Classic colour matching

Classic colour matching


Matching the colour on a classic vehicle is hampered by a number of factors to trip you up. Here are a few reasons why and some advice on improving your success rate.


1) The paint will have faded. How many decades has it been on there? The UV rays from the sun will have had their effect. Some colours/finishes are susceptible than others but its an issue that will make you think you should only take the old girl out on overcast days… :-o

2) Polishing. Many old polishes were actually an abrasive. Cutting back a microscopic layer of paint each polish brought it up spanking new, but do that a few times a year for decades and your paint layer will be thin, especially at panel edges. Old Cellulose finishes weren’t as durable as later paints and cheap waxes often had no UV protection in them.

3) The paint you can get now is different to the paint your car was factory finished in. Depending on year and manufacturer, your car might have been finished in Lacquer, Enamel, NitroCellulose, Urethane, Water based or others. For a history of car paint, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds, read our blog post on the subject HERE. Just to scramble the options some more, the paint in your touch up aerosol is likely to be an acrylic.

So you need to pick the colour for your touch up or respray….


The last thing you can trust to match a colour, unfortunately, is your own eyes. They are very good at distinguishing a difference in shade, but poor at defining a colour. The human eye can spot a repair in a different shade a mile off, but try and remember that colour accurately when you are in the paint shop with a pile of colour chips then becomes much harder. Just to complicate it some more, we all see colour a little differently, especially across certain shades. Have you ever had an experience where you say you love that purple dress your partner is wearing and they say “it’s blue!”? or been looking for that very dark blue container that someone else refers to as “black? Colour is subjective.

Technology confuses matters too (unless specialist - see later). The camera in the phone you used to take that reference shot won’t be calibrated for white balance and neither will the monitor the viewer is using. If you add in the complication of the way colour is represented on a monitor (emitted rather than reflective as on a car and also RGB composite rather than natural light) then you could be making a very expensive mistake when you order the paint.

If you end up comparing your vehicle finish with old fashioned colour chips, make sure you are looking at it in bright daylight or daylight matched lighting. Fluorescent tubes will throw a green cast across everything, tungsten filament lighting throws an orange cast and LED lightings colour cast depends on the type of LED in the light!

The moral is ‘use hard evidence’ where you can and that is what we discuss next.


Are you going to be doing a localised repair or a full respray? For a local repair you’ll want to match the colour of the surrounding panel as it is now. For a full repaint you probably want to return it to its factory shade. For a visual example of the original shade (or as close as you’ll get) take a look at part of the car that isn’t exposed to sunlight, such as the area under the carpet or rear seat. Even inside the boot and door jambs can look darker. Use a cutting compound to clean back the surface and expose the real colour to give you the best chance of colour matching.

Your vehicles colour will have just a name or, if you are lucky, a code too. Lets deal with the difficult one first, just a name. Often the shade of any particular colour will change through the years of manufacture. If the colour was used in two different manufacturing plants it will probably be slightly different again due to different processes and equipment. Go to a meet of any large classic car club and you can often see the differences when all the ‘same colour cars’ are lined up. In the old days there was much less discipline/technology in the paint mixing and a lot more “we’ve got lots of that left - stick it in”. There is a reason those colours are called things like ‘Orange blaze’, fire is continuously changing colour. ‘Autumn Green’ works well because leaves change colour throughout the Autumn and as for ‘Harvest Gold’, everyone you ask will interpret it differently.

The most reliable check is if your car has the colour code stamped on the manufacturers plate. Your marque club will help you determine the location of any code or colour markings. What is very risky is to use a forum to determine the colour by posting a photo of your car, for all the reasons we’ve stated above.



Car accessory shops
These carry a range of aerosols and are a good source for primers and undercoats but the chance of you finding your paint in the right shade is pretty slim on a classic.

Marque specialists
Sometimes these have special batches of aerosols made in as close a match as they can get. If you are looking for a quantity of paint, they might be able to direct you to a bodyshop who has tracked down the mixing code (the paint manufacturers code for the colour rather than the vehicle manufacturers) you need to get some colour produced.

Marque clubs
These vary, many don’t see themselves as retailers other than for club regalia, but some are like the specialists and have runs of Aerosols produced in as accurate a colour as can be achieved. The bonus here is that these cubs often hold archives that can help establish the right colour in the first place.

Paint factors
These folks know vehicle paint. They vary enormously, some won’t want to get involved in classic paint choice, but find a good one and they are worth their weight in gold. All colours are mixed from a selection of source primaries and so, technically, any colour is possible. The issue comes in that they need to know how much of each of those primaries to put in. Paint manufacturers release the mix ratios over the years for each colour that comes along in the form of an interchange code, but as you can imagine that database got pretty big, so many started deleting the codes for the old stuff that never sold, especially when everything got digitised in the 1990’s. Fortunately, some manufacturers can retrieve them from the archive and some factors kept them anyway, so you may be in luck.

If you have a code they will be much happier because that denotes the actual colour and shade (if there is one) and there is much more promise of a match. A good factors will also be able to mix you a test tin for a reasonable sum so you can check the match and they can also fill an aerosol with that colour. The aerosol will be two or three times the cost of one from the high street, but what do you expect? It’s specifically matched to your requirement and trust me, you’ll notice the quality of the aerosol when you use it.


If no code can be found or you want to match a colour that was applied later, some factors have what is called a Spectrophotometer. This can analyse your panel you take along and devise a mix to match it. They’re not infallible, but its better than doing it by eye. Because they measure the actual colour of the existing paint it also matches any fading that has taken place. If your car cannot be taken to the factors, take a panel to them. If your car has a fuel filler cover, this is an easy to transport ‘realtime’ swatch for matching, otherwise its bootlid off time.

It's worth bearing in mind that these people have a business to run which relies on volume. Iimagine how much paint you have to sell to pay for that premises, the delivery vans and staff. They don’t have all day to chat to you about that one off tin of touch up you need when there is a queue of regular customers behind you who buy from them everyday. Having said that, if one doesn't seem to have the time to help you, try a different one. When you find a helpful paint factors, treat them with respect and they may achieve wonders for you. They will be able to put your special mix into a small sample can for testing or touch up use and even fill an aerosol with it for local repairs, as well as, of ocurse, volume paint for whole vehicle refinishing.

Specialist matchers
Finally, there are companies and individuals who are effectively ‘paint detectives’ and specialise in finding your car colour for a fee, but as you can imagine, this can be many hours work. A search online will bring up their details if all the above have been worn out.


Painting a vehicle is a labour intensive process and is therefore expensive to have done professionally, so take your time on picking that colour. If it costs you the proverbial 'arm and a leg' and you get it wrong, have some comfort in this story: We are based not too far from the Aston Martin works and a while back, when they were under one of the previous ownerships, I stumbled across an industrial unit nearby which had two brand new Virages inside being stripped of paint. Was this some 'ringer' operation stealing cars and changing their colour and plates for resale abroad? No, it turned out that some Aston customers would pick their cars colour when they ordered it and months later, when they went to collect it, didn't like it. Aston, of course, was all about 'bespoke', so customers could have it stripped and repainted for a fee and the guys in the unit had the contract to take the paint off. I can't say how much this cost or how often it happened, but these chaps had a full time job doing it.




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