to dry between coats, and the inefficiency was certainly one of the barriers to making automobiles accessible to a larger population. Labor intensive = expensive!

Pro-Tip: If you’ve got an antique from this era, your best bet is treat the paint finish like you would furniture. Because the main ingredients in Ulen’s Auto Polish are water & oil, it is the perfect polish to restore these autos. You can read more about that here

Watch Ulen's Polish refinish the wood on an antique sewing table.

1920’s: It didn’t take long for innovative companies like DuPont to get into the game of improving the assembly of automobiles, focusing on the paint system. In 1923 they developed lacquer paints and primers to be applied by spray guns. Reduced application and drying times added to the efficiencies of the assembly line, but tedious hand polishing to achieve shine was still an impediment to affordability. And in terms of durability, lacquer paints were especially susceptible to damage from gasoline drips. 

Pro-Tip: Developed in the 1930’s by Olaf Ulen, Ulen’s Auto Polish was created to specifically solve the problems of 1920’s automotive finishes. Ulen wanted to create a polish that could restore and correct imperfections on all lacquer-painted surfaces, which at the time also included the wood interiors as well. Read more on our history here

1930’s - 1950’s: Still trying to improve speed and increase durability, alkyd enamel paints came along in the 1930’s and were much thicker than their lacquered counterparts. They had so much promise to solve so many automotive problems of the day - after being baked in an oven, the coat dried harder and was resistant to petroleum based solvents. Yay! But oxidation was a real problem with enamels, sometimes fading within months of application. 

1960’s: Plagued by dull, faded paint surfaces for decades, the 1960’s offered a new advancement in enamels when acrylic enamels were introduced. With increased durability and wider variety in color & metallic options, real changes to paint surfaces were just beginning. 

Pro-Tip: If you’ve got an acrylic enamel it’s all about the condition. Once your acrylic enamel has thinned and degraded beyond restoration, repainting is probably your only solution to achieving a pristine coat. However, if you’ve got a solid coating still on your ride that is starting to oxidize and fade, Ulen’s Auto Polish will help clean out the dead finish and followed by a sealant will help save your original finish. 

1970’s: The 70’s ushered in the first big advancement in automotive paint finishes in decades when a 2-step formula of a base and clear coat was invented. While the process still utilized enamels, it added a second layer to the finish. Starting with a pigmented enamel basecoat, it was then followed by a clear enamel. The clear coat was tougher than any of its predecessors, and could have UV absorbers incorporated to combat the prior issues of oxidation and fading. However, extreme costs for this new tech meant only a select few high end autos received this finish. 

1980’s - 1990’s: Advancements in base/clear coat technology worked to reduce costs significantly, allowing the finish to become standard in the 80’s & 90’s. Once again, it seemed to solve all the previous problems, but of course, with each advancement a new problem was created. 

Manufacturers and owners alike would realize clear coats were not the answer. In time, it was as if your car was peeling from a bad sunburn. Bubbling, cracked clear coat, patches of exposed basecoat - a vulnerable surface to the harsh elements. It looked awful and was difficult to repair. Most had to be repainted altogether as part of warranty claims. 

Pro-Tip: Again, the state of deterioration will determine what a polish can do for you. This era was not great for paint technology, and if you’re experiencing a peeling clear coat no polish can reverse that kind of damage. 

2000’s - now: It didn’t take long for automotive paint manufacturers to correct the issues found with the first attempt at clear coat technology. The concept of a 2-step application process was worth improving upon, and today’s modern cars are almost always painted with an acrylic polyurethane "enamel" with a pigmented basecoat and a clear topcoat. You may hear it referred to as "acrylic", "acrylic enamel", or "urethane", but they really all refer to the same application. 

Polyurethane truly has solved most of the issues we’ve discussed over the decades. It is the hardest finish to date, resisting abrasion and standing up to harsh UV with little to no maintenance on your part. The fun part...modern basecoats offer the most selection in color and style. From solid, to metallic and pearlescent your ride can come in any color you can dream up. And based on the advancements we’ve seen over time, we have no doubt there will be more to come! 

Pro-Tip: If you’ve got a brand new vehicle, or a brand new paint job Ulen’s Auto Polish is NOT for you. Your surface still has an intact protective coating that prevents oxidation & fading, and resists surface scratches & chips. Maintain your coat with regular cleaning to remove dirt and irritating contaminants. If you need to spot treat a paint transfer from a door ding, Ulen’s Auto Polish is perfect to gently remove the damage, but we do not recommend using over large areas or as an all over polish. 

However, if your vehicle’s surface has aged and is starting to show wear and tear, Ulen’s Auto Polish is a great solution to correct beginning stages of oxidation. Now that the polyurethane coat has worn over the years, a polish like Ulen’s Auto Polish can be used to clean, nourish, and protect the surface of your vehicle. You can achieve a professional, mirror finish shine on your own. Retain the value and beauty of your car with regular routine care that includes Ulen’s Auto Polish in your toolkit. Adding a sealant after cleaning and polishing with Ulen’s will get you the best possible results to further protect from future oxidation. 

Right now, you can get 50% when you visit https://ulenspolish.com/ and subscribe to emails, but hurry because this is a limited time offer! 

AN EVER CHANGING INDUSTRY

The only thing you can count on in the automotive industry is change, and throughout the evolution of paint, Ulen’s has stood the test of time. Ulen’s Auto Polish will always be the best solution for vintage and antique cars - and needs to be a staple for your muscle car fanatics out there! 

And as newer paint tech ages, Ulen’s Auto Polish works to feed the finish and polish life back into a lackluster surface. 

Ulen’s Auto Polish has been around for nearly a century, is a small family-owned business, and our products are ALWAYS 100% American Made. When making a choice on what products to trust with you ride, we recommend selecting a product that is honest (Ulen’s doesn’t claim to be for everyone), quality (we aren’t the cheapest polish on the market), and most importantly...that work! 

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