Automotive Expression in its Finest Form - The Audi Paint Process

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What is the first thing you notice about a car? Its color! In the distant past, paint was applied to automobiles to protect it from the elements.  Henry Ford famously stated about his first mass produced model T vehicle, “You can have it in any color you want, as long as it's black”. In those days, very little attention was paid to the appearance of the vehicle. The paint served a purpose.

Fast forward to the late 1980's when Audi decided to be the first manufacturer to offer something unique to the build process of their cars – galvanizing the steel and later the aluminum on their bodies. This process was not exactly new to treating metal, but it was new in an automotive application.

Hot-dip galvanizing is the process of immersing iron or steel in a bath of molten zinc to produce a corrosion resistant, multi-layered coating of zinc-iron alloy and zinc metal. While the steel is immersed in the zinc, a metallurgical reaction occurs between the iron in the steel and the molten zinc. This reaction is a diffusion process, so the coating forms perpendicular to all surfaces creating a uniform thickness throughout the part.

In fact this process creates such corrosion resistance, it allowed Audi to be the first manufacturer to offer a 12-year corrosion perforation warranty on their cars since 1990! During my fortunate experiences of touring the Audi production facilities in Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm, I saw and was told that raw, unpainted bodies have been left out and exposed to the elements for 20 years and have no sign of corrosion!

With that, painting became an art of creating a stunning vehicle appearance and allowed for a very clean and environment friendly water based application.

Automotive paints fall into 3 basic categories: Solid finishes, Metallic and Pearlescent (mica).

Solid finishes

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Almost all cars are available in a no-cost basic, solid color. The most common options are white, red, blue or black, and chances are that is a paint color doesn’t add to the cost of your car, then it’s a solid, non-metallic paint. In basic form, the solid paint is a single application of the color, followed by a lacquer coat (called a clear coat) above it to protect the paint from chips, scratches and the weather.

Solid colors work brilliantly for a completely even single-shade finish. They’re inexpensive too and come with several maintenance benefits. Minor stone chips can be repaired with a touch-up pen of the same color, available for not a great deal of money. However, because they’re cheap and quickly applied, a lot of solid colors show up “orange peel” paint finishes on close inspection – and since they tend to be limited to the white, red, blue and black shades, they can be a little boring.

Metallic finishes

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Metallic paints are effectively the same as solid paints, only with a small quantity of powdered metal added to the paint mixture. The size and type of metal added varies depending on manufacturer choices, but it’s commonly about 1 part in 50 of aluminum powder.

Metallic finish is not that much more expensive to produce and shouldn’t make a great deal of difference when applied to a small car for an upgrade from solid paint. This price increase is usually attributed to the need for multiple coats of both paint and lacquer.

The metal particles in the paint pick up and reflect more incident light than the basic paint colors, giving your car a much more appealing shine than with solid colors – so long as you keep it clean! It will also hide very minor damage from a distance much more effectively than solid paint.

However, it’s much harder to get metallic paint to match properly, making it far more difficult to repair when damaged and it’ll show swirl marks from inexpert polishing much more readily.

Pearlescent finishes

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Pearlescent paints replace the metal particles with ceramic crystals (often called “mica”) that don’t just reflect light but refract it too, splitting it into different colors by allowing some light in and slowing it down as it passes through. This gives the paint not just a sparkle, but a deep color that can vary depending on how you look at it. Pearlescent finishes make for interesting effects where the car’s bodywork creases or changes direction. In direct sunlight, pearlescent paint knocks spots off metallic finishes.

Many cars in Audi's lineup are offered in pearlescent colors and similar metallic shades. Compare one of their pearl black cars with a metallic black one in real life, and you’ll see a real difference in the depth and shimmer.

Unlike metallic paint, these particles can be quite pricey – after all, something with a chemical formula like “NaMg3AlSi3O10F2” just doesn’t sound cheap, and a pearlescent finish can significantly ramp up costs. However, many agree that the final effects are well worth the price of admission.

Many of the same things said about metallic paint’s shortcomings apply here too – it’s fantastic to look at, but quite expensive and time consuming to repair damage.

Matte finishes

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In the past few years, matte finishes have gained significant popularity, particularly on some niche vehicles. Grey and black are the typical colors used for matte finish, but others are starting to gain traction too. Sometimes, this is a more reflective satin or silk finish than true matte, but the principles are roughly the same.

There are a number of ways its non-shiny look can be achieved, but in most cases it’s the same as regular solid paint, with either a high epoxy content primer coat, a high PVC content in the paint coat itself or a flattening agent in the clear lacquer coat to achieve the dull effect.

Matte is bit divisive, with many likening it to the sort of flat finish you got on 1930s hot rods, but its appearance on high end motors does carry a certain hint of wealth with it – and with good reason. It’s a lot trickier to apply than a regular paint, because you can’t buff out any imperfections.

Maintenance and repair is quite an issue on matte cars too – matte finish vehicles often came with a warranty waiver that required owners to take special measures to care for their paint. If you start polishing a matte paint using a normal abrasive polish then you could end up with gloss patches on your car. If you choose a matte finish car, you will definitely want to learn about proper maintenance to keep it looking great.

Stay tuned for the next article on paint, explaining the Audi Exclusive paint application and color selection process.