Jim Smart
August 1, 2009
Photos By: The Mustang Monthly Archives

Automobile finishes have come a long way. One hundred years ago, it was any color you wanted as long as it was black. When the auto industry was just getting started early in the 20th century, paint finishes were brushed on, hand-rubbed, and labor intensive. In the years since, automotive finishes have become more durable, striking, and easier to apply. But it wasn't easy getting here. Nitrocellulose finishes were developed during the 1920s to make paint easier to both apply and service. In the 1930s, paint technology took a large leap forward with sprayed on alkyd enamels, the gateway to the high-tech, hot looking finishes we have today.

Classic Mustangs were clad in either red or gray oxide primer, with single-stage enamel or acrylic enamel finishes with a hint of orange peel. Enamel, though durable, wasn't easy to repair or color match. It also contributed to air pollution and health issues. Ford and Chrysler were big on enamel while GM mainly used lacquer because it was easier to repair and yielded a shinier finish. Primers in those days weren't for corrosion protection; it was primarily designed to help the paint bond with the metal.

Although paint technology has evolved in more than 100 years of automobiles, one hard and fast rule remains true-preparation is 90 percent of a great paintjob. Without good surface preparation, you wind up with disappointing paint.

In the 1980s, Detroit began experimenting with two-stage basecoat/clearcoat finishes, which were ultimately disastrous because they often peeled off at a record clip. Paint manufacturers and the automakers went back to the drawing board to make improvements. In due course, paint technology got better with more vibrant colors, improved durability, and environmentally responsible methods of application. Along with better paint technology has come great improvements in corrosion protection.

Today, the focus is on environmentally sound finishes that look great, endure for the life of the vehicle, eliminate corrosion, and offer ease of repair. Each paint manufacturer has its own approach to automotive finishes, and this is what we're diving into here.

Paint application couldn't have gotten where it is without a lot of R&D that has led to zero emissions paint booths; low-emission, gravity feed paint guns; and ventilated paint suits. The latest waterborne finishes use water instead of solvents to reduce emissions and improve paint quality. There must also be new levels of patience because waterborne finishes are slow to dry. And because automakers are using more powdercoating, this means new approaches to coating removal and refinish. Powdercoating makes more economic sense when you're building thousands of new cars every year because waterborne finishes take too much time to cure. This might be a lesson for Mustang enthusiasts as well because powdercoating may make more sense in some instances.

Here's an outstanding '68 GT/CS restoration with a factory style finish and that hint of orange peel for authenticity.

Regardless of the type of paint you choose, a Mustang's refinishing process requires a lot of advanced thought and planning. It's never as simple as just a visit to your local auto body supply house because this is a very expensive undertaking even if you're doing it on a budget. For one thing, materials alone for a paintjob can run upwards of $1,000 for paint, sandpaper, body filler, spot putty, and primer. You don't want to make a mistake that involves doing it all over again.

One more thing-don't waste your time and money on bad Mustang body parts. The cost involved in trying to save a bad fender makes little sense if you can find good new-old-stock, used, or a reproduction for less money. Remember, time and labor are expensive; it's often cheaper to replace the piece.

You must first determine what kind of finish is desired. Those performing concours restorations will want a hint of orange peel like the factory finish. Expect to use single-stage acrylic enamel if you're able to do so legally in your state. Otherwise, opt for single-stage urethane. It's challenging to get the factory original look if you go with a basecoat/clearcoat two- or three-stage system. Single-stage looks single-stage and two-three-stage basecoat/clearcoat looks clearcoat no matter how many coats of clear are applied.